Monday, December 6, 2010

New York Yankees' All-Time Regional Baseball Team

Finally, the project is finished. The 30th team -- the home team -- my team. The New York Yankees.

Not that I'm "saving the best for last." After all, while no team in all of sports can match the Yankees for glory, their regional team is not necessarily the best.

Remember, this team is for players who:

1. Were from either the State of New York, North or Central New Jersey, or the southwestern one-third of Connecticut, and...

2. Had an organizational connection to the Yankees -- or, if also to the Mets, New York Giants or Brooklyn Dodgers, a greater one to the Yankees. Failing that...

3. Publicly expressed a fandom for the Yankees while growing up. Failing that...

4. Came from The Bronx, Staten Island, the Hudson Valley from Westchester on up to the Canadian border, or Central New York including the Syracuse area -- which, interestingly enough, would include any Major League Baseball player who actually came from Cooperstown, Otsego County (alas, there have been none).

Batter up!

1B Lou Gehrig of Manhattan, and that Borough's High School of Commerce and Columbia University. The Iron Horse has been out of baseball for over 70 years, and he is still the greatest 1st baseman of all time. Cal Ripken may have broken his record of 2,130 consecutive games played (June 1, 1925 to April 30, 1939), and Alex Rodriguez has a pretty good shot of breaking his record of 23 career grand slams. And A-Rod and several other players in the post-World War II era have hit more than Lou's 493 home runs, and a few have hit 4 home runs in a game (although he was the first to do it in the American League). But who's going to bat .340 for a career? Or have a 178 career OPS+? Or have 1,995 RBIs in a career? Or have 184 RBIs in a season, still the AL record? Or hit 534 doubles?

He won the AL Most Valuable Player award in 1927 (under the old format, even ahead of teammate Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs) and 1936 (under the current one, although not in 1934 when he became the first Yankee to win the Triple Crown). He was the AL's starting 1st baseman in the first 6 All-Star Games. He appeared in 7 World Series (1926, '27, '28, '32, '36, '37 and '38), winning all but the first, and batted .361 in Series play -- let's see A-Rod, or anyone else, try THAT! Had there been an MVP for the Series back then, he probably would have won it in '27, '28 and '32.

Despite several injuries that looked like they would break his streak, he played every game for 14 years, at a time when the life of a ballplayer was far less cushy. It took a fatal illness to stop him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS -- which became known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. (Since he died just 2 years after the diagnosis, and several people, including the great physicist Stephen Hawking, have lived for years or even decades with ALS, some people think Gehrig may have been misdiagnosed.) The Yankees retired his Number 4, the first retired number in baseball, making him the only Yankee ever to wear it. On Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, July 4, 1939, he told the crowd at Yankee Stadium, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth... I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."

The Hall of Fame, thinking he would die before he became eligible, held a special election, and he was easily elected. Shortly after his death in 1941, the Yankees dedicated a Monument to his memory, which now stands in Monument Park at the new Yankee Stadium. And East 161st Street, just past the elevated tracks, is Lou Gehrig Plaza.

In 1999, 60 years after his last game, The Sporting News named him Number 6 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and he was elected in a fan ballot to the All-Century Team -- getting more votes than even the Babe. He was portrayed in films by Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees (1942, with Teresa Wright as his wife Eleanor and Babe Ruth as himself), and by Edward Herrmann in A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story (1978, with Blythe Danner -- Gwyneth Paltrow's mother -- as Eleanor). As Bob Costas has said, "There's one area where Gehrig has it all over Ruth: The movies about Gehrig are good, the movies about Ruth are all bad!"

He is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, as are the Yankee-connected Jacob Ruppert, Ed Barrow and Robert Merill; former Red Sox owner Harry Frazee; legendary entertainer and briefly Seattle Mariners part-owner Danny Kaye; New York's first Jewish Governor, Herbert Lehman; entertainer Florenz Ziegfeld; RCA & NBC founder David Sarnoff; composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; Big Band leader Tommy Dorsey (but not his brother Jimmy); historian Allan Nevis; Atlas Shrugged writer Ayn Rand; and a far better author, Network writer Paddy Chayefsky. Gate of Heaven Cemetery in the adjoining town of Hawthorne is right next-door, and is where Babe Ruth is buried.

2B Eddie Collins of Tarrytown, Westchester County. Just as New York produced the best 1st baseman ever, here's a good candidate for best 2nd baseman ever. Known as Gettysburg Eddie because he went to Gettysburg College -- just as Gehrig was known as Columbia Lou -- he played for the Philadelphia Athletics, then the Chicago White Sox, and finished up back with the A's, where he also served as one of Connie Mack's coaches, his son Eddie Jr. eventually playing for the A's as well. Batted .333 lifetime, OPS+ of 142, 3,315 hits, 438 doubles, 187 triples, and 741 stolen bases, peaking at 81 in 1910. Regarded as the best-fielding 2nd baseman of his time.

Reached the postseason with the A's in 1910, '11, '13, '14, '29 and '30, and with the White Sox in 1917 and '19 (and was always held up as one of the Sox who stayed clean). Never wore a number as a player, but did wear Number 32 as an A's coach; not that it matters, since the Philly edition of the A's are no longer around to retire it. Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, his plaque having been moved from Veterans Stadium to the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society museum in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. For the last few years of his life, was the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, and a plaque in his memory graces the Jersey Street/Yawkey Way old main entrance of Fenway Park.

Honorable Mention to Johnny Evers of Troy, Rensselaer County, New York. It's easy, now, to think that he's only in the Hall of Fame because of the poem that Franklin P. Adams wrote about the 1906-10 Chicago Cubs double-play combo: "These are the saddest of possible words: Tinker to Evers to Chance." But while Joe Tinker was a good shortstop (not a great one), and first baseman Frank Chance is rightly in the Hall for his managing, Evers was the best player of the three. He won Pennants with the Cubs in 1906, '07, '08 and '10, and with the Boston Braves in 1914. He starred on the only Cub teams ever to win the World Series, in 1907 and 1908. It was his effort to get the attention of umpire Hank O'Day that got the winning run in the "Merkle's Boner" Game of September 23, 1908 cancelled, leading to the Cubs' Pennant. Not one of the nicest men in the game (his nickname was the Crab), but one of the smartest.

Honorable Mention to Stanley "Bucky" Harris of Port Jervis, Rockland County. Would have been an All-Star had there been an All-Star Game in the 1920s, and managed the Washington Senators to their first and only World Series win in 1924, at the tender age of 27. "The Boy Manager" or "The Boy Genius" won another Pennant with the Senators in 1925, and another World Series with the Yankees in 1947 (at age 50). But he's not the manager of this team.

Honorable Mention to Willie Randolph of Brooklyn, and that Borough's Samuel Tilden H.S. Born in South Carolina, grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a Met fan, but played his best years for the Yankees. Pennants in 1976, '77, '78 and '81, World Champions 1977 and '78. Also appeared in the postseason with the 1990 AL Champion Oakland Athletics. A 6-time All-Star. Later a Yankee coach (6 more Pennants, 4 more rings), the Mets hired him as manager, and he got them to within 1 run of the Pennant in 2006... Anyway, Met fans blame "Witless Willie" for blowing that Pennant and for the 2007 collapse, because he was "a Yankee." Damn right he was a Yankee: When he was fired in 2008, he got a HUGE standing ovation at Yankee Old-Timers' Day. At the old Stadium's finale that September, he slid into second base, and got a big cheer. It may have been second base, but he was, truly, safe at home. He is once again, as he did with the 1994-95 Yankees, coaching under Buck Showalter, with the Orioles.

SS Phil Rizzuto of Queens, and that Borough's Richmond Hill H.S. Holy Cow, how could a guy only 5-foot-6 and maybe 140 pounds be a starting quarterback? Well, it was high school ball, and it was the early 1930s. He was turned away by his favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose manager supposedly said, "You're too small, kid. Go get a shoeshine kit." Then he was turned away by the New York Giants. But the Yankees agreed to give him a tryout, and in 1937 signed him to a minor-league contract. For the next 70 years, he was a part of the Yankee family.

As a minor-leaguer, his speed and fielding earned him the nickname "Scooter." In 1940, with the Kansas City Blues, he was named Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. There was no Rookie of the Year award in 1941, but if there was, he surely would have won it. After returning from World War II, he became the best shortstop in the AL, with a player of nearly identical ability (and, as it turned out, pretty close in career stats) across town, Harold "Pee Wee" Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They would oppose each other in 6 World Series. Phil was a member of 9 Pennant winners with the Yankees: 1941, '42 (missing '43 due to the War), '47, '49, '50 (AL MVP with 200 hits), '51, '52, '53 and '55, winning 7 World Series (1941, '47, '49, '50, '51, '52 and '53). This despite, from 1949 onward, being reunited with the Dodger manager who rebuffed him in 1937, Casey Stengel.

Casey sure changed his tune: "If I were a retired gentleman, I would watch the Yankees just to watch Phil Rizzuto." Pitcher Lefty Gomez: "My best pitch is anything the batter hits in the direction of Phil Rizzuto." Joe DiMaggio, at a ceremony honoring the 50th Anniversary of the 1941 Yankees and his 56-game hitting streak: "Nobody had a better view than I of watching him play shortstop... And, Phil, I just want to say, that you're my Hall-of-Famer. And I mean that." (I was there that day: Huge ovation, especially considering that, both being Italian-Americans, Joe was Phil's big hero, and Joe didn't talk in public much, much less give compliments eaasily.)

Released in 1956, Phil was hired as a broadcaster in 1957, beginning a 40-season run behind the microphone. His memorable calls included Roger Maris' 61st home run in 1961 and Chris Chambliss' Pennant-winning homer in 1976. His broadcasting included 12 seasons in which the Yankees won Pennants (from 1957 to 1996), and 6 in which they won World Series -- making his grand total 21 Pennants and 13 World Series. (Only 2 Yankee figures can compare to these totals: Mel Allen's broadcasting career included 23 Pennants and 15 World Series, while Bob Sheppard was public-address announcer for 22 Pennants and 13 World Series.)

His broadcasting was really good early on, but by the time I became old enough to watch games in the late 1970s, he had become an object of parody, for his catchphrases ("Holy Cow!"; "Did you see that?"; "You huckleberry!"), his referring to boothmates by their last name ("I tell ya, White, it's unbelivable"; "Ooh, these Yankees can get the clutch hits, Murcer!"); his misreading of plays ("Deep to left-center, nobody's gonna get that one! Holy Cow, somebody got it!"; "All right, stay fair! No, it won't stay fair. Good thing it didn't stay fair, or I think he would have caught it."; "Bouncer to short, they'll never get him, no, why don't I just shut up!"); his "homerism" in the Yankees' favor; his stories about the old days of baseball, his plugging of local restaurants and golf courses, and his wishes for a happy birthday or anniversary or get-well wishes. In this, he was a lot like Richie Ashburn, the Phillies' center fielder-turned-broadcaster who, like Phil, had to wait a long time before he finally got his rightful election to the Hall of Fame.

Well before that, the Yankees retired his Number 10 and gave him a Phil Rizzuto Day and a Plaque for Monument Park. I was at both his Day in 1985 and his HOF induction ceremony in 1994. He retired from broadcasting after the 1996 season, but still came to Old-Timers' Day until 2004, when age and fragility forced him into hospice care. He died in 2007, at the time the oldest living Hall-of-Famer.

For the record, Harry Caray claimed he was saying "Holy Cow!" on the air when Phil was still playing. But Phil claimed he was saying "Holy Cow!" as a player before he ever heard of Harry Caray. So maybe they're both right. Phil was cremated, and his remains are not at any cemetery.

Honorable Mention to George Wright of Yonkers, Westchester County. All he did was become the first great openly professional baseball player, with the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings. His brother Harry Wright (who, unlike George, was already grown up when the family moved from England, and thus doesn't qualify for this team) formed the game's first great double-play combination. So not only did one pair of Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur of Dayton, Ohio) invent the airplane, but an earlier pair of Wright Brothers invented professional baseball as we know it.

3B Billy Johnson of Montclair, Essex County, New Jersey. Born the same day as Ted Williams, August 30, 1918, and outlived him, lasting until 2006. Not as good a hitter as Williams (shocking, I know), but was a member of 4 Yankee World Championship teams: 1943, '47, '49 and '50. Unfortunately, he's the best of a weak batch at this position in this region, but he was an All-Star in 1947.

LF Hank Greenberg of The Bronx, and that Borough's James Monroe H.S. Mainly played first base, but played left field almost exclusively in 1940, ’41 and ’45, as the Tigers tried to find a place where Rudy York, a good slugger but a born DH in a pre-DH world, could do the least damage on the field. Won AL MVP awards in 1935 and 1940 – the former at 1st base, the latter in left field, becoming the first player to win MVPs at 2 different positions. (Only one has done it since, Robin Yount.) Besides, if I didn’t move Hank to left field, he wouldn’t even have started ahead of Lou Gehrig, his idol and the reason the Yankees didn’t pursue this great slugger growing up in their own backyard.

Because the Yankees already had Gehrig, they didn't pursue Greenberg. The Detroit Tigers did, and he came through. In 1934, he hit 63 doubles (2nd-highest total in MLB history), and helped them win their first Pennant in 25 years, despite missing a key game down the stretch because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. (This was a year before Sandy Koufax was born, and 31 years before Koufax would do the same on the day of Game 1 of the World Series.) In 1935, he won the AL MVP and led them to their 1st World Championship, although he was injured during the World Series. In 1937, he had a whopping 183 RBIs, 1 off Gehrig's AL record. In 1938, he hit 58 home runs, and for a while it looked like he might break Babe Ruth's record of 60. In 1940, he won the MVP and led the Tigers to another Pennant. Then he became the first baseball All-Star to enlist in the armed forces, in anticipation of World War II. Discharged in the middle of the 1945 season, he rejoined the Tigers, and hit a grand slam on the last day of the regular season to win the Pennant, and the Tigers won the World Series as well.

A bad back led him to retire after 1946, but the Pittsburgh Pirates talked him out of it by offering him baseball's first $100,000-a-year contract. As a Pirate, he mentored young slugger Ralph Kiner (who would also have to retire early because of a bad back), and told Dodger rookie Jackie Robinson, as only he with his background of facing horrible anti-Semitism possibly could, that he understood what Jackie was going through, earning him Jackie's permanent admiration. The original "Hammerin' Hank" walked away after that season, with a .313 batting average, a 158 OPS+, and 1,628 hits and 331 home runs despite having played only enough games to add up to 10 full seasons. He then joined Bill Veeck in the front office of the Cleveland Indians, mentored Jewish slugger Al Rosen (yet another victim of a bad back), helped build the Indians' 1948 World Champions, and joined Veeck again to build the Chicago White Sox' 1959 Pennant winners. Late in life, he became one of the nation's foremost players in senior-citizens' tennis tournaments.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame, and the Tigers retired his Number 5. This coming New Year's Day, January 1, 2011, will be the 100th Anniversary of the birth of this great American. Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life, edited by New York Times columnist Ira Berkow, is one of the classics of sports literature. Oh yeah, one more thing to thank Hank for: His son Steve Greenberg, a good ballplayer whose career was ended by injury before he could reach the majors, founded Classic Sports Network, which became ESPN Classic. Having settled in the Los Angeles area, Hank is buried there.

CF Elliott Maddox of Union, Union County, New Jersey. Considering that New York has been home to such center fielders as Earle Combs, Joe DiMaggio, Pete Reiser, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Tommie Agee, Mickey Rivers, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Bernie Williams, you'd think there'd be a better Tri-State Area native at the position. But Maddox is the best -- even though, with the unrelated Garry in Philadelphia, he wasn't even the best center field named Maddox in his era. Not that it was all his fault: In 1975, playing for the Yankees at Shea Stadium while the original Yankee Stadium was being renovated, he slipped on the wet grass and wrecked his knee. He was in the middle of his second straight .300 season, but he was never the same. Almost literally adding insult to injury, his last 3 seasons, 1978-80, were back at Shea, with a horrible Mets team.

RF Willie Keeler of Brooklyn. At 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds (maybe), Wee Willie is the smallest player in the Hall of Fame. But he was big at the plate, batting .341 lifetime, OPS+ of 126, 2,932 hits, and in 1897 had a a .424 batting average and a 44-game hitting streak -- although this has been matched by Pete Rose and surpassed by Joe DiMaggio, no NLer has ever had a longer one.

Debuted with the Giants in 1892, making him the earliest player on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players named in 1999, and played his last game with the Giants in 1910, not just 100 years ago but 89 years prior to that TSN poll. In between, helped the NL version of the Baltimore Orioles win Pennants in 1894, '95 and '96; his hometown Brooklyn Superbas win Pennants in 1899 and 1900 (since there was no other league at the time, these would be the last "world championships" the team later known as the Dodgers would win until 1955), and moved to the Highlanders (the future Yankees) and became their first hitting star, nearly helping them win AL Pennants in 1904 and '06. He is probably best remembered for his philosophy of hitting: "Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't" -- "they" being opposing fielders.

He died in 1923 and was one of the first Hall of Fame inductees, in 1939. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, also the final resting place of fellow Hall-of-Famer Mickey Welch; former Governor Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic major-party candidate for President; and all three New York City politicians named Robert F. Wagner: the Senator who wrote the Social Security and National Labor Relations Acts, his son the 1954-65 Mayor who let the Dodgers and Giants get away and then fought to bring the Mets in, and his son who served as President of the Board of Education.

Honorable Mention to Rocky Colavito of The Bronx, and that Borough's Theodore Roosevelt H.S. -- also the alma mater of my grandfather, George Goldberg, who played on its City Champion basketball team in 1924. A 6-time All-Star, Colavito had one of the best outfield arms ever, led the AL in homers with 42 in 1959, nearly leading the Indians to the Pennant, was controversially traded to the Tigers just before the next season, had career highs with 45 homers and 140 RBIs in 1961 as the Tigers had their best season between 1945 and 1967; had 6 100-RBI seasons, and battled injuries for the rest of his career, finishing in 1968 with his boyhood team, even pitching and winning a game for the Yankees.

He hit 374 home runs and had an OPS+ of 132. After being traded by Indians GM Frank Lane, for reasons only Lane ever knew, the Indians, so close to the previous year's Pennant, did not get into another Pennant race until 1994. His popularity was enormous in Northern Ohio, and fans were furious over the trade, the only time a defending league home run champion was traded for a defending batting champion, Harvey Kuenn. (Since Al Kaline wore Number 6 in Detroit, Colavito and Kuenn even swapped numbers, Colavito taking Number 7.) Cleveland-area newspaper columnist Terry Pluto titled a book about the Indians The Curse of Rocky Colavito. Now 77 and living near Reading, Pennsylvania, Colavito remains proud that the fans love him and hate the long-dead Lane. The Indians elected him to their team Hall of Fame, although his Number 6 remains in circulation.

C Joe Torre of Brooklyn, and that Borough's St. Francis Prep. Not quite Hall of Fame quality as a player, but close. Debuted with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960, while his older brother Frank Torre was their first baseman. Was runner-up to Cubs star Billy Williams for NL Rookie of the Year in 1961. Moving with the Braves in 1966, hit the first big-league home run in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Orlando Cepeda after the 1968 season, just missed a Cardinal Pennant and a Brave NL West title. Was a 9-time All-Star, a 1965 Gold Glove winner, and the 1971 NL MVP, winning the battle title with a .363 average -- no NL righthander has topped that since. Finished his career with the Mets, playing mostly 3rd base and 1st base.

As you might guess, Joe is also the manager of this team. One of the game's last player-managers, he was named Met manager in 1977. Not having the horses, he was fired in 1980. He was picked up by the Braves, and managed them to the NL West title in 1982 and almost to another in '83, but was fired in '85. He became a broadcaster, and played himself as such in the film Taking Care of Business, in which the Cubs beat the Angels in the World Series. (At the time, the Angels even being IN a World Series was "fantasy baseball" -- for the Cubs, it still is.) He managed the Cardinals for a few years, without reaching the postseason, and was fired in 1995. He thought he was done. He'd managed all 3 times for whom he played. "I ran out of teams," he said. He'd been involved in over 4,200 games as a player and manager without ever appearing in a World Series -- a record.

Then the Yankees threw him a lifeline. The New York Daily News, on its back page, called him "CLUELESS JOE." I was also against the hiring. Well, as Yogi Berra taught us, "In baseball, you don't know nothin'." Joe won the World Series in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000; Pennants in 2001 and 2003; AL East titles in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006; and Wild Card berths in 1997 and 2007. After receiving an offer of a pay cut from Yankee management, he moved on to the Dodgers, and won NL West titles in 2008 and '09. Now retired, he's not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame, but he will be in. Hopefully, the Yankees will retire his Number 6 and give him a Monument Park Plaque while he's still alive to receive it.

Starting Rotation

Waite Hoyt of Brooklyn, and that Borough's Erasmus Hall H.S. One of the players Harry Frazee sold from the Red Sox to the Yankees. Big mistake: Won 237 games, 10 of them for the Red Sox and 157 for the Yankees. Won Pennants in 1921, '22, '23, '26, '27 and '28. Won another with the A's in '31. Won the World Series in '23, '27 and '28. The first great pitcher of a "dynastic" Yankee team. Hall of Fame, although, surprisingly, no Plaque in Monument Park. Closed his career with his hometown Dodgers.

Became one of the first former players to become a broadcaster (though not THE first, as his Baseball-Reference.com page claims, that was Jack Graney of the Indians), calling games for the Cincinnati Reds from 1940 to 1965. The Reds elected him to their team Hall of Fame.

Hank Borowy of Bloomfield, Essex County, New Jersey. My original hometown. I had Billy Johnson from Bloomfield's arch-rival, Montclair, so I had to have a proud Bengal, Class of '34. A member of a high school football team that went 9-0 and outscored its opponents 325-6 in his senior year, he went to Fordham and helped the Yankees win the 1942 Pennant and the 1943 World Series. Had a rare season winning 20 games spread over both Leagues in 1945, with the Yankees and then, after a trade, to the Cubs. (This would be matched by Indian-turned-Cub Rick Sutcliffe in 1984.) Helped the Cubs win (still) their last Pennant, but was overused in the World Series and had nothing left in Game 7 and got bombed. Came close to another Pennant in 1950: Started the season with the Phillies, who won in the NL; closed it with the Tigers, who finished 2nd in the NL; in between, pitched for the Pirates.

Finished his career at 108-82. Went into the insurance business, and, ironically since he grew up in my old home town, lived the last few years of his life in Brick, Ocean County, New Jersey -- where my grandparents moved after leaving North Jersey, and died in the same hospital as my Grandma.

Edward Charles "Whitey" Ford of Queens, and the Manhattan H.S. of Aviation. The all-time winningest Yankee pitcher, and the all-time winningest pitcher in World Series play with 10, he was nicknamed the Chairman of the Board, a nickname he shared with his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra. With a career record of 236-106, his .690 winning percentage is the highest ever among pitchers with at least 300 decisions. His 2.75 ERA is the lowest of any starting pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era. ERA+ 133, WHIP 1.215. Won World Series with the Yankees in 1950, '53 (missing '51 and '52 due to serving in the Korean War), '56, '58, '61 and '62. From 1960 to '62, pitched 33 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings -- still a World Series record, although Mariano Rivera now holds the postseason record. Hall of Fame, Monument Park, Number 16 retired.

My grandmother, then named Grace Darton, grew up as a Dodger fan in South Jamaica, Queens, and, like any good Dodger fan, hated the Yankees. Hated Joe DiMaggio. Hated Yogi Berra. Really hated Casey Stengel. Had no use for Mickey Mantle. But two Yankees, she loved: Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. She likes that they were "scrappy," and that Whitey, in an oft-used phrase, was a "money pitcher." Maybe it also had to do with both of them also coming from Queens.

Steve Blass of Housatonic, Litchfield County, Connecticut. From age 27 to 30, he was one of the best pitchers in the game, including going the distance to win Game 7 of the 1971 World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Also helped get the Bucs to the NLCS in '70 and '72. But in '73, he totally lost it. In 1 season, despite the Pirates still being a very good-hitting and good-fielding team, his record went from 19-8 to 3-9, his ERA from 2.49 to 9.85 (nope, that's not a misprint), his ERA+ from 135 to 36 (also not a typo), and his WHIP from 1.246 to 2.177.

What happened? No one, even Blass himself, has ever figured it out. The team lost Roberto Clemente to an off-season plane crash, but that didn't affect any other player the same way. There was no injury, no illness, no problem in his personal life, nothing to explain his sudden loss of control. When a player suddenly loses it, without any logical explanation, it is now known as "Steve Blass Disease." Blass became a broadcaster for the Pirates, although he now does only home games.

Andy Messersmith of Toms River, Ocean County, New Jersey. One of only 2 pitchers to win 20 for both Los Angeles area teams – and in 1972 he was traded from the Angels to the Dodgers for the other, Bill Singer. A 4-time All-Star, he was runner-up to his teammate Mike Marshall for the 1974 NL Cy Young Award (20-6, 2.59 and leading the NL with a 1.098 WHIP), and pitched in the World Series. Pitched 1975 without a contract to test the reserve clause, and, only 29 years old and one of the game’s top starters at the time, he had a lot to lose. He won, and the reserve clause was deservedly dead.

He signed with the Braves... but injuries doomed him after that. He did pitch for the Yankees in 1978, but was limited to 6 games and did not appear in the postseason. He had his last productive season at 30 and threw his last pitch at 33. His career record was 130-99, but he should have been able to put up near-Hall of Fame numbers. He is now the baseball coach at Cabrillo College in Northern California.

Honorable Mention to Chester Cornelius “Chet” or “Red” Hoff of Ossining. Born May 8, 1891, he reached the majors on September 6, 1911, pitching for the New York Highlanders – not yet officially the Yankees – at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights, against the Detroit Tigers. He struck out the first batter he faced: "I didn't know who he was no more than the man in the moon until the next morning. I picked up The New York Journal, and the big red headline in the paper says, 'Hoff Strikes Out Ty Cobb.' Boy! I couldn't believe it at first. It was the biggest thrill I ever had." He remained in the majors until 1915, only 24, and had a career record of 2-4. He stayed on for a while in the minors, pitching well in Rochester, Salt Lake City and Kansas City, but threw his last professional pitch at 27.

So what’s the big deal? Well, after working for Rand McNally mapmakers in Ossining, he retired to Florida, and returned to New York for the dedication of a plaque at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, built on the site of Hilltop Park, in 1993. He was 102 years old. He lived to be 107, until September 17, 1998. He was the last living player to have played in the pre-1920 Dead Ball Era, and is believed to be the longest-lived former major league athlete in North American history.

Honorable Mention to Johnny Vander Meer of Midland Park, Bergen County. Best known for pitching the only pair of back-to-back no-hitters in MLB history, June 11 & 15, 1938, for the Cincinnati Reds. The 2nd was against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, in the first night game in New York's major-league history.

Vander Meer was interviewed for John P. Carmichael's classic 1945 book My Greatest Day In Baseball, and said that those no-hitters weren't his career highlight, because he got sent down in 1939, but came back up, and redeemed himself by pitching the Pennant clincher. The Reds won another Pennant in 1940, and won the World Series. Like another no-hit hero, Don Larsen, he was slightly below .500 for his career. (In fact, their records were very close: Larsen was 114-118, Vander Meer was 119-121.) But Vander Meer had 5 seasons of at least 15 wins, and made 4 All-Star teams. His achievement was a fluke, but he was still, often, a very good pitcher.

Honorable Mention to Frank "Spec" Shea of Naugatuck, New Haven County, Connecticut. "The Naugatuck Nugget" went 14-5 for the Yankees in his rookie season, 1947. He became the first, and still only, Yankee rookie to start Game 1 or Game 7 of a World Series, and was a member of World Championship teams in 1947, '49 and '51 (missing '50 due to service in the Korean War). Just 56-46 for his career, but his achievements are enough to get him an Honorable Mention here.

Honorable Mention to Johnny Kucks of Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey. In 1956 he went 18-9 and pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series. Was also a part of the Yankees' 1958 World Champions.

Honorable Mention to Al Downing of Trenton, Mercer County, New Jersey. Would probably go on the Philadelphia all-time regional team if he hadn't pitched for the Yankees. But he did, and thus became the Yankees' first black pitcher. Had September call-ups in the 1961 and '62 World Championship seasons but didn't appear in the World Series and didn't get a ring. Did pitch in the '63 and '64 Series, and led the AL in strikeouts in '64. Went 123-107 for his career, including 20-9 for the Dodgers in 1971. Probably best known, though, for giving up Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th career home run in 1974, but he did pitch in that year's World Series. I was at Trenton's Waterfront Park a few years ago when he was inducted into the Trenton Baseball Hall of Fame, and he threw out the first pitch. Not a bad slider for a man in his early 60s. He now works in the Dodger organization.

Honorable Mention to Downing's Yankee teammate, Jim Bouton of Rochelle Park, Bergen County, New Jersey. He grew up in Jersey as a Giants fan, then the family moved to the Chicago suburbs, but I'm keeping him here. He helped the Yankees win the 1962 World Series and the '63 and '64 Pennants -- going 39-20 in those 2 seasons, plus winning Games 3 and 6 of the '64 Series. He was just 26 going into the 1965 season. But he hurt his elbow, and his fastball was gone. He switched to the knuckleball, and by 1969 was exiled to an expansion team, the Seattle Pilots.

He kept a diary of that season, which was published early the next season as Ball Four. An injury ended his career that season -- not the backlash against the book, which never "named names" of players who cheated on their wives or were openly bigoted. What he did do was show that players were human, lusty, profane and didn't like getting pushed around by authority figures such as team owners and the Commissioner of Baseball, the clueless Bowie Kuhn. Bouton became a sportscaster for WABC-Channel 7's Eyewitness News, then had a brief comeback in 1978 with Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves -- pitching at age 39 when he hadn't done so in the majors since 31. He and a former teammate invented a gum called Big League Chew, and he has written other books since. But Ball Four will live forever, because he took a lot of stuffed shirts, and he smoked 'em inside. You think he doesn't belong on this team? Yeah, surrrre! Take a hike, son!

Honorable Mention to John Montefusco of Long Branch, Monmouth County, New Jersey. With his name and his team, the San Francisco Giants, he became known as "the Count of Montefusco," "the Count of Monte Frisco," or just "the Count." Fortunately, he was good enough to get ahead in the count. He was NL Rookie of the Year in 1975 and pitched a no-hitter for the Giants in 1976. But injuries took their toll, and he was done at 36, closing his career with the Yankees in 1986, at 90-83.

Honorable Mention to Charles Nagy of Fairfield, Fairfield County, Connecticut. Winner of 129 games, all for the Indians, he helped them reach the postseason in 1995, '96, '97, '98, '99 and 2001. Unfortunately, he is best known for his relief appearance in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series where, Jose Mesa having already blown a 9th-inning lead, Nagy ended up as the losing pitcher in the 11th. He is in the Indians' team Hall of Fame, and is now the pitching coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Bullpen

Johnny Murphy of The Bronx, and that Borough's Fordham Prep and Fordham University. One of the first great relief pitchers, helped the Yankees win Pennants in 1936, '37, '38, '39, '41, '42 and '43, winning the World Series in all but '42. Known as "Grandma" because his windup seemed to resemble the motion of a rocking chair, he may also have been the first reliever to be called "the Fireman" because he seemed to be putting out fires. (Some sources have his successor as Yankee relief ace, Joe Page, being the first to receive the nickname.)

Joined the Mets' front office at their beginning (as a business, anyway) in 1961. Appointed GM in 1967, hired Gil Hodges as manager; between them, they were more responsible than anyone for turning "the worst team in baseball history" (not really, it just seemed like it to those with short memories) into the 1969 World Championship "Miracle.") Sadly, he died just 3 months later.

Casimir James “Jim” Konstanty of Strykersville, Wyoming County, New York. Warren Spahn of Buffalo is in the Hall of Fame, and Sal Maglie of Niagara Falls probably would have won the NL’s Cy Young Award had it existed in 1951, and Orel Hershiser was born in Buffalo but grew up in Cherry Hill, South Jersey. Jim Konstanty is the only Western New Yorker to win either League’s MVP award, in 1950, and the first reliever from anywhere to do so – he would remain the only one until Mike Marshall in 1974. He was the relief ace of the Phillies' "Whiz Kids" that won the team's only Pennant between 1915 and 1980. He pitched in the 1950 World Series against the Yankees and in the 1955 World Series for them, although he never won a title.

Elroy Face of Stephentown, Rensselaer County. The longtime relief ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he is believed to be the first pitcher to throw the forkball, a very nasty breaking pitch that was the progenitor of the split-fingered fastball. He claimed to have learned it from a Pirate teammate, the aforementioned former Yankee Joe Page. In 1959 he set a record for single-season winning percentage, going 18-1 for .947. In 1960, he went 10-8 with 24 saves, and the Pirates won their first World Series in 35 years, with Face saving 3 of their 4 wins. (Only John Wetteland has topped that, but a few others have matched it, including fellow Pirate Kent Tekulve and Mariano Rivera.) A 3-time All-Star, he almost closed his career with another World Champion, the 1968 Detroit Tigers, but got into only 2 games and did not receive a World Series ring. Instead, he was chosen in the expansion draft by the Montreal Expos. He became a carpenter and still attends sports memorabilia shows.

Ron Perranoski of Fair Lawn, Bergen County, New Jersey. I almost put him with the Mets’ team, but was signed by the Dodgers in 1958, their first year in Los Angeles, thus throwing organizational ties out of the way; and, as I’m unaware of what team he rooted for growing up, and he’s white, it falls to geography, so he’s on the Yankees’ team. He was a superb 16-3 with a 1.67 ERA and 21 saved for the Dodgers’ 1963 World Champions, and was also a member of their 1965 World Champions, their 1966 Pennant winners, and the Minnesota Twins’ 1969 and ’70 AL West Champions. He led the AL in saves in both of those seasons, finishing with 179 for his career. He became one of the game’s top pitching coaches, first for the Dodgers, then for the Giants, and is now a member of the Giants’ front office, making him the only man to have a World Series ring from both the Los Angeles edition of the Dodgers and the San Francisco edition of the Giants.

And that's it. It's done. All 30 teams, plus one for Puerto Rico. I suppose I could do an All-Far East team, but that would be inadvisable on December 7, the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

That would give me 32 teams, though. Shall we have a tournament?

2 comments:

capt paul said...

Mike,

Nice job--and if I may...
As you noted the Yankees passed on signing Hank Greenberg because they already had an established first baseman in Lou Gehrig. However, it has been rumbled the real reason the Yankees passed on him unfortunately has to do with anti-Semitism on the part of Col Rupert---Could you at least given an honorable mention at second base to Willie Randolph? True after being born in SC, was raised in Brooklyn (and a Mets fan in his youth), but most of his baseball life was of course spent in the Bronx---a side note about Whitey Ford, his son Eddie was good enough to be drafted by the Red Sox (of all teams). Eddie never made it to the Majors, but was good enough to be invited by the club for Spring Training. In an exhibition game against the Yankees (one being televised back to NY, which meant must win for Steinbrenner...) Ford was in the middle of a ninth inning rally to beat the Yankees. After the Yankees lost a televised exhibition game against the Yankees George was fuming (primarily about why a young pitcher by the name of Guidry had been left in the game to pitch the ninth...), and in the middle of his rant saw Whitey and said "by the way, youre son looked good tonight..."

Uncle Mike said...

You're absolutely right, Paul. I can't believe I forgot about one of the foremost Yankees of my youth. Maybe it's because he also had a Met connection, although he wouldn't be starting ahead of Eddie Collins (here) or Frankie Frisch (there). But fixing that oversight allows me to get in another dig at The Other Team.

Never heard that Colonel Ruppert was anti-Semitic, although being German it's certainly possible. Stories of the racism of George Weiss (enabled, if not explicitly encouraged, by Dan Topping and Del Webb) are familiar, although as good as Vic Power was, it's hard to imagine him doing more for the Yankees than Moose Skowron did at first base -- or Elston Howard as the first black Yankee, for that matter.

I noticed a lot of sons of big-leaguers tried. Mickey Mantle said that if his sons had his father to train them, they might've made it. Don Newcombe's son briefly pitched in the L.A. organization. Until Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds, nearly every combo had the father better, although George Sisler's son Dick did hit a Pennant-winning homer for the Phillies.

Roberto Clemente Jr. got knocked out by injuries, but made his mark as a broadcaster. And Roy Campanella Jr. is a prominent TV producer.