May 7 – Happy Birthday Steve Whitaker

The 1966 Yankee spring training camp was the first one in my lifetime in which anxiety about the upcoming season competed with confidence in the minds of most Bronx Bomber fans, myself included. The team’s outfield situation was a perfect example. Mickey Mantle had just experienced the worst season of his illustrious career in 1965 and Roger Maris had spent most of that same year on the DL. Tom Tresh had been about the only offensive bright spot in that ’65 lineup and it would again be him and the M&M Boys who would be penciled in to start in manager Johnny Keane’s second Yankee Opening Day outfield.

With the Mick’s crippled knees and Maris’s chronically sore wrist, Keane’s choices for reserve outfielders on that ’65 roster were especially important. Long-time Yankee Hector Lopez was pretty much guaranteed one of those three spots. Four other players were in that 1966 camp to compete for the other two. One was the recently acquired Red Sox veteran Lou Clinton and the other three were the Yankee’s top prospects at the time, Roy White, Roger Repoz and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.

Steve Whitaker, a 22-year-old left-hand-hitting slugger from Tacoma, Washington had been in the Yankee farm system since 1962. He had hit 27 homers for Greensboro in 1964 but he had two big chinks in his resume. In order to hit a home run, your bat has to make contact with the ball and Whitaker’s bat did not do that very often. Compounding the youngster’s propensity to strike out was an explosive temper that just happened to peak whenever the kid struck out. So after an exhibition-season filled with slammed down batting helmets, knocked over water coolers and punched walls, the Yankee brain trust thought it best to send Whitaker back down to the farm for more “seasoning.”

By August of that ’66 season, however, everything had changed. By then it had become clear to everyone that the Yankee team  that had won that decade’s first five AL Pennants was no more. After a horrible start, Houk had replaced Keane as skipper and Whitaker had hit 25 more minor league home runs. The Yankees brought him up that August and told the kid he was a huge part of their future.

Houk threw him into the fire and Whitaker responded pretty well, belting 7 home runs in just 31 games. But his temper hadn’t improved, he still struck out too much and the Yankees still finished in the basement of the AL’s 1966 standings. But I do remember thinking the guy was good enough to help make my Yankee’s winners again and Ralph Houk agreed with me. He started Whitaker in the Yank’s 1967 outfield pretty much the whole season. When that year was over, New York was in ninth place and Houk had seen enough of his young outfielder to decide that he was not the future of the franchise. The Yankees left him unprotected in the 1968 AL expansion draft and he was the 23rd pick of the new Kansas City Royals team. Before he ever played a game for the Royals, KC traded him to Seattle for Lou Piniella. After a year with the Pilots and one more with the Giants, Whitaker’s big league career was over. He and his son, who was also a prospect in the Cleveland Indians’ organization, now operate Whitaker Realty in southern Florida.

Also born on this date was this former Yankee pitcher who’s most famous pitch in Yankee Stadium took place while he was wearing an opposing team’s uniform. Still another May 7th pinstripe birthday belongs to the first guy George Steinbrenner ever hired to manage the Yankees.

1966 23 NYY AL 31 124 114 15 28 3 2 7 15 0 9 24 .246 .306 .491 .798
1967 24 NYY AL 122 472 441 37 107 12 3 11 50 2 23 89 .243 .283 .358 .641
1968 25 NYY AL 28 68 60 3 7 2 0 0 3 0 8 18 .117 .221 .150 .371
5 Yrs 266 824 758 73 174 20 6 24 85 4 54 174 .230 .283 .367 .650
NYY (3 yrs) 181 664 615 55 142 17 5 18 68 2 40 131 .231 .281 .363 .644
SFG (1 yr) 16 30 27 3 3 1 0 0 4 0 2 14 .111 .167 .148 .315
SEP (1 yr) 69 130 116 15 29 2 1 6 13 2 12 29 .250 .323 .440 .763
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/7/2013.

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