Don Mattingly’s first game in a Yankee uniform took place in 1982, the season after the Yankees lost a World Series to the LA Dodgers. His career in pinstripes lasted until 1995. One year later the Yankees would finally make it back to the Fall Classic, with their victory over Atlanta. “Donnie Baseball” was the first person I thought about when New York third baseman Charlie Hayes squeezed the foul-popped final out of the 1996 World Series in his glove.
During his first six full seasons with New York, Mattingly averaged 203 hits per year, 27 home runs, 114 RBIs and hit .327. He also made the All Star team each of those seasons, won five Gold Gloves for his outstanding play at first base and was voted AL MVP in 1985. During that period, he was the best and most popular player in baseball and he along with Dave Winfield made the Yankees perennial contenders in the very tough AL East.
Even though they missed the playoffs every year, those Mattingly-Winfield-led Yankee teams played every inning of every game with a hustle and determination that made you proud to be a Yankee fan. In 1990, Mattingly injured his back and it never fully healed. The impact of the injury on his swing and his power was immediate, significant and permanent. Still he persevered, playing six more seasons. I remember feeling so bad for him when a strike ended the 1994 regular season and prevented the Yankees, who were in first place at the time, from playing in Mattingly’s first-ever postseason. Fortunately, New York did get there in ’95. Those of us who followed him closely throughout his career will never forget his outstanding performance during those five October games against the Mariners. He had ten hits in that series with a homer and six RBIs and he averaged .417. Even though New York lost, Mattingly’s farewell effort to Yankee fans was one of the most poignant moments in franchise history. Donnie Baseball turns fifty-two-years-old today. I still miss watching him play the game.
Mattingly shares his birthday with this long-ago New York outfielder.
What was the worst Yankee team in history? During my time as a Yankee fan the candidates for this dubious honor would be the 1966 team that finished dead last in the AL with a 70-89 record or Stump Merrill’s 1990 squad, which finished at the bottom of the AL East Division with a horrid 67-95 mark. Both those teams filled a summer of my life with sports agony. But when you’re trying to identify the very worst Yankee team in the history of the franchise, you have to place the New York Highlander squad of 1908 at the very top of the heap, or more accurately, the very bottom of the pile.
They finished the season with a 51-103 record, which represents a .331 winning percentage, a low-water mark that has stood as the franchise record for team futility for over a century. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was the starting right-fielder on that 1908 Yankee/Highlander debacle.
New York had acquired Hemphill the previous November in a trade with the Browns. At the time of that deal, this Greenville, Michigan native was 31-years-old and a veteran of eight big league seasons and five different big league franchises. There were good reasons why he kept his suitcase packed all those years. The guy had hands of stone and he had a real problem with alcohol. On the positive side, in an era when the game was played with the deadest baseball of all-time, Hemphill was considered a good stick. It was his ability with a bat that kept him from getting benched for his poor fielding and persistent drinking and it was the same reason why, whenever a team got tired enough of those faults to get rid of him, he seemed to have no trouble finding a new team willing to take him on.
That 1908 Yankee team did not start out bad. Their Manager, Hall-of-Famer Clark Griffith actually got them out of the gate quickly that year by winning 16 of their first 24 games. But when they lost 24 of their next 32 contests, the bitterly disappointed Griffith resigned and the penny-pinching Highlander ownership made New York’s mercurial shortstop, Kid Elberfeld the team’s player-manager. At the time there wasn’t an umpire in the league who didn’t hate Elberfeld. I’m not certain if that collective hatred had anything to do with the Highlanders going 27-71 under their new manager but I can guarantee you that none of the “men in blue” felt a tinge of sorrow for the Kid’s historic failure in his new role.
Just about the only thing that wasn’t horrible on that 1908 Highlander team was the performance of Charley Hemphill. He put together the best season of his big league career. He led the team in runs, hits, RBIs and average. He also stole a career-high 42 bases. The only things that didn’t improve were his defense (he made 20 errors in ’08) and his drinking but Hemphill had built up enough good will with his offensive performance during his inaugural year in New York that he remained a member of the club’s roster for four seasons.
The team finally released him after the 1911 season and he was able to land a coveted player managing position with a minor league team in Atlanta. But before his first season in that post was over, he was fired because of his drinking and ended up moving to Detroit and working in the auto industry.
Hemphill shares his April 20th birthday with one of my all-time favorite Yankees.
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|NYY (4 yrs)||386||1460||1238||162||335||30||16||1||90||80||183||111||.271||.369||.323||.692|
|STL (1 yr)||11||45||37||4||9||0||0||1||3||0||6||0||.243||.364||.324||.688|
|BOS (1 yr)||136||595||545||71||142||10||10||3||62||11||39||26||.261||.312||.332||.644|
|CLV (1 yr)||55||209||202||23||56||3||5||2||23||3||6||14||.277||.301||.371||.673|
|CLE (1 yr)||25||102||94||14||25||2||0||0||11||4||5||11||.266||.303||.287||.590|