Remember Charley Lau? Many considered him the greatest hitting coach in MLB history. During his 11-season big league career as a catcher and pinch-hitter however, he was never more than a part-time player with a .255 lifetime batting average. So how does a guy who was never a great hitter himself in the big leagues teach others to become one? Honestly? I don’t know.
But at least Lau was a good enough hitter to make it to the big leagues. Kevin Long, the Yankees’ highly praised current hitting coach and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, never got out of the minors. After a good college career at the University of Arizona, the Phoenix native was signed by the Royals and spent eight years trying to get an official regular season at bat in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. When he failed to do so, he asked for and received a minor league coaching assignment with the Royals’ organization.
The Yankees hired him in 2004 as the hitting instructor for their Triple A affiliate Columbus Clippers. In 2007, he got the same job with the parent club, succeeding Don Mattingly, who had been promoted to Joe Torre’s bench coach.
During the next six seasons, Long had the benefit of working with a Yankee offense that was consistently near the top of the league’s run producers. His most notable achievements during that time were helping Curtis Granderson become a much better hitter against left-handed pitching and getting Robinson Cano to exercise more strike zone discipline.
Long’s biggest challenge by far was the roster of hitters he was given to work with during the 2013 season. A series of injuries and bad deals had decimated the Yankees’ highly potent offense and Long found himself working with the likes of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Chris Stewart. There would be no miracles performed by the Yankee hitting coach with that crew. No one could possibly have been happier than Long, when the Yankees retooled their offense during the 2013 offseason by signing Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. If Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira can return to anything near their pre-injury hitting forms, the Yankee offense should once again score runs in bushels in 2014. That means Kevin Long will once again be recognized as one the game’s best hitting coaches.
The late George Steinbrenner probably felt he had much more in common with Jake Ruppert than any other team owner in Yankee franchise history. After all, both were sons of wealthy German-American businessmen who purchased the Yankee team when it wasn’t winning and were able to restore the franchise to glory with bunches of additional World Championships and get a magnificent new Stadium built for their team. And since Rupert got elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012, you know the Boss would have loved following his lead by also getting inducted into Cooperstown.
But Georgie-boy was actually a much more meddling owner than old Jake Ruppert ever thought to be. Simply put, Ruppert kept hiring the best GMs and field managers he could find and let them make their own decisions and though Steinbrenner’s reign started the same way, he quickly morphed into a micro-managing, you-do-what-I-say type of owner. That’s why instead of Ruppert, he reminds me much more of another former Yankee team owner who is also in the Hall of Fame. His name was Larry MacPhail Sr. and he’s the guy who made today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant the manager and ex-manager of the New York Yankees.
Remember when Steinbrenner promised Yankee catching legend Yogi Berra that he would be New York’s skipper during the entire 1985 season and then replaced him with Billy Martin just 16 games into that season? In 1946, MacPhail was brought in as an ownership partner by Dan Topping and Del Webb when they purchased the Bronx Bombers from Ruppert’s estate. The fiery but highly innovative ex-Red and Dodgers exec was made the team’s de-facto GM. Long-time Yankee skipper, Joe McCarthy couldn’t stomach working for MacPhail and quit just 35 games into the season. MacPhail then made Bill Dickey the team’s manager but instead of giving him some job security with a longer-term contract, the new owner also hired former Senators’ “Boy Wonder” manager, Bucky Harris as a special consultant. With Harris looking over his shoulder at every move he made on the field, its easy to understand why Dickey began feeling insecure in his new role and started asking the Yankee front-office for a longer-term deal. When it became apparent that MacPhail had no intention of granting Dickey an extension during the 1946 season, the future Hall-of-Fame catcher quit with 14 games remaining on the schedule and went home to Arkansas.
The Yanks then turned to one of Dickey’s coaches, Johnny Neun to finish the season as New York’s field boss. Neun had been a big league first baseman for both the Tigers and the Braves back in the 1920’s and early thirties. A switch-hitter with little power, he was never more than a back-up during his six years in the Majors but he did become famous for becoming the seventh big leaguer in history to pull off an unassisted triple play. It happened during the 1927 season and his feat was made even more memorable by the fact that one day earlier, Chicago Cubs infielder, Jimmy Cooney had also done it.
After Neun retired as a player in 1934, he got a job managing in the Yankees’ farm system and soon became one of the organization’s top minor league skippers. He led both Newark and Kansas City, New York’s top minor league affiliates to league titles and was rewarded with a job on Joe McCarthy’s coaching staff, joining Dickey, Art Fletcher and Johnny Schulte.
MacPhail made it clear that Neun’s hiring was on an interim basis and no one expected him to be considered a candidate for the job the next season. Neun led the Yankees to an 8-6 finish and the Baltimore native then accepted the manager’s job with the Cincinnati Reds. He spent a season and two-thirds skippering the Reds. His record when he was fired 117-137. He later became a long-time scout for the Milwaukee Braves.
As expected, MacPhail ended up hiring Harris to manage the Yanks in 1947 and he did a good job, leading New York to the 1947 World Championship. But during the World Series victory celebration, an intoxicated MacPhail became so belligerent, Topping and Webb decided they needed to force him out of their partnership. With his mentor gone, Harris managed in the Bronx for one more season before being replaced by Casey Stengel.
Neun shares his birthday with this former Yankee reliever.
Slim pickings when it comes to October 27th Yankee birthdays. Tom Nieto was a big league backup catcher for seven seasons during the 1980s, who succeeded my high school classmate, Gary Tuck as Yankee catching coach in 2000. A native of California, Nieto caught for the Cards, Expos, Twins and Phillies during his playing days, but his lifetime .205 batting average kept him out of the starting lineups on all those ball clubs.
He got his start with the Yankees in 1995, when he was hired as the organization’s minor league catching instructor. Two years later, he was given the managers’ job with the Yankees old South Atlantic League affiliate in Greensboro, NC. After two winning seasons there, he was promoted to the skipper’s job for the Tampa Yankees. After two seasons there, he replaced Tuck as the Yankees catching mentor.
The Yanks let him go after the 2001 season and he went back to managing in the minors for the Cardinals’ organization. Then in 2004, when Willie Randolph got the Mets’ manager’s job, he made Nieto his bench coach. He’s now back with the Yankee organization, managing their Gulf Coast League affiliate, down in Florida.
The only other Yankee born on this date was this long-ago outfielder.