Mike Harkey is currently the New York Yankee bullpen coach, but twenty-five years ago, he was the number 1 draft choice of the Chicago Cubs. In fact, he was almost the number 1 overall pick. Since Mariners’ owner George Arygos lived in Orange County, California, he had taken an active interest in the baseball program at nearby Cal State Fullerton. The Titans had won the NCAA Division 1 baseball title in 1984 and a year later the 6’5″ Harkey joined the program and became a dominant right-handed collegiate pitcher. As draft day approached in 1987, the Mariners owned the top pick overall and Arygos let his front office know he wanted to use it to take Harkey. Seattle’s scouting office had other ideas and they were successful convincing their boss they were right. So Seattle used that top pick on Ken Griffey Jr. and Harkey was selected by the Cubs two picks later.
Harkey’s problem was a chronically weak right shoulder. After putting together a 16-4 record in his first full season in the Cub farm system, his shoulder gave out plus he injured his knee and he missed the entire 1989 campaign. Cubs manager, Don Zimmer made Harkey his fifth starter to open the 1990 season and the rookie responded by winning five of his first six decisions. Frustrated by his team’s mediocre record, Zimmer decided to go with a four man rotation during the second half of that season and Harkey’s shoulder just couldn’t bear the added strain. He managed to finish that season 12-5, good enough to get him a fifth place finish in that year’s Rookie of the Year voting but he would never again pitch as many innings (179) or win as many games (12) during his eight-year big league career.
The San Diego native got into coaching after his playing days were over and in 2006 he was hired by the Marlins as Joe Girardi’s bullpen coach. When Girardi became the Yankee Manager two years later, he hired Harkey to serve in the same capacity with New York and he’s been mentoring the team’s reliever corps ever since.
Harkey shares his October 25th birthday with this former Yankee shortstop, this former Yankee reliever, this former Yankee GM and this former Yankee third baseman turned medical doctor.
The argument is easy to make that Whitey Ford is the greatest Yankee starting pitcher of all time. “The Chairman of the Board” was a winner from the get-go, helping New York capture the 1950 pennant in his rookie season by winning nine of ten regular season decisions. He then pitched eight and two thirds innings of shutout ball to earn his first of ten World Series victories in that year’s Fall Classic against the Philadelphia Whiz Kids.
After a two-year hitch in the military, Ford rejoined the Yankees in 1953 and began a streak of thirteen consecutive winning seasons. I firmly believe that if anyone other than Casey Stengel managed the Yankees during the fifties, Ford would have had a lot more regular season victories. Stengel liked to manipulate his rotation so he could match up Ford against the opposing team’s best pitcher, which caused Whitey to average about six to eight less starts per season than the aces of other Major League teams during that decade. When Ralph Houk took over from Stengel in 1961, he gave Ford the ball every fourth game down the stretch and the southpaw responded well to the regularity and extra workload. He had his best year in 1961, when he captured the Cy Young Award with a stunning 25-4 record. In 1963, he went 24-7 and in 1964, eight of his seventeen victories were complete game shutouts.
A native New Yorker, Whitey, country bumpkin Mickey Mantle, and the fiery Californian, Billy Martin, formed a friendship triumvirate that created a lot of success for the Yankees on the field but lots of trouble off of it. Since Ford only played once every five games, he could party hard six nights a week and rest up the evening before his scheduled start. As position players, Mantle and Martin didn’t have that luxury and there were many an early afternoon game when Whitey would sit in the dugout laughing at the play of his two hung over drinking buddies while Stengel fumed.
Ford retired in 1967 after spending his entire seventeen-year career in a Yankee uniform. His 236 regular season victories are still number 1 on New York’s all-time list. His incredible .690 career winning percentage is also still the best of any pitcher with 300 or more career decisions.
Back in 2008, during the ESPN television broadcast of the final game at Yankee Stadium, Ford and his longtime battery mate and fellow Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, were invited up to the broadcast booth to share their memories of playing in the Stadium. Those thirty minutes listening to two of my heroes talk about their Yankee playing days was the personal highlight of that 2008 baseball season. Whitey turns 84-years-old today. How did all those years come and go so fast?
When it came to baseball, nothing came easy for Johnny Sain. He was born in Arkansas in 1917, five months after America’s entry into WWI. His dad was a pretty good semi-pro pitcher in his day and a patient father, who took the time to teach his son the basic mechanics of pitching, including how to throw a curve ball. Although he was a physically big kid ( 6 feet 2 inches tall and close to 200 pounds) Sain never developed a fastball and as a result failed to impress any big league scouts during his high school pitching career. In fact, when Sain’s dad invited fellow Arkansawyer, Bill Dickey to talk to his son about a Major League career after one of Sain’s high school games, the Yankee catcher refused because he didn’t want to have to tell the youngster that he didn’t have what it would take to pitch in the big league.
Despite the lack of interest from big league teams, Sain persevered and got himself signed to a minor league contract in 1935. Seven years later, he made his big league debut with the Boston Braves, one of baseball’s worst teams at the time. That Brave team was managed by Casey Stengel and the “Ol Perfessor” wasn’t shy about using his rookie right-hander, getting Sain into 40 games that year as both a starter and reliever. Sain finished his 1942 rookie season with a 4-7 record and then enlisted in the Navy and went to aviation school. He eventually served as a flight instructor and later credited his flight schooling as a key to his later success as a pitcher because it forced him to improve his concentration skills and he applied what he learned about aerodynamics to improving his curve ball.
He returned to the Braves in 1946 and went 20-14 with an outstanding 2.21 ERA. By 1947, Warren Spahn had joined him as a Braves’ 20-game winner and a year later, the dynamic mound duo pitched Boston into the World Series and the rally cry of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain!” was born. The Indians beat the Braves in that Fall Classic in six games, but Sain did beat Bob Feller, 1-0 in a classic pitchers’ duel in Game 1. He also pitched a second complete game in Game 4, losing a 2-1 heartbreaker. In 1948, Sain achieved the 20-victory mark for the third season in a row. After slumping to 10-17 the following year, he won 20 again for Boston in 1950. But Sain had developed a sore shoulder during the 1949 season, trying to learn how to throw a screwball. By 1951, it looked as if his career might be over, when he slumped to 5-13. At the end of August during that ’51 season, the Braves jumped at the opportunity to trade “The Man of a Thousand Curves” to the Yankees for New York pitching phee-nom, Lew Burdette. Boston also received $50,000 badly needed Yankee dollars in that deal.
In New York, Sain was reunited with Stengel, his first big league manager. Casey and Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner made the great decision to return Sain to the same role he had filled during his rookie season with the Braves, a reliever and spot starter. He went 11-6 with 7 saves in 1952 and 14-7 with 9 saves in ’53. The Yankees won World Series rings in both those seasons and Sain’s versatile pitching was a big reason why. In ’54, the Yankees converted Sain into a full-time reliever and he led the AL in saves with 22.
When the 1955 season began, Sain was 37-years-old and Yankee GM George Weiss was convinced he was finished as a big league pitcher. The cold-hearted Weiss dealt both him and 39-year-old Enos Slaughter to the Kansas City A’s in May of that year. Sain’s playing career was in fact over. He would retire after the ’55 season with a 139-116 record for his 11 year big league career, with 51 saves. (His Yankee record was 33-20 with 39 saves.)
In 1961, Yankee manager Ralph Houk would hire Sain as his pitching coach and he would perform brilliantly in that role. It was Sain who convinced Houk to go from Stengel’s five-man pitching rotation to a four-man version and Whitey Ford credits that move with rejuvenating his career. In his best selling book, “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton called Sain “the greatest pitching coach who ever lived!” Sain left the Yankees after the 63 season but would later serve as pitching coach for both Minnesota and Detroit. He developed a reputation for being tremendously loyal to and protective of the pitchers under his care. In addition to Yankee hurlers Ford, Bouton and Ralph Terry, he is also credited with helping Denny McLain, Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson become 20-game-winners. Sain was also one of baseball’s best hitting pitchers during his playing career, compiling a lifetime .245 batting average and striking out just 20 times in over 800 career at bats.
Sain was born on the very same day as this Hall-of-Fame Yankee shortstop and also shares a birthday with Robinson Cano’s predecessor as Yankee starting second baseman and this one-time Yankee reliever from the 1990’s.
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The one guy who beats Manager Joe Girardi to Yankee Stadium on most Game Days is third base coach Rob Thomson. Usually when Girardi rolls into the Stadium’s inside parking garage, Thompson’s SUV has already been there for almost a half hour. The Yankee Manager has told reporters that Thomson is one of the hardest working coaches in baseball.
The native of Ontario, Canada was born on this date in 1963. He played collegiate baseball at the University of Kansas and was selected by the Tigers in the later rounds of the 1985 draft. He played third base and catcher in the minors, but neither well enough to make it to the big leagues as a player. He gave up trying in 1988 and became a minor league coach in the Detroit organization. Two years later he was hired in the same capacity by the Yankees. By 1998 he was working in the Yankee front office and in 2000, he was named the Yankee’s Director of Player Development. He started his big league coaching career in 2008, when the newly hired Girardi made Thomson his bench coach. A year later he took over as third base coach and has been flashing the on-the-field offensive signals for the Yankees ever since. He is also the the team’s outfielders’ coach.
I’ll admit that sometimes, Thomson drives me up the wall. Earlier this season for example, in a game against Tampa, the Yankees were down by a run early and with nobody out, he waved the lumbering Mark Teixeira home on a sharp ground ball single hit directly at a charging left-fielder. The guy had the ball in his glove before Teixeira got to third and the catcher had the ball so early in the play, he could have ate a sandwich waiting for Teixeira to reach the plate. But for the most part, you don’t even notice Thomson during a game which is a sign of an excellent base coach.
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant was a legitimate monster of the game during the 1960’s. Nicknamed “Hondo,” he stood six feet eight inches tall, weighed close to 300 pounds and handled his tree-trunk sized bat as if it was a toothpick. Howard played both basketball and baseball at Ohio State and was signed by the Dodgers in 1958. During his two plus seasons in LA’s minor league system, he smashed 84 home runs and then became the NL Rookie of the Year in 1960. Five years later the Dodgers traded him to the Senators in the deal that brought pitcher Claude Osteen to Los Angeles.
During the next seven seasons, Hondo became the Senators first legitimate star player. He led the AL in homers in 1968 (44) and again in ’70 (44), when he also captured the AL RBI title with 126. He was a four-time AL All Star and hit some of the longest home runs in MLB history during his years playing in our Nation’s Capital. When the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, Howard’s stats nosedived and he was sold to the Tigers. Two years later he went to Japan but a knee injury prevented him from becoming the new “Godzilla.” He hit 382 big league home runs during his 16 season career back when reaching the 400 mark in that category meant automatic induction into Cooperstown.
He then turned to managing in the minor leagues and eventually got big league jobs skippering both the Padres and Mets. Though he didn’t have winning teams in either city he was considered a real good communicator, especially with the younger players. The Yankees hired him as a hitting coach in the late eighties and he served under both Stump Merrill and Bucky Showalter in that capacity. He was a tireless coach who would be the first person to arrive at the park every day of spring training and the last guy to leave at night. He’d hit fungos to Yankee outfielders for hours and stand by the batting cage just as long, helping young Yankee prospects like Bernie Williams work on weaknesses in their swings. He was widely respected by everyone on the team and his huge physical size made young Yankee prospects think twice about trying to skip out early on practice. He was born in Columbus, OH and turns 76 years old today. He shares his birthday with this former Yankee starting pitcher, this other one too, and this former Yankee play-by-play announcer.
Most of today’s MLB pitching coaches actually manage their team’s pitching staffs. That wasn’t always the case. It was Casey Stengel who revolutionized the role of that position when the Ol Perfessor made today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant his first Yankee pitching coach in 1949. Jim Turner decided who was going to pitch when for the Yankees and for the most part, Stengel never interfered. The arrangement worked, as New York won nine pennants and seven World Series under these two men.
Turner was a special mentor. It didn’t matter if his pitchers were stars, youngsters, grizzly old veterans or journeymen, Turner had the knack for getting them all to pitch better. He was revered by the Yankees’ big three of Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat. He was the guy who figured out Whitey Ford was tipping his curve ball and the adjustment they made together helped Ford get to Cooperstown. Bob Grim told reporters he wouldn’t have won 20 games or his Rookie of the Year Award without Turner’s guidance. Johnny Kucks and Tom Sturdivant couldn’t win anywhere else but they won in New York. He convinced Bob Turley to pitch without a windup and the rotund right-hander won a Cy Young Award.
Known as the “Milkman,” Turner was a detail sort of guy who took copious notes during each of his pitchers’ outings. He was also a proponent of pitchers acting responsibly off the field as well and would often assign veteran hurlers to room with rookie pitchers on the road to keep the kids on the straight and narrow.
When the Yankees finished a disappointing third in the 1959 AL standings it was Turner who was turned into the sacrificial lamb. He was fired and replaced by Lopat. He later became pitching coach for the Reds, before returning to the Yankees and coaching under Ralph Houk from 1966 until ’73.
A native of Tennessee, Turner pitched in the minors for fourteen years before getting his first shot in the big leagues with the old Boston Braves in 1937 at the age of 33. He went 20-11 in his rookie season and led the NL with a 2.38 ERA, 24 complete games and 5 shutouts. The following year, Stengel took over as manager of the Braves and Turner finished 14-18. He ended up getting traded to the Reds in 1940, where he helped Cincinnati win the NL Pennant with a 14-7 record and also earned his first World Series ring. The Yankees got him in 1942 and Turner became New York’s top reliever during the WWII years, leading the AL in saves with 10 in 1945. That was his last year playing in the big leagues. When he retired from coaching after the 1973 season, Turners professional baseball career had lasted one year more than a half-century. He died in 1998 at the age of 95.
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Jim Hegan’s long career with the Yankees began in 1960. The then 40-year-old, five-time all-star catcher was released at midseason by the Chicago Cubs and signed a month later by New York, when both Yogi Berra and Ellie Howard went down with injuries. But Hegan never caught an inning in pinstripes because that Yankee team had a third catcher on its roster by the name of Johnny Blanchard. Blanchard had been wasting away on Casey Stengel’s bench for two seasons and when he heard New York had signed Hegan, he was irate and let Stengel and the Yankee front office know exactly how he felt. The outburst worked. Stengel finally played Blanchard behind the plate and Hegan sat the bench.
The Yankees replaced Stengel with Ralph Houk after that season and Houk asked Hegan to be his bullpen coach. Thus began Hegan’s fifteen year tenure as a coach with New York. During his seventeen-year playing career, he had established himself as one of the great defensive catchers of all-time. He was the master handler of those phenomenal Cleveland Indian starting rotations of the early 1950s, that included Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and later Herb Score. These guys never shook off a sign Hegan put down and each of them credited the catcher for making them better pitchers. Hegan also had perfect technique behind the plate and a shotgun for an arm, which enabled him to throw out 50% of the runners who attempted to steal against him, a phenomenal lifetime average.
The only thing Hegan couldn’t do was hit. His lifetime batting average was just .228. The Yankee relief pitchers and catchers Hegan later coached loved the guy. His son Mike was signed by New York during Hegan’s first season as Yankee coach and was considered a top prospect in the organization for years. In 1973, Hegan followed Ralph Houk to Detroit and became a Tiger coach. He rejoined the Yankee staff in 1979 and coached for New York for two more seasons. He died from a heart attack in 1984. at the age of 63.