When the Yankees signed catcher, Gus Niarhos to his first contract, Hall-of-Famer Bill Dickey was still starting behind the plate for the parent club. Nine years later, when the Yankees placed the first Greek-American ever to wear pinstripes and play in a World Series on waivers, Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra was the team’s starting catcher. As Niarhos explained years later, when asked about his career as a Yankee, “That was a tough organization if you were a catcher.” It sure was.
Niarhos was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was a three-sport star as a high school athlete. He was actually enrolled at Auburn University on a football scholarship when the Yanks signed him and sent him to their Akron farm club. When WWII broke out, Niarhos joined the Navy and served his country for the next four years.
He got his first chance to play in the Bronx in 1946, when he was called up in June of that year, after Bill Dickey replaced Joe McCarthy as Yankee skipper. Though Dickey continued to catch occasionally after becoming manager , it was Niarhos who served as Aaron Robinson’s primary back-up during the second half of that season.
Solid defensively, Niarhos was pretty much a singles-hitter with the stick and he never hit a home run during his days with New York. After spending the entire 1947 season back in the minors, he shared the Yankees’ starting catching responsibilities with Yogi Berra in ’48, averaging a decent .268 but producing just 19 RBI’s.
Berra became the Yankees’ full time receiver the following season with Niarhos backing him up and since Yogi could catch 140 games a year in his prime, New York suddenly found itself with a glut of backup catching talent and released Niarhos.
He landed on his feet with the Chicago White Sox, where he hit a career high .324 backing up Phil Masi during the ’50 season. He hit his first and only big league home run the following year against his former team, when he connected off of Yankee reliever Bob Kuzava. He later played for both the Red Sox and the Phillies. He finally hung up his catcher’s mitt for good after the ’57 season and became a minor league manager and coach in the A’s organization. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 84.
|NYY (4 yrs)||153||393||311||59||82||15||4||0||27||2||76||25||.264||.410||.338||.747|
|PHI (2 yrs)||10||14||14||1||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||.143||.143||.143||.286|
|BOS (2 yrs)||45||113||93||10||13||1||1||0||6||0||16||13||.140||.279||.172||.451|
|CHW (2 yrs)||107||338||273||44||77||10||0||1||26||4||61||15||.282||.415||.330||.745|
Larry Bowa was not blessed with a huge amount of natural ability. The reasons why he was able to play shortstop in the big leagues for sixteen seasons, win two Gold Gloves and become a five-time All Star were an incredible work ethic and a tremendous amount of passion for the game. He was also a quick study. He realized early on that knowledge was power on a baseball field so he learned everything he possibly could by observing the opposition in every aspect of every game. In 2006, he brought this same work ethic, passion and hunger for knowledge to the Yankees when he accepted an offer to coach third base and infield defense for Joe Torre.
The thing I loved most about Bowa during his two seasons in New York’s third base coaching box, was his loyalty to Torre and the Yankee players and his obvious intensity. He refused to permit Yankee runners to lose their focus on the base paths. Pity the poor pinstriper who ignored or missed a Bowa delivered signal of any kind. Its been well established that it was Bowa who got a young Robbie Cano to improve his level of concentration whenever he was on the field. The naturally gifted second baseman flourished offensively and defensively under Bowa’s strict tutelage. Alex Rodriguez told reporters that Bowa was the best in the business and I’ve read that Jeter loved this guy too.
One of the reasons I hated to see Joe Torre leave as Yankee manager after the 2007 season was that he took Bowa with him to Los Angeles. Bowa admired the way Torre managed a ball club and handled players. Once a manager himself, Bowa had a tough time controlling his intensity and some of his players rebelled against his high pressure approach. Torre’s calm demeanor as skipper complemented Bowa’s brash coaching style and made the relationship tick. When he left for the Dodger job, the Yankee players instantly missed his motivational mentoring and though I respect Robbie Thompson, I wish Bowa was still stationed in New York’s third base coaching box. Bowa shares his December 6th birthday with this Hall-of-Fame Yankee second baseman, this Cuban defector who became a Yankee starting pitcher, this former Yankee catcher and this former Yankee DH.
Long time Yankee fans look back at the 1980s as the era of bad free agent signings for the franchise. After taking brilliant advantage of the Supreme Court’s striking down of baseball’s reserve clause in the 1970s, the Yankee front office led by the impetuous and impatient George Steinbrenner, evolved into one of the worst judges of free agent talent in all of baseball. They’d sign guys with games that did not complement the Yankee lineups they were expected to join or were not conducive to the dimensions of the old Yankee Stadium. It was these poor fits that used to upset me most. They’d give lots of bucks to players who performed well on their old teams and in their old ballparks but once they put on the pinstripes, it seemed as if they lost half their skills and most of their confidence. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was a classic example.
Gary Ward had been in the big leagues for eight seasons when the Yankees signed him to a three-year, two million dollar free agent contract on the day before Christmas, in 1986. He had averaged right around .290 with both Minnesota and Texas and could be counted on to hit between 15-to-20 home runs and drive in close to 80 runs every season. The Yankees were depending on the burly native of L.A. to produce similar numbers in pinstripes and take up a significant chunk of the offensive slack and one of the two outfield holes created with the departures of both Ricky Henderson and Dan Pasqua.
During the first half of the 1987 season it looked as if the Ward signing was a stroke of genius, as he got off to a torrid start at the plate. Even though he slumped badly in the second half of the season, he still managed to produce 16 home runs and 78 RBIs during his initial year as a Yankee but as his slump worsened, his average plummeted into the .240s. He was unfortunately in the process of discovering how the spacious left field of Yankee Stadium acted as a burial ground for well-hit balls off the bats of right-handed hitters.
In 1988, things got much worse for Ward. He averaged just .225, hit only four home runs and drove in the putrid total of just 24 runs. By the second half of that season he had become a part-time player and the Yankees ended up giving him his outright release during the first month of the 1989 regular season. The Tigers picked him up and he spent his last two big league seasons in Motown, as Detroit’s fourth outfielder.
|MIN (5 yrs)||417||1681||1543||216||439||80||20||51||219||26||115||260||.285||.333||.461||.794|
|TEX (3 yrs)||414||1715||1575||228||461||64||16||41||200||45||125||264||.293||.345||.432||.777|
|NYY (3 yrs)||245||851||777||94||188||31||1||20||103||9||60||147||.242||.297||.362||.659|
|DET (2 yrs)||211||645||584||56||148||21||4||18||75||3||51||104||.253||.312||.396||.707|