Yankee teams don’t win World Championships without good solid starting catchers. I’ve been a Bronx Bomber fan for over 50 years and during that time its been names like Berra, Howard, Munson, Girardi and Posada, who have been behind the plate when my favorite team won a ring. Most of these guys could hit, most of them were strong defensively as well and each and everyone of them were tough, strong leaders who weren’t afraid to take control of their pitching staffs.
Russell Martin was that type of player for the Yankees. Certainly not a superstar but most definitely a leader behind the plate and a guy who craved at bats with the game on the line. He had no fear and the Yankees could have got to a World Series with him as their starting catcher, which is why it distressed me, when they let him walk away to Pittsburgh last offseason and decided they’d try instead to go cheap by staffing such a critical position with Cervelli, Stewart, and eventually Austin Romine. It was that single front office decision that convinced me that this current Yankee brain trust actually believed they could be clever money-ball practitioners when I knew they were not. More importantly, I knew that trying to win with less money took away the franchise’s biggest advantage over its competition, which is HAVING MORE MONEY to spend!
We all saw the results. The offensive performance of the Yankee catching staff was as bad as I knew it would be last season and the co-catcher model hurt the stability of the pitching staff. There were also more empty seats in Yankee Stadium and fewer viewers watching those commercials on the YES Network.
Brian McCann had to be signed by New York, this offseason. He’s exactly the kind of catcher the Yankees must have to get back to Fall Ball. He’s also the signal I needed to see that this Yankee brain trust fully realized the error of their penny-pinching ways last winter. I’m once again officially excited about Opening Day!
He has one of the coolest names ever for an MLB player. Before Muddy Ruel became the greatest catcher in Washington Senator franchise history, he shared the New York Yankee starting catcher responsibilities during the 1919 and 1920 seasons with fellow receiver Truck Hannah. Despite being physically small for his position at 5’9″ and just 150 pounds, Ruel became one of the best defensive catchers in league history. There was nothing he could not do well from behind the plate and despite his diminutive size, Ruel was famous for his refusal to back down from much larger hard-charging base runners attempting to score. He was also a skilled hitter, averaging .275 during his 19 big league seasons.
With New York, Ruel averaged .251 during his two seasons in the Bronx. The Yankee team he joined as a 22-year-old had not yet acquired Babe Ruth from Boston but it was a quickly-improving ball club under the control of its talented skipper, Miller Huggins. Ruel started 69 games behind the plate for Huggins in 1919 and 76 more the following year. He was behind the plate in the August 1920 game, when New York pitcher Carl Mays beaned and killed Roy Chapman of the Cleveland Indians. Ruel would be asked about that tragic event for the rest of his days and always insisted Mays was not trying to hit Chapman.
When Ruth joined the team during Ruel’s second year as a starter, the Yankees instantly became one of the better teams in baseball and Ruel’s future with the emerging dynasty looked strong and secure. But that future ended abruptly in December of 1920, when the Yankees and Red Sox pulled off a huge eight player trade. The key players involved were Yankee second baseman Del Pratt and Boston pitcher Waite Hoyt, but the transaction also included a swap of the two teams’ catchers, Ruel for Wally Schang.
Muddy would start behind the plate for the Red Sox for the next two years and then get dealt to the Senators, where he would be paired with the immortal Walter Johnson, to form one of the great batteries in baseball history. The pair would lead Washington to the only two World Series appearances in that team’s long history in 1924 and ’25 and it would be Ruel who would score the winning run in the seventh and final game of the 1924 Fall Classic that earned that ball club its one and only world championship.
Ruel played for the Senators through 1930 and then spent the last four years of his playing career with four different teams. He had earned his law degree during his off-seasons with Washington, but instead of practicing law when his playing days were over, he went into coaching, then managing, then front office work and even became a special assistant to Baseball Commissioner, Happy Chandler for a while. He finally left the game for good in 1956 and moved to Italy for a year so his children could have the experience of attending school abroad. Ruel died in 1963 from a heart attack at the age of 67.
|WSH (8 yrs)||903||3406||2875||336||834||116||24||2||373||44||403||123||.290||.382||.349||.731|
|NYY (4 yrs)||170||588||517||49||130||20||1||1||47||10||53||47||.251||.323||.300||.623|
|BOS (3 yrs)||262||917||802||81||216||41||2||1||79||6||91||47||.269||.345||.329||.674|
|DET (2 yrs)||65||211||186||11||38||5||2||0||21||1||22||7||.204||.288||.253||.541|
|SLB (2 yrs)||46||106||77||13||12||2||0||0||9||0||29||9||.156||.387||.182||.569|
|CHW (1 yr)||22||67||57||4||12||3||0||0||7||0||8||5||.211||.308||.263||.571|
I remember when the Yankees acquired today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant in a straight-up one for one trade with Cincinnati for pitcher Dennis Rasmussen late in the 1987 season. I liked the deal even though Gullickson was a right handed pitcher coming to Yankee Stadium and Rasmussen was a southpaw, leaving it. Those of you who can remember when Gullickson started for the Expos in the early eighties might recall that he was a very good pitcher for Montreal. During his six full seasons with the team he had won 72 games (still good for fourth best on the franchise’s all-time wins list.) He then got traded to the Reds after the ’85 season and he went 15-12 during his one full season there. Gullickson was a big guy, six foot three inches tall but he didn’t throw hard. Instead he depended on pinpoint control, walking an average of just two hitters per nine innings. He gave up quite a few home runs when he pitched but they usually occurred in non-crucial situations, which helps explain why his ERA as an Expo had been just 3.44.
A lot of Yankee fans hated seeing Rasmussen go because as mentioned before, he was a lefty, he had gone 18-6 for New York in 1986, and had a winning record (9-7) at the time the deal was made. At the same time, Gullickson was 10-11 for the Reds and his ERA was a tenth of a point higher than Rasmussen’s even though he had the advantage of pitching to lineups that included pitchers instead of DH’s. Both pitchers were 28-years-old and both were on cold streaks. Rasmussen had lost his last three starts as a Yankee and Gullickson had dropped five straight decisions.
Despite all that, I thought Gullickson was the better pitcher of the two and the future proved me correct. In 1991 he led all AL starters with 20 wins. The problem was he got those wins for the Tigers and not the Yankees. Gullickson would end up pitching just one month in pinstripes, going 4-2 in September of 1987. That was his option year. That also happened to be the same year big league owners allegedly colluded and agreed they would no longer bid for other team’s free agents. Rather than sign again with the Yankees, Gullickson decided to play in Japan for the next three years. In 1990, he returned to the MLB and pitched for the Astros. The following year he signed with the Tigers and put together his career year. He would retire after the 1994 season with a 14-year big league record of 162-136 and a career ERA of 3.93. He also pitched his entire career with diabetes.
Sharing Gullickson’s February 20th birthday is this outfielder who swung at one of the most famous third strikes in Yankee history, this other outfielder who’s overthrow of a cutoff man turned into one of the most famous plays in Yankee history, this brand new Yankee catcher and this former Yankee catcher.
|MON (7 yrs)||72||61||.541||3.44||176||170||2||31||6||0||1186.1||1149||494||453||88||288||678||1.211|
|DET (4 yrs)||51||36||.586||4.68||118||116||1||11||1||0||722.2||826||403||376||109||163||290||1.369|
|CIN (2 yrs)||25||23||.521||3.98||64||64||0||9||3||0||409.2||417||202||181||57||99||210||1.260|
|NYY (1 yr)||4||2||.667||4.88||8||8||0||1||0||0||48.0||46||29||26||7||11||28||1.188|
|HOU (1 yr)||10||14||.417||3.82||32||32||0||2||1||0||193.1||221||100||82||21||61||73||1.459|
Shane Spencer had been in the Yankees’ farm system for over eight years when he got a call up to the parent club in September of 1998. He had played in the entire atlas of Yankee minor league towns during those previous eight seasons and the closest he had come to making the big league team was when he crossed the picket lines during the 1994 MLB player strike to attend New York’s replacement player spring training camp. Neither the Yankee front office or Yankee fans were hoping for help from promising prospects when September of ’98 rolled around. That team didn’t need any. It was, without a doubt, the best Yankee team I have ever seen play during the fifty years I’ve been a fan. There were absolutely no holes to fill in their lineup, their bench or their pitching staff. Which is why what Shane Spencer was able to do that September was pretty special.
The only reason Spencer was getting a shot was the fact that he had put together consecutive 30-home run seasons in the minors. If you’re a position player who wants to get noticed in the Yankee farm system, especially when the parent club is winning pennants, consecutive 30-homer seasons is about the only way to do it. Spencer had actually been called up from and returned to Columbus three times during the 1998 season but the fourth time proved to be the charm. That happened on August 31st. Four days later, Joe Torre rested Bernie Williams, started Chad Curtis in center and inserted his rookie in left. In his first appearance against White Sox southpaw Mike Sirotka, Spencer homered to left field. Five games later, his real streak began, when Torre sent him in to replace Paul O’Neill in right field in the sixth inning of a game against Baltimore. He came up in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded and hit his first Major League grand slam. He would hit seven more home home runs that month including two more grand salami’s and provide Yankee fans with one more great Yankee memory in a season that was full of them. Spencer continued his hot hitting in the playoffs against the Rangers in that year’s ALDS, homering two more times. He finally cooled off in that year’s ALCS which resulted in him seeing very little action in the World Series against the Padres.
Spencer played a total of five seasons as a Yankee before getting released after the 2002 season and signing with the Indians. He played well enough during those years to become the team’s regular fourth outfielder but could never break into the starting lineup. He also participated in one of the most memorable plays in Yankee history. It happened in the seventh inning of Game 3 in the Yankee’s 2001 ALDS series against Oakland. The Yankees were ahead 1-0 when with two outs and Jeremy Giambi on first, the A’s Terrence Long hit a ground ball down the right field line past Tino Martinez. Spencer was playing right field and he cut off the ball before it hit the wall but his throw sailed over the heads of two cutoff men and started rolling toward the Yankee on deck circle as Giambi rounded third on his way to scoring the tying run. That’s when Derek Jeter appeared out of nowhere to pick up the ball, and flip it to Jorge Posada who made an incredible sweeping tag that just nipped Giambi.
Spencer isn’t the only Yankee outfielder born on this date who did something bad that resulted in something really good and memorable for his Yankee team. Check out this guy. This one-time Yankee pitcher is also a February 20th pinstripe birthday boy as is this long-ago Yankee catcher and this brand new Yankee catcher
|NYY (5 yrs)||345||1215||1091||148||287||54||7||43||167||5||94||228||.263||.324||.444||.768|
|NYM (1 yr)||74||204||185||21||52||10||1||4||26||6||13||37||.281||.332||.411||.742|
|TEX (1 yr)||55||216||185||16||42||10||0||4||23||0||27||40||.227||.329||.346||.675|
|CLE (1 yr)||64||232||210||23||57||10||0||8||26||2||18||52||.271||.328||.433||.761|
“Old Reliable” played some great baseball for New York during an 11-season career that was interrupted by military service in WWII. A .282 lifetime hitter, Henrich teamed with Joe DiMaggio and Charlie King Kong Keller to provide pre-war Yankee fans with one of the most talented outfields in team history. Tommy won four rings as a Yankee and hit a home run in each of the four Fall Classics he appeared in. But his most famous Series moment took place in Game Four of the 1941 Yankee-Dodger matchup. Brooklyn was about to even that Series at two games apiece when Henrich came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and New York losing 4-3. Dodger reliever, Hugh Casey struck out Henrich with a curveball in the dirt that scooted past Dodger catcher, Mickey Owens, permitting Tommy to reach first safely. The Yankees went on to score four runs that inning, winning the game. The following day, Tommy hit a home run to help the Yankees win the Series. Henrich was 96 years-old when he passed away in December of 2009. He absolutely loved being a Yankee.
Another Yankee born on February 20th, was involved in a famous play that started out by him doing something bad that was turned into something really good. February 20th pinstripe birthdays also belong to this one-time, short-time Yankee pitcher, this brand new Yankee catcher and this long-ago Yankee catcher.