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|