I was not a big fan of Bob Watson when he became the Yankee’s starting first baseman in 1980. The biggest reason for this was that I had been a big fan of the starting first baseman Watson replaced that season for New York, Chris Chambliss. In my humble opinion, the historic home run Chambliss had hit to get the Yankees into the 1976 World Series earned him the right to remain in pinstripes for the rest of his playing career. Instead, the Yankees had dealt him to the Blue Jays to get Toronto catcher, Rick Cerone. New York then signed Watson as a free agent to take over at first.
Watson was actually a very similar player to Chambliss. He averaged about 16 home-runs per season, drove in close to 90 and hit close to .300. He wasn’t as good defensively as Chambliss was, but few were. He had a good first year in pinstripes, hitting .307 and helping New York make the playoffs. He slumped badly in 1981, hitting just .212 during that strike shortened season. He then surprised me and every other Yankee fan by putting together an outstanding 1981 postseason. He hit .438 against the Brewers in that year’s ALDS and then had 2 home runs and 7 RBIs in the Yankees’ 6-game loss to the Dodgers in the ’81 World Series. That didn’t prevent the Yankees from trading the LA native to the Braves in April of the following season. Watson then spent the final three years of his 19-season big league career, backing up the same first baseman he had replaced as a Yankee starter in 1980.
After retiring in 1984, Watson became a coach with Oakland, then an assistant GM at Houston and in 1993, he was promoted to GM by the Astros, becoming the first black man in Major League history to hold that position. George Steinbrenner then hired Watson as GM of the Yankees in October of 1995 where he remained until Brian Cashman replaced him in February of 1998. Watson found out very quickly that working as GM for the Boss could be hazardous to one’s health. Steinbrenner would not let Watson make any decisions by himself, which still did not prevent the Yankee owner from berating his new GM’s every action. George even refused to congratulate Watson after the Yankees’ 1996 World Series win. The stress of working for Steinbrenner was so bad that the guy who’s nickname had been “the Bull” during his playing days, ended up in the hospital in April of 1997 with high blood pressure and orders from his doctors to reduce his Yankee GM workload by 25%.
Also born on this date was this father of one of baseball’s all-time great home run hitters.
|HOU (14 yrs)||1381||5496||4883||640||1448||241||30||139||782||21||22||508||635||.297||.364||.444||.808|
|ATL (3 yrs)||171||394||348||34||92||16||1||13||71||1||3||41||55||.264||.338||.428||.766|
|NYY (3 yrs)||196||725||642||80||181||31||6||19||83||2||1||75||73||.282||.355||.438||.793|
|BOS (1 yr)||84||347||312||48||105||19||4||13||53||3||2||29||33||.337||.401||.548||.949|
At Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings in December of 1973, the American League owners voted to make the designated hitter rule a permanent feature of Junior Circuit play. As soon as the votes were counted, the Yankees made a trade with the Kansas City Royals acquiring Lou Piniella, who many considered a near-perfect DH role-model. But Sweet Lou, had slumped to a .250 batting average the previous season, so just in case he did not return to his .300-hitting ways, New York hedged their bet by also acquiring on that same day, the switch-hitting Bill “Suds” Sudakis from the Rangers.
The then 28-year-old native of Joliet, IL had broken into the big leagues impressively as a third baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1968. But some serious knee problems during his first few seasons in LA, turned him into a role player. LA had released him in 1971 and after a short-time with the Mets, he had landed in Texas in ’73, just in time for the AL’s one-year DH experimental season.
He hit 15 HRs for Texas but only DH’d nine times. He also played a lot of third and first for that Ranger team and even went behind the plate for nine games. That versatility and his two-way hitting caught the attention of Yankee GM Gabe Paul, who was able to negotiate the outright purchase of Sudakis’s contract from Texas.
Suds would play just one season (1974) in pinstripes. Under the direction of skipper Bill Virdon, the Yanks made a surprising run at for the AL East title that year, finishing just two-games behind the Orioles. Sudakis got into 89 games, mostly as a DH and first baseman. He averaged just .232, but he also hit 7 home runs and drove in 39. His biggest impact on that year’s pennant drive however, may have occurred in the lobby of a downtown Milwaukee hotel.
The Yanks were scheduled to fly to Brewer town after a road-series with the Indians to play the last two games of their regular season, but their flight out of Cleveland was delayed for three hours. During those three hours, many of the Yankees did what many big league ballplayers do when they have lots of idle time in an airport, they headed to the bar. Well evidently Sudakis and Dempsey started getting on each other before they left Cleveland and the verbal sparring continued between the two all during their now very late flight. By the time the team departed their bus and entered the lobby of their downtown hotel, Dempsey had reached the boiling point and went after Sudakis like a madman. Yankee players at the scene later verified the ensuing fight was a knockdown drag-out classic with furniture overturned and pictures knocked off the walls. It took quite a while for their Yankee teammates and hotel security to separate the two and when they finally did, it was star outfielder Bobby Murcer, who had gotten the worst of it. Somebody stepped on his hand and broke his finger and that injury kept him out of the next day’s lineup against the Brewers. The Yankees lost that game while the Orioles won their contest against the Indians, clinching the division for the Birds.
I’m not 100% certain his role in that fight is the reason the Yanks traded Sudakis to California for pitcher Skip Lockwood that December, but it sure didn’t help to prevent it. Sudakis played one more season of big league ball before returning to the minors in 1976.
While researching this post I came across some compelling evidence that Sudakis was a bit crazy. For example, he once offered to add some bounce to Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles bat. He sawed the top off, drilled into the barrel and inserted some super balls and then reattached the sawed-off bat top with Elmer’s Glue. Then Yankee shortstop Gene Michael asked Sudakis how he had reassembled the doctored bat and when he got to the Elmer’s Glue part, “the Stick” warned him the glue would not hold. Sudakis assured him it would and one week later, after homering with it in his previous at bat, Nettles hit one off the the end of the modified piece of lumber and sure enough, the bat-top pops off and the rubber balls come rolling out the end of it, getting Nettles ejected.
|LAD (4 yrs)||291||1016||901||108||219||35||7||34||116||8||102||176||.243||.321||.411||.732|
|NYM (1 yr)||18||56||49||3||7||0||0||1||7||0||6||14||.143||.236||.204||.440|
|TEX (1 yr)||82||263||235||32||60||11||0||15||43||0||23||53||.255||.320||.494||.814|
|CLE (1 yr)||20||50||46||4||9||0||0||1||3||0||4||7||.196||.260||.261||.521|
|CAL (1 yr)||30||73||58||4||7||2||0||1||6||1||12||15||.121||.274||.207||.481|
|NYY (1 yr)||89||293||259||26||60||8||0||7||39||0||25||48||.232||.296||.344||.639|
Long before Gladys Knight recorded Midnight Train to Georgia, Wally was the most famous Pipp in America. He succeeded the notorious Hal Chase as the regular Yankee first baseman and played brilliantly at that position for eleven consecutive seasons.
Pipp established several firsts as a Yankee first baseman. He was the first Yankee to lead the American League in home runs. He was the first Yankee starting first baseman to wear the Yankee pinstripes. He was the first one to play in the World Series. He was the first Yankee starting first baseman to play in the now-closed original Yankee Stadium and the first one to play on a world championship team, in 1923.
None of those honors mattered, however, when Pipp innocently sat out a game against the Senators on the first day of June during the 1925 season. I’ve read accounts that indicate he was suffering from a headache after getting hit in the head with a ball during batting practice and had asked Yankee skipper, Miller Huggins, for that afternoon off. Whatever the reason, Lou Gehrig, took his place and every Yankee fan knows the rest of that story.
Pipp broke into the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 1913 and was picked up on waivers by the Yankees on January 15, 1915. He led the American League in home runs in both 1916 and 1917. In fact, the Yankees earned the nickname Murderers Row because of pre-Ruth sluggers like Pipp and Frank “Home Run” Baker. In addition to being a power hitter in the dead-ball era, he was also a good and graceful fielder and smart base runner, stealing 114 bases during his eleven years with the Yanks.
Pipp’s best year in New York was 1922, when he hit .329 with 190 hits, 96 runs scored, and drove in 90 more. His best World Series performance was the 1922 Fall Classic when he batted .286 in a losing effort against arch rival Giants.
In 1926, the Yankees sold Pipp, outright, to the Cincinnati Reds where he played three more seasons before retiring. He passed away in Rapid City, MI on January 11, 1965, at the age of 71.
This former Yankee reliever , this one-time replacement for A-Rod as Yankee third baseman and this Hall-of-Fame Yankee announcer were each also born on February 17th.
|NYY (11 yrs)||1488||6356||5594||820||1577||259||121||80||826||114||490||495||.282||.343||.414||.757|
|CIN (3 yrs)||372||1446||1289||151||359||52||24||10||166||11||104||50||.279||.335||.379||.715|
|DET (1 yr)||12||34||31||3||5||0||3||0||5||0||2||6||.161||.235||.355||.590|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant hit 27 home runs in just his second full big league season in 1970 and he also led the Royals that same year with 99 RBIs. After slumping the following season he was traded to the Angels in 1972. A versatile player, in ’73 he started 49 games at third for California, 47 in right field and 32 at first base. Toward the end of the 1974 regular season the Angels traded this native of Shreveport, Louisiana to the Orioles and during the subsequent Winter Meetings, Yankee GM Gabe Paul purchased his contract from Baltimore. The rumor circulating in the press at the time was that Paul was about to trade away Graig Nettles and he wanted Oliver to take over from “Puff” as the Yankee starting third baseman. Fortunately, it was only a rumor because although he was just 31 years old at the time, Oliver’s career was practically over. He hit just .158 during his 18 games in pinstripes and was released by New York at the 1975 All Star break. Nettles of course remained a Yankee and was an outstanding run producer and defensive force at the hot corner for two World Championship teams.
|KCR (4 yrs)||422||1550||1442||168||367||46||13||49||200||9||79||300||.255||.296||.406||.702|
|CAL (3 yrs)||395||1512||1412||120||370||53||6||45||214||7||76||248||.262||.301||.404||.705|
|PIT (1 yr)||3||2||2||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000||.000||.000||.000|
|NYY (1 yr)||18||39||38||3||5||1||0||0||1||0||1||9||.132||.154||.158||.312|
|BAL (1 yr)||9||20||20||1||3||2||0||0||4||1||0||5||.150||.150||.250||.400|
Dale Long was born in Springfield, Missouri on February 6, 1926 and then moved to Massachusetts as a young boy. A multi-talented athlete as a youngster, he starred in semi-pro football and turned down an opportunity to sign with the Green Bay Packers to give a career in baseball a shot. That career started in 1944, when Long joined the Milwaukee Brewers, then a non-affiliated double A franchise in the American Association being managed at the time by Casey Stengel. During the next ten seasons, Long spent time with fourteen different minor league ball clubs in the organizations of five different Major League teams. In 1951, he made his big league debut as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, where GM Branch Rickey was determined to convert Long into a left-handed catcher. That experiment lasted two pitches. He ended up on waivers that year and spent four more seasons trying to get back to the big dance.
His second chance came in 1955, again with the Pirates. This time Long was ready. He averaged .291 with 16 home runs, 79 RBIs and led all of baseball with his 13 triples. The following year, Long swung his way into baseball history when he hit home runs in eight consecutive games. That stretch of power made him a national celebrity and his 27 home runs and 91 RBIs that season made him a National League All Star.
After a slow start in 1957, Long was traded to the Cubs and after three seasons in the Windy City, he was sold to the Giants just as the 1960 regular season was beginning. In August of that year, Yankee GM George Weiss was looking for some left-handed power to add to Casey Stengel’s bench and he purchased Long from San Francisco. At the time the deal was made, the big guy was hitting just .167 but when he got to the Bronx, he went on a tear. He hit a robust .366 in his 46 at bats with New York that year and made the Yankees’ postseason roster, getting a hit in three pinch-hitting appearances against his former Pirate teammates in the 1960 World Series.
Long was a left-handed pull hitter who’s stroke was perfect for reaching the short porch down the old Yankee Stadium’s right field line. New York really loved having him as a pinch hitter but they had too many other stars and prospects in their employ to protect Long during the 1960 AL Expansion Draft. Sure enough, the Senators selected the veteran slugger with the 28th pick and he became the new Washington franchise’s first starting first baseman during their inaugural 1961 season. In July of 1962, the Yankees were once again in need of a left-handed pinch hitter and they offered the Senators a very good right-hand-hitting outfielder prospect from their farm system by the name of Don Lock in exchange for Long. Washington jumped at the offer and Lock became their team’s starting center fielder for the next half-decade. Long again came through in his role as a Yankee pinch-hitter and Moose Skowren’s back-up at first base. In 41 games he averaged .298 with 4 home runs and 17 RBIs. He again got to play in a World Series and this time won his first and only ring when the Yankees defeated the Giants in the 1962 Fall Classic.
By the time the 1963 season rolled around, Long had reached 37 years of age and his bat and his body were slowing down. He was hitting just .200 that August, when the Yankees released him and his big league career was over. Years later, Long became a sports announcer for a local television station in my viewing area. He died in 1991, a victim of a heart attack at the age of 64.
|PIT (4 yrs)||296||1100||970||124||264||40||20||44||176||1||106||170||.272||.339||.491||.830|
|CHC (3 yrs)||375||1342||1173||157||321||55||7||55||174||3||149||180||.274||.354||.473||.827|
|NYY (3 yrs)||81||175||150||19||46||7||1||7||27||1||24||18||.307||.398||.507||.904|
|WSA (2 yrs)||190||636||568||69||140||28||4||21||73||5||57||63||.246||.313||.421||.734|
|SFG (1 yr)||37||61||54||4||9||0||0||3||6||0||7||7||.167||.262||.333||.596|
|SLB (1 yr)||34||116||105||11||25||5||1||2||11||0||10||22||.238||.310||.362||.672|
Johnny Sturm was not your prototypical Yankee starting first baseman. He was instead, a singles hitter. In fact, no Yankee starting first baseman in the history of the franchise ever had a slugging average lower than the .300 figure turned in by Sturm during the 1941 regular season.
Lou Gehrig had set the impossible-to-fill mold all future Yankee first sackers would be measured by. Babe Dahlgren, the Iron Horse’s immediate successor had not hit more than 15 home runs or averaged above .264 during his two seasons in the position. Meanwhile, Sturm was hitting well over .300 and averaging 180 base-hits per year while playing first base for the Yankee’s farm team in Kansas City. At the end of New York’s 1941 spring training camp, Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy made the decision to put Sturm and two other infielders from that Kansas City farm club, second baseman Jerry Priddy and shortstop Phil Rizzuto on the Yank’s Opening Day roster. With an outfield full of home run power (DiMaggio, Henrich and Keller would each hit 30 round-trippers in 1941) plus Joe Gordon, Marse Joe figured any of these rookies and maybe even all three would be perfect table setters for the Yankees’ big bats.
The plan seemed reasonable but during the season a couple of hitches emerged. After getting the Opening Day start at first, Sturm was quickly benched so that Joe Gordon could move to first and McCarthy could play Priddy and Rizzuto together in the middle of the Yankee infield. But Priddy could not get himself untracked at the plate and by mid-May, “Marse Joe” had moved Gordon back to second and was starting Sturm at first. Almost immediately, Sturm went on an 11-game hitting streak and by the end of it, McCarthy had moved him into the leadoff spot of the Yankee lineup where he would remain for the rest of the ’41 season. Like Priddy however, Sturm also struggled with big league pitching, averaging just .239 during his rookie season. As a result, he scored just 58 times in 568 plate appearances. Despite that poor showing, McCarthy stuck with his punchless rookie in that year’s World Series and the then-25-year-old Sturm came through with a .318 average in the Yankees’ victory over Brooklyn, hitting safely in each of that Fall Classic’s five games.
So why did McCarthy stick with Sturm’s inefficient bat at first instead of giving Priddy another chance at second? After all, Phil Rizzuto always insisted that Priddy was a much better ballplayer than the Scooter was and could do everything well on a baseball field. From what I’ve read, it seems Priddy was a very cocky kid who thought nothing of mouthing off at his veteran Yankee teammates and vocally insisting he was as good as or better than most of them. Such brashness, especially from a rookie, did not sit well with his teammates. As a result, few if any of them showed any sympathy or offered to help Priddy with his offensive struggles, while reacting in the exact opposite way with the much more likable Sturm. I’m sure McCarthy realized all this and kept Priddy on the bench in part because he didn’t want to antagonize his veteran players.
Sturm’s very good 1941 postseason performance convinced most Yankee observers that he would be back at first base come the following season, but two months later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. On January 13, 1942, Sturm became the first married big league ballplayer to be drafted into military service. He spent most of his time in the Army playing baseball but he also was part of a detail that built baseball fields on army posts. While driving a tractor on one such detail, Sturm was involved in an accident that resulted in the amputation of two fingers on his non-throwing hand. When he tried to rejoin the Yankees in 1946, that injury destroyed his chances at being successful. Instead, he became a player-manager in the Yankees farm system and one day in 1948, while serving in that role for New York’s Class C Western Association League franchise in Joplin, Sturm’s phone rang. A father of a high school player was calling to request a tryout for his son. Sturm listened to the voice on the other end of the line tell him why this kid was worth looking at and was convinced enough to place a call to Yankee scout Tom Greenwade and arrange a tryout. The name of the dad who called Sturm that day was Mutt Mantle and the rest is Yankee history.
It would have been nice to have had this big guy in pinstripes at the beginning of this past decade instead of toward the end of it. He hit 306 home runs during his dozen seasons in the big leagues. They included two 45-home run seasons with the Brewers and six years of driving in over 100 runs. But only one of those home runs and just six RBIs were produced after the Mariners released him in June of 2008 and the Yankees picked him up. I remember thinking it was a good acquisition at the time, hoping the then 33-year-older would be rejuvenated by the pinstripes and motivated to possibly play himself into contention to replace New York’s Jason Giambi, who’s contract was expiring that season. But Sexson, who was also in the final year of a $50 million deal he had signed with Seattle, never really got it going during his short stay in the Bronx, becoming just another move that didn’t work out during New York’s very disappointing 2008 season.