1968 was a terrible year in the history of our country and was shaping up to be a terrible year in Yankee history as well. New York had finished ninth the previous season. Joe Pepitone, the team’s best hitter was getting nuttier every year and the great Mickey Mantle was literally on his last leg.
I had two passions as a young teenager, sports and politics. When Bobby Kennedy was killed all I had left to look forward to were Yankee games so I was hoping they’d be decent that year. Almost miraculously, they were. Thanks to a starting staff featuring Mel Stottlemyre, Stan Bahnsen and Fritz Peterson and a bullpen led by Steve Hamilton and Lindy McDaniel, the Yankees could hang around most games and were pretty good at holding a lead if they were lucky enough to have one in the later innings.
The offense was another story. Pepitone imploded and Mantle continued to decline. As a team they hit just just .214 but guys like Roy White, Andy Kosco, and a 27 year-old rookie third baseman named Bobby Cox seemed to get on base and cross home plate just enough times to win more games than they lost. The bomberless Bombers finished 83-79 which to me felt like winning a pennant.
Cox of course went on to become one of the game’s all-time great managers with Atlanta. My In-laws are huge Brave fans and my Mother-in-law loves Cox. Several years ago we were with them at Disney World after the Braves had moved their spring-training operation to the resort. Early one morning, we went to the stadium to watch the Braves practice and Bobby Cox was alongside the dugout talking to someone sitting in the stands. As soon as she saw him my mother started shouting “Yoo-hoo Bobby Cox. I love you. Can I have your autograph? Can I take my picture with you?” Cox looked up feigning annoyance and held up his hand signaling he’d come over to us after he was done talking to the other person. Sure enough he did and he spent the next five minutes talking to my Mother-in-Law like he had known her all his life. I went from being a big Bobby Cox fan to being a huge Bobby Cox fan that day. Cox was voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2014, along with former Yankee skipper, Joe Torre. It certainly is a well-deserved honor.
By most accounts, when Enos “Country” Slaughter joined the Yankees in 1954, many of his new Yankee teammates weren’t too fond of him. That group included and was probably led by the temperamental Billy Martin, who thought Slaughter ‘s habit of running hard to first on every hit ball and even after bases on balls, was an attempt to show up his teammates. Martin considered Slaughter and for that matter most teammates who had not come up through the Yankee organization, as outsiders who could not be trusted on the field or in the clubhouse. Fortunately for Slaughter, Casey Stengel did not share that sentiment, probably because he was an old National Leaguer himself.
Slaughter explained the real reason he hustled every second while on the field in his autobiography. He was playing on a Cardinal farm team in Columbus, GA in 1932, hitting in the low .200’s and thinking he was going to be released any minute when in between innings during a game, he walked backed to the dugout from his right field position. Burt Shotten happened to be his Manager at the time and when Slaughter finally got to the dugout, Shotten told him if he was too tired to run back to the bench that maybe he was too tired to play in the game. Slaughter said that not-too-subtle hint from Shotten forever changed the way he approached the game. He vowed that he would never ever loaf on a baseball field again and he kept that promise for the next 27 years.
The saddest day of his life was August 11, 1954, the day the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees. He actually burst into tears after hearing the news but not because he had any particular animosity toward the Bronx Bombers. Slaughter absolutely loved playing in St. Louis and never dreamed getting traded was even a remote possibility.
As hard as it was for him to do so, Slaughter brought all of his experience and enthusiasm for the game with him to New York. From 1954 until he was traded to Kansas City in 1955 and then again after he was reacquired by New York a season later until 1959, Casey used the aging veteran frequently as both a pinch hitter and outfield substitute. He also treated Slaughter as his bench coach. The two veterans would often sit next to each other in the dugout, constantly discussing strategy and possible moves.
Slaughter contributed on the field as well. He was a star in the 1956 World Series, hitting .350 as the Yankees beat Brooklyn. His best regular season in pinstripes was 1958, when he hit .304 in 160 plate appearances. Enos retired after the 1959 season, at the ripe age of 43 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame, 26-years later. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 85.
|STL (13 yrs)||1820||7713||6775||1071||2064||366||135||146||1148||64||838||429||.305||.384||.463||.847|
|NYY (6 yrs)||350||782||663||90||168||21||6||16||98||4||108||69||.253||.356||.376||.732|
|KCA (2 yrs)||199||570||490||86||148||26||7||7||57||3||69||37||.302||.387||.427||.814|
|MLN (1 yr)||11||21||18||0||3||0||0||0||1||0||3||3||.167||.286||.167||.452|
From the moment I started following my Yankees as a six-year-old in 1960 right up until the team’s fifth place finish in the AL Pennant race in 1965, I loved Major League Baseball’s Reserve Clause. It is what had permitted the Yankee’s skillful and ruthless front office to firmly imprison the best baseball talent in America in Pinstripes until they could no longer run, hit, field, or throw or at least until they could be traded for someone who could do these things a bit better.
But after 1966, my stance on the sanctity of this oppressive piece of contract language began to soften. Overnight, the Yankees’ glamorous galaxy of star players seemed to grow old. Compounding the problem was that CBS, the team’s new owner, stopped investing in the Yankee farm system and that thriftiness, combined with the impact of the newly introduced MLB Amateur Draft, caused New York’s cupboard of bonafide home grown prospects to quickly grow bare. Also coming back to bite the team in the rear end was the tendency of the Yankee front office to avoid signing black prospects all throughout the late forties and fifties.
So by the late sixties I was one of the biggest advocates of testing baseball’s reserve clause in the courts and when George Steinbrenner took control of my favorite team, I was actively rooting for Curt Flood’s legal victory.
The New York Yankee’s first signing in Baseball’s new free agent era took place on the very last day of 1974. At the time, Jim Catfish Hunter was the American League’s premier starter. He had just completed a string of four consecutive 20-victory seasons for Oakland, the ace pitcher on a team that had won the last three World Series.
Hunter’s best season in pinstripes turned out to be his first, in 1975. He won 23 of his 37 decisions, threw 7 shutouts and compiled a 2.49 ERA. It wasn’t enough to win the Yankees a pennant but that certainly was not Catfish’s fault. He literally pitched his arm off that year, completing 30 games and amassing 328 innings pitched. In fact, during the three seasons of 1974, ’75 and ’76, Hunter threw 944 innings of baseball and the damage caused to his arm by that strain helps explain why he spent much of his last three seasons with New York on the DL.
What many Yankee fans fail to fully appreciate about Hunter was his ability to pitch effectively and be a clubhouse leader on teams that had rosters full of strong player personalities led by eccentric, very vocal owners. Hunter’s experience with Charley Finley’s Oakland A’s prepared him well for the Bronx Zoo and George Steinbrenner. And even though he had just that one twenty-victory season with the Yankees, Catfish showed his Yankee teammates how to focus on winning while on the field and how to survive the glare of a hyperactive media, monitoring a crazy clubhouse.
I will never forget Catfish’s gutty seven-inning performance in Game 6 of the 1978 World Series. That victory clinched a second straight championship for New York and I felt it was Hunter’s finest moment as a Yankee.
Inducted into Cooperstown in 1987, Catfish died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, twelve years later.
Below is my all-time Yankee free agent lineup. Only players who became Yankees’ originally via free agency are eligible. This disqualifies Yankees like Derek Jeter, who became a free agent while he was a Yankee and re-signed with the team. It also disqualifies free agent signers like Andy Pettitte, who was a Yankee, left and then re-signed with NY as a free agent.
The Pinstripe Birthday Blog’s All-Time Yankee Free Agent Line-Up
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Steve Sax
3B Wade Boggs
SS Tony Fernandez
C Russ Martin/Butch Wynegar
OF Reggie Jackson
OF Dave Winfield
OF Hideki Matsui
DH Jason Giambi
P CC Sabathia
P Catfish Hunter
P Mike Mussina
P David Wells
CL Goose Gossage
|OAK (10 yrs)||161||113||.588||3.13||363||340||5||116||31||1||2456.1||2079||947||853||261||687||1520||1.126|
|NYY (5 yrs)||63||53||.543||3.58||137||136||1||65||11||0||993.0||879||433||395||113||267||492||1.154|