In my humble opinion, Curt Gowdy had the greatest voice in sports broadcasting history. I realize he became famous during the fifteen seasons he spent as the voice of the Red Sox, but he got his start in the business as a Yankee radio announcer in 1949. where he worked for two years learning the craft from the master of them all, Mel Allen.
Before that, Gowdy had aspired to be a a fighter pilot during WWII but a herniated disc in his back aborted that plan. He went back to his native Cheyenne where he got a job as a sportswriter for the local newspaper and also started announcing high school football games. He was then hired by a radio station in Oklahoma City where he got to announce Oklahoma State basketball and University of Oklahoma football games. But it was Gowdy’s offseason job as a minor league baseball announcer that earned him a spot in a nationwide audition for a chance to work with Allen and the Yankees. He later told Curt Smith, author of a book called “Voices of the Game” that Mel Allen was the guy who helped him really learn how to announce a baseball game. He credits the Yankee broadcasting legend with teaching him “timing, organization and even how to do a commercial.” Gowdy said he thought he was a young hot shot in a baseball booth until he worked with Allen who made him appreciate how much hard work and effort was required to excel in that profession.
One thing Gowdy had that Allen didn’t need to teach him him was ambition. He could have remained Allen’s apprentice for a long time but he wanted to be a big league team’s featured voice so he jumped at the chance the Red Sox offered him in 1950 and remained in that job for the next decade and a half. Those of you old enough to remember Gowdy in his prime as the Peabody Award winning voice of many of the most memorable US sporting events that took place during the late sixties and seventies, know the rest of the story. He died in 2006 at the age of 86.
You can listen to Gowdy talk about his days in the Yankee radio booth in this treasure of an interview he did for the Archive of American Television in May of 2000.
One of the things I enjoy most about authoring this blog is finding out that even the most short-term and unsuccessful Yankee players have interesting stories. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, a catcher named Mike Figga, is a great example. Back when “Boss” Steinbrenner either had to make or approve every decision that needed making in the entire organization, three catchers started the season on the Yankees’ 1999 roster. By that time, Jorge Posada had taken over the starting job behind the plate from Joe Girardi and with those two guys battling for innings, everyone wondered why on earth the Yankees also kept Figga. The “everyone” included interim Yankee manager, Don Zimmer, who was skippering New York that year while Joe Torre recovered from his cancer surgery. When a New York Times reporter following the team asked Zimmer why Figga was on the roster, the irascible “Popeye” responded with some questions of his own. “Can he hit big league pitching? I don’t know. Is he a big league catcher? I don’t know. Why don’t I know? Because I’ve never seen him catch in the big leagues? That interview took place six weeks after the ’99 season started and the only game-time action Figga had seen on the field up to that point was warming up Yankee relief pitchers in the bullpen.
There were two reasons Figga was on that roster. He was out of minor league options and he was born in Tampa, FL. If you wanted to play for the New York Yankees, it didn’t hurt to be from Tampa, which was Steinbrenner’s adopted hometown. The Boss loved Figga and had always hoped he would one day become the Yankees’ starting catcher, but Posada had outplayed him in the minors. Instead of trying to trade or release him however, the Yankee owner instructed Brian Cashman to put him on the big league roster.
So before every game, while Posada or Girardi was walking to home plate with the catcher’s gear on to start that day’s game, Figga, carrying his gear in a big bag, took the long walk out to the Yankee bullpen. Finally on May 22 of that season, with Joe Torre back at the helm, Figga was inserted into the first game of a double header against the White Sox as a defensive replacement for Posada in the ninth inning of a blowout 10-2 Yankee victory. Then, in the second game of that twin-bill, Torre pinch-hit Shane Spencer for Girardi in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with Figga to start the eighth. Those turned out to be the only two games Figga appeared in as a Yankee during that ’99 season and he didn’t get a plate appearance in either of them. Two weeks later, with his team trying to keep pace with the Red Sox in the AL East, Steinbrenner finally relented and let Cashman put Figga on waivers. He was claimed by the Orioles but Figga’s story doesn’t end there.
Steinbrenner was born on Independence Day. The Orioles happened to be in town on his birthday that year and Baltimore started Figga behind the plate. Late in the game, with the Yankees nursing a 3-2 lead, Figga belted a double to extend what turned out to be the Orioles game-winning rally. As Figga’s ball sailed over Bernie Williams head in center field, I guarantee Cashman’s cell was already ringing and I’m equally certain the first four words he heard when he answered it were “I told you so.”
Figga played 41 games for Baltimore that year and then never appeared in another big league game. He shares his birthday with this former Baltimore manager who was also a star outfielder on five straight world champion Yankee teams and this one-time Yankee announcer.
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|BAL (1 yr)||41||91||86||12||19||4||0||1||5||0||2||27||.221||.236||.302||.538|
Based on everything I’ve learned about former Yankee outfielder, Hank Bauer, I wish I could have seen him play. I was born a few years too late and didn’t start really following and understanding Yankee baseball until 1960. By then, Bauer was an ex-Yankee, winding down his 14-season big league playing career with the horrible Kansas City A’s. That career should have been longer but Hank Bauer did not catch too many breaks early on in his life.
He had been born to a large family in East St Louis, IL on July 31, 1922. His father lost a leg in a mill accident. So when the Great Depression hit, Bauer was one of nine children in a family with a one-legged Dad before the days of Social Security, workmen’s compensation or employer liability. That explains why and how Bauer became known early in life as a fighter. His teen aged years were filled with fist fights and American Legion baseball. After he left high school, he got a job as a pipe fitter. Fortunately, his older brother was a good enough baseball player to get signed to a Minor League deal by the White Sox. When the time was right, that older sibling arranged a tryout for Hank. Bauer did well enough to get signed but then that Bauer family luck struck again. This time, it took the shape of swarms of Japanese planes attacking an island in Hawaii.
Hank enlisted in the Marines and he spent the next three years of his life storming the beaches of islands in the Pacific and leading a battalion of men in fierce jungle fighting with a merciless enemy. He was awarded two bronze stars and a pair of purple hearts. When he returned home, he figured his chance at playing baseball had passed him by and he went back to fitting pipes. A scout for the Yankees remembered Bauer and signed him to a contract. It took Bauer three years to make it to the Bronx and by the time he did, in 1948, he was already 26 years old. But when he finally did put on those pinstripes, he played the game like he lived his life, hard at it all the time.
He became a key contributor on seven New York Yankee World Championship teams, including the squads that won five straight Fall Classics from 1949-1953. During his 12 seasons in pinstripes, Hank averaged .277 during the regular season and belted 158 home runs. He also had one of the best outfield arms in all of baseball at the time. His World Series portfolio includes a record 17-game hitting streak and a four home-run, eight-RBI performance against the Braves in 1958. As he had proved on Guam and Okinawa, he was a natural leader. Mickey Mantle credits Bauer with teaching him how to play the game. He could party as hard as anybody but he never took it to the extreme. Whitey Ford recalled the time he had a few too many the night before a big game and the next day in the dugout, Bauer threw the bloodshot eyed pitcher against the wall and screamed, “Don’t mess with my money.”
Yankee historians often couple Bauer’s name with his fellow outfielder and Yankee teammate Gene Woodling. The two played together on those five straight Yankee championship teams from 1949-53. Casey Stengel would often platoon the right-hand hitting Bauer with the lefty-swinging Woodling but more often than not, and especially in important games, Bauer would be in right-field and Woodling in left. Their hitting, their defensive skills and their leadership on the field and in the clubhouse was the glue that stuck those five championship teams together into one magnificent run.
After the 1959 season, Bauer was included in the deal that made Roger Maris a Yankee. He went on to become a successful big league manager when his playing days were over. He won two Manager of the Year awards and his eighth World Series ring when he skippered the Orioles to their 1966 World Series sweep against the Dodgers. He passed away in February of 2007. I repeat, it would have been a thrill to see him play the game.
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|KCA (2 yrs)||138||403||361||41||98||18||1||6||49||2||30||44||.271||.324||.377||.701|