Talk about hot starts, southpaw starting pitcher Russ Van Atta’s big league and Yankee debut on April 25, 1933 could have melted hard steel. The New Jersey native not only threw a complete game five-hit shutout against the Washington Senators in our nation’s capitol that day, he also had a perfect 4-for-4 day at the plate, scoring three runs and driving in another in New York’s 16-0 victory. The guy they called “Sheriff” would go on to win 12 of his 16 decisions in his rookie season and lead the AL with a .750 winning percentage. He also would end up hitting .283 that first season. You couldn’t blame the Yankee brass for thinking that Van Atta would be a key member of the their team’s starting rotation for at least the rest of that decade. It didn’t quite work out that way.
That December, a fire broke out in Van Atta’s home and while fighting or trying to escape the blaze, the Augusta, New Jersey native suffered a severe cut on his pitching hand. That injury severely impacted his pitching performance for the rest of his career. He began the ’34 season still a member of the Yankee rotation, but after getting hit hard in his first four starts, Joe McCarthy demoted Van Atta to the bullpen. Having watched both Joba and Phil Hughes try to go back and forth between the Yankee rotation and bullpen the past few seasons, it was not surprising for me to learn that Van Atta had problems making the moves as well. For the rest of that ’34 season he was used as a reliever and spot starter. He finished the year with a 3-5 record and a 5.30 ERA. He also developed a sore arm.
He was back in the bullpen to start the 1935 season but not for long. On May 15th of that year he was sold to the St. Louis Browns. He continued to struggle with his new team for the next four years, until his contract was sold to a minor league team in Toronto. After appearing in two games there, he hung up his glove for good. He finished his seven-year big league career 15-9 as a Yankee and 18-32 with St. Louis. He shares his June 21st birthday with another Yankee southpaw starting pitcher and the first Mormon to ever wear the Yankee pinstripes.
|SLB (5 yrs)||18||32||.360||5.95||148||45||52||7||1||5||462.2||566||343||306||28||255||221||1.774|
|NYY (3 yrs)||15||9||.625||4.94||59||31||14||10||2||1||249.2||272||155||137||11||113||118||1.542|
It was a few weeks before Christmas in 1925 and Yankee manager Miller Huggins had just arrived in New York City and spent the morning in a meeting with team owner, Jake Ruppert to discuss personnel needs for the upcoming season. The previous year had been a disaster for the Yankees and Huggins. The shipwreck of a season had gotten off on an ominous note after Babe Ruth began partying as soon as New York was eliminated from the 1924 AL Pennant race and didn’t stop until he collapsed in the Asheville, NC railroad station, when the Yankee team was heading north for Opening Day at the conclusion of their 1925 spring training camp. The “Big Bam” had boozed, eaten and screwed his body into a complete state of physical and mental exhaustion and it would take the entire first two months of the 1925 regular season to get him healthy enough to return to action. By then, the Yankees were already well below .500, on their way to finishing the year with a dismal 69-85 record and an embarrassing seventh-place finish in the AL standings.
Ruth’s near-death experience had done something Huggins had been trying to do since the Sultan of Swat had joined the team in 1920. It scared the hell out of him and convinced the game’s all-time greatest slugger to spend the 1925 offseason in a New York City gym, where he got his abused body into the best shape of his career. For the first time since Huggins had become Ruth’s manager, the skipper could enter a Yankee spring training camp without worrying about the impact of Ruth’s prodigious physical excesses on his team’s Pennant hopes. So as he exited his meeting with Ruppert that morning at the Yankee offices on Manhattan’s West 42nd street and was surrounded by reporters eager to find out what his thoughts were for the upcoming season, the player uppermost on the diminutive field general’s mind was today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
Huggins told the reporters that the Yankees biggest need for the upcoming 1926 season was an infielder, and he had one specifically targeted that he had discussed with Ruppert earlier that morning. The only clue he shared was that the player he was thinking of could field like a “fiend” and hit much better than Huggins ever did during the manager’s own playing days as an NL second baseman. As they pressed him for the player’s identity, they began suggesting names of big league infielders and Huggins would deny each until someone shouted, “What about Spencer Adams?” When Huggins ignored the question and said nothing, the reporters felt they had their answer. A month and a half later, the Yankees confirmed it.
A native of Utah, Adams was one of the first Mormons to play Major League Baseball. He had made his big league debut with the Pirates in 1923 and had spent the 1925 season as a utility infielder for the AL Champion Washington Senators. As Huggins had described, Adams was a very good defensive infielder and his .273 batting average with Washington indicated he could handle a bat just fine. But when he got to the Yankee spring training camp in St. Petersburg that winter, he got his first glimpse of his competition for the team’s starting second baseman’s job. It was this Italian kid from San Francisco by the name of Tony Lazzeri. At first, Huggins played Lazzeri at short and had Adams platooning with Aaron Ward at second. Another Yankee prospect from San Francisco by the name of Mark Koenig was proving to be a much better defensive shortstop than Lazzeri, so by the end of the first week of the 1926 regular season, Huggins had Lazzeri with his booming bat starting at second, the smooth fielding Koenig at short and Adams ended up riding the pine alongside Huggins in the Yankee dugout.
The infielder would appear in just 28 games that year and make just 28 plate appearances, which probably explains why he forgot how to hit. Adams averaged just .120 that season, but he did appear in his second straight World Series that October, again on the losing side as the Yanks lost the 1926 Fall Classic to the Cardinals. With two talented youngsters like Lazzeri and Koenig ensconced as starters in the middle of their infield, the Yankees sold Adams to the Browns after his first and only season in the Bronx was over. He played his last big league game with St. Louis in 1927.
|WSH (1 yr)||39||65||55||11||15||4||1||0||4||1||5||4||.273||.333||.382||.715|
|PIT (1 yr)||25||62||56||11||14||0||1||0||4||2||6||6||.250||.323||.286||.608|
|NYY (1 yr)||28||28||25||7||3||1||0||0||1||1||3||7||.120||.214||.160||.374|
|SLB (1 yr)||88||296||259||32||69||11||3||0||29||1||24||33||.266||.333||.332||.665|
As I observe Joe Girardi’s recent efforts to patch together a five man starting rotation for the 2011 Yankees, today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant makes me think about how easy Casey Stengel’s starting pitching decisions were during his five straight World Series victory run with the team. Take 1950 as an example. The Ol Perfessor could hand the ball to Vic Raschi (21-8), Allie Reynolds (16-12), Tommy Byrne (15-9), a young Whitey Ford (9-1) or today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Eddie Lopat (18-8).
Eddie had started his big league career with the White Sox in 1944, putting together four consecutive seasons of double digit victories and almost matching double digit losses in the Windy City. In February of 1948, the Yankees traded three players to Chicago including their starting catcher, Aaron Robinson in exchange for the southpaw Lopat, who had been born and grew up on the upper east side of New York City. Not only did the trade bring New York a great pitcher, this same deal also cleared the way for Yogi Berra to take over as the team’s starting backstop.
Unlike his Yankee co-aces, Reynolds and Raschi, who both threw lots of heat, Lopat had a repertoire of pitches all thrown at various speeds with great control. That assortment of stuff earned him the nickname, “The Junkman. He was especially known for his screwball, which became his signature pitch. From 1948 through 1954, the southpaw Lopat won double digits for the Yankees with his best year coming in 1951 when he went 21-9. He was also 4-1 in five World Series with New York and compiled a 113-59 regular-season career record in pinstripes.
When Lopat got off to a slow start in 1954, Yankee GM George Weiss traded him to Baltimore and Lopat hung up his glove after that season. He later went onto become a big league coach and manager (Kansas City A’s.)
Steady Eddie shares his June 21st birthday with the first Mormon to ever play in Yankee pinstripes.
|NYY (8 yrs)||113||59||.657||3.19||217||202||8||91||20||2||1497.1||1507||619||530||116||405||502||1.277|
|CHW (4 yrs)||50||49||.505||3.18||113||109||4||72||7||1||893.0||900||365||316||55||236||347||1.272|
|BAL (1 yr)||3||4||.429||4.22||10||7||2||1||0||0||49.0||57||24||23||8||9||10||1.347|