Earle Combs was born on May 14, 1899, in Pebworth, KY. Nicknamed the “”Kentucky Colonel”” he was the first great Yankee center fielder. When he left his parents’ farm at the age of seventeen, his career goal was to become a school teacher. He attended what is now Eastern Kentucky University to pursue a teaching degree. He got involved in a baseball game between the students and the faculty of the college. The guy pitching for the teachers that day had some big league experience and was impressed enough by Combs’ ability that he urged him to try out for the school’s baseball team. He did and quickly became an elite player on that team. Soon he was playing semi pro and minor league ball.
In 1924, he signed a contract to play for the Kentucky Colonels of the American Association. The team’s manager was future Yankee skipper, Joe McCarthy, who converted Combs from a shortstop to a center fielder. After two outstanding seasons with the Colonels, the Yankees outbid a slew of other big league teams and purchased his contract for $50,000. He than began his twelve-season career in Pinstripes in 1924.
He batted .325, lifetime. That mark places Combs third on the list of highest Yankee lifetime batting averages with a minimum of 1,500 plate appearances. Combs scored at least 113 runs for eight straight seasons hitting in front of Ruth and Gehrig. During the 1934 season, he ran into an outfield wall in Sportsmen’s Park in St Louis, chasing a fly ball at top speed. He broke his skull and almost died from the resulting injuries. He attempted a comeback in 1935 but after crashing into another wall, he called it quits for good. Combs was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1970.
|162 Game Avg.||162||725||640||132||208||34||17||6||70||11||75||31||.325||.397||.462||.859|
The Yankees signed Dave LaRoche ten days after the start of the strike-shortened 1981 season. The left-hander had been released by the California Angels two and a half weeks earlier. When he joined the Yanks, he had eleven big league seasons already on his resume, during which he had established himself as a better than average reliever.
His first year in pinstripes was his best as he went 4-1 with a 2.49 ERA and pitched an inning of scoreless relief for New York in the 1981 World Series. I often refer to that 1981 season as George Steinbrenner’s tipping point as a Yankee owner. The players strike coupled with the Yankee defeat to the Dodgers in that year’s Fall Classic seemed to turn the Boss from a hard-to-work for egomaniac into an impossible to please tyrant. Under his complete control, the Yankee front office began making a series of spur-of-the-moment personnel decisions that undermined the team’s field management and filled the roster with anxiety.
Laroche became a victim of that calamity in 1982, when he began being bounced back and forth between the Bronx and Columbus, as the Yankee front office made roster moves with alarming frequency. Despite all the frequent flier miles, the Colorado Springs native continued to pitch effectively for New York, compiling a 4-2 record in his second season with the team. But even LaRoche had limits. When the team tried to send him back to Triple A at the end of the ’83 exhibition season, LaRoche quit instead. At the time his wife was undergoing a very difficult pregnancy and LaRoche wanted a guarantee that if he did go to Columbus, he could remain with the Clippers until the baby was born. When the Yankees refused that request, LaRoche left baseball to be with his wife.
Unable to land a steady job, LaRoche contacted the Yankees after the baby’s birth to see if they still wanted him to pitch for the organization. He returned for one final go-round in 1983, appearing in seven games for Columbus and just one for the parent club.
I remember LaRoche’s Yankee days very well, primarily because he frequently threw a slow, high arching eephus pitch his Yankee teammates had nicknamed La Lob. After he finished his pitching career, the Yankees hired him as a minor league pitching coach and he has spent the last quarter century working in that role for a number of minor league teams. He is also the father of two big league players. They are the Washington National’s slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche and the former Dodger and Pirate infielder, Andy LaRoche.
|CAL (6 yrs)||35||32||.522||3.65||304||10||170||1||0||65||512.1||462||223||208||51||204||386||1.300|
|CLE (3 yrs)||8||9||.471||2.51||135||0||95||0||0||42||197.1||133||64||55||10||113||216||1.247|
|NYY (3 yrs)||8||3||.727||3.12||52||1||30||0||0||0||98.0||94||37||34||8||27||55||1.235|
|CHC (2 yrs)||9||7||.563||5.17||94||4||43||0||0||9||146.1||158||91||84||16||76||83||1.599|
|MIN (1 yr)||5||7||.417||2.83||62||0||43||0||0||10||95.1||72||33||30||9||39||79||1.164|
It sort of gets lost in Yankee history, but the April 1974 trade that put Chris Chambliss in pinstripes was one of the best deals a George Steinbrenner-run front-office ever made. Not only did the Yankees obtain the clutch-hitting first baseman in the seven player transaction with the Cleveland Indians, they also got a pitcher named Dick “Dirt” Tidrow. Tidrow was a big, mean-looking right-handed native of San Francisco, who had managed to win 40 games during his first three seasons in the big leagues, pitching for some very mediocre Cleveland teams.
He made an immediate contribution to the Bill Virdon-managed Yankee team of 1974 by going 11-9 as a starter and helping New York finish a surprising second in that year’s AL East Division race. During the next three seasons he evolved into one of the most versatile hurlers in New York’s arsenal, pitching mostly in relief but also starting when necessary. The Yankees would not have won the 1977 East Division pennant without Tidrow. That season he finished with an 11-4 record, with five saves and a 3.16 ERA. The guy was fearless on the mound and he became one of Billy Martin’s favorite go-to choices in crunch time of close games.
In ’78, Tidrow was used mostly as a starter, when both Catfish Hunter and Don Gullett went on the DL. When he won just seven of his eighteen decisions it seemed he fell out of favor with the ungrateful Yankee brass. I remember screaming when they traded Tidrow to the Cubs for reliever Ray Burris. I was certain Tidrow was the much better pitcher of the two and he proved it by giving the Cubbies four solid seasons of versatile and effective mound work before getting traded to the cross-town White Sox and finally slowing down in 1983 at the age of 36. He retired the following year. with 100 career victories (and 94 losses) plus 55 saves.
|NYY (6 yrs)||41||33||.554||3.61||211||59||88||9||0||23||711.1||722||319||285||62||206||366||1.305|
|CHC (4 yrs)||28||23||.549||3.36||263||0||120||0||0||25||397.0||362||169||148||27||154||266||1.300|
|CLE (3 yrs)||29||34||.460||3.78||85||78||4||23||5||0||531.0||510||250||223||56||178||269||1.296|
|NYM (1 yr)||0||0||9.19||11||0||5||0||0||0||15.2||25||19||16||5||7||8||2.043|
|CHW (1 yr)||2||4||.333||4.22||50||1||27||0||0||7||91.2||86||50||43||13||34||66||1.309|
I was a Dick Howser fan. The 1979 Yankee team had been a mess. Everybody expected them to compete for a third straight World Series ring and they ended up in fourth place in their division. George Steinbrenner’s indecision about who should manage, Billy Martin or Bob Lemon, kept the players and coaching staff on constant edge. Thurman Munson’s death in a tragic plane crash was the final straw to a season that Yankee fans wanted to forget. Enter Dick Howser.
The Miami, Florida native’s big league playing career had began with an AL Rookie of the Year performance as a shortstop for the 1961 Kansas City A’s. That playing career ended in pinstripes, as a utility middle infielder for the 1967 and ’68 Yankees. When he retired the following season, he joined the Yankee coaching staff for the next ten years. Then in 1979, Howser accepted the head baseball coach’s position at his alma mater, Florida State University.
When it became clear to Steinbrenner that neither Martin or Lemon was the right choice as Yankee skipper, the Boss surprised everyone by hiring Howser for the job. He proved to be up to the task immediately as the 1980 Yankees got off to a fast start and ended up winning 103 games and the AL East Pennant. The Yankee clubhouse under Howser was more harmonious and conflict free than it had been in years. Reggie Jackson loved playing for the guy and responded with his best-ever Yankee regular season. The only hiccup to a perfect year for the team was a slight slump in August and good old George turned it into a giant belch. He started criticizing Howser’s every move and telling the Big Apple sports press that his rookie manager lacked the baseball intelligence of veteran skippers like Baltimore’s Earl Weaver.
Howser somehow kept his composure as did his team and the Yankees ended up facing their old nemesis, Kansas City in the AL Playoffs for the fourth time in five years. But unlike the previous three times, the Yankees lost and as we all now know, George Steinbrenner was a very poor loser. He shocked me and I’m sure, thousands of other Yankee fans by dumping Howser. Of course George explained that Howser had decided on his own not to return as Yankee skipper in ’81 because he had been offered some sort of amazing opportunity in Florida real estate that he simply couldn’t pass up. When New York sportswriters questioned the departing Manager about the opportunity, however, the perplexed and angry Howser didn’t know what they were talking about.
He did end up returning to Florida where he began collecting the final two years of his three-year Yankee contract but he didn’t stay their long. The team that had just beat him in the playoffs decided to make their own managerial change during the strike-shortened 1981 season and the Royals hired Howser to replace Jim Frey. During his first five years at the helm, Kansas City finished second twice, won three AL West Division titles and a World Championship. It all ended tragically for Howser a year later, when he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He fought the disease valiantly, but lost his battle in June of 1987 at the age of 51.
Howser’s record as a Yankee player
|CLE (4 yrs)||385||1464||1246||191||307||45||7||7||72||48||170||105||.246||.336||.311||.646|
|KCA (3 yrs)||256||1105||938||165||247||37||9||9||80||56||137||49||.263||.359||.351||.710|
|NYY (2 yrs)||148||368||299||42||63||8||1||0||13||1||60||32||.211||.350||.244||.594|
Howser’s record as Yankee manager
|1||1978||42||New York Yankees||AL||2nd of 3||1||0||1||.000||1|
|2||1980||44||New York Yankees||AL||162||103||59||.636||1|
|New York Yankees||2 years||163||103||60||.632||1.0|
|Kansas City Royals||6 years||770||404||365||.525||1.7||1 Pennant and 1 World Series Title|
|8 years||933||507||425||.544||1.5||1 Pennant and 1 World Series Title|