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.
This right-hander was just 19 years old when he made his big league debut for Miller Huggins’ Yankees in April of 1925. The legendary New York skipper was impressed enough with the youngster’s stuff that he got him into 24 ballgames that season, mostly as a reliever. But the native of Bradenton, Florida wasn’t quite ready for prime time and he spent the next two years back in the minors.
Huggins brought Johnson back up to begin the 1928 season and inserted him into a Yankee starting rotation that included two Hall of Famers in Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, plus 20-game winner George Pipgras. The kid was able to hold his own with that impressive group, finishing the year with a very good 14-9 record. That mark was no doubt boosted by the powerful 1928 Yankee lineup because Johnson’s 4.30 ERA and his league-leading 104 walks that season indicated he did not dominate opposing lineups. He then sat in the Yankee dugout watching his teammates sweep the Cardinals in the ’28 World Series. In fact, New York used just three pitchers during that entire Fall Classic as Hoyt won two complete game starts and Pipgras and Tom Zachary each got one.
He went just 3-3 in 1929 and then bounced back with a 14-11 record in 1930 and a 13-8 mark in ’31. But his control problems continued as he walked over 100 hitters in each of those seasons. Meanwhile, Huggins had tragically died from an eye infection in 1929 and after his successor, Bob Shawkey led New York to a third place finish in 1930, Joe McCarthy had taken over the team. He had stuck with Johnson in his rotation through the 1931 season but he was impressed by a 27-year-old rookie named Johnny Allen during the Yanks’ 1932 spring training camp. When Johnson got off to just a so-so start that year Marse Joe had seen enough. He was traded to the Red Sox on June 5, 1932 and Johnny Allen went on to win 17 games for New York in his rookie season. When Hank Johnson left the Bronx, his career ERA for New York of 4.79 was the highest of any Yankee pitcher with more than 500 innings pitched. It still is today.
Johnson spent the next three years starting and relieving for the Red Sox and continuing to walk too many hitters and allow too many runs. After a horrible three game tenure with the A’s he went back down to the minors to try and find the strike zone. He never did.
When Johnson was a kid, he used to pick oranges out of the groves near his home and try to throw them across Florida’s Braden River. He always credited that activity with giving him the arm strength necessary to pitch in the big leagues.
|NYY (7 yrs)||47||36||.566||4.84||157||76||51||31||3||7||712.2||702||439||383||56||403||407||1.551|
|BOS (3 yrs)||16||15||.516||4.72||69||37||15||14||1||3||310.2||359||200||163||28||141||145||1.609|
|PHA (1 yr)||0||2||.000||7.71||3||3||0||0||0||0||11.2||16||16||10||4||10||6||2.229|
|CIN (1 yr)||0||3||.000||2.01||20||0||15||0||0||1||31.1||30||10||7||1||13||10||1.372|
I can remember thinking the 2002 New York Yankees were going to roll to the team’s fifth World Series championship in seven seasons. They finished 103-58 during the regular season and had Mussina, Clemens, Pettitte and Wells in their rotation. They were loaded offensively as well, with Jason Giambi, Alfonso Soriano and Bernie Williams all driving in 100 runs that year and every member of the starting lineup hitting double figures in home runs.
Yankee catcher, Jorge Posada also had a strong regular season, hitting 20 home runs and driving in 99 while catching 131 games. During those rare games when Posada wasn’t behind the plate for New York, the honor went to today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant.
The Yankees signed Chris Widger to a free agent contract in February of 2002. The Wilmington, Delaware native had broken into the big leagues in 1995 with Seattle and had been the Expos’s starting catcher from 1997 until he was traded back to the Mariners in August of 2000. Widger then hurt his shoulder and was forced to sit out the entire 2001 season.
Back then, Posada was hypersensitive about playing time. He had broken in with New York behind Joe Girardi and hated sitting the bench when Torre gave Girardi his share of time behind the plate. After letting Girardi sign with the Cubs after the 1999 season, the Yankee front-office decided to quell Posada’s anxiety by using only journeymen for his back-ups. That’s why they had signed both Widger and former Met reserve catcher Albert Castillo before the ’02 season.
It was Castillo who started the year behind Posada that April, but when he hit just .135 during the first half of the season, the Yankees decided to give Widger a shot. When he started his Yankee career with a six-game hitting streak that July, one had to wonder if Posada started getting edgy. Widger followed that up with a five game streak in August and finished the reason hitting .297. The Yankees kept him on the postseason roster but he saw no action in the team’s bitterly disappointing loss to the Angels in the first round of the playoffs.
He went to spring training in Tampa the following February and in an ungraceful move, the Yankees waited until the first week of April to release him. He did get to play that season with the Cardinals and remained in the big leagues until 2006. Widger shares his birthday with a former Yankee third baseman who was voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2014. This long-ago Yankee pitcher was also born on May 21.
|MON (4 yrs)||426||1484||1359||139||330||79||7||48||180||10||108||291||.243||.302||.417||.719|
|SEA (3 yrs)||41||73||67||4||12||0||0||2||3||0||4||18||.179||.233||.269||.502|
|CHW (2 yrs)||72||241||217||24||48||11||0||5||18||0||19||42||.221||.285||.341||.626|
|STL (1 yr)||44||112||102||9||24||9||0||0||14||0||6||20||.235||.279||.324||.603|
|NYY (1 yr)||21||68||64||4||19||5||0||0||5||0||2||9||.297||.338||.375||.713|
|BAL (1 yr)||9||20||17||0||2||0||0||0||2||0||2||4||.118||.211||.118||.328|