If you ask Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada or Jason Varitek who was the best catching instructor they ever had, each highly respected veteran receiver would answer, “Gary Tuck.” Gary was a classmate of mine in high school back in Amsterdam, NY, in the early seventies. He was the quarterback of our school’s varsity football team and the catcher on our baseball team and the thing I remember most about him in both roles was his almost flawless technique. At the time, there were better athletes available to play both positions but Tuck was smarter and worked harder than everybody else. He was a keen student of both games even way back then and he is now considered one of Major League Baseball’s most gifted catching mentors. He won four World Series rings as a Yankee coach and currently serves as the Red Sox bullpen coach, where he has won a fifth ring. I’m hoping that some day, he gets a shot at managing in the big leagues. His hometown is very proud of him and all that he has accomplished.
Most of today’s Yankee fans can very easily remember the era of Jason Giambi in pinstripes. He was signed to be New York’s full-time first baseman but during the seven seasons he played in the Bronx, he started as many as 100 games at that position just once, in 2008, his final season as a Yankee. The Great Giambino got all that Yankee money for his hitting prowess because if he was paid based on his ability to defend his position, the guy would have qualified for food stamps. It was during the Giambi years that Yankee fans grew used to a committee approach of starting first basemen. Now of course, we have the great glove of Mark Teixeira patrolling there game in and game out and prior to Giambi, Yankee first basemen tended to be full-time first basemen, like Tino, Mattingly, Chambliss, Pepitone, Moose and of course the guy who epitomized full-time first basemen the great Lou Gehrig.
Most of you (including myself) don’t remember the Yankees of the late 1940’s and early 50’s. That was really the last lengthy era of multiple Yankee starting first basemen. In 1949 for example, six different guys made starts at that position. “Old Reliable,” Tommy Henrich, was one of them. The former outfielder led the team with just 51 starts at first that season. Former Amsterdam Rugmaker, Dick Kryhoski was next with 47 starts and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Jack Phillips, was Casey Stengel’s starting choice at first base 37 times, before he was sold to the Pirates on August 6th of the 1949 season.
Phillips was very competent defensively and at six feet four inches tall, he provided a big target for the throws of his fellow Yankee infielders. Hence the nickname “Stretch,” which of course was made more famous later by the great Giant first sacker, Willie McCovey. Phillips, a native of Clarence, NY, was a right-handed contact hitter and since both Henrich and Kryhoski batted from the left side, Stengel would frequently start him against southpaws.
Stretch had made his Yankee debut in August of 1947, hitting .278 in fourteen games and impressing then manager, Bucky Harris enough to make New York’s World Series’ roster and get two at bats and his one and only ring against the Dodgers that fall. Two seasons later, Phillips’ was hitting .308 for New York when Pittsburgh made a purchase offer for him that Yankee GM George Weiss did not refuse. He remained with the Pirates for the next three years and in 1950, he hit the first pinch-hit “ultimate” home run in Major League history. What’s an “ultimate” home run? A walk-off blast that occurs when the home-team is down by three runs.
Jack Phillips would later also play a few seasons for the Tigers and then retire in 1957. He would eventually become head baseball coach at Clarkson University in New York State, his alma mater and serve in that capacity for 24 years. That school’s baseball field is named in his honor. Phillips died in 2009 at the age of 87.
|PIT (4 yrs)||158||464||421||43||111||17||10||5||49||3||39||40||.264||.326||.387||.713|
|NYY (3 yrs)||62||147||129||21||38||4||2||2||12||1||15||15||.295||.368||.403||.771|
|DET (3 yrs)||123||379||342||47||103||21||4||2||40||1||31||31||.301||.356||.404||.760|
There were two reasons why I did not like the 1976 early-season trade that made Fran Healy, Thurman Munson’s backup. First of all, that Yankee team already had the young Rick Dempsey as a reserve catcher and I liked him a lot. The second reason was because New York gave up their promising left-handed starter, Larry Gura. Gura impressed me when he went 5-1 as a starter during his first season in Pinstripes in 1974, with two of those victories being complete game shutouts. Though he had not been as good the following year, I thought he was still one of New York’s best pitchers and I hated to see him dealt.
In Healy, the Yankees got an OK receiver to spell their snarly team Captain once a week, a job that Dempsey could have handled much better. It wasn’t until 1977 that the intangible value of the Healy acquisition paid huge dividends for New York. That was the year the Yankees decided to put the flamboyant and pretty self-centered superstar, Reggie Jackson, in the same dugout as the mercurial, alcoholic Billy Martin. For some reason, Jackson decided to befriend Healy and actually take his advice from time-to-time. On more than one occasion, Healy was able to talk Reggie out of doing something that would further provoke Martin or hurt New York’s chance of winning. Fran was born on September 6, 1946, in Holyoke, MA.
As for Gura, he became the very good Major League starting pitcher I knew he would. Dempsey would go onto become an Oriole defensive mainstay behind the plate for many seasons. As for Healy, once the Yankees fired Martin in 1978, there was little left for the catcher/diplomat to do in the Yankee clubhouse so he switched careers and moved to the broadcasting booth. From there, Healy evolved into a sports celebrity interviewer. New York sports fans know him for his popular “Halls of Fame” interview show in which he interviews members of the Halls of Fame from each major sport.
|KCR (5 yrs)||304||1070||946||102||244||45||6||17||106||25||111||163||.258||.336||.372||.708|
|NYY (3 yrs)||74||205||188||20||47||8||0||0||16||4||15||31||.250||.305||.293||.598|
|SFG (2 yrs)||92||221||192||22||41||7||0||3||19||1||28||48||.214||.317||.297||.614|