The 1989 season was a bad one for Yankee fans. That year’s team became the first New York club in fifteen seasons to lose more regular season games than it won, (74-87.) It was a season of transition for my favorite baseball team but unfortunately, that transition was moving in the wrong direction. That year would be the last time Don Mattingly would average .300 in a full regular season in pinstripes. It was the first time in almost a decade that Dave Winfield wasn’t a Yankee outfielder and the last season Ricky Henderson was. It was the first year of Ron Guidry’s retirement and the final year George Steinbrenner would officially have dictatorial control over all organizational and personnel moves before being suspended for his role in the Howie Spira scandal. The Yankee managers that season were Dallas Green and then Bucky Dent, both of whom were fired, clearing the way for the Stump Merrill era to begin one season later or as I like to refer to it as “the era of being completely Stumped.”
It appeared as if the only good thing happening in Yankee Stadium in 1989 was the introduction of a flashy Venezuelan-born starting shortstop. But alas, even that turned out to be an illusion. When I think of Alvaro Espinosa during his Yankee playing days I’m reminded of a line that comedian Billy Crystal used on Saturday Night Live whenever he impersonated the actor, Fernando Lamas, with one slight modification. “It is better to look good than to play good.”
At first appearance to Yankee fans, Alvaro Espinosa looked like a classic Major League shortstop. He hit .282 his first full year as a Yankee and played shortstop with a flair that often thrilled us. As time and Yankee seasons wore on however and the team’s losses mounted, it became clear that Espinosa’s defensive skills, though not horrible were far from great and his propensity to swing at terrible pitches on 3-0 counts and his lack of run production made him a liability in the Yankee lineup. When Buck Showalter replaced Stump Merrill in 1992, Espinosa’s three-year reign as New York’s starting shortstop was officially over. There was of course Espinosa’s great gold necklace. I could be wrong but I do believe it was Alvaro who first introduced bling to big league baseball in the Bronx. In any event, happy 52nd birthday to Mr Espinosa and may he enjoy many more. He shares his birthday with this Yankee catcher.
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|NYY (4 yrs)||447||1528||1424||133||363||58||5||7||94||8||46||171||.255||.281||.317||.598|
|MIN (3 yrs)||70||107||99||9||24||3||0||0||10||0||2||19||.242||.265||.273||.537|
|NYM (1 yr)||48||144||134||19||41||7||2||4||16||0||4||19||.306||.324||.478||.801|
|SEA (1 yr)||33||78||72||3||13||1||0||0||7||1||2||12||.181||.213||.194||.408|
As the 1953 season approached, New York’s veteran shortstop, Phil Rizzuto was not enjoying his offseason. Two years removed from his MVP year of 1950, Scooter was getting on in years and slumping at the plate. Yankee GM George Weiss had sent Rizzuto a contract for the ’53 season that included a significant pay cut and to make matters worse, the future Hall of Famer had spent time in the hospital that winter, being treated for some sort of stomach disorder.
Observing all this from his home in California, Yankee skipper Casey Stengel was making plans just in case he did not have the services of Rizzuto on Opening Day of that ’53 season. The Ol Perfessor had two young Yankee shortstop prospects attend his baseball school in Glendale that winter. The first was Andy Carey, who was considered number one in line to succeed Scooter. The second was a University of Southern California graduate by the name of Jim Brideweser.
Brideweser had put himself into contention for the job with a solid 1951 season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Then in 1952, he saw significant action with the parent club as Rizzuto’s backup. When Carey showed up at the Yanks 1953 spring training camp with a sore arm, Stengel told the Yankee press he was going to start Bridweser at short and give him a “thorough trial” that spring.
Casey was true to his word and as late as March 22nd of that year, he was still telling anyone who’d listen that he was thrilled with Brideweser’s effort that spring. As the situation played out however, Rizzuto was finally signed and got healthy enough to play 134 games that season and put together a fine bounce-back performance. Carey was switched over to third, where he’d play the rest of his career. Brideweser started the year on the Opening Day roster but spent most of that ’53 season in Syracuse playing for the Yanks Triple A team there. New York GM George Weiss purchased switch-hitting utility infielder Willy Miranda from the Browns that June and he became Rizzuto’s primary backup.
The following May, Brideweser was traded to the Orioles. He would get big league at bats with Baltimore, the White Sox and the Tigers before retiring as a player in 1957 and becoming a high school math teacher and baseball coach.
|NYY (3 yrs)||51||53||49||16||16||0||1||0||5||0||4||6||.327||.377||.367||.745|
|BAL (2 yrs)||164||392||346||34||92||14||3||1||30||3||36||43||.266||.336||.332||.668|
|CHW (2 yrs)||44||75||69||6||14||4||2||0||5||0||3||10||.203||.247||.319||.565|
|DET (1 yr)||70||180||156||23||34||4||0||0||10||3||20||19||.218||.307||.244||.550|
I still remember the play. Opening Day 2003, Yanks are playing the Jays in Toronto and leading 1-0 when Derek Jeter walked with one out in the third inning. The next Yankee hitter, Jason Giambi hit a dribbler between the mound and third base. Jay third baseman Erik Hinske, shortstop Chris Woodward and pitcher Roy Halladay all went after the ball with Halladay reaching it first and nailing Giambi with a good throw to first. Meanwhile, Jeter raced to second and when he saw that neither Hinske or Woodward was covering third he kept running. Ken Huckaby, the Toronto catcher also saw that third base was uncovered and he ran like hell to get there before Jeter. In the mean time, first baseman Carlos Degado threw a bullet to the third base bag, hoping Huckaby would get there before both the ball and Jeter did. Jeter got their first and was safe on the play but a millisecond later, Huckaby arrived and when he tried to catch the ball and stop at the same time, he barreled into the Yankee shortstop, separating his shoulder in the process. Jeter went on the DL for the first time in his career and everyone wondered, what will the Yankees do without their shortstop.
The immediate options to take his place were Enrique Wilson, who was the utility infielder on that year’s Yankee roster or Erick Almonte, who was considered the organization’s top minor league shortstop at that time. The Dominican native had put together some decent offensive seasons in the Yankee farm system up to that point but his bat had actually been regressing more recently. In fact, the year before Jeter’s injury occurred, New York had demoted Almonte from triple A to double A because of his inability to hit.
That’s why everyone was pleasantly surprised when the Yanks decided to go with Almonte and he got off to a torrid start at the plate when he was called up to the Bronx. In his first game he homered, went 2-for-5 and drove in three runs. He hit safely in six of his first seven games and was averaging .333 after his first ten days as the Yankee shortstop. He would tail off a bit but was still hitting .272 when Jeter returned to the lineup in early May and the Yankees were in first place with a three game lead and a 26-10 record. While Yankee fans had missed the Captain, the truth is the Yankee team hadn’t. Erick Almonte had stepped up big time in Jeter’s absence. He would never get another chance to do so.
He was sent back down to Columbus for most of the rest of that 2003 season. He would later sign as a free agent with the Rockies and then play ball in Japan for a few years. He did not get back to the big leagues until 2011, when he made the Milwaukee Brewer roster as a spare outfielder. Unfortunately, he was beaned pretty severely and didn’t get a chance to play much. As of 2013, he was still playing minor league baseball. He turns 36-years-old today.
He shares his birthday with this former Yankee reliever, this Gold-Glove-winning center fielder, this one-time Yankee prospect and the player the Yanks got when they traded Tom Tresh.
|NYY (2 yrs)||39||115||104||17||28||7||0||1||11||3||8||25||.269||.327||.365||.693|
|MIL (1 yr)||16||29||29||1||3||0||0||1||3||0||0||4||.103||.103||.207||.310|
His real name was Wilbur Roach, but he eventually became known better by the nickname “Roxey.” A native Pennsylvanian, Roach seems to have also been a pretty astute businessman and before Ted Williams came along, perhaps the the best fly-fishing ball player ever born.
He started playing minor league ball in 1906, when he was already 23-years-old. He made his big league debut with the 1910 New York Highlanders, a surprisingly good team that would finish 25 games over five hundred that season. That was only good enough for second place, far behind the powerful A’s of Connie Mack.
George Stallings was the skipper of that Highlander ball club and he might have thought Roach had a decent shot at unseating New York’s starting shortstop at the time, the light-hitting John Knight. Roxey appeared in 70 games that year but hit just .214. Mean whiile, Knight had an offensive epiphany, finishing the 1910 season with a .312 batting average, which was about 100 points higher than his lifetime average had been up to that point.
Getting outplayed by Knight was not the only disruption that occurred in Roach’s career that year. George Stallings had suspected that New York’s starting first baseman, Hal Chase was involved with professional gamblers and was throwing games. When he became convinced his suspicions were true, he went to both the League President and the Highlanders’ ownership and demanded Chase be banned. Instead, the team’s owners, who happened to be big gamblers themselves, not only sided with Chase, they fired Stallings and made the first baseman the team’s new manager.
After appearing in just 13 games for New York in 1911, Roach’s contract was sold to a minor league team. Since he owned both a pool hall and a bowling alley back home in Pennsylvania, Roach didn’t need his baseball salary to survive but he kept playing minor league ball and in 1915 signed a contract to play for the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. At midseason, however, the Buffalo franchise of the upstart Federal League offered him $1,000 more than the Leafs were paying him and he jumped the team to take the raise.
When the Federal League folded, Roach continued playing minor league ball, this time in Louisville. He also continued pursuing his favorite sports, which were fly fishing and hunting. Earlier in his career, he had purchased some land in Michigan to serve as his private fish and game preserve. He moved up there, opened a Ford dealership and pursued his passions. It seems that he was also one of the great fly tiers of all time. Known as “patterns” in the sport, Roxey’s Fox Squirrel Tail and Gray Squirrel Tail fly patterns have become famous worldwide among fly fisherman and are still replicated today.
Roxey was also proficient in another area as well. He fathered 14 children. He suffered a fatal heart attack the day after Christmas in 1947.
|NYY (2 yrs)||83||308||260||31||57||11||3||0||22||15||35||39||.219||.319||.285||.603|
|WSH (1 yr)||2||2||2||1||1||0||0||1||1||0||0||0||.500||.500||2.000||2.500|
|BUF (1 yr)||92||370||346||35||93||20||3||2||31||11||17||34||.269||.303||.361||.664|
Can you imagine a rookie coming out of the Yankee farm system today and starting 31 regular-season games in right field, 22 in center, 41 at short and 38 more at third base? Then imagine this same 22-year-old kid is able to hit .297 despite all the switching from position to position, wins the Rookie of the Year Award and even hits .286 with two home runs in his very first World Series. I’ve just described Tony Kubek’s very impressive rookie season for the 1957 Yankees. It is no wonder that this native of Milwaukee, who was born on this date in 1935, became one of Casey Stengel’s favorite players. Stengel, after all, was Baseball’s master platooner. In Kubek, he had a very smart, extremely tough kid who had a shotgun for an arm and a very good bat. The only thing he couldn’t do was hit a lot of home runs. Since Stengel wanted outfielders who could hit with power, he gave up playing Tony in the outfield and decided to make him the Yankees’ next shortstop.
That’s where Kubek and Bobby Richardson became the best Yankee double-play combination in my lifetime until Robinson Cano was introduced to Derek Jeter. Kubek was a three-time All Star and played a total of nine seasons and seven World Series in a Yankee uniform before a bad back hastened his entry into the broadcast booth, where he became one of baseball’s all-time great television analysts. Kubek was the Ford C Frick Award recipient in 2009, putting him the Baseball Hall of Fame for his broadcasting ability.
I learned a lot about today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant by reading this excellent article authored by Bill Nowlin for the the Society for American Baseball Research. It describes a young man who believed in the power of education and as a high school student in Philadelphia, was genuinely torn between going to college to pursue a career in medicine or playing professional baseball. In the end, the immediate opportunity to start in Connie Mack’s infield for his hometown Philadelphia A’s was just too compelling for John Knight to pass up.
He would become as much of a national sports sensation as one could back in 1905, before radio, television or the Internet were around, when he was the Opening Day nineteen-year-old starting shortstop for Philadelphia and was leading the league with a .400-plus batting average two weeks into the new season. He wasn’t able to maintain that torrid hitting pace and it would be his inability to hit big league pitching that landed him in the minor leagues, playing for the Baltimore Orioles, by 1908. That August, Knight’s contract was purchased by the New York Highlanders.
Knight realized his future in baseball would depend on his ability to become a better hitter and as he joined his new team, he was determined to do so. His efforts certainly bore some fruit. The Highlanders’ first year manager George Stallings made Knight his team’s starting shortstop in ’09 and he hit a career-high .236. In 1910, his offensive epiphany exploded into a .312 batting average and he followed that up by posting a career-high 62 RBIs in 1911. In just six years, he had transformed himself from an offensive liability into one of the game’s better hitting shortstops and Clark Griffith, the former New York manager who now skippered the Senators, noticed. He made it known that he was interested in acquiring Knight and kept poking the Highlander front office with trade offers for the infielder all during the 2011 season. New York finally bit during the 1912 spring training season when they accepted Washington catcher’s Gabby Street for Knight.
His short stay in our nation’s capitol was a disaster. Griffith started Knight at second base and it seemed as if he forgot how to hit and field, both at the same time. He averaged just .161 during the first half of that year and was then sold to a minor league club in New Jersey. He would end up getting a second chance with the Highlanders after he hit .270 for his Jersey City team during the first half of the 1913 season. He did OK with New York, starting at first base and averaging .236 for a very bad Highlander team but it wasn’t good enough to prevent him from getting sold back to the minors at the end of the year. He would remain a minor league player for the rest of his career, finally retiring for good in 1928, at the age of 42.
Knight’s early career start in the big leagues earned him the most appropriate nickname of “Schoolboy.” At just over six feet two inches tall, Knight was the tallest shortstop in the big leagues.
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|PHA (3 yrs)||202||776||717||63||144||26||4||6||61||11||38||157||.201||.244||.273||.517|
|WSH (1 yr)||32||116||93||10||15||2||1||0||9||4||16||25||.161||.284||.204||.489|
|BOS (1 yr)||98||382||360||31||78||9||3||2||29||8||19||53||.217||.256||.275||.531|
The Yankees had their own California Gold Rush in the 1920’s and ’30’s. New York’s favorite mine for the precious metal was the Pacific Coast League, which back then was the equivalent of Major League Baseball for the western United States. The team’s prospecting began with San Francisco native Tony Lazzeri who the Yanks acquired from his Salt Lake City PCL team in August of 1925. Four years later, they struck gold again when they purchased the contract of pitcher Lefty Gomez from the San Francisco Seals. Their most famous western find of course was the great Joe DiMaggio, also born in the City by the Bay and also acquired from the Seals in 1934. In between the Gomez and DiMaggio additions came Frankie “The Crow” Crosetti, who was born on today’s date in 1910 in San Francisco. He spent more seasons in a Yankee uniform than any other human being. These included ten seasons as a starting shortstop, seven more as back-up shortstop and then a twenty-season tenure as New York’s third base coach. Not a force with the bat, Frankie was a good base-runner, an excellent fielder and one of the game’s all-time great sign stealers. He was also a skilled bunter and turned the act of getting hit by a pitch into an art form. He became one of Joe McCarthy’s favorite players.
The Yankees of the 1920s were a rowdy bunch, led by the greatest partier and biggest kid in big league history, Babe Ruth. The Yankees of the thirties eventually became the team of Lou Gehrig and McCarthy. They were all business on the field and much more quiet and reserved off of it. Crosetti joined the Yankees as the club was in the process of transitioning from being Ruth’s team to being Gehrig’s. Picking a side was an easy choice for the Crow.
Crosetti was a quiet guy off the field. In his New York Daily News obituary, the writer describes an evening after a Yankee game on the road, at the team’s hotel. Crosetti, Lazzeri and DiMaggio all came down to the lobby at the same time and sat next to each other for an hour and twenty minutes and not one of the three players said a word to each other.
He finished his playing career with a .245 lifetime average. His on base percentage during that time was almost 100 points higher. He collected 1,546 hits and scored 1,006 runs. He was not a great World Series performer although in the 1936 Fall Classic he drove in six runs in New York’s four-game sweep of the Cubs and also hit his one and only postseason home run off of the great but past-his-prime, Dizzy Dean.
He was also a no-nonsense Yankee coach. Crosetti often threw Yankee batting practices and he demanded that every player work on a specific hitting skill when it was their turn in the cage. If someone started swinging for the fences, Yogi Berra remembered Crosetti would actually just walk off the mound and refuse to throw the guy any more pitches. In his book “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton claimed that Crosetti was useless as a coach and hardly ever spoke to or attempted to instruct Yankee players. Ellie Howard later refuted that charge in his own book, claiming Bouton loved everybody on the team when he was pitching good and then hated and blamed everybody when his career went bad. Crosetti retired as a Yankee coach in 1968 but returned to the coaching box for a short time with both the Pilots and Twins.
He died in 2002, at the age of 91. He owned 17 World Series rings. Actually, Crosetti had accumulated so many rings, the Yankees finally started giving him engraved shotguns instead. In all, Crosetti received 23 World Series paychecks as a Yankee player (9) and coach (14). They totaled $142,989.30.
The Crow shares his October 4th birthday with this long ago Yankee spitballer.