You’ve probably never heard of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant but Joe Buzas owns an off-the-field record no Yankee past or present will ever break. He played just a half-season in pinstripes in 1945, from April till the end of June. He was New York’s Opening Day starting shortstop that season and got off to a fast start, driving in six runs in his first seven big league games. But those would prove to be the only RBIs he would get as a Yankee and as a big leaguer. He would end up playing behind Frankie Crosetti, appearing in just 34 games and hitting .264 that year, before blowing out his shoulder, an injury that ruined his future as a player.
Buzas had attended Bucknell University where, in addition to playing baseball, basketball and football plus joining the boxing team, he evidently also found time to take some business and management classes. After his playing career was over, this native of Lewisburg, PA coached and managed in the minor leagues for ten years and then purchased a minor league baseball team. During the next four decades he would buy and sell 82 more minor league franchises, becoming a multi-millionaire in the process.
The New York Yankees had won the 1976 AL Pennant but had then been swept by the Reds in that year’s Fall Classic. After watching my favorite team miss the postseason for eleven straight years, I for one was satisfied with that season’s results and I remember looking forward to the ’77 season with lots of positive anticipation. I’ll tell you who wasn’t satisfied though, George Steinbrenner. The Boss was OK with Pennants but what he really wanted was rings and after he watched Cincinnati’s lineup of all stars undress his outmatched ball club in that ’76 Series, the Yankee owner was determined to field players at every position who could match up with their counterparts on the Big Red Machine.
Steinbrenner’s goal was not that far-fetched. The Yankees already had seven bonafide all stars in their ’76 lineup in Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss, Wille Randolph, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, Lou Piniella and Roy White. His signing of Reggie Jackson that offseason made it eight. The only missing link was at shortstop. Fred “Chicken” Stanley had held down that position the previous season and performed well. He was more than adequate defensively but Steinbrenner would point to his .239 average during the 1976 season and insist the Yankees couldn’t win a championship with Stanley at shortstop.
New York was actively shopping around for an all star replacement for Chicken. The best one available in that year’s free agent pool was the Oakland A’s veteran, Bert Campaneris. But Campy was already 34 years old at the time and Yankee GM Gabe Paul was convinced he was on the downside of his brilliant career. Instead, Paul convinced Steinbrenner to try and sign Bobby Grich, the Baltimore second baseman who also became a free agent after the ’76 season. Paul was certain that Grich could be converted into a shortstop and he and the Boss went after the about-to-be ex-Oriole hard. But Grich, a native of California chose the Angels instead. Out of free agent options and still determined that Stanley was not the solution, Steinbrenner and Yankee manager Billy Martin agreed that they would give the franchise’s top minor league shortstop every chance to win the starter’s job during New York’s 1977 spring training season.
At the time, I was well aware of Mickey Klutts’ impressive numbers at the minor league level. Back then, the Syracuse Chiefs were the Yankee’s triple A farm team. I had a cousin living in Syracuse who was a huge Yankee fan, who would follow the Chiefs closely and let me know if there were any especially promising prospects on their way to the Bronx. That cousin was crazy about Klutts. He was a right-handed hitter who was just 21 years-old in 1976 and he had hit 24 home runs for the Chiefs that season and driven in 80 in just 119 games. The Yankees had brought him up to the parent club for a short time that same year and Billy Martin took a liking to the kid’s attitude. Since his first name was Mickey, he had good power and he was starting out as a shortstop, I couldn’t help hoping Klutts would have even more in common with another Yankee named “Mickey” at the end of his career as he did starting out.
Unfortunately for Klutts, he jammed his wrist in his first ’77 spring training game. Day’s later, he was diagnosed with a broken thumb. An impatient Steinbrenner was in no mood to wait around for his prospect’s injury to heel. He ordered Paul to trade for White Sox shortstop, Bucky Dent. As soon as Dent became a Yankee, Klutts’ future with the team became clouded. After his hand recovered, he went back to Syracuse and put together a solid season. That August, he returned to the big league roster. During the final game of the ’77 season, Klutts hit a two-run home run against the Tigers. That would be the only home run he would hit while wearing the pinstripes.
The Yankees and Steinbrenner got their ring at the end of that ’77 season with Dent starting at shortstop. The following June, Mickey Klutts was traded to the A’s for outfielder Gary Thomasson. He would spend the next four years as a utility infielder and outfielder with Oakland and then play one more season with Toronto before his big league career was officially over. Mickey shares his birthday with another former Yankee shortstop prospect.
|OAK (4 yrs)||169||510||473||42||112||24||1||10||50||1||31||88||.237||.283||.355||.638|
|NYY (3 yrs)||8||24||20||4||6||2||0||1||4||0||2||2||.300||.417||.550||.967|
|TOR (1 yr)||22||45||43||3||11||0||0||3||5||0||1||11||.256||.289||.465||.754|
Derek Jeter will be the last Yankee shortstop to wear uniform number 2 but the first one to do so is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant. Mark Koenig started at short for New York’s legendary Murderers’ Row team of 1927 and batted second, after leadoff man Earle Combs and right before the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth. That hallowed team became the first in AL history to remain in first place the entire season, set a regular season record with 110 victories and become the first junior circuit squad to sweep an NL opponent (the Pirates) in a World Series. Koenig hit .285 for that Yankee team and scored 99 runs. He was a very good fielder and was also universally liked and respected by his teammates.
The Yankees became this San Francisco native’s first big league club in 1925, when he was just 20-years old. He won the starting job at short the following season and held it until 1929, when he was replaced by the bold and brash Leo Durocher. In May of the following season, he was traded to the Tigers, but when he couldn’t get his average above the .250s, Detroit sold his contract to a Pacific Coast League team. After 89 games in the minors, he was hitting .335 and caught the attention of the Cubs who were in a battle for the 1932 NL Pennant. He was brought to the Windy City that August and played outstanding baseball for 2 months, hitting a robust .353 to help Chicago hold off the Pirates and earn the right to face the Yankees in the ’32 World Series.
When his former Yankee teammates learned that Koenig’s new Chicago’ teammates had not voted him a full share of the team’s World Series prize money, they exhibited their resentment with a constant and fierce series-long razzing targeting the entire Cubs’ team, except Koenig of course. That razzing was nearing the boil-over point by Game 3, when Babe Ruth came to the plate in the fifth inning with the score tied 4-4 to face Cub pitcher Charley Root. Root and the entire Cub bench were screaming obscenities at the Bambino, who was responding in kind. When Root supposedly quick pitched a second strike, legend has it that Ruth pointed to center and hit Root’s next pitch into the Wrigley Field bleachers in the general direction of where he had pointed.
The Cubs brought Koenig back for the ’33 season and then traded him to the Phillies, who in turn dealt him to the Reds. Still just 29 years old, Koenig became Cincinnati’s starting third baseman in 1934 and had a strong season. He then came back to New York in 1935, this time with the cross town Giants where he finished out his playing career in 1936. Koenig’s lifetime average for his dozen years as a big leaguer was a respectable .279 and he collected 1,190 hits. He would live until 1993 and become the oldest surviving starter from that 1927 Yankee team and missing by a couple of seasons, the beginning of the career of the last Yankee shortstop who will ever wear Koenig’s number.
|NYY (6 yrs)||567||2428||2233||348||636||103||35||15||244||11||134||103||.285||.327||.382||.710|
|NYG (2 yrs)||149||487||454||47||128||16||0||4||44||0||21||22||.282||.315||.344||.659|
|CHC (2 yrs)||113||345||320||47||98||17||2||6||36||5||18||14||.306||.345||.428||.773|
|DET (2 yrs)||182||682||631||70||156||33||6||2||55||10||34||27||.247||.288||.328||.616|
|CIN (1 yr)||151||661||633||60||172||26||6||1||67||5||15||24||.272||.289||.336||.625|
Joe Girardi has been one of Eduardo Nunez’s biggest fans and boosters since the young Dominican infielder made his big league and Yankee debut in August of 2010. Several of the team’s talent developers have also predicted that Nunez would one day succeed his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter as Yankee shortstop. Members of the Yankee front-office have been quoted as labeling this kid as untouchable. I’m not that optimistic about this guy.
Don’t get me wrong, he has potential. I just have not seen strong enough evidence that he’s anywhere near ready to take over Jeter’s position anytime soon. He was a valuable utility infielder for Girardi in 2011, appearing in 112 games that season and averaging .265 as a fill-in for Jeter and A-Rod who both were forced into long absences with injuries. But his defensive lapses at both short and third were often glaring and far too frequent for a big league infielder.
It was those same defensive shortcomings in several early-season games this season that finally forced Girardi to OK Nunez’s return to Triple A. I do think he has the offensive skills necessary to play regularly at the big league level but he lacks the power necessary to hold down the Yankees’ DH spot. Making Nunez’s return to the Bronx even more difficult is the fact that he can’t focus his time in the minors mastering one infield spot. With A-Rod, Jeter and Robbie Cano pretty firmly ensconced at their respective positions for the next few years, Nunez must learn to play all three adequately.
When I first started following Yankee baseball in 1960, the stolen base was something other teams did but not my Bronx Bombers. The Yankees had built and sustained a dynastic offense on slugging power and in the early ’60’s if somebody stole a base who was wearing a pinstriped uniform, it was either by accident or Mickey Mantle’s legs were feeling particularly strong that day. Case in point, in 1961, the Yankees led all of baseball with 240 home runs and also trailed all of baseball with just 28 stolen bases.
It was the Chicago White Sox at the time, who lived and breathed by a small ball attack that depended on stolen bases to spark their offense it was their great shortstop, Luis Aparicio, who provided the lighter fluid. Little Louie had made his Windy City debut in 1956 and proceeded to win nine straight AL stolen base crowns. That’s why it was pretty shocking when today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant stopped Aparicio’s streak in 1965, by stealing 51 bases for the A’s in just his second big league season.
If you ask Jim Kaat, the one-time Yankee pitcher and game announcer, who Campaneris reminded him of, it might have been Mantle instead of Aparicio. “Kitty” was the first big league pitcher to face the 22-year-old Cuban in his rookie season of 1964 and Campy hit Kaat’s first pitch to him for a home run. He then homered off Kaat again in the same game. This incredibly talented shortstop brought an immediate element of excitement to a Kansas City team that had played horrible baseball for a very long time and gradually, he helped mold that ball club into a force that would win three consecutive World Championships. He would capture six AL stolen base titles in his first eight seasons. Then, just to prove he wasn’t a one-dimensional player, he decided to try and hit home runs during the 1970 season and hit 22 of them.
Campy’s career with the A’s ended after the 1976 season. The bitter Oakland owner Charley Finley had thrown up his hands at free agency and was cashing in his chips by unloading all of the team’s best players. Campaneris was one of the few A’s stars left from the three straight world championship teams to make it to free agency before being traded. He more than doubled his last A’s salary when he signed with Texas. But he was 35 years-old at the time and his best days were behind him. Over the next five seasons, he evolved into a utility infielder and pinch-runner first with the Rangers and then with the Angels. It looked as if his big league playing days were over for good when the Angels let him go and he played the 1982 season in Mexico.
The 1982 Yankee season had been a nightmare. The team finished in fifth place, below five-hundred and had gone through three managers. George Steinbrenner brought Billy Martin back to manage the 1983 club. When the Boss signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent after the 1976 season, Martin had wanted him to sign Campaneris instead. Campy contacted the Yankees about coming to spring training because he had heard they had a shortage of infielders. He was invited to camp and got a break when Roy Smalley went down with appendicitis. Though he didn’t go north with the team he did accept a roster spot with Columbus instead and was called up to the Bronx in early May. He ended up doing a better-than-decent job as Martin’s key infield reserve. He hit .322 in 60 games of action and even stole 6 bases, leaving him with a career total of 649. It was a fitting end to an outstanding 19-year career.
|OAK (13 yrs)||1795||7895||7180||983||1882||270||70||70||529||566||504||933||.262||.314||.348||.662|
|TEX (3 yrs)||256||977||830||109||191||24||10||6||63||50||68||125||.230||.291||.305||.595|
|CAL (3 yrs)||217||598||531||70||130||14||6||3||43||27||38||75||.245||.296||.311||.607|
|NYY (1 yr)||60||155||143||19||46||5||0||0||11||6||8||9||.322||.355||.357||.712|
He was the first starting shortstop in New York Yankee team history. Peckinpaugh won the job in 1913, the same year the New York Highlanders officially became the New York Yankees. He kept that position for the next eight seasons, long enough to become the first Yankee starting shortstop to play in the old Yankee Stadium and also to play for New York in a World Series. He was a brilliant fielder, an excellent base runner and a fierce and volatile competitor. In 1914, when team skipper Frank Chance was fired with 20-games left in the regular season, New York made Peckinpaugh player/manager and the Yanks finished the season 10-10 under his stewardship. His lifetime totals in Pinstripes included 1,170 hits, over 1,200 games played, a .257 batting average and 143 stolen bases.
In December of 1921, Roger was part a seven player swap with the Red Sox that included Boston’s starting shortstop, Everett Scott. By 1925, Peckinpaugh had been traded to Washington, where he hit .294 and was named AL MVP for leading the Senators to the World Series. But in that year’s Fall Classic against the Pirates, Peckinpaugh committed the unbelievable total of eight errors, which remains a Series record, today. He ended his playing career in 1927 and re-started his managing career the following season as skipper of the Indians. He managed for seven seasons and then took a job in Cleveland’s front office. Roger died in 1977, at the age of 86.
Since today’s post is about the first great shortstop in pinstripe history, let’s take a look at my list of the five greatest Yankee shortstops ever:
Number 1 – Derek Jeter: Five rings, eight pennants, seventeen postseasons, 3,000 hits. Simply the best.
Number 2 – Phil Rizzuto: Ted Williams described Scooter as one of the greatest players of his era. Nine pennants, seven rings, an MVP and Hall-of-Famer.
Number 3 – Frankie Crosetti: The starting shortstop on 6 World Championship teams. A total of nine pennants and eight rings as a player. Reached 1,500 hits and 1,000 runs during his career.
Number 4 – Peckinpaugh
Number 5 – Tony Kubek: His three rings, seven pennants and 1,109 hits during a brief nine-year career easily beats out Bucky Dent for the final spot.
Peckinpaugh’s Yankee regular season and career playing stats:
|NYY (9 yrs)||1219||5263||4555||670||1170||174||53||36||427||143||508||457||.257||.334||.342||.676|
|WSH (5 yrs)||639||2566||2180||293||583||72||18||11||261||46||268||146||.267||.349||.332||.681|
|CLE (3 yrs)||86||308||281||20||59||4||1||1||28||14||17||61||.210||.258||.242||.500|
|CHW (1 yr)||68||246||217||23||64||6||3||0||23||2||21||6||.295||.360||.350||.710|
Peckinpaugh’s managerial stats:
The 1965 season was a “year of discovery” for the Yankee front office and Yankee fans but what they discovered wasn’t pretty. They went into that season thinking the defending AL Champion Bronx Bombers had everything in place on-the-field to win the team’s sixth straight pennant and ended the year realizing their cupboard was bare.
The problems started at the top with GM Ralph Houk. He had proved himself as a solid field manager but he was no George Weiss when it came to general managing. The team’s first-year field skipper, Johnny Keane found out that the veteran Yankee roster did not respond to his “disciplined” approach in the dugout or in the clubhouse. Whitey Ford was near the end of the line and the futures of one-time young stud pitchers Jim Bouton and Al Downing did not look so bright anymore. At first base, an immature Joe Pepitone was proving he’d never be a player the team could depend upon. Behind the plate, Elston Howard was breaking down physically. In the outfield, both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris had awful seasons in ’65. And most shocking of all, the middle of New York’s infield, for decades the core of Yankee dynasty teams, was about to disappear entirely.
Shortstop Tony Kubek had gone to the Mayo Clinic to try and find out the true source of the excruciating pain he constantly felt in his shoulder. The diagnosis was not good. It was a vertebrae problem at the base of Kubek’s neck that could not be resolved. The doctors recommended complete rest and the 29-year-old Kubek went one step beyond and completely retired from the game. His second base partner, Bobby Richardson, also just 29-years-old, was also ready to hang up his cleats after the ’65 season but agreed to play one more year to help break in his own and Kubek’s successors.
Finding Kubek’s successor would prove to be Houk’s most pressing and difficult challenge. The Yankees backup shortstop was actually more of a natural second baseman by the name of Phil Linz. Linz had gained fame for his harmonica playing on the Yankee team bus during the 1964 season. The guy wore glasses and looked almost professorial but he was actually a pretty wild party animal who hung around with the even crazier Pepitone. Linz also couldn’t hit at all.
Houk liked the Yankee’s top minor league shortstop at the time, a kid from Oklahoma named Bobby Murcer, but the GM knew he couldn’t depend on a rookie, so he looked around the big leagues to find out what veteran shortstops were available. Not many were. The one Houk settled on had been the NL Gold Glove winner at the position in 1964, with the Phillies. His name was Ruben Amaro. That ’64 season in Philadelphia had been the highlight of Amaro’s career but the truth was his lifetime average (.241) was five points lower than Linz’s at the time. Houk settled on Amaro because he was a better defensive player than Linz and a much more mature individual as well. When Philadelphia was willing to accept Linz in exchange for Amaro, Houk made the trade.
The 1966 season turned out to be one of the all-time worst years in Yankee franchise history. Amaro’s contribution to that season pretty much ended after just four games. In the first inning of the Yankee’s fifth game of the season versus Baltimore, the Orioles’ Curt Blefary hit a popup off of Al Downing into short left field. Amaro went back and Yankee left-fielder Tom Tresh charged in. The collision tore all the ligaments in the shortstop’s left knee and he wouldn’t play his next Yankee game until September 6th. By then the Yankee record was 62-80 and the team would finish the year in the AL basement.
Amaro came back to play 123 games at short for New York in 1967. Just as Houk expected, he showed a pretty good glove, was a positive influence in the rapidly changing Yankee clubhouse but no help offensively to a lineup that was desperate for assistance. Amaro had hit just .223 and scored only 31 runs. Murcer had already proven he was not a shortstop and Houk’s 1966 experiment to play third baseman Clete Boyer at short had failed as well. Instead Houk went searching for a trade. He tried to get Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio but fell short in both pursuits. All he could come up with was a guy named Gene Michael who, ironically would turn out to be a much better evaluator of player talent for the New York Yankees than Ralph Houk would ever be. Amaro ended up getting sold to the Angels.
Ruben is also the father of the very talented GM of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ruben Amaro Jr. The elder Amaro shares his January 6th birthday with this former Yankee pitcher who played his best ball for the Cincinnati Reds, this other former Yankee pitcher who played his best ball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, this long-ago Highlander starting pitcher and this former reliever.
|PHI (6 yrs)||668||1790||1571||165||379||60||12||7||135||8||166||209||.241||.315||.308||.623|
|NYY (3 yrs)||191||543||481||34||103||13||0||1||20||3||52||57||.214||.292||.247||.540|
|STL (1 yr)||40||82||76||8||17||2||1||0||0||0||5||8||.224||.272||.276||.548|
|CAL (1 yr)||41||36||27||4||6||0||0||0||1||0||4||6||.222||.323||.222||.545|