When WWII began, the Yankees were on top of the baseball world with a roster full of stars in the primes of their careers. After Pearl Harbor, when many of those stars volunteered or were required to change uniforms and serve their country, it helped even up the playing talent in Major League Baseball. As a result, the Yankees’ pennant chances immediately declined, and they could no longer be counted on to be the odds on favorite to make it to the World Series every year. When WWII ended and players like DiMaggio, Henrich, Rizzuto, Keller, and Chandler put back on the pinstripes, it wasn’t long before the Yankees were once again winning pennants and rings with regularity.
Yankee history however, certainly did not repeat itself when Vietnam became a full scale war in the mid sixties. First of all, the Yankee’s decline from the status of perennial contender had already occurred by 1965 and was caused not by a military draft but instead by advancing age, injuries and poor personnel decision-making. Guys like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Ellie Howard were in no danger of being drafted but they were also beyond their playing peaks and could no longer carry the fight to the enemy in the Bronx much less in Khe Sanh or Que. Mandatory military service did however, disrupt the development of several of the crown jewels of the Yankee farm system.
I can remember very clearly the hype surrounding the simultaneous demilitarization of today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant and Bobby Murcer and their mutual return to the Yankees’ 1969 spring training camp. Kenney had excited Yankee fans two seasons earlier, when he had hit .310 in a 20-game late-season call-up and homered in his very first big league at-bat.
After having a sub-five hundred record for three consecutive seasons from 1965 – ’67, and finishing in 6th, last and next-to-last place respectively, the 1968 Yankee team had climbed back into the first division with an 83-79 record. They had assembled a strong young rotation of starting pitchers and the hope was that with Kenney and Murcer back in the lineup, and divisional play commencing that season, the team’s aging offense would be rejuvenated and New York would once again be in the mix for postseason play. The Yankees’ 1969 Opening Day lineup featured Kenney starting in the outfield and Murcer starting at third. Both had two hits and New York beat the Senators 8-4 that day. Yankee fans couldn’t help thinking this young dynamic duo just might be the missing ingredient to the Bronx Bombers’ return to glory.
Murcer would end up having a decent season, hitting 26 home runs and leading the team with 82 RBIs. Kenney would not do nearly as well but did steal 25 bases and hit just enough (.257) to warrant another chance the following year. Defensively, neither player was showing Gold Glove potential at their original positions so Manager Ralph Houk switched them. In 1970, the Yankee fans were pleasantly surprised as the team won 93 games and finished a distant second to the mighty Orioles. Murcer again had a decent year at the plate as did another Yankee youngster, catcher Thurman Munson. Kenney, however, was horrible. He played in 140 games and hit just .193, which should tell you all you needed to know about the incredible thinness of that year’s Yankee roster. He would rebound to hit .262 in 1971 but finally lose his third base starting position to Celerino Sanchez.
By then, George Steinbrenner was in control of the franchise and his management team knew that the Yankees could not challenge the Orioles by starting punchless third basemen like Kenney and Sanchez. That’s why in November of 1972, the first-ever great Steinbrenner-era trade took place with the Yankees trading Kenney, Johnny Ellis, Charley Spikes and Rusty Torrez to the Indian’s for Cleveland’s slick-fielding Graig Nettles.
Kenney would appear in just five games for Cleveland during the 1973 season and never again participate in a big league ball game. He was born in St. Louis on June 30, 1945, six weeks before Japan surrendered, ending WWII. Other Yankees sharing Kenney’s birthday include this former Met hero, the shortstop who lost his starting position to Derek Jeter and this one-time Yankee reliever.
|NYY (5 yrs)||460||1575||1353||165||321||38||12||7||101||59||182||139||.237||.326||.299||.625|
|CLE (1 yr)||5||19||16||0||4||0||1||0||2||0||2||0||.250||.316||.375||.691|
Remember when Cody Ransom made his Yankee debut in August of the 2008 season? Joe Girardi inserted him in a blowout game versus Kansas City as a pinch-hitter for Jason Giambi and the native of Mesa, AZ hit a two-run-home run in his first ever Yankee at bat. Five days later, Girardi again pinch hit Ransom for Giambi, this time in the ninth inning of a game against Baltimore and Ransom hit a three run home run on his second-ever Yankee at bat. He remained hot right through the first half of September before cooling down quite a bit, and he provided a welcome respite for us Yankee fans during the emotional closing days of the old Yankee Stadium, as we sadly watched our favorite team miss the playoffs for the first time in fourteen seasons.
That strong showing convinced Girardi that Ransom could fill in for Alex Rodriguez at third base to begin the 2009 season, while A-Rod recovered from off-season hip surgery. I clearly remember hoping the experiment would work but it certainly did not. I’m not exactly sure why Ransom seemed like he had completely forgotten how to hit that April. It could have been nerves or perhaps American League pitchers had gotten wise to something, but whatever the reason, over the space of a single off season, this guy had become an automatic out. By April 24, he was hitting .180 and by May, he found himself back in Scranton. He did get called back up in late June of that season but he was not put on the Yankees’ postseason roster. Fortunately by October, A-Rod’s hip had completely healed and he put together that magical postseason run that led the Yankees to their 27th World Championship.
|SFG (4 yrs)||114||117||105||23||25||7||0||2||13||2||8||37||.238||.298||.362||.660|
|ARI (2 yrs)||38||125||111||14||26||9||0||6||20||1||10||39||.234||.320||.477||.797|
|NYY (2 yrs)||64||137||122||20||28||12||1||4||18||2||13||37||.230||.309||.443||.751|
|SDP (1 yr)||5||11||11||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5||.000||.000||.000||.000|
|CHC (1 yr)||57||182||158||21||32||10||1||9||20||0||22||57||.203||.304||.449||.753|
|PHI (1 yr)||22||46||42||6||8||0||0||2||5||1||3||11||.190||.244||.333||.578|
|HOU (1 yr)||19||46||35||9||8||2||0||1||3||0||9||9||.229||.413||.371||.784|
|MIL (1 yr)||64||194||168||18||33||7||0||6||26||0||23||79||.196||.293||.345||.638|
He may have been a member of perhaps the most famous Yankee team in history, but even the most diehard and long time Bronx Bomber fans have probably never heard of Julie Wera. He was a reserve third baseman on the 1927 Murderers’ Row team and his $2,400 salary made him the lowest paid player on that great squad’s roster. Wera was just 5 feet 8 inches tall and when 5 foot 6 inch Manager, Miller Huggins got his first look at his rookie third baseman during the Yankees’ 1927 spring training season, he took an immediate liking to him. In fact, according to a March, 1927 New York Times article, the usually tight-lipped Huggins told every sports writer in that camp that Vera was one of the most impressive rookie players he had seen come up from New York’s farm system in “quite a while.”
Julie did not live up to that hype. Huggins put the Winona Minnesota native into 38 games that season and Wera hit just .238 with one home run and eight RBIs. Even though it would have been impossible for the youngster to earn a starting berth n that great team, Wera’s lack of playing was not because of any lack of ability on his part. During that season he blew out his knee and was never again the same ballplayer Huggins had raved about that spring. But he remained on the Yankee roster the entire year and even though he didn’t get a chance to play in the 1927 World Series, he did get a ring and a full winning share. Then it was back to the minors for a couple seasons and another quick five-game cup-of-coffee visit with the Yankees in September of 1929. He spent the next eight years in the minors and by 1939, he ended up working in a butcher shop back home in Minnesota. That same summer, he was working behind the meat counter when a surprise visitor showed up at the shop. It was his old Yankee teammate Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse was in town getting medical tests at the Mayo Clinic and when he found out Wera worked nearby he decided to go say hello and ended up putting on a butcher’s apron and posing for pictures with his old friend. Hours later, Gehrig would receive the devastating news that he had ALS.
Wera’s name again showed up in the newspapers nine years later, when the New York Times reported on September 14, 1948 that he had killed himself by overdosing on sleeping pills. The article reported that a suicide note had been left explaining he was distraught over separating from his wife. It was also erroneously reported in that same article that Wera had made his big league and Yankee debut at the age of 16 and hit a home run off of the great Walter Johnson in his first game. It was later learned that the dead man had been posing as Vera in order to get a front-office position with a minor league baseball team in Oroville, California. He told his employers that his face had been disfigured in World War II and the resulting plastic surgery had changed his appearance.
The real Julie Wera actually lived until December of 1979, when he was felled by a fatal heart attack.
Wera shares his February 9th birthday with another much more successful Yankee third baseman, this one-time Yankee second base prospect and also with this former Yankee catching prospect. Today is also the 90th birthday of the man who took me to my very first Yankee game in 1961 and dozens more after that. Happy Birthday Uncle Jim Gentile.
Casey Stengel wanted to groom Andy Carey to replace Phil Rizzuto as the Yankees starting shortstop and he wanted Carey to become a spray hitter like “the Scooter.” The only problems with the “Ol Perfessor’s” plan were that Carey had always been a hitter who liked to pull the ball and he desperately wanted to play third base for New York. The Yankees had given Carey a $60,000 contract to sign with them after his senior year in high school. Andy’s Dad had a law practice in California and the plan had been for the son to go to law school and then join the father’s firm. But the sixty grand and Andy’s dream to start at the hot corner in Yankee Stadium forced a change in those plans. So from 1952, the year he made his debut in the big leagues, until 1960 when he was traded to Kansas City for outfielder Bob Cerv, Andy and Stengel were constantly battling each other over Carey’s role with the team. As a result, Carey never got the chance to become the great Yankee player he felt he could have become without Stengel’s interference. He may have been right but in trying to overrule a managing legend who ended up winning seven World Championships, Carey was fighting a losing battle. Carey’s best season in pinstripes was 1954, when he hit .302 and drove in a career-high 65 runs. His most famous moment in pinstripes was probably a play he didn’t make at third base. In the second inning of Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson hit a hot shot at Carey that veered off his glove toward shortstop Gil McDougald, who’s throw to first just nipped Robinson. Ironically, Carey was considered an outstanding defensive infielder. He also did one thing as well as any Yankee in history with the possible exception of Babe Ruth. Andy could eat. He was the only Yankee who would actually spend more than his entire day’s worth of meal allowance on a single meal. Born October 18, 1931 in Oakland, CA, he retired from baseball after the 1962 season.
|NYY (9 yrs)||688||2410||2130||288||567||82||28||47||259||23||200||267||.266||.332||.397||.729|
|KCA (2 yrs)||141||519||466||50||110||20||6||15||64||0||41||75||.236||.300||.401||.701|
|LAD (1 yr)||53||130||111||12||26||5||1||2||13||0||16||23||.234||.333||.351||.685|
|CHW (1 yr)||56||162||143||21||38||12||3||0||14||0||11||24||.266||.323||.392||.714|
Brandon Laird was born on September 11, 1987. He grew up in Cypress, CA and was drafted right out of high school in the 27th round by the Cleveland Indians in 2005 but decided not to sign. Instead he played ball at Cypress Community College and two years later, when the 27th round of the 2007 MLB draft rolled around again, the Yankees picked him. He has spent the past five years working his way up New York’s farm system, starting with their Tampa Rookie League affiliate and landing with Triple A Scranton during the second half of the 2010 season.
The kid plays third base and has shown he has decent power in the Minors. He hit 23 home runs for Charleston in 2008, 23 more with Trenton the following season and last year, he hit 16 for Scranton. He had an excellent 2011 spring training for Joe Girardi and in the process also made a positive impression on Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long. The Yankees brought Laird up last year in June for a mid season look-see. In his first big league game, he pinch-hit for Derek Jeter during a Yankee blow-out of Oakland and walked in his first at bat. Two innings later he came up again and singled in a run to get his first big league hit and RBI in his first official at bat in the Majors.
He was sent back down to Scranton at the end of July last year and never got another opportunity to play in pinstripes. He hit 15 home runs and drove in 77 in Triple A during the 2012 season but couldn’t get his average out of the .250’s. The Yankees put him on waivers and he was claimed by the Astros on September 1, 2012. Houston currently has him on their big league roster and he just recently hit his first big league home run as an Astro. Laird’s biggest obstacle to a career with the Yankees was A-Rod. There’s no way the kid could have supplanted the superstar at that position in the near future, especially since there are so many years left on A-Rod’s huge contract.
Laird’s older brother Gerald is a catcher with ten years of big league experience who currently plays for the Tigers. In December of 2009, the Laird brothers were involved in a bizarre fight during an NBA game between the Celtics and Suns at US Airways Arena in Phoenix.
|HOU (2 yrs)||34||89||83||7||18||4||0||4||12||0||4||26||.217||.270||.410||.679|
|NYY (1 yr)||11||25||21||3||4||0||0||0||1||0||3||4||.190||.292||.190||.482|
The Dodgers had jumped ahead of New York two games to none and only “Puff” and his well worn fielders glove prevented them from making it three straight wins. He made four great plays in that game. In the third inning, with New York ahead 2-1 and Bill Russell on first base with two outs, Nettles made a diving stop of Reggie Smith’s smash down the third base line and threw Smith out at first. In the fifth, with the tying run on second, Nettles again victimized Smith by knocking down his screaming line drive, preventing the run from scoring and holding the Dodger outfielder to an infield single. The very next hitter, Dodger first baseman, Steve Garvey then scorched another one at Nettles who backhanded it on his knees and forced the runner at second to end the inning. Yet again in the visitors’ half of the sixth, the Dodgers loaded the bases and with two outs, LA second baseman Davey Lopes sent another hard grounder in Nettles’ direction. After another great stop, he made another great throw, forcing the runner at second and ending another Dodger threat. As he ran toward the dugout, the Yankee Stadium crowd gave him a standing ovation. Nettles won Gold Gloves in 1977 and ’78.
Born in San Diego on this date in 1944, he was the AL Home Run Champion in 1976 and when he retired after the 1988 season he had 390 career home runs. 319 of those blasts were the most home runs ever by an AL third baseman. Great glove, plenty of power, a quick irreverent wit and that Game 3 performance sum up my memories of the Yankee’s All-Time great third baseman.
|NYY (11 yrs)||1535||6248||5519||750||1396||202||20||250||834||18||627||739||.253||.329||.433||.762|
|MIN (3 yrs)||121||348||304||40||68||12||3||12||34||1||39||67||.224||.314||.401||.715|
|SDP (3 yrs)||387||1380||1189||158||282||43||2||51||181||0||171||176||.237||.333||.405||.739|
|CLE (3 yrs)||465||1947||1704||224||426||59||2||71||218||12||220||183||.250||.338||.412||.750|
|ATL (1 yr)||112||201||177||16||37||8||1||5||33||1||22||25||.209||.294||.350||.644|
|MON (1 yr)||80||104||93||5||16||4||0||1||14||0||9||19||.172||.240||.247||.488|
When most baseball fans hear the name Robin Ventura, they visualize the 1993 incident during which Nolan Ryan held him in a headlock and threw punches at his head. It is easy to forget the fact that Ventura was one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball during his sixteen-year big league career that included a season and a half tenure wearing the pinstripes in 2002 and ’03. He won a total of six Gold Gloves, hit 294 career home runs and the only two third basemen who had more 90 RBI seasons than Ventura (8) were Hall of Famers, Mike Schmidt (11) and Eddie Matthews (10).
The Yankees signed him as a free agent in 2002 to take over the starting hot corner position after Scott Brosius retired. He was to be the interim guy at third while the Yankees were developing Drew Henson in their farm system. Ventura did a very good job that first season in the Bronx, belting 27 home runs, driving in 93 and making the AL All Star team. But by then he was 35 years old and when his offensive production began to slip in 2003 the Yankees decided to make a move. That move did not involve Henson, who was floundering in Columbus at the time, striking out with regularity and making tons of errors in the field. Instead, New York acquired Aaron Boone from the Reds and on the same day sent Ventura to the Dodgers for pitcher Scott Proctor and outfielder Bubba Crosby.
Boone of course became part of Yankee postseason history with his walk-off grand salami against the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. Ventura stuck around in Los Angeles for one more year and then retired. He was born on this date in 1967, in Santa Maria, CA. He shares his July 14th birthday with this original Yankee “Fireman” and this long-ago starting pitcher.
|CHW (10 yrs)||1254||5310||4542||658||1244||219||12||171||741||15||668||659||.274||.365||.440||.805|
|NYM (3 yrs)||444||1771||1513||219||394||81||1||77||265||6||237||301||.260||.360||.468||.828|
|LAD (2 yrs)||151||302||261||30||61||8||1||10||41||0||40||56||.234||.334||.387||.721|
|NYY (2 yrs)||230||888||748||99||186||30||0||36||135||3||130||163||.249||.359||.433||.792|