Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Dismal New York Yankee Years

TRIVIA QUESTION:   When Roger Maris was sent to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, who did the Yankees get in return for the man who hit 61 homers in 1961? 

Gil Hodges took over as manager of the Washington Senators in 1963, following two others who came before him that season. In five seasons with the Sens his clubs never finished near the .500 mark and lost 100 games in 1964. He did lead them to a sixth place finish in his final season, 1967. He of course went on to lead the 1969 New York Mets to their first World Series Title.

After losing the 1964 World Series no one expected the Bronx Bombers to begin a slide which was one of the worst in team history. After all, New York had finished in first place every year from 1960-1964. They won two World Championships and basically had the same players who made the "64 season a success. 

But Father Time was catching up to the Yanks. Over the season the team would employ 13 players who were at least 29 years old and only three of them were not at least 30. The average age of the team was 28. Aging starters were very much on the down side.

Elston Howard at 36 hit .233 with nine home runs, Mickey Mantle batted .255 with 19 homers and Roger Maris at .239 with eight home runs in only 46 games.  The subs were not counted on either. Johnny Blanchard, often a long ball hero, batted only 42 times and hit .147. The pitchers who were getting long in the tooth included Whitey Ford, who at 36 still managed 16 wins and 244 innings. Thirty year olds Steve Hamilton and Pete Ramos both had good years.

Other players on their final run were Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek and Hector Lopez. 

The good news however was the Yankees were a team in transition. It was just Yankee fans were not at all used to seeing their team "in transition." It would take a few years for them to develop and while they were making progress it was still a struggle.

The 1964 season saw manager Johnny Keane employ these youthful players; Joe Pepitone 24 with 19 homers, Tom Tresh 26 and 26 home runs to lead the team, Roger Repoz 24, Horace Clarke 25, Roy White 21, Bobby Murcer 19, Jake Gibbs 26, Mel Stottlemyre 23 (20 win season), Al Downing 24 and a bevy of guys in the 26-28 year old range. It was a wild mix of guys who would go on to have decent careers and guys who had a major league cup of coffee.

New York finished under .500 with 77 wins and fans were screaming for something to be done. Some of the faithful were saying wait until "the kids mature." They didn't mature fast enough. It got so bad, the following year they fell into last place. After a 4-16 start General Manager Ralph Houk fired Keane and went back into the dugout himself. Salvaging a 10th place finish in a 10 team league was not to Houk's liking. 

The last time the club finished in last place was when they were the New York Highlanders in 1912, losing 102 games the same year the Titanic went down.  They were led by Birdie Cree .332, Hippo Vaughn, Iron Davis and Russ Ford who lost 21 games. No relation to Whitey by the way.

Stottlemyre lost 20 in 1966, Mantle rebounded to hit 23 homers and bat .288 but was limited to 108 games as his faltering body was so banged up everyone wondered how long he could play center field. It would be the following year, 1967 when he was moved to first base permanently.  There he ended up playing 144 games while still giving the fans a thrill 22 times with home runs. The "66 season also saw the debut of pitcher Fritz Peterson into the starting rotation.  

Clarke and White became regulars and showed some promise but fans were not amused. Pepitone led the team in home runs with 31 and RBI with 83. It's hard to drive in big runs when there is nobody getting on base in front of you. 

When 1967 rolled around White fell off while Clarke began to shine. Pepitone was on his way out failing to hit even close to 20 homers and batting only .251. Whitey Ford was limited to seven starts and a 2-4 record and the team was again a mix of undeveloped youth and aging utility players.  Elston Howard was shipped off to the hated Red Sox. Houk's ninth place finish was enough to keep him in the manager's chair in 1968.

More of the same but the team improved slightly in 1968 finishing fifth with an 82-80 record. This was despite the fact three regular starting players batted no better than .229 with Tresh well below the Mendoza line at .195.  Stottlemyre really rebounded winning 21 games and Stan Bahnsen picked up 17. To show what kind of team this was, the highlight of the year had to be Rocky Colavito, the long-time and former Detroit and Cleveland slugger, coming in during one game to pitch for New York. In two and two-thirds innings the Rock faced 11 batters, walked two of them, struck out one, gave up one hit and picked up the win! Now that's bizarre.

It also marked the quiet end to Mantle's career. The Mick put on his spikes for a final time. It was supposed to be Bobby Murcer's time, but Murcer went to right while a bizarre cache of players patrolled center including Ron Woods and Jim Lyttle.  
The team closed out the decade back in fifth place at 80-81 with Houk still at the helm. Pepitone banged 27 homers, White hit .290 while Stottlemyre again won 20 and they debuted a young catcher by the name of Thurman Munson. It seemed New York was back on track. It was true. They started the era of the 70's by finishing in second place in the new AL East and the track was set to get them going again. Fans? They were relieved.

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