Ten Historical Yankees Oddities-Part I
Yankees history can be told through great players and World Series victories, but the history of the Yankees also strange, offbeat and occasionally even funny. These ten oddities, five in Part I and five later in Part II, are inevitably highly subjective and capture some of the stranger and occasionally forgotten moments or events in Yankees history. Some occurred on the field and were just very unusual in the baseball sense while some occurred off the field and are downright weird.
1) On January 29, 1915 two men both with the military rank of colonel bought the Yankees. One was Jacob Ruppert. The other had the extraordinary name of Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston. In baseball’s long history there may never have been a more unusual name. If Groucho Marx had given that name to stuffy aristocrat in a movie, it would not have been believable. Huston is a relatively unremarkable last name, but Tillinghast is a fantastic sounding first name that I have never encountered elsewhere. It could easily be shortened to Till or even Tillie, so it is somewhat functional. Tillinghast sounds vaguely German or English, which only makes the middle name even stranger. I barely passed high school French, so you should probably look this up, but L’Hommedieu translates as essentially “God Son.” No pressure there. No wonder Huston mostly went by Cap.
2) Game seven of the 1960 World Series, despite the wrong team winning, was one of the most exciting games in World Series history. Most baseball fans know of Bill Mazeroski’s walk off home run to give the Pirates a 10-9 win. Devoted Yankees fans probably remember the bad hop that turned an almost sure double play grounder to Tony Kubek into an injury to Kubek and a five run Pirates inning that turned what had been a 7-4 Yankees lead into a 9-7 lead for the Pirates going into the ninth. The Yankees rallied in the top of the ninth and were down 9-8 with runners on the corners and Yogi Berra at the plate. Berra hit a shot down the first base line but Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson fielded it cleanly. This is where the play got weird. Nelson decided to get the easy out first. This was smart because the ball was hit so hard that the runner on first was hung up about twenty feet off the bag, so could be tagged out for the final out. That runner was Mickey Mantle. Mantle froze, faked Nelson to the outfield side and dove safely back to first. That move allowed the tying run to score. The play is forgotten because of what happened in the bottom of the inning, but it was an extraordinary bit of smart baserunning by one of the greatest players in the game’s history. If the Yankees win that game, we would still be talking about that play.
3) In spring training of 1973 Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped wives and family. This incident is well known, but cannot be left off of any list of strange pieces of Yankees history. It was the 1970s and society, as it usually is, was in a period of transition. Nonetheless, this made a big impact on the still relatively conservative world of baseball and, even for the time, was extremely unconventional. Swingers, divorce, communes and other forms of social experimentation were not so uncommon during those years, but a transaction as straightforward as this, that felt like the Vows and Sports sections of the New York Times got drunk and wrote a story together, remains pretty rare in baseball or anywhere else.
4) In the late 1970s, the Yankees had one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game. Ron Guidry’s 1978 season is still probably the best by any Yankees pitcher. For a fleeting moment, the Yankees added another lefty that was just as electrifying as Guidry. On June 15, 1976 the Yankees bought Vida Blue from the A’s for $1.5 million. At the time of the deal, Blue was a 26 year old who had averaged 18 wins over 180 strikeouts and a 2.80 ERA over the previous five seasons. Blue was a three time World Series winner who was the second best left-handed pitcher in the big leagues, behind only Steve Carlton. It is impossible to know what the rest of the decade would have looked like with Vida in pinstripes, but Blue remained a top notch pitcher through 1978. In 1978, he started the All-Star game for the National League, as he was with the Giants by then, and finished third in the Cy Young balloting. The same day as the A’s sold Blue to the Yankees, they sold Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox. These moves would have made both AL East powerhouses better, but there was no room on the Red Sox, who were loaded at first base, DH and the outfield, for Rudi. Fingers would have helped Boston, but not nearly as much as Blue would have helped the Yankees. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn foolishly vetoed the sales as not being in the interest in baseball, so instead of getting cash for the three stars, the A’s lost Rudi and Fingers to pre-compensation free agency and got seven scrubs from the Giants in exchange for Blue in March of 1978.
5) Since we are in the late 1970s, there is one more wonderful oddity from that era. The 1978 Yankees engineered the greatest comeback of the four division era, overcoming a 14.5 game deficit to catch the Red Sox and then beat them in a one-game playoff. They then beat the Royals in the ALCS and, after dropping the first two games of the World Series, beat the Dodgers in the next four games to become champions. That 1978 team had some great players. The regular outfield consisted of Mickey Rivers in centerfield with Roy White, Reggie Jackson and Lou Piniella rotating between the two corners and DH, but none of them were on the field when the Yankees won that championship. The Yankees took an early lead in game six of the World Serie and held on to win 7-2. By the end of the game manager Bob Lemon had made defensive substitutions in the entire outfield, so when the final out was made the Yankees outfield was from left to right Gary Thomasson, Paul Blair and Jay Johnstone. This is extraordinary for several reasons. First, no team today would set up a World Series roster with seven outfielders like the Yankees did. Second, while Paul Blair was a legitimately great defensive centerfielder, the other two were not. Johnstone had a twenty year career in the big leagues as a league average outfielder most remembered for his offbeat personality. Thomasson was a pretty forgettable player who never quite made it in the big leagues. He later got paid a lot to play in Japan where his last name became Japanese slang for something that is well taken care of but useless. Thomasson had begun his career with the Giants, but in spring of 1978 was part of the package of players sent to the A’s for, you guessed it, Vida Blue.