Cooperstown Confidential - Regular Season Edition - 05/06/2004
Friday Night Massacre
Most Yankee fans fondly recall the “Boston Massacre,” that memorable four-game sweep of the rival Red Sox in September of 1978, which helped New York overcome a 14-game deficit in winning the American League East. Fewer fans likely remember another Massacre—the “Friday Night Massacre.” It took place 30 years ago (and had nothing to do with the Red Sox), when the Yankees traded away nearly half of their pitching staff in a stunning and controversial deal.
On Friday night, April 26, 1974, the Yankees edged the Rangers, 4-3, to remain within a half-game of first place in the AL East. In the meantime, the Yankee braintrust put the finishing touches on a monster seven-player deal with the Indians. The Pinstripers surrendered four pitchers—right-handers Fred Beene, Tom “Blutto” Buskey and Steve Kline, and left-hander Fritz Peterson—or 40 per cent of their 10-man staff. In exchange, the Yankees received pitchers Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw and a young first baseman named Chris Chambliss.
The trade shocked both Yankee players and fans. “I can’t believe this trade,” star outfielder Bobby Murcer told The Sporting News while expressing his belief that the front office had lost confidence in the team’s ability to win. “You don’t trade four pitchers,” longtime ace Mel Stottlemyre informed Yankee beat writer Phil Pepe. “You just don’t.” Stottlemyre’s batterymate, the often gruff Thurman Munson, offered an even more candid assessment. “They’ve got to be kidding,” said a not-so-diplomatic Munson. Yankee fans seemed to agree with the assessment of the team’s veteran players. Hordes of Yankee followers flooded the team’s switchboard with calls of complaint. And when Chambliss, Tidrow, and Upshaw made their first appearances at Yankee Stadium, they received a barrage of boos from the rush-to-judgment contingent in the Bronx.
The media also joined in the criticism—and the questioning. Why did the Yankees give up so many pitchers in one trade, especially someone like Buskey, who had been named the team’s outstanding rookie during the spring? Why did they trade for a first baseman when they really needed a second baseman? (Much like the current-day Yankees, the 1974 version of the Pinstripers struggled to find a pivotman. They started the season with an aging Horace Clarke before making trades for mediocrities Sandy Alomar and Fernando Gonzalez.) What in the world was the front office thinking in making such an unbalanced deal? One Cleveland writer suggested the Indians should send the Yankees a thank-you note for their generous gift of a quartet of pitchers. “Make sure you thank them for me, too,” declared ex-Yankee Fritz Peterson in an interview with Cleveland beat writer Russell Schneider.
The barbs didn’t faze Yankee president Gabe Paul, the architect of the blockbuster trade and the man who had created a “Cleveland Connection” with his onetime organization, bringing in former Indians like Sam McDowell, Graig Nettles, Duke Sims, and Walt “No-Neck” Williams over the last two years. Paul maintained that the deal conformed to his general philosophy on making trades. “The way to evaluate a deal is to sit down and look at your club before a deal, and then look at it after a deal,” Paul explained to The Sporting News. “If the club looks better after the deal, go ahead and make it. I think we’re a better club with Chambliss…” Paul clearly held a high opinion of Chambliss, whom Yankee pitcher Ken Wright had praised only 10 days earlier by hinting that he would win a batting title. “I think we got an outstanding first baseman in Chambliss,” Paul said proudly. “[He’s] a fellow who could be our first baseman for 10 years.”
Chambliss didn’t last 10 seasons in Pinstripes, but that was about the only prediction from Paul that proved to be an exaggeration. After flailing away in his first Yankee go-round, hitting only .243 with a mere six home runs in 400 at-bats, Chambliss began to contribute in 1975, hitting .304 and playing an excellent first base. His lack of power (nine home runs) and plate patience (29 walks) remained a concern, but he improved his power output in 1976, accumulating 17 home runs and 96 RBIs. All in all, Chambliss solidified the Yankees at first base, which had become a revolving door for one-dimensional players like Mike Hegan (good field, not much hit), Ron Blomberg (good hit, no field, and always injured), and Bill Sudakis (no field, occasional power).
Even if he did little else, Chambliss forged himself a piece of pinstriped history in 1976, when the Yankees advanced to the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons. In the fifth and final game of a nip-and-tuck American League Championship Series against the Royals, Chambliss deposited a dramatic home run over the right-field wall, victimizing Kansas City relief ace Mark Littell and sealing a New York pennant for the first time since 1964. Providing a calming influence in a turbulent clubhouse, Chambliss then played a key role in helping the Yankees win the World Series in both 1977 and ’78. In the 1978 playoffs against Kansas City, Chambliss racked up six hits in 15 at-bats, giving him an even .400 batting average vs. the tormented Royals.
Although Chambliss was the headline name acquired in the Friday Night Massacre, another one of the new Yankees also made his share of contributions. Right-hander Dick Tidrow played a crucial—though more subtle—function in the Yankees’ World Championship run. One of the most versatile pitchers of his era, Tidrow performed admirably in any role, ranging from long relief to starting to late-inning fireman. Comfortably in almost any game situation, Tidrow compiled over 330 combined innings during the 1977 and ’78 seasons, winning 18 games and saving five others. In contrast to the foursome of pitchers surrendered to Cleveland—all of whom, except for relief ace, Buskey had seen their best major league days—Tidrow and Chambliss helped the Yankees become better before the arrival of final championship pieces like Reggie Jackson. They then assumed important positions as role players for the re-tooled World Champion Yankees of the late 1970s. Yeah, it wasn’t a bad trade by Gabe Paul after all.
The Nickname Game
Shortly after his trade to the Yankees, Dick Tidrow acquired one of the best nicknames of the 1970s. His teammates started calling him “Dirt” because of his overzealous involvement in a rather strange pre-game ritual. As former Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle explains in John Skipper’s excellent book, Baseball Nicknames, Tidrow would join him and other Yankee teammates in a game called “flip.” “It’s usually played behind home plate near the screen, while the other team is taking batting practice,” Lyle explained to Skipper. “You bat your ball with your glove over to one of the other guys. Tidrow would be diving after balls getting his uniform filthy. We called him ‘Mr. Dirt’ after the guy in the Mobil commercials [which were popular in the 1970s] and it stuck with him.” Tidrow accentuated the “Dirt” image by letting his hair and sideburns grow long while sporting a bushy mustache. It’s just too bad that he never had a chance to play alongside journeyman outfielder Jim Dwyer, who was known as “Pigpen.”
So what has been the impact of injuries to Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon on a Red Sox team that started so well before embarking on a recent losing streak? The Sox have given up a few degrees defensively with Kevin Millar playing out of position in right and Mark Bellhorn taking over at second (with the rangier Pokey Reese shifting to shortstop), but the effect to their offense did not really start to show until the losing streak, which saw them score only 10 runs in a span of four games. At least one of the replacements has given them a boost offensively. Showing the patience that started with his tutelage in the Oakland organization, Bellhorn has taken an early hold on the American League walks race… The real impact of the injuries to Garciaparra and Nixon has been on the first-base position, where the Sox have used Millar, David McCarty, Brian Daubach, and David Ortiz (who splits his time between first base and DH). Ortiz has been just fine, but Daubach and McCarty have hit with no power and Millar has struggled at the plate while trying to handle the added chores of playing the outfield. And now with knee surgery sidelining Ellis Burks for over a month, the Red Sox may end up using Ortiz more and more as a DH… There may be one other option for the Red Sox to consider. How about putting Jason Varitek at first base and installing the hot-hitting Doug Mirabelli as the everyday catcher, at least for the short term? That would improve the Red Sox’ defensive play behind the plate while also easing the physical toll on Varitek, who’s become one of Boston’s most important players. Varitek might profit later in the season, when catchers tend to slump under the burden of the Northeast’s summer humidity… It’s the Red Sox’ pitching that has really kept them afloat in the American League East, posting a staff ERA of 3.21 through games of Tuesday, May 4. Although Pedro Martinez has been less than his usual dominant self, the bullpen has been sensational, with the trio of Keith Foulke, Scott Williamson, and Alan Embree virtually unhittable through the first month of the regular season. Much like the Yankees, who have deepened their bullpen with the additions of Paul Quantrill and Tom “Flash” Gordon, the Red Sox may have to rely on a lengthened bullpen to make up for the inconsistencies of the starting rotation.
For all the criticism of the Fred Wilpon ownership and the front office’s seeming unwillingness to spend as much as is fiscally possible, the Mets did make one of the best offseason pickups of the winter. The acquisition of unheralded Karim Garcia has filled at least part of a massive right-field hole and made Mets fans quickly forget about the foibles of Roger Cedeno. Garcia has built up a resume of detraction over the years, with critics pointing out that he’s not Luis Gonzalez (for whom he was once traded), knocking him for his lack of patience at the plate, and skeptically questioning his character because of his third-man-in role in the nasty bullpen blowup that developed during last year’s American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. Garcia’s involvement in the skirmish, which was actually started by either a Boston bullpen attendant or Yankees reliever Jeff Nelson, probably cemented Garcia’s fate as an ex-Yankee who didn’t fit the good-solider scheme preferred by Joe Torre and Brian Cashman… During the winter, the Yankees decided to keep Ruben Sierra over Garcia, even though Karim is 10 years younger, has more power, and is a much better outfielder. While the Yankees might be temporarily gloating over Sierra’s recent two-dinger, seven-RBI performance against the Royals, they may still rue the day that they failed to pick up the option on Garcia’s contract. The Mets have become immediate beneficiaries of their rival’s decision; they love Garcia’s defensive play in right field; his cannon-like arm, which might be one of the five best in the game; his short, compact swing against right-handed pitching, and his hustling, chugging style on the basepaths. Yes, Garcia has his limitations; he swings at too many pitches, doesn’t draw enough walks, and has a shaky reputation against left-handed pitchers. But as long as the Mets understand that Garcia is best utilized as a platoon player and limit his exposure to southpaws (which they’ll probably do once Cliff Floyd returns from the disabled list and Shane Spencer moves back to a time-sharing plan in right field), they should have one-half of a productive platoon in right field. The bottom line? The Mets can win with Garcia playing a key role in the Mets’ outfield. They simply need to upgrade a few other positions, starting with third base (where Ty Wigginton is not the long-range answer) and second base (where they continue in a holding pattern waiting for the return of Jose Reyes)… On another front, the Mets’ decision to designate onetime high-level pitching prospect Grant Roberts borders on the bewildering. Roberts posted some impressive outings during spring training, but his velocity has fallen off recently, and the Mets have apparently decided to give up on his future in New York. By designating him for assignment, the Mets have lowered his trade value, because other teams know that New York has only 10 days to trade him, outright him, or give him his unconditional release. That’s always the down side to designating a player for assignment, because it almost always hurts a team’s leverage in trade talks while the player often takes on the aura of damaged goods. Simply put, Grant Roberts is too much of a talent to be designated for assignment, just like D’Angelo Jimenez was last year, when the White Sox received very little in return from the Reds for a capable leadoff hitter.
There are few baseball watchers who enjoy listening to Jim Kaat as much as this writer. Most of the time, I find his analysis to be on target and his old-time baseball philosophy to be refreshing at a time when too many color commentators are trying to reinvent the game while engaging in overblown listen-to-me hysteria. Yet, I have to admit that Kaat lost me a bit last month when he was decrying the Yankees’ lack of offensive output during the three-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox. While pointing out the Yankees’ “swing-for-the-fences” tendency that produces too many strikeouts, he lamented the absence of the Yankee offenses of years gone by—the teams that featured Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez, and Scott Brosius. The implication was clear: the Yankees were better when they featured contact hitters who could skillfully put the ball in play. While I agree that the Yankees’ habit of striking out with men on base is a cause for concern, I have to wonder how any of the players that Kaat mentioned would somehow be an improvement over the current Yankees at each position. Is Joe Girardi a better offensive player than Jorge Posada, simply because he can bunt and hit-and-run? Would you really want Tino Martinez playing every day ahead of Jason Giambi, who gets on base 40 per cent of the time and hits with far more power than his predecessor? And who in the world would play Scott Brosius ahead of an all-universe player like Alex Rodriguez?... Granted, the combination of Girardi-Martinez-and Brosius would probably produce fewer strikeouts than the current mix of Posada-Giambi-and A-Rod. Yet, that’s about all they would do. The current Yankees all have more power, higher on-base percentages, better slugging percentages, and if you factor in A-Rod, more basestealing capability. In each case, I’ll take the current Yankees at catcher, first base, and third base (as would most Sabermetric observers) and it’s not even close. It’s a slam dunk.
Billy Cowan was once described as the “epitome of a fringe ballplayer.” That characterization was dead solid perfect in assessing the journeyman outfielder, who bounced from the Cubs to the Mets to the Milwaukee Braves to the Phillies to the Yankees to the Angels during an eight-year career that spanned from 1963 to 1972. Cowan was never close to being the best player on any of his teams, never an All-Star, and will certainly never make the Hall of Fame. (For that matter, he didn’t even make the preliminary Veterans Committee ballot of 200.) Yet, he receives more autograph requests through the mail than most journeyman outfielders of similar vintage—if only because of his comical 1972 Topps card. Opting to have some fun with Cowan, the Topps photographer lined his head up perfectly within the confines of the old halo at Anaheim Stadium. At the time, the ballpark still featured a large halo at the top of a tower within the perimeter of the ballpark. (I may be wrong, but I believe that the halo is now featured in the renovated stadium’s parking lot.). One thing I’ve always wondered about the Cowan card is whether the outfielder was actually aware of what the photographer was doing. It certainly looks like the photographer intentionally set up the photo so that Cowan's head was right in the middle of the halo, but I’m not so sure that Cowan realized that he had been placed in an angelic pose. If anyone has additional background information on that card, specifically Cowan’s awareness of being the subject of a mild practical joke, please e-mail me at email@example.com… The 1972 card, by the way, was the last one issued for Cowan, who played in only three games—all as a pinch-hitter—before drawing his release. While the Angels contended that Cowan was no longer a useful player—after all, he was 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter and had struck out 41 times against only seven walks in 1971—Cowan felt differently. Once labeled by The Sporting News as the “Clarence Darrow of the clubhouse,” Cowan filed a grievance against the Angels through the Players Association, claiming that the release occurred for reasons other than baseball ability. The Angels’ top pinch-hitter in 1971, Cowan contended that California had cut him loose because of his active role as the Angels’ player representative, which was like being branded with a scarlet letter at the time of major collective bargaining friction between the players and owners. Like Cowan, three other player representatives for the Angels had also been relocated, with infielders Jim Fregosi and Bobby Knoop sent packing in trades and catcher Bob “Buck” Rodgers demoted to the minor leagues. When the Angels, like the 23 other teams in existence at the time, dared to strike at the tail-end of spring training, they delayed the start of the 1972 regular season—and perhaps influenced the eventual end of Cowan’s major league career.
Remembering Gonzalo Marquez
No child should be subjected to the kind of boyhood nightmare that enveloped Gonzalo Marquez, Jr., the son of the former major league first baseman. On December 19, 1984, the 12-year-old Gonzalo was riding in a car driven by his father, who had since retired as an active player and was now a scout with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The car crashed at a location not far from Valencia, Venezuela, killing the elder Marquez while leaving the youngster with a mass of broken bones. Gonzalo Jr. eventually recovered from his myriad injuries, but the horrific accident erased any hopes of pursuing a career as a professional ballplayer while taking away a father who would have loved nothing better than to see his son follow his career path to the major leagues.
It’s been 20 years since the death of the elder Marquez, who was a star first baseman in the Venezuelan Winter League before becoming a pinch-hitting hero for the Oakland A’s in the 1972 World Series. (In Game Three, Marquez delivered a key pinch-hit that started a two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning. The hit helped the A’s come back to beat the Reds, 3-2, and capped off a remarkable rookie season for the man that A’s announcer Monte Moore called “Mandrake The Magician.”) Although Marquez, who played only two more seasons in the majors, has become mostly forgotten in the United States, he is still regarded as one of the greatest hitters in the history of Venezuela. As such, the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum would like to honor Marquez with a display of artifacts and has asked the younger Gonzalo, who is now in his early thirties, to supply some items.
Unfortunately, Marquez has little of his father’s memorabilia. During a recent visit to Cooperstown, Marquez made a quiet plea for some outside help. He would like to locate any kinds of artifacts that relate to his father’s career and would also like assistance in producing a replica of one of his father’s Oakland jerseys at nominal cost. If anyone can help Gonzalo Jr. in his search for artifacts or can help in reproducing an A’s jersey circa 1972, please send him an e-mail at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks in advance to anyone who can offer assistance to the Marquez family.
Darrell Johnson (Died on May 3 in Fairfield, California; age 75; leukemia): A manager for eight seasons with three major league teams, Johnson was best known for guiding the Boston Red Sox to the American League pennant in 1975 and coming within one game of winning the franchise’s first World Championship since 1918. Stern in appearance but easygoing in nature, Johnson was well-liked by his players and highly regarded for his handling of pitchers and his general level of patience. Johnson’s major league career began as a player in 1952, when he broke in with the St. Louis Browns. A defensive-minded catcher, he later played for the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, and Baltimore Orioles before retiring in 1962. After his playing career, Johnson became a skipper in the Orioles’ farm system before being offered the Red Sox’ managing job in 1974. In 1975, Johnson skillfully worked two rookies—Fred Lynn and Jim Rice—into Boston’s starting lineup and led the Sox to the American League East title and a three-game playoff sweep of the defending World Champion Oakland A’s. The Red Sox then played the favored Reds in the World Series, forcing a seventh game when Carlton Fisk hit a dramatic game-ending home run in Game Six… When the Red Sox struggled to a 41-46 start the following summer, primarily due to a string of pitching injuries, they fired Johnson and hired Don Zimmer—a harsh punishment for a man who had just steered his team to the Fall Classic. In 1977, the expansion Seattle Mariners hired Johnson as the first manager in team history. He remained in Seattle until he was let go in the midst of the 1980 season. Johnson later worked for the Texas Rangers in his final managerial tenure.
Lou Chapman (Died on April 30 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; age 90): A longtime writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel, Chapman served as the beat writer for the Milwaukee Braves throughout their 13-year tenure in Wisconsin. He later covered the fledgling Milwaukee Brewers, beginning with the team’s first season in 1970. Earning a reputation as strong, investigative beat writer, Chapman was given the nicknames “Scoop” and “Gumby” (a derivative of the word “gumshoe”) for his ability to break stories. Chapman was so highly respected that he earned Wisconsin Sports Writer of the Year five times during his career.
Di Ann Kiner (Died on March 22 in Rancho Mirage, California; cancer): The wife of Hall of Famer and longtime New York Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner passed away after a long struggle with reoccurring cancer. The couple had been married for over 40 years.
And Another Thing
The first stop on my spring book tour will take me to the faraway land of Cooperstown, New York. I will be hosting a short presentation and then signing copies of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Saturday, May 15, at 1:30 pm. It will be a long commute, but it should be worth it. For more information on the signing, please call 607-547-0261. Cooperstown Confidential author Bruce Markusen is host of the Hall of Fame Hour, which airs each Thursday at 12 noon Eastern time on MLB.com Radio. He is also the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, Roberto Clemente: The Great One, and The Orlando Cepeda Story. A fourth book, Ted Williams: A Biography (Greenwood Press), is scheduled for release in the fall of 2004. Markusen has also written a young adult horror novel, Haunted House of the Vampire, which is scheduled for release this fall.
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