“Sympathy is something that shouldn’t be bestowed on the Yankees. Apparently it angers them.” – Bob Feller
Back in 1984, I was doing a story on knuckleball pitchers for a since-defunct magazine. The only practitioners of this arcane art at the time were Charlie Hough, and the Brothers Niekro—Phil and Joe. Since Phil was with the Yankees at the time, I wandered into the pre-game clubhouse at the Stadium to see what I could see and ask what I could ask.
Yogi Berra was the Yankees manager, at age 59 still bumptious and wise. Imagine my surprise and delight when I saw Yogi standing in the middle of the room, having a lighthearted discussion with Joe DiMaggio. The Yankee Clipper still stood tall and stately at age 69, but was also beginning to list with arthritis.
They were talking about the rising cost of baseballs, the absence of the “Scooter” from the Hall of Fame, and the lapsed elegance of the nearby Concourse Plaza Hotel.
Under normal circumstances, DiMaggio was always reluctant to deal with the media, but since he seemed to be in a jovial mood, and since I had a tight deadline, during a slight pause in their conversation I dared to intrude with a question that I hoped would spark a response from Joltin’ Joe.
“Mister DiMaggio, sir? Do you happen to remember the starting rotation of the 1945 Washington Senators? Johnny Niggeling, Mickey Haeffner, Dutch Leonard, and Roger Wolf?”
“How could I forget them?” DiMaggio replied, his interest clearly piqued. “All of them were knuckleballers. We’d see knucklers on a Friday night, followed by Saturday afternoon, and then a doubleheader on Sunday.”
Berra didn’t reach the bigs until 1946, yet he puffed on a cigarette and nodded in quick agreement.
“Let’s see,” DiMaggio wondered. “There was also Nelson Potter with the Browns. Bobo Newsom. Ted Lyons. Did Hank Borowy throw a knuckler?”
“Maybe,” Yogi grunted. “Sometimes. Maybe not.”
“Almost every team back then had a knuckler,” DiMaggio added.
“How did you do against guys like that?” I asked.
“I didn’t always make the greatest contact,” DiMag answered, “but I had my share of luck.”
Luck! From an all-time great who sported a lifetime .325 batting average.
Other hitters whom I had interviewed claimed that facing knuckleballers messed up their swings for weeks at a time. Did this also happen to DiMaggio?
“No,” he said. “I faced so many of them that I just took my normal swing. Besides, I used to take a very short step with my left foot when I attacked a pitch so my weight was always back and my timing was always consistent.”
At that point, DiMaggio began to look around the room for someone to rescue him from me. But before he escaped, I proffered a baseball for him to sign. “For my kid,” I said. Since this was years before such autographs went for hundreds of dollars, he silently signed the ball.
But just as DiMaggio turned to exit stage right, Yogi cleared his throat, threw his cigarette butt into a nearby spittoon bucket, and said this: “I know the secret how to hit the knuckler.”
DiMaggio turned back to Berra, leaned forward, and even cupped his ear.
“It’s simple,” Yogi shrugged. “All you gotta do is to only swing at the ones that don’t break.”
One day early in the 1940 season, Bob Feller’s Cleveland Indians were in Chicago for a series against the White Sox when Lew Fonseca approached him before a game. At the time, Fonseca headed the Major League Film Division, but he once was also an ex-player, good enough to lead the American League in hitting (.369) in 1929. Fonseca’s idea was to have Feller throw his fastball in direct competition with a speeding motorcycle to determine whether the baseball or the cycle would reach home plate first.
Not knowing the details of the test (which Fonseca would film), Feller showed up wearing civilian clothes, dress shoes, long pants, a white shirt, and a necktie. The experiment was conducted on a street blocked off by the police near Lincoln Park, where the requisite 60’ 6” between the rubber and the plate were carefully measured and marked. In lieu of a catcher, the target was a cantaloupe-sized bull’s-eye suspended from a wooden frame.
Feller took off his tie, undid the top button of his shirt and warmed up with Fonseca for a few minutes. When Feller was ready, the driver started his machine and began his run far enough in back of the pitcher so as to pass Rapid Robert motoring at 86-mph just as the ball was released. But the timing was a bit off, and the motorcycle was about two feet beyond Feller when the ball came out of the pitcher’s hand.
The test had a pair of incredible outcomes: Feller’s first and only pitch zipped through the middle of the target. And the ball beat the motorcycle to the plate by 13 feet.
Using some basic math, the speed of the pitch was determined to be 104-mph.
Several years later, Feller was wearing a baseball uniform and pitching from a mound when his delivery was measured by an electric-zone device at the Aberdeen Ordinance Plant in Washington, D.C., and was clocked at 107.9-mph.
Besides my jingling coins, I also carried a tuna fish salad sandwich in a small greasy paper bag and my autograph book. To quickly lighten my burden, I usually ate my sandwich as soon as I transferred at 161st Street for the cross-town bus. I also carried several dozen self-addressed penny postcards or the pre game business at hand.
This had to do with my being an autograph hound. That meant I’d arrive at the House That Ruth Built at about nine bells, just when the visiting players and the hometown heroes would arrive. Then I’d join the desperate, bustling dozens of similar fanatics trying to get close enough to The Mick, The Scooter, Yogi, Battling Billy, Steady Eddie, The Chief, or whomever we could intercept during their thirty-yard walk between the players parking lot and the cops who kept us away from the players entrance.
The same relentless elbow-flailing, pushing-often-coming-to-punching melee would be repeated when the visitors bus arrived.
“Who’d ya get?”
“Aw, he’s no big deal. I got a million of him. He always stops and signs for everybody.”
“Who’d ya get?”
“Where? How? When?”
“Just now. He took the train and got off the el.”
“And he was signing?”
Some of us would then make a mad-dash for the train station at River Avenue and 161st Street in hopes of intercepting Stengel before he ducked into one of the Stadium’s private entrances. I never did catch up with the wily Ol’ Perfessor. In fact, the only celebrity subway rider whose autograph I ever did capture was on Old Timer’s Day when I came across a squat, burly, middle-aged man, and asked, “Who are you?”
Turned out to be Jimmy Foxx.
When players wouldn’t pause to sign, we’d try to thrust a postcard into their hands, pockets, belts, whatever. As a last resort, we tossed postcards through open windows on the team bus. About fifty percent of the postcards were returned with bonafide signatures. The rest vanished.
The Daily News reported today that pitching phenoms Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos, who shined in spring training but were sent to AA Trenton to mature and improve, both developed blisters, supposedly due to the shift from MLB-quality balls in Florida to minor league quality!
This brought to mind what I observed one hot August night at a AAA Scranton game. Here’s what I wrote for Bullpen Diaries:
It struck me during this game that a scuffed baseball stays in the game longer in the minors, not surprisingly. The home plate ump regularly rolled balls over in his hand, keeping most of them in use.
It’s actually his job to dirty up the brand-new shiny batch of five or six dozen balls before each game. The same “secret” compound is used in both the majors and minors, secret in that the company that provides the dirt doesn’t reveal where in the nearby Delaware River the mud is from. In fact, the owner of Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud says if he sees someone lurking around the designated spot, he comes back the next day.
Several locations come to mind when considering the most fiery hotbeds of baseball: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Williamsport, St. Louis, Fenway Park, Los Angeles, Japan, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and San Pedro de Macoriss (D. R.).
But one center of both passion and excellence is usually overlooked: Trenton, New Jersey.
Since 2003, the Trenton Thunder have been the Yankees Double-A farm team, and on the passion side of the ledger, the 2006 Thunder became the first team in Minor League Baseball history to draw over 400,000 fans for 12 consecutive seasons at the Double-A level or below. Over the past 13 seasons, the Thunder has attracted more than 5.4 million paying customers.
As for excellence, past Thunder rosters read like a who’s who of current Yankee success. The list of Thunder veterans who appeared in Yankee uniforms during the 2010 season is impressive: Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, Joba Chamberlain, Robinson Cano, Francisco Cervelli, Ivan Nova, and Alfredo Aceves.
Trenton is also where Yankee stars go, via the GWB and I-95, to get in a rehab game: Andy Pettitte this year, and in past years, Jeter, Matsui, Bernie Williams, Clemens and Kevin Brown.
Before the Yankees took over the operation, Trenton was a farm team of the Tigers and then the Red Sox. Accordingly, some other notable alumni include Kevin Youkilis, David Eckstein, Nomar Garciaparra, Carl Pavano, Tony Clark and Trot Nixon.
Looking to the future, Trenton is stocked with future Bronx players. Late in 2010, Baseball America magazine announced its prospect rankings, and for the AL East, 8 of the top 10 prospects played in Trenton in the last two years: catchers Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, third baseman Brandon Laird, infielder Eduardo Nunez, and several pitchers: Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and Hector Noesi.
In the past, this pool of talent would be considered primarily trade material to get big-league ready players from other teams, but it looks, for now, like the Yankees are looking to build from within, although some of these guys will still certainly be traded at some point, especially as their positions higher up the ladder are held down by the likes of Cano and Teixeira. But the rest is or will be open, especially in starting and relief pitching slots.
For the Yankee stars of the future, the minor league season kicks off this week. This Thursday for pitching phenom Manny Banuelos and the AA Trenton Thunder. (I cover the Trenton attendance phenomenon at the end of Bullpen Diaries; I'll post that tomorrow.) Also on the team: switch pitcher Pat Venditte, and a reminder of the “Venditte Rule.”
Hey, catch a minor league game this year! Catch a future Bronx resident in action and you can say you saw them when.