December 2nd, 2013

The Day Rocky Pitched

Rocky Colavito, 1958

Rocky Colavito, 1958

Today’s post is by guest columnist and old friend Bill Ryczek. He wrote Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime through the Civil War (McFarland, 2009) which is part of an outstanding trilogy, alongside When Johnny Came Sliding Home and Blackguards and Red Stockings, covering baseball up to the early professional era. But Bill is not fixated on baseball’s olden days, or even on baseball. He has written books about the Yankees and Mets of the 1960s, as well the football Titans/Jets and the pre-merger AFL. Here he reflects on a singular day in baseball history which left home run hero Rocky Colavito with a pitching record of 1-0.

They played a lot more doubleheaders in the 1960s. There were two games most Sundays, and postponements created more twin bills late in the season. Playing fields of that era didn’t drain as well as current day facilities, and many more games were lost to rain. Owners didn’t mind scheduling two games in one day, for they often drew twice as many to a doubleheader as to a single game. While playing two games in a single day is now viewed as an almost unbearable endurance contest, for which reinforcements must be summoned from the minors, fifty years ago it was a weekly occurrence.

At the end of the summer, if there had been a rainy spring, a doubleheader was more than a weekly event. A rash of twin bills put a strain on pitching staffs, which generally numbered no more than ten, and fresh arms were not, as they are now, shuffled on and off the roster on a daily basis. Managers played the hands they were dealt. A couple of doubleheaders in a row created an “all hands on deck” situation under which starters relieved, relievers started, and starters who were knocked out in the first game of a twin bill might relieve in the second. And sometimes, in a dire emergency, a position player might be pressed into mound duty.

In a five-day period beginning Friday night, August 23, 1968, the Yankees were scheduled to play three doubleheaders, and a total of eight games, between Friday and Tuesday. The first three days of the sequence, against the league-leading Detroit Tigers, produced the most exciting weekend of Yankee baseball that summer.

The first leg of the marathon was a twi-night doubleheader on Friday evening. The opener was fairly uneventful, as the Yankees’ Stan Bahnsen beat the Tigers on a home run by Tom Tresh.

With no starter available, New York manager Ralph Houk turned to reliever Joe Verbanic to pitch the second game. Verbanic lasted five innings, and in the seventh, veteran forkballer Lindy McDaniel entered the game with the score tied, 3–3.

McDaniel had been a star reliever in the National League in the late 1950s and early 1960s before hurting his arm. For the first half of the 1968 season, he languished in the bullpen of the San Francisco Giants, pitching in just 12 games before a trade sent him to the Yankees in mid-July.

Lindy McDaniel with brother Von, This Week, April 27, 1958

Lindy McDaniel with brother Von, This Week, April 27, 1958

In New York, McDaniel re-discovered the magic of his early career. Prior to his appearance against the Tigers, he’d been in 14 games and posted 2 wins and 7 saves, after having just 11 saves during the past three and a half seasons. In his previous two outings, Lindy had retired nine men in a row. On this night, he set down 21 more in succession. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the Tigers’ John Hiller, who had entered the game in the eighth, was mowing down the Yankees with nearly the same degree of regularity.

The game went deep into overtime. Each inning, McDaniel set down three Tigers in a row. Unlike closers of today, who generally don’t pitch until the ninth inning, McDaniel was a closer who started early. He typically pitched two or three innings, and, as a former starter, could go longer if needed. After each perfect frame, McDaniel returned to the first base dugout, hoping the Yankees would get a run and end the game. They didn’t, and finally, in the 15th, Houk removed McDaniel for a pinch hitter. He had thrown just 59 pitches in seven innings of relief.

Dooley Womack took the mound in the 16th and was nearly as effective as McDaniel, pitching four scoreless innings, but still the Yankees could not score. At that time, American League rules decreed that no inning could start after 1:00 a.m., so when Andy Kosco popped to Tiger shortstop Ray Oyler at 1:07, the game was over. It went into the record books as a 19-inning tie that would have to be replayed in its entirety.

The makeup game was scheduled as the second game of a doubleheader on Sunday, and the Yankee ordeal became nine games in five days. The 19-inning game might as well have counted as two, so effectively the Yanks were playing 10 games in five days. That presented a problem for Houk, whose best relievers, McDaniel and Womack, had thrown 11 innings on the first night.

Gene Michael, 1969

Gene Michael, 1969

The Yankee manager prepared for the worst, and the worst was that a position player would have to take the mound and save the real pitchers for another day. Houk had two non-pitchers who he thought might be able to step up in an emergency. The first was backup shortstop Gene Michael, who had a strong arm and had pitched 16 games for Kinston of the Carolina League in 1963, plus a couple of games in the International League the following season. In 1966, after he batted just .152 for the Pirates, Michael was traded to the Dodgers, who sent him to the Fall Instructional League in an attempt to convert him back to pitching; the experiment failed. One of the reasons Michael was a shortstop was that he hadn’t pitched very well in the minors, posting an ERA of nearly 7.00 in ’63, but he might be able to struggle through a couple of innings in a pinch.

The other potential Yankee pitcher was outfielder Rocky Colavito, who had joined the team in mid-July after being released by the Dodgers. At one time, Colavito had been one of the top power hitters in the American League, but by 1968 he was at the end of his 14-year major league career.

For Colavito, joining the Yankees was the culmination of a dream. Rocky was a Bronx native who grew up watching Joe DiMaggio from Yankee Stadium’s center field bleachers and who had really wanted to play for the Bombers. When they offered him a bonus of just $3,000, however, and wanted him to be a pitcher, Colavito signed with the Indians, who offered $4,500 and the opportunity to play the outfield.

Throughout his career, there had been rumors that Colavito would be traded to the Yankees, but a deal was never consummated. He played in Yankee Stadium many times, of course, as a member of the Indians, Tigers, Athletics, and White Sox, and made headlines on numerous occasions. One of those instances occurred in 1961, when he raced in from right field and jumped into the stands behind third base to protect his father, who’d gotten into a fight with some Yankee fans. By the time Rocky arrived on the scene, the fracas had been brought under control by the stadium police, but it took four teammates, four policemen, three ushers and one umpire to keep the enraged Colavito away from the man who had attacked his father.

Colavito had always been known for his powerful throwing arm, and his rocket launches from the outfield were legendary. “If he short-hopped you,” said former Athletics catcher Doc Edwards, “all you could hope to do was stop it, because you weren’t going to catch it. It would come in like a ball on a billiard table, hitting your shin guards, then your chest and your lips.” Bill Bryan, another Kansas City backstop, said, “Rocky always liked to warm up with a catcher, because he liked to show his arm off.”

There is a vast difference, however, between throwing hard from the outfield and pitching to hitters during a game. “I’ve seen it happen so many times,” said Edwards, “a guy like him throwing from the flat ground, and then when they get out on the mound, they don’t throw as hard because they’re not used to it.”

In 1958, Indian manager Joe Gordon announced that he intended to use Colavito as a pitcher on occasion. He appeared only once, however, shutting out the Tigers and allowing no hits in three innings of relief.

On July 25, 1968, Houk had tested Colavito and Michael against Syracuse in an exhibition game. Colavito threw two hitless innings and Michael followed with two scoreless frames. Houk said he would use them in a regular season game if the right situation arose.

On Saturday, with only one game scheduled, the bullpen got a day of rest, as Mel Stottlemyre pitched a complete game and beat the Tigers, 2–1. The victory gave the Yankees 10 wins in 13 games and put them just two games below .500, the closest they had been to the breakeven point in nearly four months. After a last place finish in 1966 and ninth place in 1967, the old champions were stirring for the first time in several years. They were in sixth place, eighteen games out of first, but only six behind the third place Indians, and playing good ball.

Andy Kosco

Andy Kosco

On Sunday, veteran lefthander Steve Barber, who had been suffering from a sore elbow and the aftereffects of the flu, started the opening game of the doubleheader. He insisted he felt fine, but he didn’t look fine, struggling right from the start. The Tigers scored twice in the first inning and twice more in the third. During the Detroit uprising in the third, Colavito ran out to the right field bullpen to warm up. Barber managed to get out of the inning, however, and Rocky sat down. In the fourth, with one out, Barber walked the opposing pitcher, Pat Dobson, and Colavito started throwing once more. When two singles followed, the score was 5–0, and Houk went to the mound and signaled for Rocky.

When Colavito walked in from the bullpen, passing Andy Kosco in right field, the crowd of more than 30,000 roared. It looked like the Yankees were going to lose, but at least there would be some excitement at the Stadium. “I was wondering how hard he could really throw,” said Kosco, “and if the hitters could get around on him. It was a treat. It was very exciting.”

The first batter Colavito faced was his old teammate Al Kaline. His first pitch was a strike and the crowd roared again. The second pitch was a ball and they groaned. So it went, with the fans reacting on every pitch. Rocky got Kaline on a grounder to short and Willie Horton on a fly ball to retire the side. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he walked to the dugout.

The fifth inning was a struggle. Colavito was wild, getting behind nearly every hitter. “It’s really tough when you haven’t been on the mound,” said catcher Jake Gibbs. “You don’t have pinpoint location. A regular pitcher sometimes has trouble with location, and a guy coming in from right field was really going to have trouble. I called mostly fastballs, because he had pretty good velocity. I’d call a fastball and put my glove in the middle of the plate. I wasn’t trying to hit any corners with him. I was hoping they’d pop up or ground out or something like that.”

Colavito didn’t take a windup; he just put his hands together, reared back and threw as hard as he could. “He had a good fastball,” said McDaniel, “and if you’re only going one or two innings, that’s all you need.”  “My slider worked better in the bullpen,” Colavito said after the game, “than it did on the mound, but it was there.”

“Here I was a catcher,” Gibbs recalled, “and he was an outfielder. I thought I usually called a pretty good ballgame, but he ended up shaking me off a lot. I’d call for a fastball, and he wanted to throw a slider.” Despite two walks, Colavito got out of the fifth unscathed. In the bottom half of the inning, Bill Robinson singled in a run to make the score 5–1.

In the sixth, Colavito notched his first strikeout, getting shortstop Dick Tracewski on a called third strike. With two outs, Kaline doubled, the first major league hit off Rocky. The inning ended when Horton lined to Bobby Cox at third. Colavito had pitched two and two-thirds scoreless innings, but he had thrown 55 pitches on a 92-degree day and was getting tired, despite pitching on ten years’ rest.

Dooley Womack

Dooley Womack

In the bottom of the sixth, with two out and no one on base, Kosco hit a lazy fly ball to left field. Horton drifted to his left, but did not flip his sunglasses down. Suddenly, he lost the ball in the sun and shied away. The ball hit him on the shoulder and Kosco stood at second with a double. Tresh walked and Robinson followed with a three-run homer that made the score 5–4. Cox, the next batter, also hit the ball into the left field seats and the score was tied. Colavito walked, went to third on Horace Clarke’s single and scored on another hit by Gibbs, giving the Yankees a 6–5 lead.

With New York in front and Colavito out of gas, Houk brought in Womack to protect the lead. Dooley put the first two Tigers on base and fell behind Jim Price, three balls and one strike. Fate was with the Yankees on this day, however, and Price popped up an attempted bunt. Womack caught it on the fly and threw to Mickey Mantle at first for a double play. He got the third out and yielded to McDaniel in the eighth.

McDaniel retired the side in the eighth and got the first two batters in the ninth. The third batter, Don Wert, hit an easy ground ball to short. It looked as though the ball game would be over and Rocky Colavito would get his first major league win. Tresh bobbled the ball, however, and Wert reached first, bringing the dangerous Jim Northrup to the plate as a pinch hitter.

Northrup swung at McDaniel’s first pitch and grounded to Mantle, who stepped on the bag to end the ballgame. It had been quite a game, a script that Hollywood might have rejected as too improbable. Not only had Colavito been the winning pitcher; he had scored the deciding run. “That Houk had guts,” Yankee GM Lee MacPhail said after the game. For putting Colavito in, he was asked. “No,” MacPhail replied, “for taking him out.”

In the second game of the doubleheader, Colavito started in right field and hit a third inning home run off Mickey Lolich that tied the score at 3–3. Steve Hamilton came out of the bullpen to throw five shutout innings, and the Yankees went on to win 5–4, giving them 12 wins in 15 games and raising them up to the elusive .500 mark.

The following day, in the nightcap against the California Angels, Yankee starter Al Downing was hit hard, and was trailing 5–1 when he left for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. Houk brought in Michael, his second secret weapon, who received the same enthusiastic reception that greeted Colavito the previous day. Michael pitched a scoreless seventh, but his luck ran out the following inning. An error and a flurry of base hits resulted in five unearned runs, and the Yankees lost 10–2. Still, Michael managed three strikeouts and fanned ex-Yankee Roger Repoz with the bases loaded. In two days, New York had gotten five and two thirds innings from an infielder and an outfielder, both of whom retired their toe plates with perfect 0.00 ERAs.

Colavito hit his 374th and final home run on September 24th. He wasn’t the player he’d been ten years earlier, but the Yankee fans loved him, cheering his every move. Kosco, who’d been the regular right fielder most of the year, found that the fans preferred Rocky. “Then, sometimes,” Kosco said, “I’d take Mantle’s place at first, and the fans would start yelling, ‘We want Mickey. We want Mickey.’  I was kind of between a rock and a hard place.”

The win over the Tigers was the last big moment of Colavito’s career, and he retired at the end of the season. He’d only been a Yankee for a couple of months, and he didn’t hit many home runs, but fans who were at the Stadium on August 25 would never forget the day Rocky pitched.

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