It’s getting crowded in Monument Park

This weekend, the Yankees will honor Tino Martinez by dedicating a plaque in his honor in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park. Later this summer, Paul O’Neill will get his plaque.

No disrespect to Constantino, shown at right, and the Warrior, who were key components of the Yankee teams that won four World Series in five years between 1996 and 2000. But there are plenty of other Yankees who are long overdue this honor.

What about Yankee Hall of Famers? Goose Gossage will be getting a plaque this weekend as well. But the Yankees have never recognized old timers like Jack Chesbro and Wee Willie Keeler, pitchers Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock and Catfish Hunter, and hitters like Tony Lazzeri, Earl Coombs, Johnny Mize and Dave Winfield, to name a few. All are enshrined in Cooperstown, yet none have made the Yankees Monument Park Hall of Fame.

Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller are certainly worthy of consideration. Each man was on more World Series winners than Martinez or O’Neill. So were Joe Collins, Charlie Silvera, Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, Gil McDougald, Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat and Frank Crosetti. Yet you won’t find any of them on the hallowed walls of Monument Park.

More recent Yankees like Bobby Murcer, Willie Randolph and Graig Nettles never made the big wall in the Bronx. Nor did four-time champions Bernie Williams and David Cone.

MVP Joe Gordon (1942) and Cy Young Award winners Bob Turley (1958) and Sparky Lyle (1977) have never had plaques bestowed upon them either. (As for Roger Clemens and Alez Rodriguez, let’s not go there.)

The Yankees will retire Joe Torre’s #6 on August 23, with Derek Jeter’s #2 to follow inevitably, meaning no Yankee will ever wear a single digit number again.

Martinez and O’Neill were great Yankees who wore the pinstripes with pride and produced champions. But they’re two guys on a long, crowded list of great Yankees.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan and Baseball

Bob Dylan…singer, poet, painter, fixture in music for five decades, symbol of social unrest.

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
thinking about the government

(from Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965)

Yeah that Bob Dylan. Robert Allen Zimmerman. Born May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, this iconic figure of American art, is turning 70. Next Tuesday.

Baseball is one of the last things that comes to mind when describing Bob Dylan.Yet there are some strong connections between Bob Dylan and the National Pastime.

The day Dylan was born, a Saturday, the Yankees hosted the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. That day, Joe DiMaggio singled to extend his hitting streak to 10 games, on the way to 56. Ted Williams singled twice, walked twice and raised his average to .383, on the way to .406. In nearly 70 years since, neither DiMaggio’s 56-game streak nor Williams .400 season have been seriously threatened.

The Yankees won the game, 7-6, on the day Bob Dylan was born. Strangely, there is no record of the time of game and attendance that day.

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

(from Ballad of a Thin Man, 1965)

Dylan and Maris
In 1961, around the time Dylan’s career was taking off, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record with 61  home runs.In the book “Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero” by  Tom Clavin and Danny Peary, the first chapter has a short byte on how Dylan became a fan of Maris during his 1961 home run chase. To quote:

“Among those rooting for Roger Maris as he closed in  on Babe Ruth’s record in September of 1961 was a folksinger whose  nascent career took off that month in New York City thanks to a rave in  the Times and his first studio work. Although he wasn’t much of a sports  fan, Bob Dylan felt pride when he learned that the ballplayer making  national headlines also hailed from Hibbing, Minnesota.”

Maris was born in Hibbing, and later moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where he is buried, Dylan moved to Hibbing when he was seven-years-old

Dylan has always been an incredibly prolific songwriter, only releasing a fraction of what he records. One of those songs, a rare classic, was written and performed by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy.It was a ballad of Catfish Hunter, who had just signed a five-year, $3.7M contract with the Yankees. Here’s a little taste:

Used to work on Mr. Finley’s farm
But the old man wouldn’t pay
So he packed his glove and took his arm
An’ one day he just ran away

Catfish, million-dollar-man,
Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.

There’s more Dylan-baseball affinity. In 2004 and later in 2009, Dylan did a par of concert tours at minor league baseball stadiums. The 2009 tour, which also featured Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, included stops at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, RI; Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland, and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, NC.

Radio Dylan
In 2006, Dylan hosted a program on XM Radio dedicated to baseball. He spun a wide selection of baseball tunes, including Buddy Johnson and Hit Hits Orchestra playing “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball” and Les Brown’s “Joltin Joe DiMaggio,” an old-time band jewel.

In typical Dylan fashion, he told a tale during the virtual seventh-inning stretch of his radio show. He recalled how a Mexican community was destroyed to make the room needed to build Dodger Stadium and then introduced Ry Cooder’s “3rd Base Dodger Stadium” which spoke to the situation.

Jonathan Lethem wrote a piece called “The Genius of Bob Dylan” in Rolling Stone on the September 7, 2006, issue around the release of Dylan’s album Modern Times. In a footnote to the piece, Lehtem asked Dylan what baseball team was his favorite.

Dylan responded: “The problem with baseball teams is all the players get traded, and what your favorite team used to be – a couple of guys you really liked on the team, they’re not on the team now – and you can’t possibly make that team your favorite team. It’s like your favorite uniform. I mean, yeah, I like Detroit. Though I like Ozzie [Guillen] as a manager. And I don’t know how anybody can’t like Derek [Jeter]. I’d rather have him on my team than anybody.” 

FOOTNOTE: Twice had the opportunity to see Bob Dylan perform in concert. On September 16, 1978, I saw him at the Portland Civic Center, the first time in my life I set foot in the state of Maine (been to all 50 states). Earlier that day, the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 3-2, a ninth inning sacrifice fly by Thurman Munson, giving Catfish Hunter the victory. That win ultimately led to the game that made Bucky Dent famous. Also saw a Dylan performance at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, about a dozen years ago.

By George, Yanks for the Memories

Never got to meet George Steinbrenner, never got to shake his hand. But like so many other Yankee fans, I wish I had the opportunity to thank The Boss before he passed on. Thank him for making baseball important once more in New York, and for making the Yankees a winner again.

George Steinbrenner saved the New York Yankees. When a group of businessmen led by Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees on January 3, 1973, for a net price of $8.7 million, the once-proud franchise was floundering. Attendance was down, Yankee Stadium was falling apart, and the team hadn’t won a World Series since 1962.

The Yankees were a bottom feeder in the American League East in those days, a baseball laughingstock. Think Horace Clarke and Dooley Womack.

At first George said he would be a silent owner, that in his words he would not “be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all.” That lasted for a New York minute. Before long, Steinbrenner promised he would bring the Yankees back to prominence.

Steinbrenner brought in a number of heralded players at the dawn of free agency, most notably Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. He refurbished Yankee Stadium. And within four years, the Yankees were back on top, winning the World Series in 1977 and repeating in 1978.

Moose Skowron, a Yankee first baseman in the 50s and early 60s, perhaps summed it up best: “This man wants to win, and I respect him for that. Who the hell wants to be a loser.”

Serious Business
Some owners were hobbyists, but for George Steinbrenner ownership was serious baseball business.

Sometimes too serious. George wanted to win, but for a time in the 80s and early 90s his competitive instincts got the best of him. The Yankees endured an 18-year championship drought following the 1978 World Series, and failed to make a single playoff appearance between 1981 and 1995.

Then came 1996 and a surprising World Series triumph over the Atlanta Braves, followed by three straight World Championships from 1998-2000. That 1998 team with manager Joe Torre, Derek Jeter and the rest of the Core Four won 125 games and ranks amongst the greatest in baseball history.

And of course last year the Yankees opened their beautiful new Stadium — the Home Office — and capped the season with their 27th Championship, most of any North American pro sports franchise.

Two Personalities
In retrospect, it’s almost like two George Steinbrenners owned the Yankees, two  different personalities. The first was the tyrannical despot who ranted and raved, belittled Dave Winfield and other members of the organization, phoned the Yankee dugout and hired and fired Billy Martin five times.

George seemed to mellow in his later years as he built the Yankee brand. A softer side of George emerged, a kinder, gentler George, a benevolent George who not only treated his players and managers with respect, but also honored the military and police officers and helped charities, schools and individuals in need.

And in the end, the Yankees won 11 pennants and seven World Championships in the Steinbrenner regime, and had the best record in baseball during that 37-year span.

“I care about New York dearly,” George told Sports Illustrated several years ago. “I like every cab driver, every guy that stops the car and honks, every truck driver. I feed on that.”

The Boss bought the Yankees for $8.7 million in 1973 — the team is now worth more than a $1.6 billion according to a recent report in Forbes magazine. Not a bad investment, by George.

Sadly, George Steinbrenner was not selected for the Hall of Fame before his passing. Perhaps the Hall can do him right now, and open its doors for George Steinbrenner.

Related Blog: Former Yankee Owner Jacob Ruppert Belongs in The Hall

Baseball’s Lost Art

Pitchers used to finish what they started.

In 1904, Jack Chesbro started 55 games for the New York Highlanders. He finished 48 of them, winning 41 games. All are major league records.

Last year, Arizona’s Brandon Webb led the National League with 4 complete games; Roy Hallady of the Blue Jays had 7.

Cy Young threw 749 complete games in his career; the current major league career leaders are Greg Maddux with 109 and Randy Johnson with 99.

In 1968, the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” Juan Marichal of the Giants led the majors with 30 complete games. The Tigers’ Denny McLain became the last 30-game winner, and had 28 complete games.

“Nobody trusted anybody in the bullpen,” said McLain, who wound up 31-6. “Three or four of my losses were 2-1 and 1-0.”

In 1975, Catfish Hunter started 39 games for the Yankees and finished 30 of them, the last pitcher to reach that mark in complete games.

The last hurler to record 20 complete games was the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela, in 1986. Randy Johnson was the last to have double figures in 10 CGs, 12 in 1999.

Complete games have become baseball’s lost art.