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MY FAVORITE PLAYER: MEL STOTTLEMYRE

The first time I ever heard of Mel Stottlemyre was while vacationing with my family in Virginia during the summer of 1964 — long before every tidbit about minor leaguers like him could be accessed from a desk or from the palm of one’s hand. In 1964, what was happening in Richmond might as well have been happening on Mars.   

The first thing that struck me about Stottlemyre was his unusual name, a long, four-syllable moniker that came at you not with Latin lyricism but with a Teutonic bang-bang-bang-bang. The second was that he appeared to be the best pitcher in the International League during a summer when the parent New York Yankees were locked in a tight pennant race and burdened with a staff of sore-armed pitchers.

The fact that Stottlemyre was dominating the International League had come as a surprise to the Yankee brass, for he had not been a highly touted prospect. After he graduated from Yakima Valley Junior College, the Yankees signed him but did not have to give him a bonus, for no other teams were interested.

Stottlemyre did not have the type of blazing fastball that dazzled major league scouts; he relied on a sinker and excellent control. Mel pitched very well in Class A ball during his second professional season but in 1963, appearing both as a starter and reliever for Richmond, he was a mediocre 7-7 in 39 games.

The following season, the right hander was anything but mediocre. Although he was not in the rotation at the beginning of the season, a couple of rainouts gave him an opportunity, and after a few sterling performances, manager Preston Gomez sent him out to the mound every fourth day.

By mid-August, Stottlemyre had a 13-3 record, and his 1.42 ERA was the best in the league. In 16 starts since he had joined the rotation, Mel was 13-1 with a 0.99 ERA and 10 complete games. With Whitey Ford struggling with a hip injury and half of the Yankees’ bullpen suffering from sore arms, Stottlemyre was summoned to New York and thrust into the middle of a red-hot pennant race.

Hurler Mel Stottlemyre’s success in the International League in 1964 caught the attention of the New York Yankees, and in August he was called up to join the team. Stottlemyre was instrumental in helping the Yankees capture their 29th American League pennant. 

The youngster was a godsend to the last Yankee pennant winner of the postwar dynasty. Stottlemyre was 9-3 during the last seven weeks of the season, with a 2.06 ERA, and there was no way the Yankees would have won without him. He made three World Series starts, facing Bob Gibson twice, winning Game 2, getting no decision in Game 5, and losing Game 7 to the Cardinals’ ace.

The Yankees did not win another pennant for the next 11 years. For the first nine of those barren seasons, Stottlemyre was the team’s top pitcher and one of the best in the American League. He won 20 games for a sixth-place team in 1965, and 20 or more in 1968 and 1969 for teams whose records hovered around .500.

Stottlemyre was a sinkerballer whose strength was inducing ground balls. When he joined the Yankees, they had perhaps the best defensive infield in baseball, with Joe Pepitone at first, Bobby Richardson at second, Tony Kubek at short, and Clete Boyer at third. By 1968, he was backed up by an immobile Mickey Mantle at first, Horace Clarke at second, sore-kneed Tom Tresh at short, and Bobby Cox at third.

Clarke is unfairly maligned as the symbol of a bad era in Yankee history. He was far from the team’s worst player, but he was not a great fielder. And Cox was not elected to the Hall of Fame decades later for his defensive prowess.

Despite playing for a mediocre team poorly suited to his pitching style, Mel never complained, never asked to be traded to a contender and never staged contentious holdouts. Stottlemyre took his turn every four or five days and went the distance more often than not. “He usually finishes what he starts,” my father once noted approvingly. In 1969, he went the route 24 times in 39 starts.

Mel was not just a pitcher; he was a player. In the era before the designated hitter, he was a battler at the plate. There were spectacular days like a five-hit game late in his rookie season and an inside the park grand slam against the Red Sox the following year. Each year Mel hit decently for a pitcher — he had a .160 career batting average — and every once in a while, he’d put one over the wall. He was also an outstanding fielder, ending his delivery in textbook fielding position, and a smart base runner.

The 1960s were a turbulent decade, and outrageous personalities like the shaggy-haired Pepitone and, a bit later, a mustachioed Sparky Lyle, appealed to our rebellious side. But the steady, reliable Stottlemyre, with his short, neat, haircut and all the virtues of a classic sports hero, was the man Yankee fans looked to in the clutch. Pepitone was flashy and spectacular on occasion but ultimately unreliable, and Lyle’s naked plunges into birthday cakes seemed downright weird. Like Roy White, the best offensive player of that sorry Yankees era, Mel was not controversial or edgy.

His playing career had an uncomfortable ending, one of the first indications that Yankee life under new owner George Steinbrenner would be different. Midway through the 1974 season, the 32-year-old Stottlemyre was disabled with a torn rotator cuff. At that time, a torn cuff was the end of the road, an injury from which no one recovered. Mel made one relief appearance late in the season, and it was painful to watch him. He didn’t get hit terribly hard, but it was obvious he was struggling to get the ball up to the plate.

The following spring, Mel came to training camp and tried to accomplish the impossible — return from an injury that had ended every career it had touched. Steinbrenner told him to take his time and let manager Bill Virdon know when he was ready to pitch. Then, without warning, Steinbrenner released him, ending the active career of a Yankee who, far more than Horace Clarke, was the defining figure of a disappointing period in club history.

Stottlemyre was livid when he heard of his dismissal. He was so angry at Steinbrenner that for many years he refused to return to Yankee Stadium. In the mid-’80s, he was the pitching coach for a young, talented New York Mets team that won a World Series. Throughout his estrangement from the Yankees, Stottlemyre, despite his hurt and anger, carried himself with the same dignity he displayed pitching for teams that couldn’t support him.

Finally, in 1996, Stottlemyre came back where he belonged, to the Yankees dugout as pitching coach under Joe Torre. Mel had the perfect temperament for coaching and was a stolid, steadying influence that comforted both his pitchers and Yankees fans. Bench coach Don Zimmer was beloved, but he was a round, lovable mascot. When one looked to the Yankees’ dugout in a tense situation and saw Torre and Stottlemyre exchange words and solemn nods, followed by Mel’s walk to the bullpen phone, it was obvious that things were under control.

Mel Stottlemyre retired from playing following the 1974 season after a rotator cuff injury. In 1996, he rejoined the Yankees and spent 10 seasons with the team as a pitching coach. During his time as a member of the coaching staff, the Yankees won five World Series championships. 
(Courtesy of 2000 Magazine)

Some people look completely different as they age; Zimmer is a classic example. He was a scrappy little ballplayer, often used as a pinch runner, who somehow morphed into a bloated, neck-less manager and coach. Mel looked the same as a coach as he did as a player—just older. The hair was grayer, the middle just a bit thicker, and the face had a few lines, but otherwise he looked just as he did in the 1965 yearbook. When the cameras focused on his wife, Jean, sitting in the stands at World Series games, she also looked like she did in the yearbook family photos, just a little older.

Why do certain players become our favorites?  They usually have to have ability, but that is only one criterion. Fans care about their team, and their heroes have to care just as much. Pepitone was talented but didn’t seem to care. Others cared a lot but weren’t as good. Mel was very good and cared very much.

We also tend to like players who have personal qualities that we admire. Stottlemyre was well-spoken, modest, stoic, and reliable. His greatest shortcoming was perhaps his lack of color, for Mel was never good for a controversial quote.

Stottlemyre’s loyalty to the Yankees was the reason so many of us were outraged at his sudden release, although Mel was clearly finished as a pitcher. It wasn’t as though the decision was a mistake; it was the indignity with which our hero was treated that was offensive. Steinbrenner was correct in assessing that Stottlemyre had no value to the 1975 Yankees, but in later years he learned how to send Yankee heroes to pasture with more dignity.     

It was fortunate that the rift was eventually mended, for Stottlemyre now appears on Old Timers Day with the other Yankee legends, which is where he belongs. He wasn’t part of a dynasty, but he was a link between dynasties, the man who kept Yankee fans hoping that better days were ahead and that their team would once again be the best in baseball.

During an 11-year career in the major leagues, five-time All Star Mel Stottlemyre won 164 games and posted a career ERA of 2.97. A solid-hitting pitcher, Stottlemyre once hit a rare inside-the-park grand slam.

 

 

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This is a fine article, Bill. Stottlemyre was my favorite Yankee during the late 1960s. I marveled at how consistently he threw pitches at or just below knee level. His record shows that he was one of the most consistent pitchers from year to year that MLB has ever seen. But my favorite Stottlemyre memory was watching on tv when he hit that inside-the-park grand slam. It was a screaming liner to medium left-center at Yankee Stadium which rolled and rolled all the way to the monuments.

gschechter

posted 01.13.2014