It was a miracle Leo Keily was even alive, much less a big league pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. When he was five years old, he was run over twice by an ice truck in his hometown of Hoboken, NJ. The truck smashed his pelvis and both his legs. Doctors feared he might never walk again, but the youngster was out of the hospital within a month.
Leo joined the Red Sox pitching staff in 1951 as a 21-year-old starter. He went 7-7 in his rookie season with an impressive 3.34 ERA and then went into the military. In 1953, he became the first Major League ballplayer to play in Japan’s professional league and won all six of his Asian decisions. The following year he was back in Beantown. After he went 5-8 as a starter in 1954, the Red Sox moved him to the bullpen. After a good first season as a reliever in ’55, Keily hit a rough patch the following year and couldn’t seem to get anybody out and Boston optioned him down to the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. It was with the Seals that Keily accomplished something very unusual in 1957. He led the PCL League that year with 21 victories while making just three starts. His 20 wins in relief remain a PCL record. That performance earned him a return trip to Boston and he responded with his best season in the Majors in 1958 when he went 5-2 with 12 saves. After one more season with the Red Sox, Keily was traded to the Indians. His career record as a Red Sox was 25-25 with 28 saves.
I faintly remember being confused about the trade. Just before Opening Day of the 1986 baseball season, the Yankees and Red Sox exchanged DH’s. New York sent Don Baylor to Boston for Mike Easler. Later on, I learned that Baylor had demanded to be traded because Lou Piniella, the Yankee Skipper at the time had announced he intended to platoon him with Ken Griffey during the ’86 season. As is the case still today, trades between the arch-rival franchises were not frequent occurrences. In fact the Easler for Baylor deal was the first trade between the two teams since New York got Sparky Lyle from Boston in exchange for Danny Cater fourteen seasons earlier. Red Sox fans could only hope that this deal would not end up being as one-sided in favor of the Yankees as that one was. It didn’t.
The Red Sox had actually acquired Easler a first time in October of 1998 when they purchased him from the Pirates. Then two weeks before 1999 season was about to begin, they traded the native of Cleveland back to Pittsburgh for two prospects and cash. He became an All Star for the Pirates and in 1984, Boston reacquired Easler for pitcher John Tudor.
In his first season in Beantown in 1984, Easler belted 27 home runs for Boston, drove in 91 and averaged .313. Those numbers all decreased the following year and when the Yankees made Baylor available, the Red Sox front office saw the opportunity to replace Easler with a right handed pull hitter who could take good advantage of Fenway’s Green Monster. There was also a lot to like about Easler in pinstripes. He was a bonafide three-hundred hitter who’s nickname was “Hit Man.” He was a left-handed hitter with good pop in his bat giving him the potential of perhaps 25-to-30 home runs per season in New York aided by Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch. Easler would be joining a Yankee lineup that included superstars Don Mattingly, Ricky Henderson and Dave Winfield. There would be lots of protection surrounding him in the batting order which also meant less pressure to produce in every at bat. I fully expected that Yankee team to win their Division.
They came close, winning 90 games but Boston, with plenty of help from Baylor (31 HRs and 94 RBIs) won 95 and ended up in the World Series. Easler hit .302 for New York but he managed just 14 home runs and 78 RBIs. The Yankees traded Easler to the Phillies for pitcher Charles Hudson, that December and then got him back in another trade the following June. He played his final 65 big league games in Pinstripes during that 1987 season and then gave Japanese ball a try. During his 14 season career in the Majors, Easler hit .293.
John Burkett had already pitched 15 seasons of big league ball when the Red Sox signed him to a two-year $11 million free agent contract in December of 2001. The right hander was a product of the Giants’ organization and had pitched for San Francisco during his first half dozen seasons in the majors. He seemed on the verge of super-stardom when he went 22-7 for the 1993 Giants. The following season however, which was the final year of his contract with San Fran, he collapsed to a 6-8 record.That didn’t stop the Marlins from signing the New Brighton, PA native to a three year $10 million-plus deal in April of 1995. That began a string of five straight lackluster seasons for Burkett that included a 1996 mid-season trade to Texas. After three-plus pretty bad years as a Ranger, he signed with the Braves and pitched effectively in both 2000 and ’01. Still, when the Red Sox signed him, I remember thinking he’d get shelled in Fenway. In fact, he did get hit pretty hard in quite a few of his starts for Boston but he also won 25 games during his two-season stay in Beantown, while losing just 17 times. Not bad for a 38-year-old. Burkett retired after his two Red Sox seasons with a lifetime record of 166-136. During his fifteen big league seasons he earned just less than $38 million. He was also probably the best bowler ever to play Major League Baseball
The last Boston Red Sox team to win a World Series during the 20th century was the 1918 squad. Their starting rotation consisted of Carl Mays, “Sad” Sam Jones, Babe Ruth and today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant, Bullet Joe Bush. By 1922, three of the four were pitching for the Yankees and the fourth was on his way to becoming New York’s and all of baseball’s most famous home-run hitter of all time.
Before Bush got to Boston in 1918, he had already pitched five seasons with the A’s. He made quite a splash as a 20-year-old when he beat the heavily favored New York Giants in Game 3 of the 1913 World Series. Bush went 46-39 during his four seasons in Boston. His best year for the Red Sox was his last one, when he went 16-9 for the 1921 squad. In December of 1921, Boston owner Harry Frazee sent Bush, Jones and Everett Scott, his starting shortstop to New York for Roger Peckinpaugh, Rip Collins, Jack Quinn, Bill Piercy and $100,000. Bush then went 26-7 for the 1922 Yankees and 19-15 the following year. He kept pitching until 1928 when he ended his seventeen-season big league career with a 196-184 record.
Nicknamed “Indian Bob” because he was half Cherokee, Johnson was one of Baseball’s upper tier outfielders from 1933 until he retired in 1945. He spent most of his career with the Athletics, topping the .300 mark in average four times with Philadelphia. He also drove in 100 runs for seven consecutive seasons and exceeded the 20 home run mark in each of his first nine years in the big leagues. When he slumped to 13 home runs and 80 RBIs during the 1942 season, the A’s traded him to the Senators. He did even worse in Washington the following year and was sold to the Red Sox after the ’43 season. Playing in Beantown seemed to rejuvenate Johnson as he led Boston with 106 RBIs in 1944 and hit a robust .324. But he was 38 years old by then and Father Time simply caught up with him. He managed to hit .280 in 1945 and drive in a respectable 74 runs but with Boston’s regulars all returning from military service, the Red Sox released Johnson that December. The Pryor, Oklahoma native wasn’t ready to quit just yet and continued playing minor league ball until he was 45. During his 13 seasons in the big leagues he hit 288 home runs, drove in 1,239 and averaged .296. His brother Roy was also a big league outfielder for ten seasons, who started for the Red Sox from 1932 until 1935. Roy Johnson matched his brother’s .296 lifetime batting average.
The 1967 Boston Red Sox started the season with three catchers on their roster. Manager Dick Williams had receivers Bob Tillman, Russ Gibson and today’s Beantown Birthday celebrant, Mike Ryan to choose from. Unfortunately, none of them could hit worth a lick so Ryan got most of the starts for that year’s AL Pennant winners because Williams knew he was the best of the three defensively. The one problem Williams had with Ryan besides his inability to generate any offense was the catcher’s game management skills. The two were often seen jawing at each other over Ryan’s pitch selections. It sometimes took longer than a rain delay for Boston pitchers to accept one of Ryan’s pitch signals. This was probably the biggest reason why Williams had persistently lobbied the Red Sox front office to get him a veteran catcher from another team. That wish was fulfilled when Elston Howard showed up at Fenway at the beginning of August. Williams started Ellie the rest of the season and threatened to fine any Red Sox pitcher who shook off one of Howard’s pitches. Ryan took a seat on the bench but he did not do so quietly. Instead he let the Beantown press know he did not feel he deserved to be taken out of the starting lineup.
For the record, Snyder led the quartet of Red Sox catchers with a .203 average in ’67. Ryan was second, hitting .199. Then came Tillman in at .185 and finally the newcomer, Howard, who hit just .145. I’d have to research it but I seriously doubt any other Major League team in history had four guys sharing a non-pitching position in a single season with a lower cumulative batting average than these four guys produced for the ’67 Red Sox.
Never-the-less, Ryan’s defensive skills behind the plate kept him in the big leagues for eleven seasons despite a lifetime batting average of just .193. After four years with Boston, he was traded to Philadelphia in November of 1967 in exchange for pitcher Dick Ellsworth and another lousy-hitting catcher named Gene Oliver.
Long before the Red Sox got rid of Nomar Garciapara they gave up on another great shortstop. His name was Billy Rogell. Unlike Nomar however, who first became a star during his playing days in Boston, Rogell was never given much of a chance to do the same. Instead, the Springfield, IL native’s mentors in Boston almost ruined his career before it got started.
Rogell was a switch hitter but when he made his big league debut with the Red Sox in 1925, Boston’s Manager, Lee Fohl wanted him to bat exclusively right handed. Fohl’s reasoning was that Rogell had enough power right handed to pepper Fenway’s Green Monster with line drives. Instead, the move almost derailed the young shortstop’s career before it ever got started.
That 1925 Boston team finished 47-105 with Rohl averaging just .195. After that miserable debut, Rogell did not make it back to Fenway until the 1927 season. Bill Carrigan had taken over as the team’s manager and he started Rogell at third that year. Billy hit .266 but the Red Sox again lost over 100 games. When his average dipped into the .230s the following season, the Red Sox released him and he was picked up by the Tigers.
After another slow start in Detroit, Rogell got his Major League legs underneath him and gradually gained confidence in the field and especially in the batter’s box. By 1932 he was starting at short for the Tigers. He and second baseman Charlie Gehringer quickly grew into one of the League’s best middle infield duos and helped the Tigers become a powerhouse team of the 1930s winning two pennants and the 1935 World Series.
Rogell played until 1940, retiring with a .267 lifetime average. After his playing days, he got into politics and became a MoTown council member for 30 years. He died in 2003 at the age of 98.
If you’re younger than the age of 30, you probably never saw “El Tiante” pitch in the Major Leagues. That’s your loss. This guy was one of the most entertaining and skilled starting pitchers of his era. I remember his incredible 1968 season when he won 21 games for Cleveland. He was the ace of a very strong Indians’ pitching staff that led the AL with 23 shutouts, nine of which were thrown by Tiant. Cleveland won a total of 83 games that season and in over a quarter of those victories they shutout the opposition.
Tiant’s career was then almost derailed by a rash of injuries and he actually was released by both the Twins and the Braves before he found his true home with the Red Sox. After an inauspicious start in Beantown, when Tiant went 1-7 in 1971, he won 121 games during the next seven years, including three 20-victory seasons and won the hearts of Red Sox fans in the process. It was Tiant’s two-hit shutout against the Blue Jays that got the Red Sox into the 1978 one-game playoff for the AL East crown. I still say if the Red Sox could have started this guy instead of Mike Torrez in that next game, Bucky Dent’s heroics never would have happened. Tiant pitched his very best at the the biggest of moments.
In 1979, Tiant joined the Yankees as a free agent and pitched very well for a team torn apart first by management issues and then by the tragic death of their captain, Thurman Munson. Tiant won 13 games that season including his 49th and final career shutout. He fell to 8-9 the following year and the Yankees let him go.
Tiant finished his 19-year big league career with a 229-172 record, a 3.30 ERA and 49 shutouts. He belongs in Cooperstown. He was was born on November 23, 1940, in Marianao, Cuba. He shares his birthday with recently departed Red Sox closer Jonathan Papalbon, who took his 219 career saves and deserted Red Sox Nation for a $50 million contract with the Phillies.
The 1998 Red Sox won 92 games and captured the AL Wild Card slot. Their starting second baseman that season was Mike Benjamin. Born in Ohio but raised in California, Benjamin had been drafted out of Arizona State by the San Francisco Giants in the third round of the 1987 Amateur Draft. He spent seven seasons as a utility infielder for the Giants. He displayed a superb glove and a putrid bat. After the 1995 season, San Francisco traded Benjamin to the Phillies who let him become a free agent a year later. That’s when Boston signed him. During his first season in Beantown he was the team’s primary utility infielder, appearing in 49 games including one scoreless inning as a relief pitcher. The following year, Red Sox skipper, Jimy Williams moved John Valentin from second to third base and used Benjamin as his most-of-the-time second baseman. Mike responded well by hitting a career high .272 and committing just three errors in 911 innings of play. But it wasn’t enough to prevent the Red Sox from signing free agent second baseman Jose Offerman, that offseason. Just a couple weeks later, Benjamin was able to parlay his career season as a Red Sox into a $3.2 million four-year free agent contract with the Pirates. He retired after the 2002 season.
After spending parts of four seasons pitching in relief for the Yankees and Padres, Erdos was signed as a free agent by Boston after the 2000 season. He appeared in 10 games for the Red Sox in 2001 and was then released. He was born on this date in 1973, in Washington, PA. I also found a Boston Brave player named Andy High who was born on this day. High was the semi-regular starter at third for the Braves in both 1926 and ’27. His nickname was actually “Knee.” Get it, Knee High? The most famous ballplayer celebrating a birthday today is the great Stan Musial, who turns 91-years-old today.