It was largely through the efforts of AL founder Ban Johnson that ownership of the Yankee franchise changed hands on December 31, 1914. Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston paid Bill Devery and Frank Farrell $460,000 for it, and then built a winner. After the misstep of hiring Bill Donovan to manage the club (fifth-, fourth-, and sixth-place finishes in 1915-1917), Miller Huggins arrived behind the bench in 1918 and Babe Ruth on the bench two seasons later. The Yankees became the winning organization that inspires such deep feeling in fans of all stripes to this day.
The Yankees and the Hunter family celebrated New Year's Eve before the ball fell on December 31, 1974. Eventual Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter had been declared a free agent after the season once Charlie Finley failed to honor a clause in his contract. Several teams courted him, but Hunter signed for five years in the Bronx, and 40 wins his first two years had the Yanks playing in the World Series for the first time in nine years in 1976. He struggled in ’77, and the great career seemed over. Then the Yanks fell 14 games back in 1978 despite the fabulous pitching of Ron Guidry, who was having a year for the ages. But it wasn’t until Catfish’s late August/September spurt that the Bombers turned things around and caught the Sox.
It’s an amazingly uplifting story really, perhaps the best one that baseball has to offer. After his 3,000th hit was the last he would get, near the end of the 1972 season, Roberto Clemente‘s Pirates lost to St. Louis in the NLCS. Then Clemente responded in Nicaragua’s moment of crisis following an earthquake, and flew into Managua with some supplies, but the plane crashed on December 31, 1972, and the star player from Puerto Rico was gone. It would be hard to find a bigger hero among the ranks of ballplayers. Clemente is one of the few players to join Yankee Lou Gehrig in a special fraternity: Hall of Fame inductees for whom the five-year waiting period was waived.
The wily Orlando “el duque” Hernandez experienced two stellar Yankee tours of duty, and he was with Joe Torre‘s team for three of four World Championships. He added another ring with the 2005 White Sox. This all became possible once Hernandez defected from Cuba on December 31, 1997.
Most would agree that it was a good thing when the Yanks re-signed first baseman Tino Martinez on December 31, 2004, to a one-year contract with a club option for the 2006 season. On the one hand, the home run streak (10 dingers in early May) he captivated baseball with early in the 2005 season while Jason Giambi continued to struggle kept the Yanks in the playoff hunt. On the other, one hopes it gave Tino a little taste of the glory of his former time in the Bronx. Take a bow, Tino.
May Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot…. But New Year’s Eve is not always a happy occasion, particularly in baseball. When the Basic Agreement between the Players’ Association and the owners expired on December 31, 1979, it led to the 1981 strike. Labor strife ensued once again once the agreement lapsed on 1984′s final day. And worst of all (so far) was the ’94 walkout that led to the cancellation of the World Series eight months after the Agreement lapsed yet again on December 31, 1993.
Righthander Bob Shawkey (1980), who started and won the first game in Yankee Stadium, and managed the 1930 Yankees to a third-place finish, is by far the most famous of the three Yankee players who have died on December 31. After starting out with the 1913-1915 A’s, Shawkey pitched 415 games in New York from then until he retired as a player in 1927. He went 168-131-31 in New York and 196-150-28 overall. The other two players have finished their respective careers with brief stops in New York. First baseman Jack Doyle (1958) had no hits or rbi’s in three at bats playing one game for the 1905 Highlanders after an 1889-1904 career spent largely with the Giants that netted 25 home runs and 968 runs driven in. Hurler Al Mamaux (1962) won one game, lost one, and saved none in 14 appearances (two starts) with the 1924 Yankees. Added to his 1913-1917 tour with the Pirates and the 1918-1923 stint with the Dodgers, his overall mark was 76-67-10.
Lefty Tommy Byrne (1919) not only made his major league debut in the Bronx from 1943-1951, he sandwiched his years pitching for the Browns, the White Sox, and the Senators in between New York stints, finishing his career with the Bombers from 1954-1957. One of three Yankee players born on December 31, Tommy posted a 72-40 mark with the Yankees, and added 12 saves. The Yanks sent Byrne and cash to the St. Louis Browns for Stubby Overmire in June 1951. Byrne returned to the Bronx after he was released by the Washington Senators in August 1953. Southpaw Ted Gray (1924), after a stable nine years pitching for the Tigers in Detroit, tossed for the White Sox, the Indians, the Yankees, and the Orioles in 1955. For the Yanks he pitched in one game, in which he allowed three hits and one run, to no record. Gray signed as a Yankee free agent once he was released by Cleveland in June 1955. He signed with the Orioles once the Bombers released him one month later. With the second half of the 2004 season, the ranks of December 31 Yankee birthdays grew by one, when New York sent Jose Contreras to Chicago for Esteban Loaiza (1971). Loaiza failed in the starter’s role in New York again and again, but his final line was a 1-2 record in 10 games. He allowed but one run while hurling 8.33 innings in the ’04 postseason. Esteban posted a 126-114 mark since starting with Pittsburgh in 1995, and he was the 3-0 loser for Texas against Roger Clemens and the Yanks in Game Three of the 1999 ALDS.