BY MARTY APPEL
The expression goes, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there.”
Well, for Yankee fans, there was much to remember and much to forget. The decade began with the arrival of Roger Maris and ended with the arrival of Thurman Munson. In between were some of the greatest moments in Yankee history, and some of the lower depths the franchise had ever experienced.
The mystery of the ‘60s will always be whether owners Dan Topping and Del Webb knew they would be selling the team, and whether that caused them to deliberately allow the farm system dry up. The only thing we know for sure is that they did, and it did. Could they have signed Rod Carew, or Paul Blair, or Sal Bando or Rico Petrocelli or Steve Carlton as the Yankees of old might have? We will never know.
The decade began with a huge trade, bringing Roger Maris to the Yankees from those old trading cousins, the Kansas City Athletics. Maris would win the 1960 A.L. MVP Award, and the Yankees would return to the World Series after a third place finish in 1959. It was Casey Stengel’s 10th pennant in 12 seasons, but a shocking Series loss to Pittsburgh, in which he took heat for not having Whitey Ford available to pitch Game Seven, cost him his job. An era ended with the unceremonious dumping of the man who said, “I won’t make the mistake of being 70 again.” Gone too was general manager George Weiss, a Yankee fixture since 1933.
The move was also made, in part, because the Yankees were surely going to lose first base coach Ralph Houk to another team, perhaps Boston or Detroit. Houk had managed many of the Yankees in the minors, and was considered not only heir apparent to Stengel, but the perfect manager for the times. A Marine hero, a player’s manager. They just didn’t want him to get away.
So Houk took over the team in what would become a magical season – 1961. The Yankees won 109 games, Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record by hitting 61, winning another MVP, Mickey Mantle had a career high 54, and the team set a record with 240 round-trippers. Ford, at last pitching every fourth day, became a 20-game winner for the first time (and won the Cy Young Award), and the team would become the stuff of legend (not to mention an HBO movie 40 years later).
The ’62 Yanks didn’t quite match the glory of the ’61 version, and unveiled four rookies on opening day who were a little different than the traditional Bronx Bomber. Joe Pepitone would be the first to use a hair dryer and tried to have his own phone installed in the clubhouse. Phil Linz was a super sub, good enough to homer off Bob Gibson in a World Series, but content enough to know a good thing when he saw it – being on the Yankees bench. Jim Bouton’s politics were far to the left of his teammates, and he would go on to write the controversial “Ball Four.” And Tom Tresh – well, Tresh more fit the mold. And as Rookie of the Year, he helped lead the Yankees to not only a third straight pennant, but to a world championship, with Game Seven a 1-0 Yankee triumph, as the Giants’ Willie McCovey lined out to Bobby Richardson at second for a dramatic, series-saving conclusion. The Yankees carried winning pitcher Ralph Terry off the field – two years after he had yielded Bill Mazeroski’s game-winner for Pittsburgh. Only on the Yankees could such redemption be possible.
But as Terry was carried off, few realized it would be the last Yankee world championship for 15 years.
The team won again in ’63, three in a row for Houk, four in a row for the franchise, an MVP award for Elston Howard, but already sportswriters were prognosticating on the end of the dynasty. The starting lineup was getting old, and the farm system was not showcasing great talent. When the Yankees dropped four in a row to Los Angeles in the ’63 World Series, with Mel Allen losing his voice on the NBC broadcast, it seemed an omen of the end being near.
Houk moved up to the general manager’s slot in ’64, his perfect record intact. Yogi Berra, his career as a catcher having concluded, was named to succeed him. Yogi had been considered Stengel’s “assistant manager” for years. He had the Yankee pedigree and an IQ of 1000 when it came to baseball. But would he have the respect of his old teammates in order to run the ship?
1964 was a struggle. As it happened, the team got hot in September after Phil Linz played his harmonica on the team bus following a tough loss in Chicago. Berra walked back and knocked it out of his hands, and some thought that show of toughness straightened the team out. Rookie Mel Stottlemyre, and reliever Pedro Ramos were huge down the stretch. And the Yankees managed to win their 29th pennant by one game, the fifth straight flag for New York, equaling their streak of 1949-53. But unlike their earlier dynasty, who had won all five of those World Series, this one dropped their third of five, losing to Gibson and the Cardinals in seven.
Days later, Houk fired Berra. It was shocking. And equally shocking was the hiring of Johnny Keane, the man who had managed the Cardinals, and had then quit after the Series concluded.
Keane had no idea what he was getting into. He though he was taking on the golden job in sports. Instead, he took on a franchise whose players had aged, whose farm system had dried. Topping and Webb sold the club to CBS, the “Tiffany Network,” whose chairman and founder, William Paley, thought it would be wonderful to entertain sponsors at the World Series each fall.
Mike Burke was appointed to head the organization. Mel Allen was fired, and a year later, so too was Red Barber. Ballantine Beer would cease sponsoring the games, and later go out of business.
Tony Kubek (1965) and Bobby Richardson (1966) would retire, the team unable to get any value for them in a trade, and unprepared to replace them. Mantle, Ford, Clete Boyer, Howard and Maris were all on the decline.
Also, in 1965, came the advent of a draft of amateur players. Widely viewed as a rule to stop the Yankee dynasty, letting second division teams draft the best players before New York, it was another dagger at Yankee success, but hardly the total problem. It would not have manifested itself so quickly had the team built a strong system in the early ‘60s.
In 1965, the Yankees finished sixth, 25 games out of first. They had not been in the second division in 40 years. Some had seen it coming, but most fans were in shock. After all, this was still a team of superstars!
As if ’65 wasn’t bad enough, ’66 would be worse. Tenth place in a ten team league. Last place. The cellar. The team hadn’t been there since the 1912, when they were the Highlanders. Houk fired Keane in May and took over himself. But even his magic was gone. For the rest of his Yankee managerial career, which would last through 1973, he was not the genius who won three pennants in his first three seasons, but a .500 manager whom the fans grew tired of.
Horace Clarke took over at second, and his career would run the length of the Yankees fall from grace. Poor Horace, a good offensive player, would come to symbolize the lean years, as though it was his fault that the team could find no one better.
Maris was traded after the 1966 season for a third baseman named Charlie Smith, who would replace Boyer. A bitter Maris, who claimed the Yankees misled him about the seriousness of a hand injury, would play for two more pennant winners in St. Louis before retiring.
Ford retired in the spring of ‘67, and Howard was dealt to Boston that summer, without much in exchange. Mantle, who had his last big season in 1964 at the age of 32, retired after 1968, claiming “I just can’t hit anymore.”
Kubek, Richardson, Ford, Maris, Berra, Boyer, Mantle and Howard had collectively been exchanged for Charlie Smith, Bill Robinson, Ron Klimkowski and Pete Magrini.
There were few good signs in the late ‘60s. Roy White was one bright spot, but other hopefuls didn’t work out. Bill Robinson and Steve Whitaker flopped. Bobby Murcer went off to the Army for two years. Stottlemyre became a 20-game winner, an amazing feat with bad ball clubs. The bullpen had its moments, with Lindy McDaniel, Steve Hamilton and Jack Aker performing well – when there were games to save. But this was essentially a bad team, and worse yet, a dull one. And a dull Yankees team was just plain bad for baseball.
By virtue of finishing ninth in 1967, the Yankees managed to have the fourth draft pick in the June amateur draft in ’68. With that pick, they selected an All-American catcher out of Kent State, Thurman Munson.
Munson would make his big league debut quickly – August 8, 1969. Cocky, brash and confident, he looked around and didn’t like what he saw. He saw teammates who had grown complacent, satisfied to split a doubleheader. It wasn’t the way he played the game.
It would take a few years, and many more building blocks. But with the arrival of Munson, the fortunes of the franchise began to shift back. Despondent Yankee fans watched the Mets win the ’69 World Series and felt it was as low as things could get. But better players, and happier days, were on the way.