By Jeff Freier on April 7th, 2010 11:31 AM
We all know about the great athletes in New York sports history – Babe Ruth, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Walt Frazier – and even the busts – Ed Whitson, Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, Stephon Marbury, Scott Gomez. But what about the slightly-to-highly-above-average athlete? The kind-of-great but not all-timer? They may not have been Hall-of-Famers, but they were All-Stars, fan favorites, cogs on a championship team or maybe even just pretty darn good. They’re the little brother that didn’t hog all the attention. But they’re certainly worth talking about and remembering. So when do they get their due? Well, now they will. Here is a series of the not-quite-legendary in New York sports history.
Mel Stottlemyre spent all 11 seasons of his pitching career with the New York Yankees, yet, amazingly, didn’t win a World Series with the team. That almost seems impossible. Along with Don Mattingly and Bobby Murcer, he’s one of the all-time great Bronx Bombers who went ringless with the franchise. He’s probably most remembered for his years spent as the pitching coach for the Mets and Yankees (he also squeezed in two years with the Astros between his time with the local teams and one season with Seattle after leaving the Yanks). He put in 10 years with each franchise and won one World Series with the Mets and four with the Yankees. But seemingly forgotten when talking about Stottlemyre was his outstanding career as a pitcher.
The Hazleton, Missouri, native had an incredible start to his career when he was thrown right into the fire by the Yankees as a midseason call-up during the pennant race of 1964. He shrugged off the pressure of being a Yankee rookie by going 9-3 in his abbreviated debut season. He played a big part in the Yankees beating out the White Sox by one game to win the AL flag, which earned them a matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. New York trusted their young pitcher to start three games in the Fall Classic – and all three games came against Bob Gibson. Again, Stottlemyre didn’t wilt in the limelight. He beat Gibson in game two, earned a no decision in game five, but lost game seven, as the Cards defeated the Yanks. It was the only postseason appearance Stottlemyre would have. In total, he pitched 20 innings to the tune of a 3.15 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. The highlight of the regular season for the rookie came on September 26 against the Washington Senators, when Stottlemyre went 5 for 5 and pitched a complete-game two-hit shutout. One of the Senators who got a hit was third baseman Don Zimmer, and as Stottlemyre was having his perfect day at the plate Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris went a combined 0 for 8.
In his first full season in 1965, the sinker-baller went 20-9, proving his spectacular shortened rookie season was no fluke. He also led the league in complete games (18) and innings pitched (291) that year. Unfortunately, the rest of his career was spent during the Yankees dark years. The Mantle/Yogi Berra/Whitey Ford glory days came just before him, and he just missed out on the Bronx Zoo championships. But playing on woeful teams didn’t stop him from being one of the top pitchers in the American League during his era (though he did lead the league in losses twice, including a 20-loss season in 1966). He won 20 games three times, led the league in complete games twice and was named to five All-Star teams (’65, ’66, ’68, ’69, ’70). In 1969, he twirled a one-hitter against the defending champion Detroit Tigers (the only hit being a fifth-inning double by Jim Northrup, while Stottlemyre himself went 1 for 3). Just as the Yankees were starting to turn the franchise around, he had to retire after the 1974 season when he suffered a rotator cuff injury. Nowadays, arm surgery is as common as getting your teeth cleaned, but back then, an injury like that meant the end of a career. He was only 33 years old.
With the exception of that injury-shortened last year and his spectacular two-month rookie season, Stottlemyre started between 35 and 39 games in every other season of his career, and he threw at least 250 innings (with a career-high 303 in 1969). He finished with a career record of 164-139, a 2.97 ERA, 152 complete games, 40 shutouts and 1,257 strikeouts. And he ranks in the top echelon in just about every all-time Yankee pitching list – seventh in wins (but first in losses, which wasn’t a reflection on his pitching but on how bad his teams were), third in ERA, third in shutouts, fourth in games started, seventh in strikeouts and eighth in complete games. In 2000, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, but, just like the way he used to pitch, he has it under control. Mel Stottlemyre was such a successful pitching coach that it overshadowed his very successful pitching career. But without a doubt, the even-tempered, classy hurler was one of the best pitchers in Yankee history.
(Click on the names to read the other bios in the series: Steve Vickers, John Olerud, Al Toon, Brad Van Pelt, Dick Barnett, Mickey Rivers, Butch Goring/Ron Duguay/Ken Daneyko, Rusty Staub, Buck Williams, Matt Snell/Emerson Boozer and Mark Bavaro.)