When the Yankees signed Johnny “Zeke” Bella out of Dartmouth College in 1951, they initially assigned the 20-year-old native of Greenwich, Connecticut to the Binghamton Triplets, their Class A Eastern League affiliate. But when the Triplets had completed their short spring training season, New York’s front office changed their minds and sent their young outfielder to Amsterdam to play for Rugmaker Manager Johnny Novosel in what would be the final year of that affiliates existence as a C-level Yankee farm team.
It turned out to be the right move. Novosel teamed Bella in right field with Billy Casanova in left and Frank Wehner in center to form what quickly became one of the most productive starting outfields in Rugmaker history. Bella led the team with a .382 batting average, Casanova belted .354 with 87 RBI’s and Wehner hit .306 and smacked 12 homers. An ankle injury cost Bella a couple of weeks worth of games and then toward the end of the season he was sent back up to Binghamton, where he continued his hot hitting, averaging .317 in 21 games of action against better pitching.
There was by then no doubt Bella had what it took to be a big league ballplayer but history got in the way. He would spend the next three years in the US Army during the Korean War. By the time he returned to another full season of minor league baseball with Binghamton, he was 24 years old. The absence had not effected his hitting skills. He averaged a career high .371 for the Triplets in his return season, which won him the Eastern League batting title. He then got promoted to the Denver Bears the following year and hit .317 for the Yankees’ top farm team. That earned him a call-up to the Bronx in September of that 1957 season, and a big league debut that would become part of the lore that surrounded legendary Yankee skipper, Casey Stengel…
My complete birthday post including the hilarious way Stengel summoned Bella for his first-ever big league at bat will appear in the new second edition of A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam, NY Birthdays, which will be available before the 2016 Holiday season. I also distribute an Amsterdam, NY Birthday Blog Monthly Newsletter that includes the full birthday posts for three of the twenty-to-thirty people whose birthdays I recognize each month. Each newsletter also includes an Amsterdam Birthday Quiz that will test your knowledge and memory of people and events in your hometown.
The monthly newsletter is free. If you’d like to receive it, just make sure your name and e-mail address are included on this list.