July 30 – Happy Birthday Gus Triandos

triandos2It it wasn’t for Yogi Berra, the most popular player in Rugmaker history probably never would have played for Amsterdam. Let me explain.

Yogi Berra became the full-time starting catcher for the New York Yankees in 1949 and remained in that position for a total of 12 seasons. He would become one of the top five catchers in baseball history, winning three MVP Awards and helping the Bronx Bombers win 10 Pennants and 7 World Series during his time as their starting receiver. But what he also did was create a stockpile of talented catching prospects in the Yankees’ farm system and today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was one of them.

The Yankees signed Gus Triandos, a strapping Greek-American native of San Francisco, in 1948 when he was just 17 years old and before they knew Berra would become their behind-the-plate superstar. They assigned the youngster to their C-level club in Twin Falls, Idaho where Triandos smashed 18 home runs and averaged .323 in his first-ever season of professional ball. The next year he did even better, belting 26 home runs with a .307 average and showing great skill behind the plate. That got him pushed up to the A level of the Yankees’ farm system, where he started the 1950 season in Binghamton. That’s where he ran into the “Berra factor.” Two other catching prospects ended up on that year’s Binghamton roster, Lou Berberet and Hank Foiles and both would end up averaging over .300 that season. So when Triandos averaged just .048 in his first eight games with the club, instead of being patient with their young prospect, the organization demoted him back to C ball and gave him a bus ticket to Amsterdam.

He spent the balance of that 1950 season playing for the Rugmakers. He hit an amazing .363 and smashed 11 home runs in that half-season and impressed every baseball-lovng fan in Amsterdam with his shotgun arm and powerful swing. He also impressed the ladies of the Rug City.The 6′3″Triandos had Hollywood good looks and was built like a Greek God. The Recorder sports reporters covering the team nicknamed him “Gorgeous Gus”and the team’s female fans were disappointed that as a catcher, big Gus had to cover his handsome face with that big old catcher’s mask most of the time he was on the field. To top it all off, Triandos had a kind heart too. He was known to visit sick kids in both Amsterdam hospitals and was always willing to sign autographs. In addition to being the top vote getter on that year’s Can Am All Star team, Triandos ran away with that year’s “Most Popular Rugmaker” fan poll.

The only weakness Triandos had on a baseball field was his lack of fleetness afoot. Simply put, the guy was considered one of the slowest runners in Major League history. Despite that handicap, his strong hitting and outstanding defensive ability were clear indications that this guy would some day be a starting catcher on a big league team. But with Berra squatting behind the plate in the Bronx, it wouldn’t be for the Yankees.

New York brought Triandos up a first time in mid-August of the 1953 season. Casey Stengel got the then 22-year-old prospect into 18 games down the stretch and he hit his first and only home run as a Yankee. But he averaged just .157 and when the season was over so was his Yankee career, pretty much. He spent almost the entire ’54 season with the Yanks’ Double A club in Birmingham and that November, was included in a historic 17-player transaction with the Orioles that brought Bob Turley and Don Larsen to the Yankees.

It was the big break Triandos’ career needed. He was actually the starting first baseman on the 1955 Baltimore team and Hal Smith started behind the plate. He took over the starting catcher’s job during the 1956 season and remained in that role for the next seven years. He quickly established his reputation as one of the league’s best all-around receivers. He made three straight AL All Star teams and his 30-home runs in 1958 tied Berra’s record for most HRs by a catcher in a season. Though he was still obscured by the Yankee great’s shadow, he became a huge fan favorite in Baltimore, where they named a street after him.

Triandos gained lots of notoriety and sympathy for having to catch Hoyt Wilhelm’s fluttering knuckleball during the Hall-of-Famer’s four-plus seasons as an Oriole. Baltimore manager, Paul Richards designed and had made an over-sized catcher’s mitt to assist Triandos with the task. Though Wilhelm had some of his best big league seasons pitching to Triandos, including his only no-hitter, big Gus often said that catching the hurler’s signature pitch was the worst part of his career.

In 1962, Triandos was traded to the Detroit Tigers and a year later, Detroit sent him and pitcher Jim Bunning to the Phillies. It was there that he caught his second career no-hitter, when Bunning accomplished the feat in June of 1964 against the Mets. But Triandos had stopped hitting during his final few seasons in Baltimore and never again regained his stroke. He retired after the 1965 season and returned to his native California, where he started a mail delivery business. He died in his sleep, from heart failure in March of 2013 at the age of 82.

 

July 13 – Happy Birthday Ray Manarel

AmsterdamR58The first-ever Amsterdam Rugmaker team took the field at Mohawk Mills Park in 1938. They were managed by “Pepper” Martin. Not the “Wild Horse of the Osage” Pepper Martin from those great St. Louis Cardinal Gashouse Gang teams of the thirties. This was Admiral “Pepper” Martin, a career minor leaguer who became a player-manager in his thirties.

His 1938 Rugmaker team ran away with that year’s Can Am League regular season pennant on the strength of a superb starting rotation that included today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant, a big right hander from out near Rochester, NY named Ray Manarel. Born on July 13, 1915, he had been a baseball and basketball star in high school. The Yankees signed him a first time in 1936, while he was pitching for Brockport State Teachers College but Manarel asked for a release from his contract so he could accept an athletic scholarship to attend Clark University in Massachusetts.

After graduating from Clark, Manarel was convinced to give minor league ball a shot and he signed with the Sydney Mines, a Canadian team in the just formed six-team D-level Cape Breton-Colliery League. He had a sensational first season, going 9-3 with a microscopic ERA of 1.45. That earned him a new contract from the Yankees and promotion to Amsterdam.

That 1938 Rugmaker team went 79-40. Manarel was a huge reason why. He went 15-5 as part of the best starting rotation in the league that also included Duke Farrington (17-5) John Cahill (17-9) and Orin Baker (15-4). Manarel also often helped his own cause with his strong hitting. He averaged .294 for the Rugmakers that year, and belted 2 home runs.

The consensus of the entire Yankee organization was that Manarel was headed to an outstanding big league career with the parent club. Unfortunately, after compiling a 24-7 record during his first two seasons of professional ball, he suffered an arm injury and never again appeared in another game. Instead he became a history teacher in Massachusetts, served in the Navy during WWII and then became a professional management trainer for General Motors in Bristol, CT. He also served as a Yankee scout in the New England area for a number of years. He and his wife Virginia had two daughters and two sons, one of who, Charles, was killed in action during the Vietnam war. Manarel died in 2002 at the age of 86.

 

June 2 – Happy Birthday Art DelDuca

DukesIf you had to pick the top four Major League pitchers who ever made a start for the Amsterdam Rugmakers during their days as a Class C farm team for the New York Yankees, its an easy task. Vic Raschi, Lou Burdette, Bob Grim and Spec Shea all once wore the Amsterdam uniform and each of them went on to have very solid big league careers.

But ironically, none of them were the best hurlers on the Rugmaker teams they pitched for much earlier in their respective professional careers. In fact, Grim was pretty terrible during his one year in Amsterdam, compiling a 6-14 record, an ERA over six and a reputation for not being able to throw strikes. Burdette, who would go on to win over 200 games as a big league hurler after the Yankees traded him to the Braves, had a 9-10 record during his one season at Mohawk Mills Park.

The all-time starting rotation for the Rugmakers would instead include pitchers baseball fans outside of those who followed Rugmaker baseball during the team’s existence, never heard of.  At the top of that rotation would be Jackie Robinson (no not that Jackie Robinson) who became the only Rugmaker pitcher to win twenty games when he went 22-5 for the 1941 team. It would include Carl DeRose, who went 19-6 for the ’42 squad, with a sparkling 2.66 ERA and Herb Karpel, who went 19-9 for the ’39 Ruggies. Ken Rogers, who pitched with Burdette on the 1947 team earns a spot with his 18-6 record. Mike Rossi would beat out today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant for the fifth spot in the all-time Rugmaker rotation because of longevity. Rossi pitched parts of four seasons for Amsterdam, separated by his service in WWII. Rossi owns the career mark for most Rugmaker victories by a pitcher with 40…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.