The 1969 season ushered in many changes throughout all of major league baseball. The men who governed the game elected during the off-season to narrow the strike zone and lower the pitching mound, as a means of neutralizing the advantage pitchers gained in 1963, when the size of the strike zone had been expanded. Four new franchises were added to the fraternity of major league ball clubs, with two new teams taking up residence in each league. More teams meant more divisions, with each league being split up into two six-team divisions. The new format called for the two division winners in each league to meet in a best-of-five playoff series to determine the league champion. The two league champions would then meet in the traditional World Series competition to determine the ultimate winner. The new alignment had the Yankees taking up residence in the highly-competitive American League East, which also featured the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and Washington Senators.
Another significant change awaited the Yankees as they arrived at spring training prior to the start of the 1969 campaign. Mickey Mantle officially announced his retirement on March 1st, telling the assembled media he knew his time had come to bow out since he no longer found himself able to do the things he needed to do in order to help the Yankees win. Mantle’s departure left the team without a truly great player for the first time since 1920, when Babe Ruth made his first appearance in pinstripes.
Yet, help appeared to be on the way in the person of Bobby Murcer. After making brief appearances with the team at the ends of both the 1965 and 1966 seasons, Murcer spent the next two years serving in the military. His two years away from the game helped Murcer mature both mentally and physically, and he returned to the Yankees hopeful of fulfilling what many perceived to be his inevitable destiny as the team’s next star player.
New York also hoped to receive more in the way of leadership and offensive production from both Joe Pepitone and Tom Tresh, who Mantle’s retirement left as the players with the greatest amount of seniority on the team. Unfortunately, though, Tresh’s offensive funk continued, as he batted only .182, with just one home run and nine runs batted in over his first 45 games. The Yankees finally gave up on him on June 14th, trading him to the Detroit Tigers for reserve outfielder Ron Woods.
Tresh’s departure left Pepitone as the only Yankee regular with linkage to the team’s glorious past. Returning to his more natural position of first base, Pepitone had a somewhat productive year, leading New York with 27 home runs, driving in 70 runs, and winning his third Gold Glove. But Pepitone failed to provide the Yankees with the leadership they craved, embarking on a personal odyssey over the season’s final two months that very much resembled a soap opera. Citing “personal problems,” Pepitone went AWOL on August 12th, only to return to the team the following day. Just two weeks later, he quit the team after being fined $500 for leaving the bench during a game. Although the Yankees later reinstated Pepitone, his erratic behavior left the club no choice but to trade him away at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, New York’s offense continued to function as one of the least productive in all of baseball. The Yankees’ .235 team batting average placed them tenth in the 12-team American League, and their 94 home runs surpassed the total compiled by only one other team in the junior circuit.
Roy White, Bobby Murcer, and Horace Clarke provided what little offense there was. White led the team with a .290 batting average and a .392 on-base percentage, drove in 74 runs, and stole 18 bases, en route to earning a spot on the A.L. All-Star Team. Murcer had a promising first season, finishing second to Pepitone on the team with 26 home runs, and leading the club with 82 runs batted in, 82 runs scored, and a .454 slugging percentage. He also made a smooth transition to the outfield. Meanwhile, Clarke batted .285, stole 33 bases, tied Murcer for the team lead with 82 runs scored, and finished second in the league with 183 hits and seven triples.
The efforts of White, Murcer, and Clarke weren’t nearly enough, though, with New York’s feeble offense relegating the team to a record of 80-81 and a fifth-place finish in the A.L. East. Still, had it not been for the club’s outstanding pitching, the Yankees may well have fared even worse. New York finished second in the junior circuit with a team ERA of 3.23, with the club’s starters placing second in the league with 53 complete games. Fritz Peterson won 17 games and led the staff with a 2.55 ERA and 150 strikeouts. After being acquired from the expansion Seattle Pilots early in the year, reliever Jack Aker posted a record of 8-4, an ERA of 2.06, and 11 saves. At one point during the season, he strung together 33 consecutive scoreless innings of relief. Mel Stottleymre had another outstanding season, finishing 20-14 with a 2.82 ERA, leading the league with 24 complete games, and placing among the leaders with 303 innings pitched. Stottlemyre earned his fourth selection to the A.L. All-Star Team. Only 1968’s A.L. Rookie of the Year Stan Bahnsen disappointed, finishing the campaign with a record of just 9-16 and an ERA of 3.83.
Despite the team’s disappointing finish, New York’s front office demonstrated the faith it had in manager Ralph Houk by signing him to a new three-year contract on September 2nd that, at $65,000 per-season, made him the highest-paid manager in either league.
Meanwhile, New York’s mediocre performance over the course of the season did not deny Yankee fans the opportunity to relive part of the team’s glorious past. The Yankees held “Mickey Mantle Day” at Yankee Stadium on June 8th, honoring the legendary star by retiring his famous number 7. The team also presented him with a plaque that was subsequently hung on the centerfield wall, alongside another plaque that Mantle presented to Joe DiMaggio.By Bob_Cohen
- Bobby Murcer, Fritz Peterson, Horace Clarke, Jack Aker, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Pepitone, Mel Stottlemyre, Mickey Mantle, New York Yankees, Ralph Houk, Ron Woods, Roy White, Tom Tresh