The Yankees’ disappointing fifth-place finish in 1969 prompted the team’s front office to part ways with some of the ball club’s underachieving veteran players who failed to live up to the great promise they displayed earlier in their careers.Joe Pepitone led New York with 27 home runs the previous year, but he batted just .242, and his erratic behavior proved to be a major distraction to the team over the final two months of the campaign.Meanwhile, after earning All-Star honors in 1967, Al Downing spent huge portions of each of the next two seasons on the disabled list.New York’s feeble offense finished next-to-last in the American league in home runs and runs scored in 1969, while also placing tenth in the junior circuit with a team batting average of just .235. As a result, the Yankee brain-trust decided to trade away Pepitone and Downing in an effort to improve the team’s starting lineup.
After searching for an eventual destination for Pepitone for more than two months, the Yankees elected to trade the enigmatic first baseman to the Houston Astros on December 4th for first baseman/outfielder Curt Blefary.The Brooklyn-born Blefary had seen his offensive production gradually decline since earning A.L. Rookie of the Year honors with Baltimore in 1965. Nevertheless, the Yankees hoped a change in scenery might help him find his stroke at the plate once more.
The very same day the Yankees acquired Blefary from Houston, they dealt Al Downing and catcher Frank Fernandez to Oakland for first baseman/third baseman Danny Cater. Cater was a solid line-drive hitter who finished second to Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in the 1968 A.L. batting race with a mark of .290.
The Yankees also hoped that the arrival of rookie catcher Thurman Munson might help to bolster their offense. Munson appeared briefly with the team late the previous season, and he made a favorable impression on everyone in the organization with his hitting ability, quickness behind the plate, and tremendous self-confidence.
The additions the Yankees made to their lineup helped improve their offense significantly. While Blefary failed to regain the form he showed earlier in his career, both Cater and Munson made key contributions to New York’s lineup. Playing both first base and third base, Cater batted .301 and drove in 76 runs. After starting off the season in a terrible slump, Munson led the team with an average of .302, en route to winning A.L. Rookie of the Year honors.
Bobby Murcer and Roy White also contributed greatly to the New York offense. Although Murcer batted just .251, he led the team with 23 home runs, knocked in 78 runs, and scored 95 others. Despite struggling at the plate at times, he displayed the kind of ability at other times that prompted the organization to pin so many of its future hopes on him. Murcer had his greatest moment on June 24th, when he hit four consecutive home runs against the Cleveland Indians in a doubleheader played at Yankee Stadium. After connecting in his final at-bat against Sam McDowell in the opening contest, Murcer hit three homers in the nightcap, making him just the fourth player in team history to hit four consecutive home runs (Lou Gehrig, Johnny Blanchard, and Mickey Mantle were the others who accomplished the feat). Meanwhile, White was the club’s best all-around player, earning All-Star honors for the second straight year by hitting 22 home runs, batting .296, driving in 94 runs, stealing 24 bases, and placing among the league leaders with 109 runs scored and 180 hits.
The Yankee offense, so feeble one year earlier, ended up finishing fourth in the league in runs scored (680) and fifth in the circuit in batting average (.251). New York’s improvement on offense enabled the team to finish second in the American League East, with a record of 93-69. Although the Yankees finished 15 games behind the first-place
Baltimore Orioles, their 93 victories represented the most wins compiled by the team since their last pennant-winning season of 1964.
While New York’s offense improved, its pitching staff remained its greatest strength. Yankees hurlers finished third in the league with a team ERA of 3.24. The bullpen also posted the second most saves in the junior circuit, with a total of 49. The combination of Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker proved to be as formidable a bullpen duo as there was in the major leagues. In his 62 relief appearances and 111 innings of work, McDaniel compiled a record of 9-5, with an ERA of 2.01 and 29 saves, good enough for second in the American League. In 41 relief appearances, Aker finished 4-2, with a 2.06 ERA and 16 saves.
Meanwhile, starters Fritz Peterson and Mel Stottlemyre both made the A.L. All-Star Team. Peterson placed among the league leaders with a record of 20-11 and a 2.90 ERA. Stottlemyre experienced something of an off-year, finishing just 15-13. Nevertheless, he compiled a very respectable 3.09 ERA and placed near the top of the league rankings with 271 innings pitched and 14 complete games.
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- Al Downing, Bobby Murcer, Carl Yastrzemski, Curt Blefary, Danny Cater, Frank Fernandez, Fritz Peterson, Jack Aker, Joe Pepitone, Lindy Mcdaniel, Mel Stottlemyre, New York Yankees, Roy White, Sam McDowell, Thurman Munson