From his rookie year through his coaching career, Mel Stottlemyre forged a winning legacy
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
As Mel Stottlemyre sits next to his wife, Jean, in the main dining room at the Salish Lodge & Spa in Snoqualmie, Wash., and answers questions about his career as a Big League pitcher and his tenure as Yankees pitching coach, his humility is never more apparent.
Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for Stottlemyre to brag about the great seasons he had on the mound in the 1960s. He certainly could take credit -- even a little bit -- for the tremendous success Yankees pitchers had under his watch during the glorious late-'90s championship run. But that's not who Mel Stottlemyre is.
Instead, Stottlemyre speaks humbly. When the subject of his brilliant 1964 postseason comes up, he says that Hall of Famer Whitey Ford schooled him on how to get Major League batters out. When asked about his first season as the Yankees' pitching coach in 1996, he credits Joe Torre for giving him the autonomy to make the right decisions.
And when Stottlemyre speaks about his long battle with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer, his thoughts turn to his wife of more than 50 years.
"It's not like Jean has taken care of me for one or two years," Stottlemyre said early in 2015. "I've had a live-in nurse for 16 years. When I think about all that she's had to do in taking care of me, it's remarkable."
Stottlemyre, now 75, was originally diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2000. He underwent stem cell transplant surgery later that year and was in remission for three years. Then, in 2003, a blood test revealed that cancerous cells were again accumulating, and he has been undergoing chemotherapy ever since, with the treatments becoming more extensive in recent years. Further complicating the situation, one of the many medications Stottlemyre takes caused his Achilles tendon to weaken and ultimately tear. Because of the chemotherapy, Stottlemyre is unable to undergo surgery to repair the tendon, so he instead walks with a cane.
"Over the last few years, I've had to undergo chemotherapy twice a week for three weeks a month," Stottlemyre said. "That's been rough. There have been a lot of side effects, and it seems like we've spent every holiday in the hospital at one time or another. Recently, things have gotten a little better, and that's been a nice change."
Pride in Pinstripes
Besides his family, no subject brings a smile to Stottlemyre's face quicker than the mention of his time in pinstripes.
"I was a player who took a lot of pride in my work," Stottlemyre said. "I tried to do the best I could every time I took the mound. As a coach, I got to be part of some very special teams, and that still makes me happy."
As Stottlemyre shared his thoughts on being part of the fabric of the Yankees' history, he had no idea that seven weeks later, in June 2015, the team would dedicate a Monument Park plaque to him. In early April, Jean Stottlemyre received the news from Yankees brass that her husband would join the pantheon of Yankees greats on June 20, but to make the moment even more special, the plan was to surprise him.
When the subject of the Stottlemyres' next trip to New York came up over lunch, Jean threw the perfect curveball.
"We're going to try to come out for Old-Timers' Day," she said, as her husband looked out the window at Snoqualmie Falls, a 270-foot waterfall. "Hopefully, we can be there."
Fate's Helping Hand
Stottlemyre's path to Monument Park began long before baseball fans knew his name. His inspiring journey started in tiny Mabton, Wash., when Stottlemyre was a young boy in the 1940s.
"My younger brother and I used to play baseball in the backyard," Stottlemyre recalled. "I always pretended that I was playing for the Yankees, and he pretended he was on the Dodgers. We used to watch the baseball game of the week religiously, and the majority of the time, the Yankees were playing in those games. I always loved the Yankees, and from the time I was about 5 years old, I actually dreamt of playing for the Yankees one day."
When he was 9 years old, Stottlemyre tried out for a team for the first time.
"At the tryout, the coaches lined up all the players and asked each of us to throw a baseball as far as we could," Stottlemyre said. "I threw the ball a little farther than everyone else, and that's how I became a pitcher."
After graduating high school in 1959, Stottlemyre enrolled at Yakima Valley Community College with the intention of playing baseball there. However, shortly before the season, he was ruled academically ineligible.
"Understanding that I needed to do well in school was one of the toughest lessons I learned in my life," Stottlemyre said.
By the next fall, Stottlemyre had transferred to Central Washington University, and although his grades improved, the baseball coach rescinded a partial scholarship for reasons that were never explained to the aspiring ballplayer.
Stottlemyre wasted no time in transferring back to Yakima Valley Community College, where he was finally able to play.
That's when fate intervened.
"We played a lot of doubleheaders, and Andy Erickson, who was a left-handed pitcher, always pitched the first game," Stottlemyre said. "Eddie Taylor, a Yankees scout, was interested in Andy, so he came out to a lot of our games. I usually pitched the second game of the doubleheaders. Rather than going home after the first game, Eddie would occasionally hang around for a few innings. That's the only reason he saw me pitch. That's how the Yankees found me."
Before the end of the 1961 season, the Yankees made an offer to sign Stottlemyre.
"I asked my dad whether he thought I should leave school and sign with the Yankees," Stottlemyre said. "He said, 'If you don't take this opportunity and try it, you'll wonder for the rest of your life how far you could have gone.' That was all I needed to hear. I decided to give professional baseball a shot."
A Great First Impression
Stottlemyre's Minor League career began in rural Harlan, Ky., a coal-mining town where most of the mines had closed prior to his arrival.
"It was kind of a scary place back then," Stottlemyre said. "A lot of people were out of work and pretty desperate. We didn't have a grounds crew there or a tarp for the field, so the players would have to get out onto the field and mop up the puddles of water with towels after it rained. I pitched like crazy to get out of there, and I won five out of my first eight games. That got me promoted to Auburn, N.Y., where I finished my first season."
Stottlemyre continued on a fast track to the Big Leagues, and by 1964, he had established himself as the best pitcher in Triple-A Richmond.
"In the beginning of that season, I couldn't get my sinker over the plate," Stottlemyre said. "But Billy Muffett, one of the older pitchers on the team, worked with me on refining my mechanics and concentrating on my control. He convinced me that if I could throw that pitch consistently for strikes, I would get to the Big Leagues quickly. That's exactly what I did that summer."
Although Stottlemyre expected to get called up to the Bronx that September, his 13-3 record and 1.42 ERA in 30 games -- combined with injuries to Yankees frontline starters Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry -- hastened the promotion.
Stottlemyre, then 22 years old, got the call on Aug. 11, 1964. He joined a team that was coming off four consecutive pennants and that had already won two World Series titles in the decade. But the Yankees club that Stottlemyre joined was struggling. It was three-and-a-half games out of first place, trailing the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles in the American League race, and needed to make up ground quickly.
Stottlemyre took the ball against the White Sox on Aug. 12 and immediately began to save the season. He tossed a complete game, helping the Yankees earn a win.
"I got some good advice from Elston Howard before that game," Stottlemyre said. "He just told me not to do anything different from what I had been doing in the Minors. Coming from a great catcher like Elston, I really took those words to heart. I was still nervous when I got out onto the mound, but after I got the first batter out, I felt like I was going to be okay."
Over the next two months, Stottlemyre was more than okay. He was brilliant. Four days after his debut, the right-hander defeated the Orioles, and he followed that performance with a complete-game shutout against the Red Sox. By the end of August, Stottlemyre had a 4-1 record with a 1.54 ERA, and the Yankees were just three games out of first place.
"I spent a lot of time with Whitey that first season," Stottlemyre said. "He told me, 'If you're getting a hitter out a certain way, don't change your approach until he makes an adjustment.' He was right. There were a lot of hitters who didn't realize that I was pitching them the same way every time, and they never made adjustments. I used to take my pitching charts home every night and study exactly what I was throwing to each opposing batter."
Stottlemyre continued to pitch well that September, finishing the regular season with a 9-3 record and a 2.06 ERA. In large part due to his emergence, the Yankees clinched their fifth consecutive pennant.
"I think I just filled a void that they had at the time," Stottlemyre said. "We didn't have anyone else in Richmond who was ready to come up, and I was able to pinpoint my pitches and get Major League hitters out."
After the Yankees lost the first game of the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals and lost Ford for the rest of the Fall Classic to an arm injury, Stottlemyre took on the great Bob Gibson in Game 2.
"The nervousness that I felt that day lasted until I got through the first inning," Stottlemyre said. "I was more nervous because I was facing Bob Gibson than anything else. I knew I could get the St. Louis hitters out, but I also knew that he wasn't going to give up many hits, and I wasn't looking forward to batting against him."
Despite his trepidation, Stottlemyre outpitched the future Hall of Famer, giving up just three runs in a complete-game win.
Stottlemyre faced Gibson a few days later in Game 5, and the rookie pitched another gem, giving up one earned run in seven innings of work. Stottlemyre left the game with his team behind, 2-0, and although the Yankees tied the score in the ninth inning, only to lose in extra innings.
"I was very confident that day, and I think I pitched a good game," Stottlemyre said. "But our guys really struggled against Gibson. He was overwhelming."
After the Yankees evened the Series in Game 6, Stottlemyre and Gibson squared off again in Game 7. Pitching on two days' rest, Stottlemyre struggled. He gave up three runs in four innings of work and watched from the bench as Gibson earned a complete-game victory.
"I still regret Game 7," Stottlemyre said. "I still think about it often. The thing I regret the most is a play in the fourth inning. There was a ground ball hit to first base. With runners on first and second, [first baseman] Joe Pepitone threw to [shortstop] Phil Linz at second base. Linz got the out at second and threw the ball back to Pepitone in an attempt to turn a double play. Linz' throw was wide, and I had to dive for the ball because I was a little late backing up the play. That play ignited the Cardinals' three-run rally that inning, and I hurt my shoulder diving for the ball. I've often wondered how things would have turned out if I had gotten there a second sooner."
The conversations that Stottlemyre had following the Game 7 loss have also stayed with him.
"Most of the veteran players came up to me in the clubhouse and patted me on the back," Stottlemyre said. "They all said, 'Don't worry about it, kid. We'll be back here again next year, and you'll get another chance.'"
The chance to avenge the Game 7 defeat never came. The Yankees failed to finish higher than second place in any of Stottlemyre's final 10 seasons.
"Our star players began to hit a decline at the same time," Stottlemyre said. "We didn't have that much talent in the farm system, and that was not a good recipe for staying on top."
Despite being on several losing teams, Stottlemyre remained a constant bright spot.
In 1965, the right-hander earned his first of five All-Star Game selections while winning 20 regular-season games on a sixth-place Yankees team.
"That was a rewarding season," Stottlemyre said. "Regardless of what place we were in, I looked at every start as my day, and I was going to do everything I could to be successful. I went out there with the attitude that I was going to win, no matter what."
Stottlemyre went back to the All-Star Game in 1966 despite struggling during the first half of the season and not wanting to pitch in the Midsummer Classic.
"I had a 7-10 record at the All-Star break," Stottlemyre said. "I had lost a lot of close games, but I was embarrassed by my record. I called [Minnesota Twins and AL manager] Sam Mele and told him that I didn't want to play in the All-Star Game. He said, 'You're going because there isn't anyone else on the Yankees I want to take.' That's when I realized that we weren't a very good team."
Stottlemyre put together his two best seasons at the end of the decade. He won 21 games in 1968 and followed that with a 20-win season in 1969. During that two-year period, he tossed 43 complete games.
"That was an enjoyable time," Stottlemyre said. "I was among the league leaders in wins, and I took a lot of pride in the number of innings I pitched. I realized how much my team was relying on me, and I welcomed that."
Five years later, Stottlemyre tore his rotator cuff. He made several attempts to restore his arm, including a visit to the Dodgers' team doctor, and he participated in a conditioning program with a kinesiology professor at Michigan State University. But without the advantages of modern medicine, nothing worked. At just 32 years old, Stottlemyre's pitching days were over.
"I actually tore my rotator cuff twice," said Stottlemyre, who finished his career with a 164-139 record and a 2.97 ERA. "I thought I was making progress, and then while I was lifting some light weights, I heard a pop. That's when I knew it was over."
Back to the Bronx
The next chapter of Stottlemyre's life began in the spring of 1975. He moved back to Washington and opened a sporting goods store. He then worked for the Seattle Mariners as a scout before serving as the New York Mets' pitching coach for 10 seasons, including their 1986 championship campaign.
After a two-year stint in the same position with the Houston Astros, Stottlemyre planned to retire from the game. Then, he got a call that shocked him.
"I wasn't happy with the way things ended with the Yankees in '75," Stottlemyre said. "So when I got a call from [former Yankees advisor] Arthur Richman, and he said that George Steinbrenner wanted to talk to me about coming back, I asked him if he was drunk.
"But sure enough, George called me a few days later," Stottlemyre continued. "He said that he felt that I was too young to retire and that baseball needed guys like me. He really convinced me to come back to the Yankees. At first, I figured I'd give it a year and take it from there."
Stottlemyre joined Joe Torre's staff prior to the 1996 season and inherited a group of pitchers surrounded by question marks. The team didn't have a frontline ace in the rotation. With 12 career wins under his belt, Andy Pettitte was far from proven, and Dwight Gooden was coming off a yearlong drug suspension. Although the Yankees had an established closer in John Wetteland on the roster, Mariano Rivera was yet to emerge as a force out of the bullpen.
"On the first day of Spring Training, I walked into Joe's office to let him know which pitchers I was going to have throwing," Stottlemyre said. "He looked up at me and said, 'You don't have to tell me that. I hired you to do a job, and I trust everything you're doing.' That was a huge relief because it wasn't always like that with the Mets."
With that autonomy, Stottlemyre began to work closely with several pitchers, all of whom came up big for the Yankees in 1996. Two in particular authored legendary careers in pinstripes.
"I had a jump-start because I had already worked with Doc Gooden and David Cone," Stottlemyre said. "With Doc, I knew I had to work with him to sink his fastball because he had lost some velocity on it. He was ready to make those adjustments, and our long conversations really paid off."
As for the younger guys, Stottlemyre had his work cut out for him at times.
"Pettitte was a challenge to work with in those first few seasons," Stottlemyre said. "He was too hard on himself. He would mentally destroy himself in the middle of games if he had one bad inning. We would have some knock-down, drag-out arguments in the middle of games, and then he would come up to me after the game and apologize. We worked hard on that, and he eventually realized that he had to control himself better. As a coach, he was my pride and joy.
"I'd like to say that I taught Mariano Rivera a few things," Stottlemyre continued. "But the only thing I really taught him was the two-seam fastball. We worked on it for a long time, and then he threw it for the first time against [Seattle Mariners All-Star DH] Edgar Martinez. Instead of darting away, that pitch darted in on Edgar. He stepped out of the box, and said to the catcher, 'What the [heck] was that?' From that point on, Mo got comfortable throwing that pitch to a lot of batters."
Under Stottlemyre's direction, the 1996 Yankees staff posted a combined 4.65 ERA, more than a third of a run better than the AL average that year, en route to winning the World Series. For the pitching coach, who never got back to the World Series as a Yankees player, contributing to the team's first championship in 18 years was a highlight.
"Getting the chance to return to the Yankees after a long vacation meant a lot to me," Stottlemyre said. "Then, to win the World Series in my first season back was very satisfying. It took the sting away from not getting back to the World Series as a player."
Stottlemyre remained on Torre's staff through the 2005 season, during which time the team won three more World Series titles and two American League championships. Although he's too humble to admit it, Stottlemyre's work with the team's pitching staff was often as important as the players' on-field contributions.
"I'm proud of what we accomplished," Stottlemyre said. "I'm lucky to have worked with Joe Torre and for an owner who gave us everything we needed."
Right Where He Belongs
A month-and-a-half after Jean received the news, the surprise remained a well-kept secret, at least from the man of honor.
As a misting rain came down at Yankee Stadium on June 20, Stottlemyre sat on the bench in the home dugout and shared memorieswith several of the former players he teamed with and coached.
Despite a few health-related setbacks in the weeks leading up to Old-Timers' Day, Stottlemyre got the green light he had hoped for and got on a plane the next day.
"It didn't matter what the doctor said," Stottlemyre confessed. "I wanted to be here and see these guys so much, I was coming either way. I was prepared to go a few rounds with the doctor if I had to."
The days' ceremonies began with the organization dedicating a plaque to former player and coach Willie Randolph. Following Randolph's speech, masters of ceremonies Michael Kay and John Sterling introduced each former Yankee.
After about two-thirds of the introductions were complete, Yankees assistant director of marketing and advertising Gregory King walked into the third-base dugout, where Jean was sitting with her son, Mel Stottlemyre Jr., her daughter-in-law and three of her grandchildren, anxiously awaiting her husband's big moment.
"It's almost here," Jean said nervously. "I can't believe it."
When former pitcher Don Larsen was announced, a few other members of the team's marketing department carried Stottlemyre's plaque, draped with a plastic cover, to the area between the pitcher's mound and home plate.
Moments later, Stottlemyre found himself standing in the home dugout without any Yankees alumni.
"I thought they forgot me," Stottlemyre would say later. "It wasn't until I saw my family on the field that I realized that something was going on. I still didn't know that I was going to have my own plaque."
With an announcement from Kay of another ceremony, Jean proudly led her family into position while a list of her husband's accomplishments are read.
Moments later, Pettitte -- who came to New York to take part in the Stottlemyre tribute, but did not play in the Old-Timers' Day game -- escorted his former pitching coach onto the field, holding Stottlemyre's arm tightly as the two walked slowly toward the middle of the diamond.
With the Stadium crowd cheering loudly, Stottlemyre unveiled the plaque before Torre and Jean "Soot" Zimmer -- the widow of Stottlemyre's longtime friend and fellow coach Don Zimmer -- joined him on the field, presenting gifts on the Yankees' and Steinbrenner family's behalf.
"This is beyond a doubt the biggest surprise I've ever had," an emotional Stottlemyre began his address to the crowd. "Today in this Stadium, there's no one happier on this field than myself."
Toward the end of his moving speech, Stottlemyre referenced his own mortality.
"If I never get to come to another Old-Timers' Day, I will take these memories that I have today, and I will start another baseball club, coaching up there whenever they need me."
And so, the young boy who dreamt of one day wearing the pinstripes is now part of the pantheon of Yankees legends. Mel Stottlemyre has come full circle.
"Having a plaque in Monument Park is awesome," Stottlemyre later said as he sits down for dinner after the ceremony. "I guess I've really made it now."
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the July 2015 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.