Wednesday August 02, 2017
The Curious Case of Frank Verdi, Yankees Shortstop
Apparently there are other Moonlight Grahams besides Moonlight Graham.
For the non-baseball fan: Archibald Wright “Moonlight” Graham (1877-1965) was made famous by W.P. Kinsella, who included him in his novella “Shoeless Joe,” which was made into the 1988 hit movie “Field of Dreams.” Graham was the country doctor (Burt Lancaster), who, as a young man (Frank Whaley), made it to the bigs for exactly one game with the New York Giants in 1905. He was a defensive sub who never got to the plate so his career batting line looks like this: 1 G, 0 PA, 0 AB, 0 H, 0 R, 0 2B, 0 3B, etc. Basically a 1 with a lot of zeroes after it. He was a ghost—there and not.
As Casey said, you can look it up.
Turns out he's not the only ghost. The other day I was checking out retired numbers on Baseball Reference (don't ask) and was curious who else wore #44 for the Yankees (subsequently retired for Reggie Jackson). Turns out six other guys did, including, in 1953, Frank Verdi, shortstop. His career batting line? 1 G, 0 PA, 0 AB, 0 H, 0 R, 0 2B, 0 3B, etc. He was there and not. He was a ghost.
But the great thing about Baseball Reference? You can find that game in the modern era. It was May 10, 1953, and the Yankees were down to the Red Sox in Boston 3-1 in the top of the 6th. But then McDougal and Martin singled, Silvera sacrificed them over, and future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, in his last year in the bigs, pinch-hitting for pitcher Allie Reynolds, hit a sac fly for a run. Two outs, Martin on second. So Casey (yes, that Casey), pinch-hits again: Joe Collins for his leadoff hitter and shortstop Phil Rizzuto. Why pinch-hit for the leadoff man? Casey was probably playing the percentages, as Casey was wont to do. Sox pitcher Sid Hudson threw right, Rizzuto batted right, Collins batted left. A better shot. And Casey was not throwing away his shot.
But Collins grounded to short.
Now Stengel needed a new shortstop (Collins played 1st) and that's when he tapped #44, Frank Verdi. What was Verdi doing on the team at this point? Who knows? He'd had some good years in the minors, hitting over .300 for the Binghamton Triplets in 1950 and '52. When had they brought him up? And why? And how excited/nervous was he to trot out and field practice grounders and then set up behind Vic Raschi in the bottom of the 6th at Fenway Park? It was an easy inning, 1, 2, 3—ground out to third, fly out to center, strikeout—and Verdi jogged back to the dugout with the rest of the team. He didn't know it, but that was it for him.
If the Yankees hadn't rallied, would that have been it? Good question. In the top of the 7th, Hudson got two quick outs, then gave up back-to-back singles to Mantle and Woodling. So in came Ellis Kinder ... who gave up a single and a double, and the Yanks took the lead 5-3. Then Kinder intentionally walked Silvera to get to the pitcher, Raschi, because that's what you do. But Raschi drew a walk to load the bases.
Those intentional walks will kill you. They certainly killed Verdi's chances.
If Raschi had struck out, say, I'm sure Casey would've left Verdi in the game, and he would've led off the next inning and probably gotten his chance at the plate. But now the bases were loaded with two outs, and the Yanks had a chance to bust the game wide open. Casey took it. He told Verdi to sit and tapped Bill Rena to pinch-hit. Playing the percentages again, right? Nope. The new pitcher, Ken Holcombe, was a righty, as was Verdi, as was Rena. But at the time, Rena was hitting .353 in a limited role so maybe that's what decided it for Casey.
And Rena grounded to third to end the inning.
Verdi (one assumes): Hell, I could've done that.
Just think of the moment for a second. The Yanks were beyond powerhouses. They had won the last four World Series in a row, which only one other team, the 1936-39 Yankees, had ever done. It was early in the season. They were 14-7 and held a 1/2 game lead in the American League over perennial second-placers Cleveland. They were winning this game, 5-3. And Casey was still making moves like it was D-Day. He gave the kid a chance and then took it away: one game, no at-bats, no plate appearances, no chances in the field. There and not. A ghost.