Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Tom Tresh: a New York Yankee worth remembering
Athletics were instilled in Tom, the culture and all, from when he was an infant. His father Mike had been a major league catcher with the White Sox and Indians. Family home movies show a two-year-old Tom throwing a ball around.
Some multi-sport superstars in high school can be jerks, projecting an air of superiority and entitlement. Reading about Tom Tresh, I'm certain he was the opposite type.
Why am I interested in Tom Tresh? Well, I'm 62 years old. As a boy in elementary school, baseball captivated me at a time when the New York Yankees were in rarefied air. The Yankees had the most storied history of all the big league teams. Their dynasty of the late 1950s and early '60s continued a long pattern of accomplishment. The early '60s team took on a distinct air of appeal. I think it was because of my fellow boomers and I. Billy Crystal felt the love. His movie "61*" which focused on Roger Maris, was really an exhibit of reverence toward the Yankees of that time.
I'm not sure the team had more characters than they ever had. The media had burgeoned. Post-WWII prosperity enabled the broad public to take in more entertainment. Newspapers were king. They proliferated in New York City and scratched and clawed for stories. Those Yankees gave them fodder. Mickey Mantle was way up there as a superstar. So was pitcher Whitey Ford, a.k.a. "the chairman of the board." Maris had incredible, meteoric fame that would place him in the pantheon forever, even though his '61 season was rather an anomaly. It was a strange season that had Detroit Tiger Norm Cash batting .361, the most anomalous batting average of all time. Something odd was going on that summer.
The Yankees were king of the hill. Tresh was one of their non-superstar players, but he was a member of good standing. Fans all knew who he was.
Bring on 1962. Tresh achieved his dream, making the starting lineup of the American League champion Yankees. The '62 World Series was a matchup of the Yankees and San Francisco Giants. The teams were tied at two wins each for the October 10 game. Game 5 was a showdown of pitchers Jack Sanford and Ralph Terry. Sanford was a 24-game winter. He had a skein of 16 wins.
Game 5 developed into a 2-2 tie. Those were the days when major league baseball as a matter of principle felt World Series games should be played during the day, not under the lights. It's quaint to reflect. Adults coming home from work and kids coming home from school would find out who won. Some might play hooky - very tempting. Today, the baseball playoffs are played in a manner described humorously by Dave Barry, as happening "after everyone has gone to bed."
I love reflecting on baseball of the 1960s. I barely pay attention today. It's true the players didn't have enough leverage with their careers in the bygone time. Too many got injured and were forced out of the game, primarily pitchers in the age before the pitch count. We ought to regret all that. But we couldn't help but love baseball.
We loved the Yankees of the early '60s, even the reserve players whose names stay etched in our minds.
The ecstacy and the agony
Tom Tresh had a career that covered both the dynasty and post-dynasty. In '62 the Yankees were boffo. In that Game 5 World Series matchup, Tresh would shine. He came up to bat in the eighth inning after Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson singled. There was one out. He had already doubled off Sanford in the fourth. In the eighth he achieved Fall Classic stardom with a three-run home run to right. The Yankee Stadium crowd went wild.
Keep in mind that 1962 was the peak of our concern over the Cold War. We wondered if our days might be numbered. The World Series was needed escapist entertainment. Tresh's home run produced a 5-2 lead and the final score was 5-3. The Giants were not down for the count in this Series. The Willie Mays crew won Game 6. Terry and Sanford took to the mound again for Game 7. The Yankees fought to cling to a 1-0 lead in the seventh. Mays hit a low liner to the left field corner. Tresh sped to his right and hauled in the liner with a fingertip catch. Willie McCovey then came up to bat and tripled with the bases empty. Tresh and his mates won this game at Candlestick Park, against the team that used to be known as the New York Giants. The score: 1-0.
In '62 the New York Mets were born, meaning that NYC was back to having multiple teams after a short period of monopoly for the Yankees. The Yankee dynasty of that time had its last year in '64. After that they were quite decisively knocked off their perch. It was sad to see so many of those familiar names now associated with a struggling team. The Yankees fell to pedestrian status in 1965.
World Series homer off Bob Gibson
Tresh hit two home runs in the 1964 World Series vs. the Cardinals. One was off the overpowering righthanded hurler Bob Gibson in Game 5. Yogi Berra managed the Yankees in that last year of Yankee glory, '64. Johnny Keane became the manager in '65, moving over from the Cardinals. Tresh played all three outfield positions.
Like Mantle, Tresh was a switch-hitter. Tresh was awarded a Gold Glove for his fielding. Offensively he had impact too in '65, as he batted .279 with 26 home runs and 74 RBIs. The Yankee decline wasn't all that evident in early-season. June 6 saw the Yankees thump the White Sox 12-0 as Tresh hit home runs in his first three plate appearances! The first of those blasts came right-handed, the next two lefthanded. Mantle was fading, plagued by physical problems. He needed to rest a lot.
Tresh was often called upon to bat cleanup. Tresh did fine in '65 but the Yankee luster was gone. The real knockout blow was applied by our Twins just before the All-Star break. Harmon Killebrew hit a hugely dramatic home run to send our Met Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
Injuries were a factor as the Yankees were presented with adversity. Reading about this makes me realize the frailty of so many pro athletes. As kids we didn't have adequate appreciation. We'd read about a player being out with injury for a certain period of time. We didn't realize that so many of the injuries would have long-lasting effects. Kubek had to retire because of a neck injury. His replacement, Ruben Amaro, was injured early in '66 when he and Tresh collided. Amaro was out for the season with a knee injury. Keane got the ax in mid-season which was a very unusual move for the Yankees. But the days of glory were clearly over for that generation of Yankee players.
New manager Ralph Houk moved Tresh to third base. Tresh had played shortstop when he won Rookie of the Year. Tresh showed power at the plate but languished with his average. The Yankees finished last in '66 with a record of 70-89. Then in 1967, the specter of injury loomed for Tresh. It happened in spring training: his right knee failed him. He writhed on the ground in pain, having just made a throw across his body. Initially a mere strain was diagnosed, but no, it was more serious. It was a case of loose cartilage.
Tresh tried playing with the injury. The injury became aggravated. Tresh became a shadow of his former self as a hitter. Mickey Mantle retired. The aura of the early '60s Yanks was lost in history. Tresh left the game at age 32.
Non-superstar players in those days did not get independently wealthy. So Tresh did the common type of things to stay financially solvent. He operated a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in his home state of Michigan. Later he joined his alma mater of Central Michigan as an administrator in the alumni and placement offices. He was assistant baseball coach at CMU for 14 years. He participated in Yankee fantasy camps.
Tresh left us for that baseball diamond in the sky, becoming one of those "Angels in the Outfield" in 2008. A heart attack felled him. He was survived by four children. His was a blessed life and blessed baseball career. Think back to the 1962 World Series. It doesn't get any better than that. Tom Tresh, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org