The Most Disappointing Season for … The New York Yankees

The 1965 New York Yankees
Record: 77-85 (6th in AL)
Pythagorean Record: 82-80
Runs Scored: 611 (7th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 604 (6th in the AL)
Prior Season Record: 99-63

Manager: Johnny Keane

Hype: We’re the Yankees! We have Mantle, Maris, Kubek, Boyer, Howard, Richardson and Ford and kids like Bouton, Stottlemyre, Downing, Pepitone and Tresh. I don’t need to say any more.

The Gory Details: It would be easy to be coddled and jaded if you were a Yankees fan. The team had one losing season since Babe Ruth joined the team and finished no lower than third since the end of World War II. It was expected that the Yankees win. In fact, since they lost the last two world series in a row, it was time they win one, wasn’t it?

Behind the scenes of Yankee-land, there was turmoil. Del Webb and Dan Topping got an offer from CBS they really couldn’t refuse, and sold the team to the media conglomerate. So the Yankees were on the same ‘team’ as Walter Cronkite, Ed Sullivan and Lassie. That may have given some people pause – imagine 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy running a baseball team – but Ralph Houk was in place as the GM and the baseball men all seemed the same, except…

Even though the Yankees won the AL in 1964 behind first year manager Yogi Berra, Berra’s performance didn’t endear him to the brass. The team didn’t run away with the league; they were in third place as of September 16th and won a tight race against the White Sox and Orioles.

Then, the Yankees lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, who also came back from a late deficit to win the NL. (Thanks, of course, to the Phillies’ collapse.) Berra was fired soon after, for just winning a pennant and then losing the World Series in seven games. Darn the luck.

Over in St. Louis, there was discontent with Johnny Keane, the Cardinals’ manager and Bing Devine, the Cardinals GM. Devine lost a power play with Branch Rickey, and owner Gussie Busch was determined to clean house, including canning Keane. When the Cardinals won the series, though, Keane was expected back as manager. He surprised everyone, including Busch and new GM Bob Howsam, by resigning at a press conference scheduled to announce a contract extension for the manager.

Meanwhile, Houk and the Yankees had inquired about Keane’s interest in managing their squad. So soon after Keane quit the Cardinals, the Yanks hired him.

There was also changes afoot in the overall baseball world. That summer, the amateur draft would be instituted, and thus the Yankees would no longer be able to sign any prospect that they took a shine to. Plus, the 40-man roster was instituted, along with the minor league draft of those not on the 40-man roster.

Still, this shouldn’t upset the Yankees in 1965, right? They still had the stars. They still had enough prospects for three Class A teams, two rookie league teams and two instructional league teams. They were ready to defend their title again.

However, old age and treachery were creeping up on the Yanks. Elston Howard was 36. Mickey Mantle was an old 33. Roger Maris was 30 and aging rapidly. Tony Kubek was injury prone. Whitey Ford was 36 and more reliant on legal and illegal junk balls than ever before. Still, the thought from most observers that there was at least a year or two left for this team and the Yanks would do what they always did and find the players to keep going even as this squad aged out.

The first trouble started in the Spring, as the old New York players were none too happy with how Berra was axed in favor of Keane. They didn’t say it out loud, or in those words, but even though Berra may have been a bit over his head, he was one of them, not some outsider who got his job through some machinations.

Keane, for his part, was kind of star-struck as well. He may not have realized how old some of his players were playing, even if their birth certificate said differently. Mantle had knee problems and missed time in 1962 and 1963 to various ailments. Maris also missed time in 1963, while Howard was getting near retirement age for catchers, and backup Johnny Blanchard was also 32.

But there was some youth there – third baseman Clete Boyer was 28. Centerfielder Tom Tresh, 26. First baseman Joe Pepitone was 24. Their rotation was anchored by Ford, sure, but the other three pitchers were 26 or younger (Bouton, Downing and Stottlemyre). Swingman Bill Stafford was also just 26, and bullpen ace Pedro Ramos had just reached 30.
Alarm bells started to go off at the end of the first homestand.

The Orioles swept New York in a Sunday double-dip and left the Yankees in eighth place (gasp!) at 7-9 on May 2nd. Howard was the first casualty, he tried (and Keane encouraged him allegedly) to play with an injured elbow to begin the season, but had surgery after just four games – one at catcher and three at first.

Blanchard found himself as a regular, but his skills had begun to deteriorate, so the Yanks moved him to Kansas City for Doc Edwards. Blanchard allegedly bawled in Keane’s office and the locker room after the news came down – mostly for knowing that his career was almost over.

Maris missed time beginning on April 30th with an injured wrist. After the double header, Mantle missed a week as well. Hector Lopez and Pepitone all took turns in the outfield replacing both.

Then in mid-May, Kubek went down with a shoulder injury, and so Phil Linz had to fill in at short. Linz was more known for his harmonica playing than his baseball ability. On Monday, May 17th, Baltimore clocked the Yankees and Whitey Ford 9-2, putting them a full ten games behind and still in 8th.

Injuries were affecting the offense, and ineffectiveness was plaguing the rotation. Ford was showing his age, and after the Baltimore debacle he was 2-5 with a 6.33 ERA. Bouton was 3-3 with a 4.65 ERA and there were signs that he was hurting as well. His violent delivery was entertaining to watch, but put a lot of strain on his arm and shoulder.

By the end of May, the Yankees were still in 8th place, and seemingly going nowhere fast. June, though, gave them a little hope. Ford won six starts in a row. Howard was back. Mantle and Maris were in the lineup as well, at least until June 20th. Maris missed a few games, and then when Maris came back Mantle was back on the shelf. The last game they started together was June 20th.

At the end of June, New York was 36-38, and had crawled to sixth place and nine back. They outscored their opponents in June 126-93. The top five teams were bunched within four games of each other, so it would be a tough road for the Yankees to get back to the top, but there was still a chance. Always a chance with the Yankees.

Age, though, took away that chance. Kubek came back but was never right thanks to his shoulder, and the various other injuries that had wracked his body even though he was under 30. Maris’ wrist injury was not getting better, though the Yankees thought it was all in Roger’s mind. Roger’s wrist begged to differ.

Realizing that they needed another outfielder, the team called up Roger Repoz to man center for basically the rest of the season. Tresh moved to left and Lopez played right. When Mantle was ready, the plan was to move Tresh to either center or right depending.
With Ford seemingly back on track, things looked up. Stottlemyre was rolling through a great season. Downing’s record didn’t reflect it (6-8) but his 3.20 ERA meant he was giving the Yankees quality innings. Stafford also had a good 3.04 ERA and was on track to secure a rotation spot.

Then, trouble struck the staff. Stafford developed tendonitis and missed the entire month of July. Bouton went through a month of hell, losing all five starts with a 5.33 ERA for the month. Even though the others were putting in good work, New York could not make up ground and were stuck in sixth place, now 15 ½ games back, at 51-54.
There was probably no chance of a pennant now, though Keane wasn’t ready to admit it. He kept trying to get Kubek and Mantle in the lineup when he could despite their injuries. Howard missed just six games as the starting catcher between June 13th and September 2nd even as his performance lagged. The Yankees were going to go down with their old timers manning the ship.

Glug.

Bouton pitched just 5 innings in August, the sign that his troubles were physical. The Yankees themselves were treading water, with the offense letting the pitching down, or vice versa. They finally got to .500 and even poked their head to 64-62 on August 24th, but then lost five of seven to finish August.

New York wasn’t used to playing out the string and playing their youngsters in September. Kids intermixed with the veterans, and the first sign of the farm system’s malaise was apparent. In September, the team had two six-game losing streaks as crowds dwindled at Yankee stadium with the low point a crowd of 3,004 on a Thursday night against Cleveland. The last home game of the year saw a crowd of only 10,419, while their last two games at Boston on October 2nd and third drew 10,233 TOTAL fans to Fenway to watch the Yankees solidify sixth with two wins over the ninth place Red Sox.

At 77-85, this team was the worst since the 1925 squad fell victim to Babe Ruth’s peccadillos. It could be said that Mantle’s love for the nightlife, his love to boogie, caused his fall as well.

Mantle, though, still had something. His OBP was .379 and he hit 19 homers in 435 at bats, which was decent in that era. Tresh had an outstanding year playing all outfield positions, accumulating an OPS+ of 134 and leading the team with 26 dingers. But Lopez and Boyer were just average, Pepitone slugged under .400 as a first baseman, and Kubek and Richardson had OBPs under .300 and just weren’t as effective on defense as they once were.

Stottlemyre was a stud, a 20-9 record with a 2.63 ERA and 291 solid innings. Ford and Downing contributed decent numbers as well, but it was Ford’s last go-round as a rotation pitcher. Ramos had 18 saves with just two blown saves when calculated later. Youngsters Jack Cullen and Rich Beck also pitched well late in the year.

Bouton was still a disaster, a 4-15 record with and ERA+ of 71. His strikeout rate was up, but his walk rate almost doubled. Stafford’s tendonitis derailed a good year for him.
But one hidden problem was the Yankees defense. The team had a dWAR of -4.5, mostly due to their outfield and their double play combo aging. Then there was the case of Tresh.
Tresh played every outfield position, but had a -1.4 dWAR (old Yankee Stadium may have contributed some to that, but by that measure he was sub-par). Tresh started 103 games in center, 34 in left and 17 in right. They awarded him the gold glove.

I don’t know why.

Tresh only played 44 complete games in center. In contrast Repoz completed 55 of his 58 starts. The reason was that Tresh moved to left field to finish Mantle’s games on 68 occasions. If Tresh was that valuable of a center fielder, he would have stayed there and the other outfielder would have come into left field. But no one paid attention to that – so Tresh got the award.

The kid that spent the most time subbing in for Mantle (and Maris or Pepitone) was Ross Moschitto. Moschitto was on the 40-man roster as the Yankees didn’t want to lose him after his first year in the chain in ROOKIE ball at Johnson City. He impressed the Yankees with his speed and defense, so they kept him up all year. He played 96 games and didn’t start ONE. NOT ONE GAME STARTED!

Moschitto played 89 games in the outfield and 184 2/3 innings total. He had two plate appearances in only five games. He didn’t get his first hit until June 12th, when he went 2-2 against Rudy May and the Angels. He hit one home run, against Jim Perry of the Twins. He finished the year with an OBP below his batting average, which is something you have to work at (one sac fly, no walks in 28 appearances at the dish).

You think Gold Glove voting is weird now?

I digress, though. The 1965 season was the prelude for the train wrecks that soon followed. The Yankees finished 10th in 1966 and ninth in 1967. They were an embarrassment, and CBS didn’t know what to do with them. They had one good year while the conglomerate owned them (1970) and didn’t rise up until you-know-who bought them in the mid-70’s.

It was a bad season, and frankly had metrics and analytics been in vogue and used the Yankees could have avoided it by phasing out the vets earlier, maybe even sacrificing one pennant for many more to follow. They did not, and crashed hard – a lesson in keeping a team together that still hasn’t been learned that often.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Stottlemyre was THE man, hands down. He had a 6.9 WAR, and finished 14th in MVP voting.

Honorable Mention Team: The 1980 Yankees team won 103 games. The 1981 team went to the World Series. The 1982 team was the prelude to a lost decade or so with no titles and five losing records between 1982 and 1995. The ’82 squad went 79-83, got two managers fired, and featured such Yankee greats as Shane Rawley, John Mayberry, Roy Smalley, Butch Wynegar, Roger Erickson, and Dave Collins. You know, the players every Yankees fan hated.

Bad Blast from the Past: I mentioned 1925 already. So how about 1905? In 1904, Clark Griffith led the Highlanders to second place and a 92-59 record, not bad for a team that basically was an expansion team in 1903 (after John McGraw and company looted their best players for the Giants). That 1904 squad featured Jack Chesboro and his 41 wins and a great outfield of John Anderson, Patsy Doughtery and Willie Keeler, with shortstop Kid Elberfeld being one of the best defenders in the league.

In 1905? 71-78. Elberfeld slowed way down on offense and defense. Dougherty regressed to league average. Keeler declined rapidly (down to .302, for him that’s a decline). Anderson washed out and was released. Chesboro? He went from 41 wins to 19, and pitched 151 fewer innings. Yankees fans were fed up, and the team drew 125,00 fewer fans.

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