Name: Thomas Tresh
Position: Shortstop, Outfield
Born: September 20, 1938 (Detroit, MI)
Died: October 14, 2008 (Venice, FL)
Yankee Years: 1961-69
Primary number: 15
Yankee statistics: 1,098 G, .247/.337/.413, 166 2B, 33 3B, 140 HR, 116 wRC+, 21.4 rWAR, 22.7 fWAR
When Gary Sanchez competed for Rookie of the Year in 2016, he hoped to continue a long tradition of Yankees rookie excellence. One of the forebears of this tradition was Tom Tresh, who took home Rookie of the Year honors in 1962, a championship season for the Yankees. Sanchez should aspire to be like Tresh in another manner too, as he was no flash in the pan.
Although Tresh did not have a long big-league career due to injuries and treatment of the time, he was among the Yankees' finest players of the '60s and one of the last gasps of greatness from their vaunted farm system. As the team around him declined, Tresh continued to perform at a high level at multiple positions, making him a fan favorite and a valued final connection to those terrific teams of old.
Growing up with the game
Few kids aspiring to make a career in baseball have had as fortunate a path as Thomas Michael Tresh. He was the son of a big-leaguer, after all. September 1938 was a big month for the Treshes, as father "Iron Mike" made his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox on September 4th, and his son Tom was born on September 20th. Mike Tresh spent 11 years catching for the South Siders, playing in over 1,000 games in the majors until ending his career with the Indians in 1949. He was named an All-Star by the Associated Press in 1945, the only year in which MLB did not have an official All-Star Game (due to wartime travel restrictions).
Tom Tresh spent some time living with his parents in an apartment in Chicago, but he went to school in Michigan, as his father's career was over by then. At Allen Park High School in Detroit, he lettered in baseball, football, and basketball, and he later went to Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. His father's prestigious job allowed him to gain some first-hand perspective on how clubhouses operated and what big-league living was like. He was even allowed to become a bat boy when his father briefly managed at Daytona Beach and Wausau, Wisconsin in 1951 and 1952, respectively.
MLB teams knew just how talented the younger Tresh was, and they kept a close scouting eye on him growing up. Mike and Doris Tresh wanted their son to go to college, but after a year at shortstop in Central Michigan, Tresh felt that he could not turn down a $30,000 offer from the New York Yankees. It was a lot of money (roughly a quarter-million in today's dollars), the Yankees were baseball's marquee team, and like many boys in the '50s, Mickey Mantle was his idol. He recalled going to Tiger Stadium when the Yankees came to town and watching him intently from the upper deck in center field. Mike had even taught Tom how to switch-hit like Mantle.
Ultimately, Tresh was able to convince his parents to let him sign with the Yankees at age 19, assuring them that he would go back and finish his degree. He was on his way to joining his hero at Yankee Stadium.
A decent replacement
Tresh was quick to impress in his first exposure to pro ball in 1958, as he hit .316/.435/.445 for the St. Petersburg Saints in 126 games of Class D ball. His pace slowed down upon a late-season promotion to the Double-A New Orleans Pelicans (no, not them), where the average player was seven years his senior. Tresh returned a lower level, Class B, in '59, but before long he was working his way back up the ladder again.
It was around this time that Tresh met his idol for the first time, down in spring training. It was recalled in Jane Leavy's book on Mantle, The Last Boy:
The first time he saw Mantle up close, Tresh was in an elevator during rookie camp in St. Pete--the doors opened and there he was. Though they stood eye to eye, Mantle seemed a thousand steps higher--a feeling Tresh never got over. "I never could see him as just one step higher than I was."
After batting .246/.363/.415 in 133 games with the Binghamton Triplets in A-ball in 1960, the Yankees tested him at the minors' highest level. There was no pressure to promote the young prospect, as the big-league club was in the midst of one of their greatest seasons in history, a 109-win romp to the World Series powered by Mantle and Roger Maris. Tresh had a superb year in his own right, hitting .315/.380/.428 in 141 games at shortstop with Richmond and taking home International League MVP honors.
As a reward of sorts, Tresh was tabbed for his MLB debut as a September call-up in '61. With another Rookie of the Year-turned-regular in Tony Kubek at shortstop ahead of him, it was hard to find time. Tresh did make it into nine games though, debuting on September 3rd as a pinch-runner and taking his first at-bat on September 16th in his hometown at Tiger Stadium. Tresh notched his first big-league hit in the first game of a doubleheader on September 26th against the Orioles. The huge story that day was Maris tying Babe Ruth with his 60th homer of the season, but Tresh played his part as well, singling to right field off Jack Fisher in the middle of a rally that put the Yankees in front.
Tresh was only technically part of a championship team in '61, but the next year, he truly earned his ring. An opportunity arose, as Kubek was recalled to the U.S. Army Reserve. Manager Ralph Houk entrusted the starting role at shortstop to Tresh over fellow infielder Phil Linz. It was the right call, as Tresh went on to an All-Star rookie season. He capably fielded the position in Kubek's absence while hitting well from both sides of the plate. Tresh racked up 20 homers and a .286/.359/.441 triple slash, good for a 119 wRC+, Rookie of the Year honors, and even a 12th-place finish for MVP.
There was the potential for an awkward situation to arise when Kubek returned from the service in August, and Houk tasked Tresh with playing alongside Mantle in left field. In 573 minor-league games, Tresh had never played the outfield, but he handled it with aplomb. Having previously made that same transition from shortstop to the outfield, Mantle even gave Tresh his glove, choosing to befriend and praise his potential future replacement rather than ignoring him, as Joe DiMaggio did to Mantle. Tresh knew Mantle had his flaws, but he loved him anyway and eventually nicknamed his son "Mickey" for him in 1964. ("What the fuck did you do that for?" Mantle later asked. He knew he was no idol.)
The Yankees won the pennant and played the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. Tresh had only just turned 24 and yet he didn't appear to be fazed at all. He hit .321/.345/.464 in the seven-game series, leading the Yankees in hits and average. It wasn't garbage time participation either, as his three-run homer in the eighth off Jack Sanford gave the Yankees a Game 5 victory, and a terrific one-handed catch on a seventh inning Willie Mays drive in Game 7 likely saved a run with the red-hot Willie McCovey on deck. The Yankees edged the Giants 1-0 to bring home their 20th championship.
Mike Tresh was in the stands at Yankee Stadium when Tresh hit that homer to win Game 5, crying tears of joy. His son had definitely made it.
Have glove, will travel
Rather than suffering a sophomore slump in '63, Tresh had an outstanding year. He was on fire, hitting .269/.371/.487 with 25 dingers and a career-best 141 wRC+. Tresh was an All-Star for the second straight year and again earned down-ballot MVP votes as the Yankees ran away with the AL pennant thanks to 104 victories. Tresh spent the year in the outfield and even manned center field while Mantle missed a few months due to injury. Unfortunately, they had no answer for the overwhelming Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff in the World Series. Tresh managed to take the seemingly untouchable Sandy Koufax deep late in Game 1, but like most of his team, he was otherwise quiet. They swept the Yankees away.
Houk moved up to the front office in '64 and the popular Yogi Berra took over in the dugout. The Yankees won their fifth straight pennant, but it was as tough a climb to the top as ever. They battled injuries and ineffectiveness from several positions, including Kubek at shortstop. Tresh remained a solid player, though he also saw his numbers slip. The Yankees faced a tough competitor in the Cardinals, and it was a tight seven-game series. Tresh slugged .636 and homered twice, including a game-tying blast off World Series MVP Bob Gibson in the ninth inning of Game 5. It wasn't enough, as the Cardinals prevailed and Berra was stunningly fired.
The Yankees pulled off a classic "if you can't beat him, sign him" move for '65 by hiring Johnny Keane, who just beat them in the World Series. Kubek played poorly at shortstop and missed a lot of time, but Keane kept Tresh in the outfield, alternating him between relieving Mantle in center and playing left (there was even some right mixed in). To some extent, it paid off, as Tresh finished in the top 10 for AL MVP, won a Gold Glove, and showed no sign of ill-effect at the plate with a 136 wRC+. To another extent, it didn't, as the team around him was not good; the Yankees fell below .500 for the first time in 40 years.
Despite the increasing effects of a pitching-heavy era, Tresh pulled off a career-high in home runs in '66, smacking 27 dingers in 151 games. That was one of the few highlights for the Yankees though, who were abysmal and dropped all the way to last place. Keane was fired and replaced by Houk in May, who moved Tresh to third base since he wanted to give a young Roy White time in the outfield. Tresh ended up splitting time between left and the hot corner. The Yankees appreciated his athleticism and Zobristian ability to handle basically any position, but it still mystified Tresh to a certain degree:
"I win Rookie of the Year as a shortstop and they move me to the outfield. Then I win a Gold Glove Award there in 1965 and they move me to third. I couldn’t figure out what position I was supposed to prove I could play." - Tom Tresh (SABR bio)
Although Tresh was only 28 entering the '67 campaign, the second game of spring training was the beginning of the end. He popped his right knee while firing a throw across his body from left field to the cutoff man. Tresh was in serious pain and could barely walk; it was later revealed to be torn cartilage. Inexplicably, the Yankees told him that he should try to play on it rather than undergo surgery.
It was a disaster. Through some miracle, Tresh kept his numbers above league-average with a 106 wRC+, but his OPS dipped below .700 and he was a shadow of the defender he once was in left field. Tresh later recalled that his knee "gave out five more times" that year, undoubtedly affecting his future. He had surgery to repair the damage in the offseason (why he wasn't simply shut down on a 90-loss team is a mystery), but the damage was done. Tresh was mostly a hobbling shortstop in '68 and his play only worsened in '69.
By then, the only other position player aside from Tresh remaining from the Yankees' early '60s glory was catcher Jake Gibbs, who barely played during those pennant-winning years. Mantle, Maris, Berra, Kubek, Elston Howard, and Bobby Richardson were all gone. Tresh was miserable. The team was middling at best, and he could barely hit, let alone play shortstop. So he asked if the Yankees would trade him to the Tigers, where he could at least be close to home, not to mention play for the defending World Series champions. The Yankees acquiesced, and Tresh was dealt to Detroit on June 14th. The very next person to wear number 15 for the Yankees was a worthy heir: Thurman Munson.
Tresh remained primarily a shortstop and appeared in 94 games for the Tigers, batting .224/.305/.387 with 13 homers, a .692 OPS that was amusingly still good for a 92 wRC+ in the league-wide offensive malaise. While Detroit was a better team, there was still no competing with the 109-win juggernaut Orioles, who ran away with the AL East in the first year of divisional play.
Tresh had gone through another surgery on his knee in hopes of playing again in 1970. However, the Tigers told him that he would need to rehab in the minors, and Tresh had no intention of living that kind of life again, particularly with a wife and four kids at home. So Tom Tresh retired having played just eight games after his 31st birthday. His story was a warning sign about the dangers of dismissing injuries, but he had no regrets.
Even though Tresh was so talented before his injury that the Red Sox briefly considered a swap of him for Carl Yastrzemski, one can't blame Tresh for his overall happiness about his career. He was a beloved teammate, a World Series champion, an All-Star, and an MVP candidate for baseball's greatest franchise. At the time of his retirement, he was even in the Yankees' all-time top 20 in homers at 140 (the recent offensive spike pushed him back to number 32 as of 2016). Tresh had a fine life post-retirement too, as he did fulfill that college promise to his parents, even after his father's passing in 1966.
Tresh earned his degree in physical education from Central Michigan in 1969, where he later served as an assistant baseball coach for 15 years and helped innovate a training tool for sliding and diving called the Slide-Rite. His son Michael (the same one nicknamed "Mickey") inherited the baseball gene, playing at Miami University of Ohio before going through four years in the minors as well.
The bond between the Mantles and Treshes remained strong--the two Yankees were at a card show in Nashville when Tresh learned that his son, Mickey, just had a boy of his own, whom he named Tommy in honor of his father. Mantle celebrated with Tresh by ordering a $150 bottle of Dom Perignon, raising a toast to Tommy, and later writing "Happy birthday Tommy, we had one for you. Mickey Mantle." on the bottle.
That bottle could have sold for something valuable, as the glove Mantle gave to Tresh in 1962 was enough by itself to put a down payment on a cottage. Tom Tresh never sold it though; it meant too much to him, and he grieved as much as any of his teammates on the day Mantle passed away from liver cancer in 1995. Thirteen years later, Tresh suddenly left the world as well, as he died of a heart attack on October 14, 2008.
At least Tresh got to see the old Yankee Stadium one last time before it closed for good, as he was in attendance at the final Old-Timers' Day. As always, the crowd gave him an ovation before he stepped to foul line one last time. Number 15 will always mean Thurman Munson, but it will also always be connected to Tommy Tresh, another fantastic Yankee.
Community rank: 65.0
WAR rank: 54.0
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Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Eng, Bernie. "Former CMU player and coach dies," The Saginaw News, 17 Oct. 2008.
Goldstein, Richard. "Tom Tresh, a Two-Time Yankees All-Star, Dies at 70," New York Times, 16 Oct. 2008.
Halberstam, David. October 1964. New York: Open Road Media, 1994.
Leavy, Jane. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.