Welcome to This Day in Yankees History. We may be well into hot stove season, but there’s still some time to dig into the history books. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!
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34 Years Ago
Not a ton has happened on Christmas Eve over the years, so let’s focus in on the very consequential signing of Gary Ward.
After several decent seasons with the Twins and Rangers, Ward came to terms with the Yankees ahead of the 1987 season. He then put up a 78 OPS+ and a negative WAR in 851 plate appearances across three years (according to Baseball Reference). He was released in mid-April 1989. The aforementioned 78 OPS+ is, by a decent margin, the worst he hit anywhere in his major league career. C’est la vie.
18 Years Ago
The Yankees agree to a contract with Cuban defector and dominant Serie Nacional pitcher José Contreras. With Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and David Wells all under contract for 2003 (plus a still-promising Jeff Weaver), adding Contreras seemed like excess to the rest of baseball, but the Yankees didn’t care. To flaunt it, they even had the pitchers pose for a preseason Sports Illustrated cover.
In his rookie season, Contreras was pretty good, putting up a 3.30 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 71 innings across 18 games, nine of which were starts. He was especially strong in his penultimate appearance of the 2003 regular season, when he struck out nine White Sox in eight scoreless innings. The problem was that the front four veterans were so steady and reliable that Contreras didn’t have a rotation spot come playoff time.
Unfortunately, Contreras struggled in a bullpen role in the postseason and got off to a bad start in the 2004 season. That led to a midseason trade that sent him to the White Sox team he had steamrolled the year before. In Chicago, Contreras would be pivotal to the ‘05 World Series champions and also made an All-Star team the following year.
The Yankees got Esteban Loaiza back for Contreras, but the less said about that, the better.
This signing also had another lasting effect. In reaction to it, Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, dubbed the Yankees the “Evil Empire.” While the Yankees don’t swing their giant bags of money around quite to the extent they did back in this era, this nickname is generally still used.
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The lone New York Yankee with a birthday today is actually a New York Highlander named Bill Otis.
His playing career isn’t super interesting. He appeared in four games for the Highlanders in 1912. He played centerfield, and went 1-for-17 with three walks at the plate. That was good for a career .259 OPS (-27 OPS+).
However later in life, Otis gained some notoriety at one point from being the oldest living major leaguer. He turned 100 in 1989, and received a phone call from commissioner Fay Vincent and a telegram from George Steinbrenner. He didn’t make it to 101, but came very close, passing away on December 15, 1990 — nine days shy of his next birthday.
Also, his name was Paul Franklin Otis, so it’s unclear how he ended up being called “Bill.”
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We thank SABR, Baseball Reference, and Nationalpastime.com for providing background information for these posts.