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This Day in Yankees History: Phil Niekro signs up, and Yogi Berra returns to the fold

On this day, the Yankees brought a pair of Hall-of-Famers back into their midst.

New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

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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101 Years Ago

Just days after the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees was announced, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee defended the controversial move, stating “While Ruth is undoubtedly the greatest hitter the game has ever seen, he is likewise one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men ever to put on a baseball uniform.” It seems somewhat ironic that Frazee took to the press to call Ruth selfish, when the rumored reason Boston sold their star slugger was that they didn’t want to meet his salary demands.

36 Years Ago

The Yankees signed knuckleballer Phil Niekro as a free agent. Niekro just passed way last week, marking the end of a sad year for baseball greats. Niekro, Joe Morgan, Lou Brock, and Tom Seaver, among many others, were those we lost in 2020.

According to the New York Times, the Yankees were excited to sign Niekro as it would allow them to convert one of their current starters into relief, a conversion made necessary by the departure of Goose Gossage. Indeed, the signing of Niekro pushed former no-hit artist and 1981 AL Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti to the bullpen. Although Righetti was initially reluctant, he would excel in the role; after working exclusively as a starter in his early years in New York, Righetti’s final 440 appearances in the Bronx came out of the bullpen. He’d save 223 games with the Yankees, with a 2.96 ERA as a reliever.

Niekro himself held up his end of the bargain, pitching over 430 innings in his two seasons with the Yankees, totaling over 6 rWAR and posting a 3.59 ERA in his mid-forties. Unfortunately for the Yankees, their pitching staff machinations weren’t enough to steer them back towards glory in the mid-80s. The 1984 squad won only 87 games, four fewer than the year before, while the 1985 team managed to win 97 games but fell short of the pennant. Their last victory of the season was the 300th of Niekro’s incredible career.

22 Years Ago

On this day, George Steinbrenner apologized to legendary catcher Yogi Berra. The apology was necessary because of how Steinbrenner had handled Berra’s second stint as manager of the team. Berra was put at the helm ahead of the aforementioned 1984 season. After the disappointing campaign, Berra received assurances that his job wasn’t in danger, and he agreed to stay on in 1985. The Boss reneged on those assurances and canned Berra after a 6-10 start. Steinbrenner further infuriated Berra by declining to give him the courtesy of a call, instead letting GM Clyde King alone inform the legend of his sudden dismissal.

Steinbrenner reportedly visited Berra at his New Jersey home to apologize in person. Berra agreed to return to the fold, and became more of a fixture at future Old-Timer’s Days, spring trainings, and Opening Days. When the Yankees welcome him back with Yogi Berra Day in July 1999, David Cone marked the occasion with a perfect game. Perhaps it was foretold, as Yogi caught the first pitch from another perfecto legend: Don Larsen.

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Happy 28th birthday to former noted Yankees relief ace AJ Cole. The Yankees acquired the right-hander early in the 2018 season, and he proceeded to run off a 0.83 ERA in his first 13 appearances with the team. That success couldn’t last, and Cole proceeded to get crushed for a 8.82 ERA the rest of the way before getting understandably left off the postseason roster.

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We thank Baseball Reference and SABR for providing background information for these posts.