By the time the 1962 season rolled around, the Yankees were the undisputed rulers at the center of the baseball universe. Fans around the country were captivated by the historic home run chase between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle the prior season — a campaign which saw the organization capture its 19th championship in a 39-year span. And though some of the key contributors of the team — Mantle, Maris, and Elston Howard chief among them — were entering the second acts of their careers, there was no reason to believe the Bombers could not continue their run of dominance.
Such was the backdrop as 1962 spring training got underway with the Bombers eager to defend their crown. But then starting shortstop Tony Kubek had to depart the team when his National Guard unit was called up to active duty, leaving the Yankees with two capable candidates to compete for the starting role. Phil Linz might’ve been the favorite after batting .349 in the Texas League a year prior. However, manager Ralph Houk ultimately awarded it to a relatively unknown switch-hitting rookie named Tom Tresh.
1962 Statistics: 157 games, 712 plate appearances, .286/.359/.441, 178 hits, 20 home run, 93 RBI, 37 stolen bases, 119 wRC+, 4.3 bWAR, 4.1 fWAR
Born Thomas Michael Tresh in Detroit on September 20, 1938 and the son of former big league catcher Mike Tresh, it was almost like the younger Tresh was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps:
“I just can’t remember the time when I didn’t have a baseball in my hands. My folks have movies taken when I was 2 years old which show me throwing a ball around our apartment in Chicago... We were with Dad when he was playing in Chicago, and I used to go to the ballpark and hang around the field with the other kids of the players. It was always great fun. I think that gave me an easy adjustment to big-league play.”
The Yankees signed Tresh to a $30,000 signing bonus following his freshman year playing shortstop for Central Michigan University and awarded him his MLB debut on September 3, 1961, when he replaced Johnny Blanchard (in the midst of his own surprising season) as pinch-runner. Tresh collected his first big league hit 23 days later in a 3-2 win over the Orioles after entering the game in the sixth inning. A strong finish to the 1961 season, and impressive spring, and his switch-hitting ability were apparently enough to convince the Yankees skipper to name him 1962 Opening Day starter at short.
Tresh grabbed the opportunity with both hands and ran with it under the tutelage of second baseman and double play partner Bobby Richardson. He earned a selection to the All-Star Game alongside Luis Aparicio and went 1-for-2 with a double and RBI. A slight snag arose when Kubek returned from National Guard duty earlier than expected, but Tresh seamlessly shifted to left field to maintain his hold on a starting role. Boyhood idol and fellow Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle threw his support behind the youngster, saying “I don’t think anybody has to worry about Tom. I’ve played alongside a lot of left fielders and Tresh rates as the best one.”
After finishing the season out on an equally strong note as he started, Tresh garnered AL Rookie of the Year honors from both the Baseball Writers Association of America and Sporting News. More importantly, his contributions played an important role in the Yankees finishing five games ahead of the Twins for the AL pennant and getting a chance to defend their championship crown against Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and their NL pennant-winning Giants.
Tresh would play an even more pivotal role in securing the Yankees’ 20th World Series title. With the series knotted at 2-2 and the teams playing the final game at Yankee Stadium before heading back to San Francisco for the last two, the Bombers needed a Game 5 victory to depart the Bronx with a series lead. After doubling and scoring in the fourth inning to level the game at one, Tresh stepped in again in the eighth with Kubek and Richardson on base following consecutive singles. Facing 24-game winner Jack Sanford for the third time, Tresh blasted a three-run bomb to right to give the Yankees a 5-2 lead that they would not surrender.
New York would go on to win the series in seven games, with Tresh leading the team in batting average (.321), runs (five) and hits (nine), though Game 7 shutout artist Ralph Terry received the World Series MVP. Reflecting on the moment years later, Tresh admitted “It’s the hit that always was my biggest individual thrill. It was a pivotal game, and we got to go back to San Francisco ahead, not trailing three games to two.”
While the Yankees would have to wait another 15 years for their next title, Tresh carved out an admirable big league career for himself. Between 1962 and 1966, Tresh accumulated the sixth-most value (20.2 fWAR) of any American League outfielder, ahead of fellow teammate and corner outfielder Roger Maris and less than half a win behind the man next to him on the long grass, Mickey Mantle.
He may have narrowly missed out on a place in our Top 25 list, but Tresh’s 1962 campaign surely goes down as an honorable mention for the most surprising single-season performances in franchise history. He would go on to play nine seasons in the bigs, a serious knee injury in spring of 1967 interrupting what might’ve been an even more impressive career. However, Tresh harbored no disappointment, stating “I might have had a better career if I didn’t hurt my knee. But I have no regrets. It was just short of 10 years, and that is pretty good. Sometimes I think I should just sign my name, ‘Tom Tresh, New York Yankee.’ That’s my identification.”
Thanks to SABR’s excellent Tresh bio for the quotes.