Monday, February 6, 2012

Farewell, Young Tom Tresh

In Memoriam: Tribute Interview

Farewell, Young Tom Tresh

(from 10/18/08)

tom tresh closeup.jpg As a Yankee hater in my youth, I was very pleased with the prospects of the dynastic team having the rare off-year in 1962, when reliable shortstop Tony Kubek went off to fulfill his military obligation at the beginning of the season. My joy was short-lived when it turned out that his replacement, Tom Tresh, was a switch-hitting Kubek with home-run power. It was decidedly unfair that the Yankees could deep pulling great players from a magician's hat. It was evident early on that Tresh was going to be the Rookie of the Year, and that the Yankees were as strong as ever with him holding down the fort until Kubek's return in August. The Yankees, ho hum, defended their World Series title that year and both Tresh, in left, and Kubek, at short, would be mainstays of a strong Mantle-Maris-led lineup that raced the Yankees to two more pennants in 1963 and 1964. Tresh would remain on the team until the 1969 season, outlasting all his storied teammates. Before he was hurt, what a fine player he was. I still picture the "Young Tom" Tresh of those years, and it was quite shocking when he died this week of a heart attack at the still young age of 71. I was grateful that I finally met him this year, in late June at the Roger Maris Charity Golf Tournament in Fargo, North Dakota, which I attended while researching a biography of Maris that I'm coauthoring with historian Tom Clavin. My pal Johnny Blanchard introduced us and Tom was eager to talk to me about Roger and himself. He seemed robust. We did the following Q&A on July 2 by phone after he was back home in Florida. He had just climbed off his tractor. I believe it is the final interview of Tom Tresh's too-short life.
Danny Peary: After a terrific year at Richmond, the Yankees brought you up at an amazing time in 1961. Did you come at the beginning of September, in time for the pivotal Yankees-Tigers series?
Tom Tresh: I came up September 1st. We had a one game lead when the Tigers came into Yankee Stadium for a three-game series. It was kind of a dream basically because I was at Richmond and I went in to get ready for a night game there. It must have been the 31st of August and it's about 5 o'clock and my manager Cal Ermer called me in and said, "Don't bother to get dressed. You've been called up to the Yankees. I had my car in Richmond, so I just packed up everything and took off for New York City, driving through the night.
DP: How come they wanted you then? Were you the only guy brought up?
TT: I was the only one brought up from the minor league system. I have no idea why. They don't tell you such things. They don't have to explain themselves to you. You are just excited to go. A manager says New York wants you up the for tomorrow's game, it's an afternoon game and...
DP: You didn't ask for "motivation."
TT: No! So I drive through the night and get to New York and go directly to the stadium. It's before any other Yankees are there. Pete Sheehy met me in the clubhouse and took me over to my locker and my locker was right next to Mickey Mantle's.
DP: And Mantle was your idol.
TT: Yeah. And in my locker was Number 15 and it was the number my dad, Mike Tresh, wore for twelve seasons in the major leagues.
DP: Did Pete Sheehy think of that when he assigned the locker?
TT: Yeah, Pete did. He knew the number my dad had, so that was a thrill. I wanted to be there first because it's a lot easier when ballplayers straggle into the locker room on at a time. I wanted it so that when they came, I could walk up and say hi to them and do it at a slow pace. I didn't want to get overwhelmed by everybody.
DP: How many of the Yankees did you know at that point?
TT: I had met all of them. You're not isolated from them in spring training. I was with the big club for a period of time and then was sent to Richmond. I'd also been to springing training with the big club in 1960. So I was around. You are not playing much but I guess you kind of get a wet nose.
DP: Did the players know you were coming?
TT: Yeah, they did. They'd heard. Anyway, that's the time of year the rosters expand.
DP: Joe De Maestri, whom I've known for many years, is one of the nicest people in the whole world. If anybody would be upset by your presence, it would be him.
TT: Well, it wasn't him because he already knew he was retiring after the season.
DP: Yeah, but this would be his last time in baseball and they are bringing somebody else up who might play instead of allowing to him finish out his career on the field. But, as I said, he was a good guy and probably wouldn't protest.
TT: I don't know if that would have been the case. If somebody got hurt, Joe would have been the guy to go in and play, as had happened when Kubek was struck in the throat in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. It wouldn't have been me: I had only eight major league at-bats and they are playing for a pennant. They had a one game lead on Detroit when I got there and I think we won all twelve games of the home stand. Detroit had a losing streak and we pulled safely ahead in the race.
DP: The swept the Tigers to go four up and that pretty much clinched the pennant then, but the Yankees won for another week and the Tigers went into a tailspin.
TT: It was really kind of neat, because every day after the game everybody in the clubhouse was happy because you won again. The first couple of weeks, I didn't know what it was like to lose. I liked the feeling.
DP: So, was there a total confidence for the Yankees right from the beginning?
TT: Yeah, the Yankees in those years had that kind of confidence. They felt they were going to win and be the champions every year.
DP: How was it lockering next to your idol?
TT: It was great. But as you know it was the time when Mickey and Roger were both after Babe Ruth's record. So, there was so much going on around Mickey's locker a lot of the time. I'd get in, get dressed, and get out of my locker because there'd be an overflow of reporters into it. You've been to Yankee Stadium, so you know what the lockers are like. You sit in your locker on a stool and the reporters can block your exit. And the locker next to Mickey's was a natural place for the writers that couldn't find space right in front of him. They still could look through the screen and ask questions while in my locker. So, I pretty much evacuated.
DP: Where was Maris's locker?
TT: Maris was right across the locker room from me, maybe thirty to forty feet away. Of course, he had a mob of writers around him, too. It was a great time for me because I wasn't going to be instrumental in winning or losing and so I could just relax and be just a fan. It's your dream to play with the New York Yankees and all of a sudden, there you are in the locker with the excitement, with the sportswriters, with all those great players.
DP: Did you feel it was part of baseball history that was going on with the Mantle-Maris thing?
TT: You knew that it could be. It hadn't become history when I first got there. History came on the last day when Roger broke the record.
DP: At the beginning of September, before Mantle's injury, when they were both going for the record, did they both seem okay about it?
TT: Yeah. The biggest problem was it was very tiring with all the press, answering all the questions. They didn't have a normal day where they could just come into the locker room and relax. As soon as they got to the stadium, it became answering questions and all that. Even when they went out for fielding practice, they'd have reporters talking to them. Of course, the main part with the writers was after the game. I think that was the hardest part of the whole thing. It helped that we were winning.
DP: Could you see the increasing strain on Maris after Mantle dropped out after the bad injection and his leg got infected?
TT: Sure. I could see where he has a spot in the back of his head where his hair fell out. And yeah, you could see the strain. Roger was still very pleasant and everything to the players, but it was really wearing. When both of them were in the race the reporters were kind of split between them. But when Mickey had the bad shot and couldn't stay in the race, all of a sudden, it was all on Roger. I'm talking about writers around Roger's locker five and six people deep. They just packed in around him with mikes and recorders and he couldn't escape. What made it harder was that a lot of the questions that were asked were stupid. You know: "How come you didn't hit a home run tonight?" That kind of stuff. And you are tired and you've been playing hard and you've been pushing for a record, and the fans and the writers and everybody else already have made it known to you that they don't want you to break the record. Mark McGwire had everybody on his side when he broke Maris's record. The complete opposite was true when Roger challenged Ruth. If McGwire had been the one going after Ruth, he'd have experienced the same thing that Maris did. That makes it awful tough to get through it. And you know what? Roger had a great wife and a great family, and that's all he cared about.
DP: So you think that Mantle dropping out was probably very difficult for Roger?
TT: Yeah. That threw everything on his shoulders. Meanwhile we were still trying to win a pennant and I'll tell you one thing, Roger put the game first. I mean, he would be sliding in hard at second to trying to knock the guy out on double plays; diving for balls in the outfield; and running into the fence. Any one of those activities could have hurt him and caused him to miss a few games. He wasn't looking at the record that way. It was almost like, "Hey, if I get it, I get it. If I don't, I don't. But right now I got to play ball hard every day to help the ball club win."
DP: Did you think the press was hostile toward him?
TT: I don't know if I'd call it hostile.
DP: Inconsiderate?
TT: Not everybody. Certain writers. You know, writers have their favorites. You can't keep writing the same story. They are trying to get a different story. They are trying to get a different slant. They are trying to ask questions that will uncover something that they can make a story out of. And it was hard to get that from Roger and they didn't react well to that.
DP: He, as you suggest, was a real team player, and he felt that the press coming around him every day was isolating him from his teammates. He wanted everybody else to get the attention of the press, not just him, especially when his teammates had a better game than he did. I think it embarrassed him.
TT: You're right. Maybe Whitey threw a two-hit shutout or maybe Kubek or Richardson knocked in a couple of runs and Roger wasn't really instrumental in winning the game. Yet he had all the reporters around him afterward trying to figure out why he didn't hit a home run that day. You can understand the reporters interest because, let's face it, nobody else would ever again go after Babe Ruth's single-season home record. He would be the only one and then it would be gone.
DP: All of us rooting for Roger were both thrilled and relieved when he did it.
TT: Well, you kept waiting for him to break the record. You felt it was going to happen and you're waiting for it to happen for a long time. All of a sudden it's the last day and the last chance, and POW! It was exciting.
DP: You had a great year in Richmond in 1961. What was the Yankee plan for you if Tony Kubek hadn't gone into the service in 1962?
TT: I don't know. You were not privy to that kind of information. All you did was keep playing and you'd wait and see what happens. I was just trying to have a good year and then they called me up. Tony was there but his backup Joe De Maestri was retiring at the end of the season. That would have provided one slot to fight for, even if Tony wouldn't have gone in to the service.
DP: So your goal was just to make the team. There was no talk of trading you?
TT: Not that I heard about. Trades could be made, but at that point, you really don't think like that. I felt that I had a real good year in AAA and I was probably going to be in the major leagues somewhere in '62. I didn't think too much about it. Then the season was over and pretty soon the Cuban Crisis happened and Tony was in the army. I was a member of the New York National Guard at the same time he was a member of the Wisconsin guard, so I could have be activated, too. Or instead of him. But he went and that opened the position. Phil Linz and I kind of battled back and forth for that starting job in spring training in '62. And Linz got the utility position left by De Maestri.
DP: Do you think you won the job because of your bat?
TT: I think they also saw that I had all the tools. I could go back on the ball good, I had a strong arm, I was pretty fast, and I liked being in the center of the field and all the action, like cutoffs. It's a pretty savvy position to play.
DP: On the Yankees I would think playing short was almost as pressure-packed as playing center field. Between you and Derek Jeter, there really were no significant rookie Yankee shortstops. So it would seem it would be a really tough position to just slide right into. But I guess Bobby Richardson was a real support to you.
TT: And Clete Boyer on the other side. I had very good players on either side of me who helped me when there were steal situations and bunt situations, and with positioning. Bobby kept me aware of what was going on.
DP: A lot of people always have said, wrongly in my opinion, that Maris's 1961 season was a fluke, that he hit the 61 home runs and didn't have much of a career otherwise. To them, he was a one-year wonder despite winning two MVP awards and doesn't deserve Hall of Fame consideration. But youre the person who's always said he deserves to be in Cooperstown despite the fact that you didn't really play with Maris until after that the '61 season. So you have a different perspective. You saw what kind of ballplayer he was.
TT: The problem with the Hall of Fame sometimes is that qualifying becomes an endurance run. If you play twenty years, you can put enough numbers together to get in the Hall of Fame. But if you don't, you don't have the numbers, so you don't get in. Roger broke one of the major records.
DP: He broke the major record.
TT: And he held it longer than Babe Ruth did. Thirty-seven years. For about ten years he was one of the biggest players in the game, he was on seven pennant winners in nine years and was the MVP twice. I wonder how many guys in the Hall of Fame didn't win it. Roger was a total player. When he hit a home run, he'd be right on his way, no big smile on his face or anything. He circled the bases and on into the dugout. That was his job. He was just trying to be the best ballplayer that he could to help his team the best he could and earn a good living for his wife and six kids. Now, if you are going to knock somebody for that, I have a little trouble with it.
DP: Just to show you how the press went after him, the UPI in 1962, which was your rookie year, took a poll on who the most disappointing player was. That's the only time they ever took this poll and they did it specifically so they could select Roger Maris as the most disappointing player, despite his hitting 33 homers and driving in 100 runs. That's how cruel the press was to him.
TT: It's too bad because he was such a good guy and he had a tremendous year. He was a star. I got to know him mostly when we were on the road. During the season, my wife and children were with me, so I'd see the guys on the road when we didn't have our families around. Guys used to go out for dinner after the ballgame and a lot of times, we'd be in a group of four or five guys. But it wouldn't be the same four or five guys all the time. You get off the bus and somebody would say,, "Who wants to go to so and so." So, I got to know Roger through those kind of things.
DP: Was he hard to get close to?
TT: Not for me. He had a good sense of humor. Both he and Mickey were different in public than in private. If they went out to dinner, a public situation, and they tried to be real nice, pretty soon they'd be surrounded. So sometimes they'd use kind of a stern, less friendly look so people would think they're less receptive, That made strangers reluctant to join you. A lot of people would have the waiter bring them a drink, so later they could stop by at the table. What happened is that Roger and Mickey couldn't go out to dinner anymore. I remember that. They'd just go back to the hotel after the game and order room service and just stay in to avoid confrontations.
DP: Kubek returned late in the '62 season but you were on your way to being Rookie of the Year, so Houk shifted you to left field rather than take you out of the lineup. Had you played outfield before?
TT: They moved me to left field in August. It was the first time I'd played in the outfield since junior high school.
Did Maris or Mantle help you make the transition?
TT: No, but they certainly would have helped if I had any questions. They didn't see any need to volunteer it. In spring training, the Yankees had Joe DiMaggio working with me so that I could play it when I moved out there. Left field at Yankee Stadium was tough, but I was a good athlete. And having been a shortstop, it wasn't very hard for me to make the adjustment.
DP: In the 1962 World Series, you did well at bat and in the field.
TT: I led the Yankees in hitting I believe. I hit a home run off Jack Sanford in Game 5. It was the bottom of the 8th and we were tied 2-2 and I hit a three-run home run and it gave us a 5-2 lead. I think was Chuck Hiller hit a home run in the top of the 9th, so it ended up being 5-3.
DP: How big a thrill was that for a rookie?
TT: Huge, huge. It's the hit that will always remain my biggest individual thrill, because of the situation: The game's tied 2-2, the series is tied 2-2, it's a pivotal game. That was the last game in New York and if you go back to San Francisco with a 3-2 lead, you got a better chance of winning then you do if you go back with a 2-3 record.
DP: In the 9th inning of Game 7, fans remember Willie McCovey lining out to Richardson to end the game and one batter earlier, Maris cutting off Mays's double and not allowing the tying run to score with two outs. But you made a key play earlier in that game.
TT: Willie Mays hit it. It was a line drive to the left field corner and I caught the ball just before I ran into the fence. That game I tied or set a Series record for the most putouts by a left fielder. So, it wasn't like they weren't hitting them at me. The 9th inning was exciting. We've got a 1-0 lead and they get men on second and third with two outs, with McCovey coming up and Orlando Cepeda on deck. You're a little nervous. It's your first World Series. But you are also a professional. It's not like I came right out of high school. I played a year of college ball and just shy of four years in the minor leagues and I was twenty-three, not eighteen. I had played a lot of baseball in my life, so I've got my confidence. I'm not out there saying, "Geez, I hope I don't make a mistake."
DP: Were you out in the outfield saying, "Why are they pitching to McCovey rather than walking him with an open base?"
TT: No, no, no, no, no. You don't pay any attention to that. My job is to figure out what I need to do if McCovey hits it to left field.
DP: When Maris made his play on Mays's double, holding Matty Alou at third, were you thinking what a good play it was?
TT: It was a big play but you expected it. By then I played 162 ball games, so I'd been around awhile and I'd been watching these guys play. My teammates were pretty good fielders. Roger was an outstanding fielder. You're not surprised that he makes the play because he you know he'll make it if he can get to the ball. If the run scores, it's not going to be because he didn't hustle his butt off to get there. He always hustled.
DP: McCovey made the final out on a liner off Ralph Terry to Richardson as everyone held their breaths. Was there a celebration after that game? Or were players just relieved?
TT: Sure, we had a celebration. The normal champagne and everything. But we were in San Francisco and not home so that kind of took a little bit out of it. The guys were ready to go home. Sometimes you'd fly in late in the morning after you win the World Series on the road. That year there werent't many people there to greet us. The wives weren't even there. Everybody was so used to the Yanks winning.
DP: In the '62 Series and many times in future years, you batted third in front of Mickey Mantle. People who forget Babe Ruth batted third in front of Lou Gehrig when he sixty homers, belittled Maris's accomplishment in '61 by pointing out he hit in front of Mantle and had a profound advantage. It may be obvious, but: You batted in front of Mantle a lot, so explain what happened when you did.
TT: Well, what happens is they don't want to walk you. So if pitchers get behind you on the count they are more apt to throw a pitch that they can get over for a strike, which is the fastball in most cases. You're ready for the fastball, but that still doesn't make it easy. I was hitting fourth sometimes when Bobby Murcer was hitting fifth, and it was the same type of thing.
DP: Do you remember the game in 1963 against Baltimore when you homered from both sides of the plate and then Mantle hit a game-winning pinch homer against Mike McCormick when he supposedly was hung over? It was kind of a famous game.
TT: I don't remember the hangover. but I remember what the headlines were: "Mantle Homers as Yanks Win." And if you read the article you'd discover, deeply hidden, it said, "Tom Tresh hit two home runs from opposite sides of the plate to tie a record." Mantle and someone else did it the most times, but I did that three times. That might have been the first time I did it.
DP: The Yankees won again in 1963, although you were one of the few guys to have a good season, but were swept by the Dodgers in the World Series. 1964 was the last hurrah for the dominant post-WWII Yankees. Do you remember Maris sort of taking over in September and leading the team to the pennant?
TT: I do. Mickey got hurt and Yogi put Roger in center field and every game in the September he had the key hit. The other reason we got there was that when we were struggling at the All-Star break, we brought up Mel Stottlemyre. He won nine games the second half and Roger took over offensively and carried us. Roger and Mel were the two guys who made the difference. They were both tremendous.
DP: Roger was never considered a team leader, but was he becoming one in '64?
TT: Or earlier. Guys like Mantle and Roger lead by example, playing hard and coming through when you needed them.
DP: You know from '60 to '64, when Mantle was in his prime, Maris equalled him statistically. Mantle was your idol, but did you and the other Yankees consider Mantle above everybody still or for that period were Mantle and Maris on equal ground?
TT: Well, I don't know if we judged it that way. You were all part of a team, even them, so we didn't compare them. They were both Hall of Famers.
DP: What about future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra? How was he as a manager in 1964?
TT: He was good but the whole situation was unfair to him. He had played with all these guys, so it's hard for him to suddenly come in and have to be the one calling the shots. Particularly since Yogi was not a talker. Yogi just expected everybody to go do their jobs and we did. We went a long way until we got beat in the seventh game of the World Series by the Cardinals.
DP: You liked Houk as a manager?
TT: Yeah, and I think that's another thing that made it hard on Yogi. Nobody was happy that Houk left the field prior to '64. When he became the general manager, it wasn't the same thing as having him on the field. And, you know, he came back on the field later on after he fired Johnny Keane.
DP: What were your thoughts about Johnny Keane replacing Berra after the '64 Series?
TT: He was very hard for us to take because we weren't used to be treated like kids. Our job was to win. We didn't have to have curfews. And we didn't want to be ridiculed in public. In Mantle's case, there was no way Ralph Houk would have had somebody run out and replace him for defense in the middle of an inning. Those things were embarrassing. Johnny was not a good fit for us at that time. And we didn't play well for him. We finished sixth, the first time we didn't win the pennant since 1959. And we were worse the next year.
DP: When CBS bought the Yankees, did the atmosphere change at all?
TT: Yeah, the atmosphere changed. It was different in that when Michael Burke came in, he was the president but not the owner. . When Dan Topping and Del Webb had walked in, they were the owners, so you knew that the buck stopped there. It wasn't like that with Burke. CBS was the owner. We had a corporate boss, not human beings.
DP: Was there some point when you realized the Yankees were in a decline? Or did that never happen because you always had a lot of the same great players?
TT: Basically, all the great players that we had were getting a year older and then a year older. The Yankees are in the same situation right now.
DP: I guess you, Downing, Stottlemyre, and Pepitone were the core of the young players.
TT: Roy White was just coming up.
DP: And Bobby Murcer made a brief appearance. But it seemed there weren't enough guys to take over from the aging stars.
TT: You know what happened that really hurt the Yankees? The baseball draft that began in 1965. The Yankees were used to operating back when they signed me and guys before me and probably a couple after me when there was no draft. The Yankees always got the lion's share of the young talent every year. The Dodgers always got a good pick. The Giants. There were a few teams that had the best chance of getting the better players and they didn't have to wait in line. So, consequently, their farm systems could produce more players at one time. The draft changed that.
DP: I always thought that you were trying to step up at the plate because you realized Mantle and Maris were becoming more and more fragile. Every year at least one of them would get injured and there had to be somebody to step up. Did you think in those terms?
TT: Sure. I felt that people passed the responsibility down and as I got a little older you expect yourself to carry more of the load. In '66, I hit 27 homers, which was second on the team to Pepitone. And I hit 19 of them in the second half. So I figured that if I can hit 19 in a half, I can hit 38 in a season. So, I was looking at the point where I just might be coming into my own and be able to hit 35-40 home runs a year. And I blew my knee out in spring training. The only way they could tell exactly what was wrong was exploratory surgery and that would have ended my season. So they decided that I would just wrap my knee and use a brace and see how far I could go. So, I ended up playing a lot of games that year. As a result, I tore it up worse. I finally left the lineup in the middle of September after my knee went out for the fifth time. Then I had my surgery at the end of the year and I just couldn't produce after that. I couldn't do what I used to do, include run fast. It became less fun to play the game when I wasn't the play I once was.
DP: That's similar to what happened to Maris after he hurt his hand in 1965. From your perspective, did Maris lose his enthusiasm for baseball as the years progressed in New York?
TT: I think he got disenchanted with New York and the press and the lack of fan support and the all-around bad situation. I think he needed to make a change like what happened.
DP: Were you actually relieved when he was traded to St. Louis after the 1966 season?
TT: Oh yeah. Because he seemed miserable. He was happy with the Cardinals and helped them win two consecutive pennants. That's another reason he should be in the Hall of Fame. When he stopped playing for them, they stopped winning flags.
DP: So, do you have a lasting memory of Roger or something that you remember when somebody asks you about Roger Maris?
TT: Everything I remember about him was positive. He was a great father. He was a great husband. He was a great player. He should be in the Hall of Fame. He took on the one record that nobody wanted him to break and I give him credit for staying after it.
DP: It was exciting for me to talk to you about Maris and about yourself because I have such great memories of you as a player. Thank you so much for that.
TT: You're welcome.


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