Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Steve Hamilton's Folly Floater

There once was a long and lanky left-hander who pitched for several teams from 1961 to 1972. Eight of those twelve years were with the New York Yankees. It seems every lefty is given the long and lanky moniker, but Hamilton earned it. He was six feet, six inches tall and he weighed only 190 pounds. His hair grayed early which made him seem ancient even when he wasn't. His name was Steve Hamilton and he is one of the treasures of my childhood.

Hamilton was never a star reliever. He was the mop up kind of guy who pitched in games that got out of hand. He came in when the starter left early. His only real pivotal season was 1968 when he saved eleven games and had a sparkling 2.13 ERA and a 0.937 WHIP. But even that didn't matter since the Yankees finished in the bottom of the standings. But when you are a kid, you latch on to guys like Steve Hamilton. Just like my favorite New York Knick was Phil Jackson. Jackson didn't get much playing time, but we lived for when he actually got in the game and used that big lefty hook of his. Hamilton was the Phil Jackson of baseball. He was the middling reliever.

But he wasn't just any middling reliever. He was pretty darn good at it. He pitched in 421 games and ended his career with a 3.05 ERA. He even started seventeen games along the way and completed three of them with one shutout. But mostly, he was a middling reliever. And he was a lefty. Hamilton was born and died in Kentucky (1935-1997) so not only was he an older looking gentleman, he was a southern gentleman.

But what made Steve Hamilton one of the true heroes of my childhood was the Folly Floater. What's that, you ask? That's what Hamilton called his slow ball. Others who threw them, like Satchel Paige, called it an Eepheus pitch. But Hamilton called his the Folly Floater. Now baseball has always been somewhat of a conservative game. Baseball frowns upon gimmicks. Baseball hated Bill Veeck's "midget." An infielder may get away with the hidden ball trick, but he will get knocked down the next time he gets to the plate. The slow ball is about as gimmicky as you can get away with in Major League Baseball. And to be sure, Hamilton probably wasn't very popular around the league for throwing it.

But what the heck. The Yankees were terrible during that period of time. They couldn't hit. They could pitch. They had starting pitchers that swapped wives. It was a really bad time for New York Yankee baseball. But that's the period I grew up and that's all there was. And we loved it. Actually, it was a great time to be a kid and a Yankee fan because it was dirt cheap to get into the bleachers and since the stands were so empty, we could get down by the dugout in the box seats after the fourth inning when the ushers left. So who cared much that Steve Hamilton would throw his slow ball and risk embarrassing the game when the Yankees would probably lose either way?

Fortunately, there is video evidence of one such at bat with Hamilton throwing his silly pitch. The batter in this case was Tony Horton, one of the roughest and toughest hombres in the game at that time. The year was 1970 and the game took place on June 24th at Yankee Stadium. The video shows the stadium and you might not even recognize it! Anyway, Horton was big and strong and batted right handed. That's just what you needed against Hamilton. But...wait...we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's set the game up first.

The Yankees were actually playing well in 1970. After some really dark years, on June 24, 1970 under Ralph Houk, they were in second place with a 40-27. Cleveland was in seventh place, one of their usual positions during those years. The Indians had a record of 30-34 and were managed by Al Dark. Both teams started their aces. The Yankees started Mel Stottlemyre and the Indians started Sudden Sam McDowell, one of the blazingest fastball pitchers of his era. Stottlemyre was 8-5 and McDowell was 10-4. The Yankee pitcher would go on to win 15 that season and McDowell would win 20 and come in third in Cy Young voting. He struck out 304 batters that season.

McDowell had his best stuff on June 24, 1970 but Stottlemyre didn't. The Yankee pitcher was knocked out by the fourth inning and McDowell went on to pitch a complete game. The only two runs McDowell gave up were homers to Curt Blefary and a young Bobby Murcer. The Indians had a third baseman by the name of Graig Nettles. But getting back to the game, Stottlemyre was lifted after four innings and was lifted for Mike Kekich, one of the guys in that wife-swapping thing mentioned earlier.

Kekich must have been born under a dark cloud because he was terrible and June 24, 1970 was no different. But he also got no help from his fielders as the usually slick-fielding, Gene Michael, made two errors. But after Kekich pitched his two innings, the score was 6-2 and that was all McDowell needed. The rest of the game was just filler. So they thought.

The next Yankee pitcher was a guy I don't even remember. His name was Ron Klimkowski. It's no wonder I don't remember him as he only pitched 90 games of major league baseball. Klimkowski somehow ended his career with a 2.90 ERA despite a K/9 of only 3.8 and a walk rate of 3.4 per nine innings. In other words, Klimkowski didn't fool anyone. But he pitched two innings and gave up a run on two walks and a hit. His innings bring us to the top of the ninth and Steve Hamilton was asked to do what he did best: pitch a meaningless ninth inning. The Yankees had no chance of beating McDowell on this day and everyone knew it. It was just another meaningless inning for a middling reliever who had a twelve year career making these kinds of appearances.

But it wasn't meaningless for those of us glued to the television sets (black and white) and sipping our cokes in the old green bottles. Our guy was in the game! Steve Hamilton. The very first guy he faced was Tony Horton. Horton was only 25 and nobody knew it on June 24, 1970, but Horton would only be in the major leagues for two more months. For that story, click here. But on that day, nobody knew Horton's breakdown would happen and he was just another good-looking young stud of a ball player. Graig Nettles said that Horton was one of the best hitters he ever saw. But the game wasn't for Horton and he never played again after 1970. But Horton was the guy that Hamilton would face first in the ninth inning. The linked story seems to indicate that Horton and Hamilton had communicated and that Horton wanted Hamilton to throw his Folly Floater. When viewing the video, it certainly appears that Horton wanted Hamilton to throw it a second time.

But there is no use in describing what happened. That's best left to the video and to the immortal Phil Rizzuto that described the happenings. What happened between Hamilton and Horton is legendary to all of us that grew up watching baseball in those times. We'll never forget it. Take it away Uncle Phil:


Ron Bone said...

I had the pleasure of knowing Steve Hamilton and going Groundhog hunting with him , still have the rifle he gave to my dad , fun guy miss him !

Ron Bone said...

Email me at rpg22mag1@hotmail.com