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October 17, 2008: Goodnight, Tom Tresh

I was listening to the Red Sox broadcast last night of the Sox/Rays showdown. While wallowing in misery when it was 7-0 in favor of the Rays, Joe Castiglione, that most bipolar of broadcasters, mentioned that former Yankee Tom Tresh had passed away at age 71.

I was sad to hear that. Tresh was one of the good guys, a smart, articulate, funny man who was gracious with his time when I was working on the book “The 50 Greatest Yankee Games.” He, like so many retired ballplayers (and others…) lived in Florida, just a few hours from my parents. I got his address through a contact at the Yankees and I wrote him out of the blue asking if he’d be willing to get together for an interview. We set one up, and one sunny morning I drove south from Tampa to a Cracker Barrel intending to meet him for lunch.

When I arrived, there was no sign of him. I didn’t know what he looked like now, and so spent quite a while going in and out trying to see if there was anyone browsing the shop or sitting in the rocking chairs outside who might be my quarry. It was quite busy—there was not a parking space to be had, either. Eventually I determined he wasn’t there, and called his house.

His wife answered to say she thought he was playing golf. He’d left about an hour before. My heart sank. Nine holes of golf takes like three hours. Eighteen holes takes all day. And I had to be back in Tampa that night for the game. She said she’d call his cell phone though, and try to see what he was up to. A little while later he called. I could hear he was outdoors, but he said he was just finishing up and would be right over. He was very apologetic. Friends from out of town had dropped in for a few days and got his schedule all out of whack.

Now I felt guilty, because I was sure I was pulling him away from a day of golf with good friends. When he arrived he told me not to worry, he had only had a golf lesson that morning, and so he really was finished when he came to meet me, and he was incredibly apologetic for forgetting.

We talked for hours. We got a table—by the the crowds had begun to abate—and talked all through the meal and then sat for a long time afterward. I ran out of tape; I think that’s the only reason we ended when we did.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview. When I say Tresh was articulate, it’s quite evident in the long paragraphs that I include in his own words.

So who was Tom Tresh? He was the Derek Jeter of his generation of home-grown Yankees. In his rookie season, 1962, he won the shortstop starting job out of spring training as Tony Kubek had to leave for a stint in the military. That year Tresh won Rookie of the Year honors, and in the World Series led the team in hitting. When I spoke to him in the spring of 2004, Tresh had a lot to say on what it meant to be a Yankee.

Cecilia Tan: You had a cup of coffee at the end of the ’61 season, just in time to catch the end of the Maris/Mantle home run race, right?

Tom Tresh: I came up the last month of the season. You know when you dream of being a New York Yankee for many years….? My idol was Mickey Mantle, even though he was about 7 years older than I was. I was playing in Richmond, VA in Triple A ball and they increased the roster the first of September and I was the only minor league player they called up. They were in a race at that time and they had a one game lead over the Tigers. So I met them on the first of September. I got to the stadium before anybody else did. You’d met most of the guys, it wasn’t like I hadn’t yet, because being in the organization for three and half years at that time, you’d met Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Bob Richardson and Tony–spring training and so on–but you don’t know them well. You’re still kind of a minor leaguer at that time, they’re a major leaguer, but they know who you are and you know who they are, so it’s a little different than being traded and meeting everybody at once.

CT: What happened on September first?

Tom Tresh: So I got there that morning, earlier than anybody else would be there. And I went in and Pete Sheehy–the clubhouse man who was there forever, a great man–met him and he took me over to my locker and they had my locker right next to Mantle’s, and my locker number was 15 which was my dad’s number. My dad played in the major leagues for 12 years and wore number 15 with the White Sox, so you know everything was just a thrill. And I did the thing that everybody does, you know, I walked out through the dugout and I walked out to home plate and stood there in my dress clothes with the sun shining and nobody is in the stadium yet, and you look out there and you see the center field area where the monuments are… it was a tremendous feeling to know that Babe Ruth stood there, and DiMaggio, and Gehrig, and Mantle and all these great players throughout the history of the Yankees. That was it and you were there.

CT: Do you remember anything else from that time?

And then games started and it seems to me, and I might be wrong, but it seemed to me that we won every game that homestand. You can check that but it just seemed to me we never lost while we were home. Maybe that’s just my memory of it. [Ed: Tresh’s memory is quite good. Starting September 1, 1961, they swept three home series in a row, 12 games against Detroit, Washington, and Cleveland. Then they had a 13 game road trip where they went 6-7, and came home to play the final 5 games of the season, going 4-1. So they did win every game that homestand, and only lost one while he was there that year at home.]

Mickey and of course Roger were in the midst of a home run derby, and my locker being next to Mickey’s meant that right after the game was over–and there was a lot of papers in New York then and they were getting a lot of coverage from Japan and foreign countries, and my locker was on the end and Mantle’s was right here (holds up hands)–the press would come right in. You had screens between your lockers and they would move right into my locker [to be able to see and hear Mickey]. So as quick as I got in I would get right out, it wouldn’t matter if I sat there or not because they’re going to be hanging over here trying to get to ask Mickey questions and whatever. And right across from me on the other side of the locker room was Maris with HIS crowd, so it was this constant crowd, this back and forth from one locker to the other.

CT: How did you deal with it?

I quickly learned that the thing to do was to go in and take off my uniform real quickly and head for the training room, and grab a beer or a pop or something and go into the training room until it was all over, and then go out and get dressed. It was a tremendous thrill to be a part of that. I was in the game where Roger hit his 61st home run. It’s kind of a dream come true, the excitement of it. In those years, the Yankees were the number one sports team in the world. There wasn’t anything comparable, so being a part of the New York Yankees at that time was a tremendous feeling. You’re part of a limited roster of players that have that opportunity. In those days there wasn’t a whole lot of movement of team players. You kind of got there and stayed there–or didn’t. It was a big thrill.

CT: So then in 1962, you got your shot at a starting job, because Kubek went to the army, and you and Phil Linz competed for the job.

Yeah, Phil and I were the two better middle infielders coming up at the time. I had started a little bit before him, so I had the jump on him. He was playing one level lower than me. In 1961, to begin the season, we were both at Richmond, and I think they had him working out at third, and they decided to send him back to double A in Amarillo. So I got called up at the end of the season and he didn’t, so I still had that kind of a lead on him so to speak. And when Tony went in the army, also Joe DeMaestri retired. So not only was Tony gone, but the utility shortstop was gone. So they really had two positions in spring training open. So Phil and I just approached it where there were two positions, and we could tell real quick that the press wanted to try to get something competitive going on, and we just weren’t going to let them do it. When they talked to me about Phil I would just tell them good things about Phil and I thought he was a heck of a player and then he’d do the same thing for me. We never bad-mouthed each other in the press, and we’ve been very very close friends and are today. But we probably did both know that we both would make the ball club. I think we ended up leading the Yankees in hitting that spring training, he was first and I was second. [Ed: Again Tresh’s memory is good.] So we both had a real good spring. But he was in an unfortunate situation because I had the lead, and you’re both doing the same, but you can’t catch the other person because the other person isn’t falling down. He could have easily been a starting shortstop with any other team in the league. But at that time, they could protect players, and they weren’t about to get rid of Phil Linz and give him to somebody else. Then when Tony got back, they moved me to the outfield, and that put Phil in the utility job still, didn’t change his status, so he was just second to Tony.

CT: They basically had to find you a position because you were hitting too well to be taken out of the lineup.

They couldn’t do that. When Tony came back, they couldn’t move me from the lineup, and left field just worked out well because it was a platoon. They were playing Hector out there, and Johnny Blanchard out there, Yogi, Elston, that was in ’61 when the Yankees catchers hit over 60 home runs–they didn’t do it as catchers, some of them did it while they were playing the outfield and the other one was catching, so a couple of them were in the game at the same time. I’d be interested to see how many home runs did they hit where there were one in each game, because if both guys are playing in the same game, that shouldn’t count. Although if somebody hits two, you can count one… you’d have to look and see which one the one was catching hit, not the outfielder.

CT: So you moved to LF when Kubek came back, yet you still won rookie of the year in ’62…

Yep. There’s a lot of advantages being a rookie playing on a team as good as the New York Yankees are, on the one hand. On the other hand there’s a lot more pressure to play well on the Yankee team. One of the biggest thrills I ever had was hitting in the third hole in the World Series. Generally that’s reserved for their best hitters. But we had so many ‘best hitters’ you couldn’t designate which hole the best one should be in. I always think that was a thrill, when I look through the lineup and the guys around me — that showed they had a lot of confidence in me.

CT: There are two themes in that 1962 series, rain and the redemption of Ralph Terry. Did the guys ever talk about what had happened in 1960?

The Pittsburgh game? No, they never did talk about it that much. They really outplayed Pittsburgh by a ton, and yet they lost, and that’s the only thing they talked about. They really felt that they won that series, they should have won that series. Big time statistically, Bobby Richardson, I don’t know if he still holds the record but he used to hold the record for 13 RBI in a World Series, in Pittsburgh in the losing effort. You have to give the credit to Pittsburgh, because they won.

CT: What kind of guy was Ralph Terry?

He was the ultimate professional pitcher. He didn’t have an overpowering fastball, or an overpowering curve ball, but he knew how to pitch. He knew how to get people out. That was the name of the game. You have your pitchers and your throwers. He was a very competitive individual, quiet-spoken, but a real nice individual. I don’t know if there’s any one thing to say about him. Just picture a real quiet easy going southerner–even though he’s from out in Kansas or somewhere. That’s the way he was. Didn’t seem like anything bothered him.

CT: Was he still laid back after winning that game?

I don’t know. Things can get pretty chaotic there.

CT: The game ended with McCovey hitting that line drive into Richardson’s glove. Could you even see that from left field?

It happened so quick. I mean, you’re a nervous wreck. You know a mistake can mean the ball game. Some of these guys, you know, Cepeda, and Mays, and McCovey, just to name a few, these are great players, coming up all the time. It’s hard to get through a ball game like that and win it one-nothing. You look back and the one run that we got came on a double play ball. That’s exactly the move that you make early in the ball game, you give up a run to get the two outs. Very seldom would that one run ever win you a ball game. It was a great ball game. Most nervous I’ve ever been in a ball game.

CT: So how did you know it was over?

Well, you know how many outs there are, and you know what has to happen, it just happened so fast that you’re kind of shocked. The ball was hit-caught. It’s one thing if it’s a long-running catch or something, but this was boom-boom. I’m glad he hit it to Bobby. I’m glad he didn’t hit it to me. I’d had enough that day and I didn’t need another one. That was a great game.

CT: So then what did you do, go running in?

Oh yeah. That’s part of it, right? That’s what you’re in training for, so you can get in there and get on the pile! The hardest thing is that being in the outfield, it takes you a lot longer to get to the pile. The good news is that you don’t get spiked because you’re on the top. It was a great thrill. To be young and to be with those guys.

CT: So I have that you led the team in hits that series.

I think I led in hitting too, with .315. [Ed: He did lead in hitting. with .321.]

CT: And you were the youngest player on the team. How did that feel?

Yeah, I was. I guess I was deserving to hit in third whole then, huh?

You know, I grew up with my dad being a major league ball player and because everything was there in front of me all the time, I never paid a whole lot of attention to it, to stats and all that. But I tell you there are a lot of people out there today who do. Playing in these fantasy camps and so on you really run into people who know everything. They know everything about you. Those have really been fun, for the players as well as the people who come. I’ve been doing them for over 20 years now but some of my best friends are people I’ve met through fantasy camps. It’s like every year you have a week’s vacation with your friends. So it’s fantastic. As close friends as I’ve ever had. I’ve got friends of my own background that I might have known longer that I don’t see a week a year. But the thing that makes it all work is that everybody has a love of the game, they have that one thread of common thing, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fireman from New York or you’re an attorney from Tampa, there are so many different variations of jobs and careers and so on that are all mixed together, and nobody wears that hat during that week, everybody wears a Yankee hat. It just really works well. I really enjoy it.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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