There were two big free-agent signings on December 24, 1986, both of them of great interest to Yankee fans. It was pretty well acknowledged that their ex-slugger Reggie Jackson was on the down side of his career then as he signed a free agent deal for the upcoming season with the A’s, but who knew? Few expected the 133 homers with 374 rbi’s that he contributed to the California Angels’ cause in the preceding five years. Those big numbers (and particularly the 39/101 in 1982) were badly missed in the Bronx.
The five years since Reggie’s departure had not been kind, and by 1986, the signing of left fielder Gary Ward the same day was the big news for fans of the New York franchise of the American League. Ward would play two seasons plus eight games with the Yankees, and put up pretty fair numbers of 20 homers, 103 rbi’s, and nine stolen bases in that time. Ward was released in April 1989. Long-time Astro and recent Pittsburgh Pirate and Chicago Cub Daryle Ward is Gary’s son.
The Yankees signed free agent infielder Donovan Solano to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training on December 24, 2015. Having played 361 games with the Marlins in 2012 through 2015, during which he homered eight times for 97 rbi’s, Solano would get into nine games in the Bronx down the stretch of the 2016 season; he added one home run and two rbi’s.
On December 24, 2013, the Yankees signed free agent righthander Bruce Billings to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. Bruce did not last the year, in a season where the Yanks struggled with creating room on their 40-man roster, though he showed some promise, striking out seven batters in his one, four-inning appearance in the bigs in 2014. Bruce pitched four games in 2011 for Colorado and Oakland, and begins 2015 as a free agent signee of the Washington Nationals.
Although he showed some signs in 2003, Jose Contreras never really seized the name “the Cuban Missile” and made it his in New York, nor in Chicago in 2004 after his trade for Esteban Loaiza. With his good fastball, if he can throw his unhittable slider for strikes, he can excel, as he proved in leading the Chisox during the stretch and in winning the 2005 World Series. He has struggled in the Second City since though. The Yanks beat out Boston when they signed Contreras to a four-year deal on December 24, 2002.
On December 24, 2012, the Yankees signed free agent second baseman Gil Velazquez.
A quite recent example of a December 24 player move affecting former and future Yankee players was the deal reliever Jay Witasik inked with the Padres in 2002. On this day in 1990, Tim Raines would be traded by the Expos to the White Sox for outfielder Ivan Calderon and reliever Barry Jones; and the Indians sold the contract of Johnny Allen to the St. Louis Browns on December 24, 1940. And on the same 1940 day, the Senators swapped Ben Chapman for Joe Krakauskas of the Indians.
Although Steve Garvey edged him out of the National League Most Valuable Player Award in a narrow vote in 1974, the Cardinals’ Lou Brock, having just stretched the single-season stolen base mark to 118, was named that year’s Sportsman of the Year in one national publication on December 24.
Jim Lonborg, who almost won the Boston Red Sox a Championship until he withered on two days’ rest against the incomparable Bob Gibson in Game Seven of the 1967 World Series, tore up his knee in a skiing accident on December 24, 1967. His record would dip from a stellar 22-9 to 6-10 in 1968, and with that would go Boston hopes for another shot.
Former Oriole, Ranger, and Yankee catcher Johnny Oates, who managed in Texas and Baltimore also, died from the aftereffects of a brain tumor on December 24, 2004. Oates retired in June 1981 after two anemic offensive seasons with the Yankees. But he gained notoriety during the 1981 World Series when he was recruited by the Yankees to help the team prepare for the Dodgers. When the Yankees won Games One and Two, Los Angeles Manager Tom Lasorda accused Oates of stealing signs. The light-hitting Oates hit one homer with three rbi’s for the Yanks. His 1970-1981 career totals were 14 dingers with 126 rbi’s, and he was a long-serving manager as well. The only other Yankee player to die on December 24 is lefthanded first baseman George McQuinn (1978), who ended his career playing 238 games in 1947-1948 with the Yankees. He stroked 24 home runs and drove in 121 runs those two years on 232 hits in 819 at bats, and cleared 135 fences with 794 rbi’s overall in his 1936-1948 career. McQuinn played one year each with the Reds and the A’s, and the rest of that time with the Browns.
Lefty-hitting outfielder Louis Sockalexis (1913) earns first mention among nonYankee players to have died this day not because he had a long career with big numbers (he hit three home runs and knocked in 55 runs for Cleveland from 1897-1899), but because it was his presence on the roster of the Cleveland Naps that led to them becoming the Cleveland Indians; Sockalexis was a Native American. The list of other noteworthy nonYankee players who have died on December 24 includes a righthanded pitcher, another outfielder, a lefty-hitting outfielder who also played a lot of first base, a lefty-hitting catcher, a second baseman, and another infielder. Righty Nino Espinosa (1987) won 44 games, lost 55, and saved none for the Mets and the Blue Jays from 1974-1981; outfielder Charlie Duffee (1894) played most often for the Browns among three other clubs while he hit 35 long balls and drove in 281 from 1889-1893; and outfielder/infielder Del Howard (1956) hit six roundtrippers and knocked in 193 runs playing mostly with the Cubs from 1905-1909. Backstop Thomas Pinch (1953) cleared two fences good for 102 rbi’s playing for the Red Sox and the Indians from 1912-1921; and second baseman Al Myers (1927) hit 13 homers and drove in 359 runs from 1884-1891, playing three years each with the Senators and the Phillies, and briefly with three other clubs. Infielder Jerry Kindall (2017) played most of his 1956-1965 career with the Cubs, though he made significant stops with the Indians and Twins. He hit 44 home runs and knocked in 198 runs.
Players Who Have Died This Day
A lefty-hitting outfielder, Bill Otis (1889) is the only Yankee player who has December 24 as his birthday. He appeared in four games for the 1912 Yankees. In 17 at bats he managed one hit but made it count, as he earned two rbi’s.
Also worthy of mention is southpaw Kurt Ojala (1968). Although he never played in Pinstripes, Ojala was drafted by the Bombers in the fourth round of the 1990 amateur draft. Kurt was taken off the Yankee roster in December 1992 by the Oakland A’s in the rule-V draft, but his only major-league play came with the Marlins, from 1997-1999, where he went 3-10.
Other birthdays: Shortstop Frank Taveras (1949); righty Jamey Wright (1974); Kevin Millwood (1974); Matt Ginter (1977); Gregor Blanco (1985); Andrew Romine (1985), brother of Yankee catching prospect Austin Romine; James Norwood (1993); Fernando Romero (1994); and Miguel Castro (1994).
Players Born This Day