Monday, November 15, 2010

Poosh 'Em Up, Tony

By:  C.G. Morelli

The date was May 24, 1936. The New York Yankees had just made a trip to Philadelphia to take on Connie Mack’s Athletics. Fans flocked to the Baker Bowl to get a glimpse of the Bronx Bombers and their illustrious lineup. After all, they were once again favorites to win the AL pennant. And who could argue? With the likes of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Red Rolfe anchoring the offense, the Bombers looked unstoppable.

They were their usual unstoppable selves on this day as well, dropping a 25-2 hurting on the A’s in front of their home crowd. But it wasn’t Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Rolfe that did most of the damage. It was, instead, a stringy second baseman who’d quietly become a main stay in the New York lineup since the days of Murderer’s Row. This man was Tony Lazzeri, the first player of Italian descent to really make a serious name for himself in the bigs.

On this particular day Lazzeri would cement his name in the record books by driving in an AL record 11 runs in the game. How does one go about knocking in 11 runs in a single game? Well, if you’re Tony Lazzeri you rip two grand slams into the left field bleachers. Then you follow up with another solo shot, and finally cap off the night with a two-run triple off the top of the wall.

Not bad for a guy who only weighed 170 pounds soaking wet and who battled epilepsy throughout his career.

Lazzeri, known to many in his Italian American community as “Poosh ‘Em Up,” grew up in the same San Francisco neighborhood that produced a certain Yankee Clipper. In fact, many say it was Lazzeri who paved the way for players like Joe D to take center stage.

Like DiMaggio, Lazzeri began his professional career in the Pacific Coast League. He played for the Salt Lake City Bees, and boy did he run the competition ragged. In his 1925 campaign in the PCL, Poosh ‘Em Up clocked 60 homers and knocked in 222 runs. Yes, I said 222 runs. It goes without saying that this was Tony’s final season in the minors.

He made his debut in the Bronx on April 13, 1926. He was just 23 years old, but he had stepped onto the team that would forever be known as Murderer’s Row. He was a rookie standing on stage with guys like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Not only did he hold his own on the same field as these legends, but he quickly became the team’s spark plug. He made that lineup tick.

From 1925-1937, Lazzeri batted over .300 five times and knocked in more than 100 runs seven times. He helped lead the Yanks to American League pennants six times during this span, and then went on to win the World Series on five of those occasions. That’s a ring for every finger, people.

Lazzeri retired in 1939 after brief and somewhat meaningless stints with the Dodgers and Giants. He suffered an untimely death in 1945 after incurring serious injuries from a fall caused by an epileptic seizure. He was just 42 years old.

One of the greatest two baggers of all time was basically overlooked for the next 50 years until he was finally elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s committee in 1991. His .292 career average, 986 runs, 178 home runs, 1,192 RBI, and 148 stolen bases are not flashy statistics by any stretch of the imagination. But Lazzeri’s ability to battle a potentially debilitating disease (thankfully he never had a seizure on the field) and still be a leader and an integral part on a team as storied as Murderer’s Row can not and should not be taken lightly.

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