One of the very first Yankees that I met my first day in the Yankee clubhouse was Gene “The Stick” Michael. I idolized Gene Michael because like me. He was a shortstop. He was skinny and he was the most graceful infielder that I had ever seen.
When Mr. Steinbrenner ordered Pete Sheehy, the clubhouse manager, to get me a uniform so that I could be a bat boy that night in order to work off damages for my graffiti antics, the first players to come over and introduce themselves to me were Ron Bloomberg, baseballs very first designated hitter and Gene Michael.
It was so cool meeting him because I used to tag all around the city. “The Stick” – that’s how much I idolized this man.
I will never forget when he first extended his hand to me and said, “Hi, I’m Gene Michael.” He reminded me of the great actor Gary Cooper who played Lou Gehrig in “The Pride of the Yankees.” He was just a very cool guy and very generous on the field. When he found out that I could play a little bit, he gave me a lot of advice about playing shortstop.
You could tell that he was a true student of the game because he studied everything when it came to baseball. Sometimes I would just stare at Gene sitting in the dugout in between at bats and he would be studying every player from the opposition.
Sometimes some of our players would sit next to him and ask his opinion about different situations. We used to have a player on the team by the name of Walt “No Neck” Williams who loved talking all facets of the game with Gene. I would love to just sit and listen to them. It actually made me a better player because I would practice what they talked about.
Gene helped me with my fielding and Walt “No Neck” Williams helped me with my hitting. It was no coincidence that that following year I would be drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. It would not have happened without the baseball tutelage from these two guys.
I will never forget taking ground balls with Gene Michael. There used to be a game where we would play for a Coke. We would take ground balls and the guy that made the most errors had to get the winner a cup of Coke with ice after batting practice and put it on the stool in his locker. As you could imagine, I don’t remember ever winning.
Gene was also the best card player I had ever seen. At that time, I think the big card game in the clubhouse was whisk and some guys played spade. I remember that Gene and Thurman Munson were always a team and they beat everybody.
In the winter, some of the players had a basketball team and the two best players were Gene Michael and Walt Williams. They used to play at different high schools and colleges in order to raise money for the school athletic programs. Late in the game, they always gave me a couple of minutes playing time and once they realized that I could play, I became the extra player who gave the starters a breather. Dick Barnett, the great Knick guard, even played with us. Barnett had once played for George Steinbrenner when the Boss owned the Cleveland Pipers of the old ABA.
The fans always loved “the Stick” because he had been with the Yankees for almost 10 years and had a strong personal relationship with them. In those days, the players had to come out of the stadium and cross the street in order to get their cars in the parking lot. Gene always took the time to stop, sign autographs and talk to the fans. People used to feel like they personally knew him.
I will never forget that one time in 1974, we were playing a Saturday afternoon game at Shea Stadium. After the game, I was leaving with my girlfriend and her sister and the car broke down. I ran inside to get help and when I got back to the car Gene was under the hood getting the car going! By that time, the gesture didn’t surprise me because that’s who Gene Michael was. Always helping.
That year Gene was our utility infielder. My very first road trip with the team was in August and we were in Chicago. It was a Saturday night and our manager, Bill Virdon, decided to start Gene at shortstop in place of Jim Mason. I was the happiest guy on the bench and I’m sure Gene knew it. That day he went five for five and I was feeling like I had also gone five for five.
Thurman Munson was very close to Gene Michael. Thurman thought of Gene like a big brother. He knew how much I admired “The Stick” and I think that opened the door to the great friendship that I would have with Thurman and his family. To this day, I consider the Munson family just that, family. Just as Bobby and Kay Murcer and their kids will always be my family also.
It is no coincidence that it all started with Gene “The Stick” Michael, a man with one of the greatest baseball minds ever. He was extremely respected and loved by the Boss, George Steinbrenner. For me and a lot of kids like me of that era, Gene “The Stick” Michael would always be our hero!
PS: The first time I knew that Gene Michael was truly a baseball genius was October 18 of 1977. Reggie Jackson has just completed the greatest batting practice exhibition that I had ever seen since Mickey Mantle in 1968. Reggie probably hit 35 out of 50 balls Way- Way out of Yankee Stadium. Reggie then went to a telephone and called Gene Michael, who was our advance scout and would sit in the press box with a walkie-talkie and send info to Billy Martin. Reggie asked Gene, “What do I look for today?” Gene Michael said, “Fastball in. Move back in the batters box a few inches.” Reggie followed his orders perfectly and the rest is history. Three pitches and three home runs and the birth of “Mr. October!”
Gene Michael would go onto manage, become a general manager, Vice President of Baseball Operations. But more importantly, one of The Boss’s very best friends.
Ray Negron can be heard every Sunday from 11 AM to 1 PM on 1050 AM ESPN Deportes and read on Newsmax.