RC: Thanks for taking a trip down memory lane with us! You were a graduate of Cerritos Junior College (Norwalk, CA.) and signed with the Royals after the College World Series with UCLA in 1969. Had the Royals seen you throw much prior to the CWS, and at what point did you know that they were interested in you?
JY: Well, I knew I was going to be drafted before the College World Series because they had contacted me. They said they’d get in touch when we got back and I was a little concerned because we were picked to win the World Series that year, and we lost our first two games, and I got both losses. I thought my negotiating card was going to go out the window! When the Royals selected me, they didn’t even know I had lost both games. They said, “So, how’d you do?” And I told them we’d lost both games and I got a couple of losses and they said, “Really? Oh.”
RC: Arizona State won that College World Series in 1969 and like you said, your team unfortunately went 0-2, including a loss to the Sun Devils. However, that was a great team that you played on and included future major leaguers Bill Bonham, Chris Chambliss and Mike Reinbach. I read that you got both losses but without allowing a single earned run. How did that even happen?
JY: I came in the first game against Tulsa. We were tied, I gave up a hit, and then we tried to turn a double play. However, one of our infielders threw the ball into the outfield and a run scored, and we lost in extra innings. The same thing happened the next game, against ASU, a botched double play, but this time the error was on me. I threw one of the best sinkers I’ve ever thrown to our shortstop who was covering second base in extra innings, and it went into center field. Another loss.
RC: Your coach at UCLA was the late Art Reichle, who was 747-582-12 while at UCLA. What kind of a coach and man was he?
JY: He was a good coach – a very personable guy. My senior year, we had a good ball club. We lost our first four games in league and we all got together and said, “You know what, we’re going to win this thing.” From then on, we ran away with the conference. Art Wasn’t a real hands on coach – but we had good players and he let us play.
RC: After the College World Series and getting selected by the Royals, you were all set to begin your professional career. What was contract negotiating like?
JY: Well, I remember them picking three or four of us up and taking us to the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim. They had a conference room there and we went in and they said, “Here’s your contract. Here’s what your going to make.” That first year I made $500 a month. But back then, nobody was making any money in baseball.
RC: Far cry from today! Shortly after that, you began your professional career that same summer in 1969 and pitched for the Royals’ short season team that year, the Winnipeg Goldeyes. You went 3-1 for Winnipeg with a 0.75 ERA in 20 games, which was a good enough to make you an All-Star. What do you remember about the town and stadium in Winnipeg, and had you ever been to Canada before?
JY: I had not been to Canada, and for a minor league team of that stature, in that league, and comparing it to some of the other teams – Sioux Falls, Aberdeen… Winnipeg was great - a great city. I think at that time it had 500,000 or 600,000 people. It was a nice stadium, decent crowds. The travel was the worst thing – we had 7 to 10 hour travel days. We played at night and would leave the same night and not get back to Winnipeg until 5 or 6 in the morning and then turn around and play an afternoon or evening game that same day. Fortunately, I was only there for a month and a half before the Carolina League.
RC: You were one of five Winnipeg players on that All-Star team. Also making it was pitcher Norm Angelini, who went on to pitch for Kansas City in 1972 & 1973, along with three other players that never made the Big Leagues in catcher Bob Burrows, the late outfielder John Stankey and shortstop Ron Opatkiewicz, who was the Royals’ #1 selection in the 1969 Winter Free Agent draft. What do you remember about that All-Star game?
JY: I don’t remember too much about it. I believe I gave up a home run, which I hadn’t given up any prior to that. My strikeout ratio was pretty good in that league – I think I had almost 2 strikeouts per inning. It was an honor to be on it.
RC: Your Manager at Winnipeg was the late John “Spider” Jorgensen, who played parts of five seasons in the Big Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Do you remember much about him?
JY: Yeah. In fact, I ran across him in probably 2000 or 2001. Tip Lefebvre was a baseball coach at a high school here in Orange County called Santa Margarita High School. He asked me if I’d like to be the pitching coach and I did that for four or five years. We traveled to another team and Spider Jorgensen came out and it was the first time I’d seen him since playing. He was a tough man – a no nonsense baseball guy. You played how he wanted you to play or you didn’t play at all.
RC: After Winnipeg, you finished up the 1969 season at High Point-Thomasville, which as far as I can tell, never again had any sort of professional baseball team. What was the stadium and crowd like in High Point-Thomasville?
JY: Very strange, and a real old ballpark. There was a white pole not too far from the first base line. Bizarre. Decent crowds, but coming from Southern California and going to a small town in North Carolina was a little different. Great people there though and they loved baseball.
RC: Ken Huebner won the Carolina League Batting Title there at High Point-Thomasville (hit .324), although he never made the majors, and you played under the late Harry Malmberg, who played one season in the Big Leagues with the Tigers (1955) and guided that team to the playoffs. You would also play under Malmbeg the next season in Elmira. What was Malmberg like?
JY: Harry was a good guy and a good coach. I was having a good year and he was a great individual. It was neat being reunited in Elmira.
RC: The Royals trained at Daytona Beach in 1970, as the complex in Sarasota wouldn’t be completed until late 1970 (the Royals Baseball Academy was also there). Were you invited to Spring Training at all in 1970?
JY: I went to Spring Training in the minor leagues that year, yeah. And the previous year, I had made $500 a month. Starting in the spring that year, though, in 1970, I got a raise to $600 a month. I remember talking with guys I’d played with at UCLA, and I remember comparing contracts. And I told them I got a $100 raise and they said, “No Way.”
So after this, I was getting a little cocky, and decided to talk to John Schuerholz and tell him I wanted a $50 a month raise. He said, “Ok, we’ll give it to you.”
He didn’t have much hesitation, and I walked out of there and thought I was really making big money and had really done it for myself. Then I second guessed myself and thought I should have asked for $100 or $150 more!
RC: That’s nuts… What a different time.
JY: Yeah. The only thing I see wrong with baseball today is the guaranteed contracts and the amount of money they throw at some of these marginal players. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, they deserve it. But there’s a lot of people playing that are marginal.
I can remember starting pitchers going 12-15 and having to take a pay cut back then.
RC: In 1970 you started with Elmira (AA), which was just 55-84 and the first ever AA team in Royals history. In fact, the Royals were the first of the new franchises to field a AA team that season and did so with entirely minor leaguers. You did well for Elmira, going 5-0 with a league-leading 1.06 ERA. What do you remember about that town and stadium?
JY: It was just a small little town – had a little local community college. As far as baseball, I wasn’t there long. I had a good month while I was there and started off hot. One day after a game, Harry said me and another outfielder were being called up to Omaha and we flew into Omaha. It felt like going to the Big Leagues once I got there!
RC: Like you said, later in that 1970 season, and on June 1st, to be specific, you were promoted to Omaha where you played under Jack McKeon (went 8-5 with a 3.44 ERA at Omaha) and were a part of an Omaha Royals team that won the Eastern Division Crown of the American Association and then beat Denver, the Western Division Winner, 4 games to 1 to advance to the second straight league championship. However, your O-Royals team lost 4 games to 1 against Syracuse of the International League in the Junior World Series, but did have to play all five of those games in Syracuse due to inclement weather back in Omaha. Do you remember what kind of weather problems there were in Omaha that September?
JY: I believe we had some thunderstorms. Those Midwest thunderstorms get a little nasty, as you very well know.
RC: We’re actually having one here in KC as we talk! What was it like returning to Omaha as a Royal one year after pitching their in the CWS?
JY: It was nice. Like I said, you get called up, and you’re like, “Man, it’s like the Big Leagues.” Omaha felt like a big league ballpark, and it was as nice as the Kansas City ballpark back then. You got to fly instead of taking all of the buses, you got more money and played for a great a manager, Jack McKeon.
RC: Jack McKeon said the following about you during the 1970 season. “He is the best looking pitching prospect I’ve ever had.” At that point, McKeon had managed pitchers such as Jim Kaat and Jim Merritt. What did that phrase mean to you?
JY: I’ve never heard that.
RC: Yeah. It’s in the 1971 Royals Media Guide!
JY: Wow. Well, that’s a great compliment. I know he managed a bunch of great ballplayers. And Jack McKeon was probably the best Manager/Coach I ever had, along with my first one at Cerritos Junior College, Wally Kincaid. They were both great.
RC: You were called up to Kansas City on September 21st, 1970 on the same day that Paul Splittorf and Bob Floyd got the call as well. What do you remember about that moment?
JY: It was a surprise. I was hoping I’d get called up. We met the team in Chicago and I remember getting there just in time for batting practice. I went into the clubhouse, put my uniform on and they were in the middle of batting practice.
RC: Your first major league game came in the second game of a doubleheader at Chicago that day, September 21st, 1970. With that appearance, you became the first ever player originally signed by the Royals to appear in a major league game. You got a win that day with 4.2 innings of relief work. What do you remember about the game that day?
JY: I remember I had good stuff. I wanted to make a good appearance because I wanted to make the ball club the next year.
We had actually been called up previous to that in the middle of the year, too, because they had played the Pittsburgh Pirates that year in an exhibition midseason and the proceeds for that game went to charity. And they played in Kansas City and I remember Paul Splittorf starting. He was going to go three and I was going to go three, and that’s when the Pirates had had Matty Alou, Roberto Clemente and Bob Robertson – they were a good ball club. And anyway, Splitt just got lit up. And I struggled a bit too, walking a few guys and even walking them loaded. But anyway, to officially make it to Chicago and make it that quick, I was surprised.
RC: You finished the 1970 season at the major league level going 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA in 4 appearances and 8.0 IP. What did the Royals tell you going into 1971 and did you play any winter ball that winter?
JY: I didn’t play any ball that winter. I worked out, went back to school and I lived out at Manhattan Beach (California). Guy Hansen and I worked out together – he ended up being a pitching coach years later, obviously.
As far as going into the next year, the Royals had told me I was going to the Big League Spring Training Camp that next year. I went into camp in good shape, and I was having a good spring training. I remember Bob Lemon coming up to me toward the end of Spring Training and he said, “You’re going to make this ball club. You don’t act very surprised or excited.”
And I said, “I am. Thank you.”
RC: Getting back to the 1971 Royals Media Guide, it says your nickname was “Sarge.” Where did that come from and how long did it end up sticking?
JY: That came from the pitching coach at UCLA, Glenn Mickens, who played a few years in the Big Leagues. He had a nickname for everybody on the team and called me Sarge for Sergeant York. It didn’t really stick with me in the Big Leagues.
RC: The Royals’ 1971 Media Guide also says that you were finishing up your degree in the offseasons at UCLA in Psychology and Physical Education, and that you worked at a men’s clothing store as a salesman. What was that job like?
JY: Pretty boring. I had that job when I was in college too, and I knew a guy by the name of Bill Rohr who worked there also. He ended up pitching for the Red Sox. But yeah, it was a small little store; it was fun and we made a little money.
RC: 1971 would be the best year of professional baseball you ever had, and it began with a Spring Training invitation at the new complex in Sarasota, where the Royals’ Baseball Academy was also located. How nice of a complex was that at the time?
JY: It was a very nice camp, state of the art. Nobody had ever dreamed about doing it and Ewing Kauffman built that. It was his idea, and it was a great asset for the Royals.
RC: You went north with the Royals that year and made your first ever Opening Day roster under Manager Bob Lemon. What kind of Manager was he?
JY: Great Manager. If you couldn’t play for him, you couldn’t play for anybody. Great person, one on one with you, and he stuck with you when you were down. If you had a bad game, he’d bring you right back, and just a great baseball guy. Kind of a no nonsense, hardcore baseball man.
RC: 1971 was your only professional season where you never saw the Minor Leagues, and you responded in a big way, appearing in 53 games and compiling a 2.89 ERA to go along with 103 strikeouts in 93.1 IP. Since most reading this article will have never seen you pitch, tell us what pitches you threw and how you liked to pitch?
JY: I was pretty much a fastball pitcher. Back then they didn’t use radar much, but I would venture to say I was going in the upper 90’s pretty consistently, which you can tell by the strikeout ratios along the way. Ball moved pretty well, pretty good control, and my ball had a real tendency to sink because I was more or less a side arm pitcher. I had a bit of a slider, not much of a changeup, but coming in out of the bullpen, I was a fastball/slider pitcher. Good command.
RC: What was it like playing at Old Municipal Stadium?
JY: I kind of liked those old ballparks. I went to Houston and played in the Astrodome later. I never did like the Astrodome. I like the hot, humid cities to pitch in. It was always cold in the Astrodome – you’d break a sweat, come sit on the bench and get a chill. They tried to keep it at 72 degrees. But I liked the old ballparks.
The groundskeeper there, at Municipal Stadium, was great. George Toma. The clubhouse and rest of stadium was a bit shaky, but the field and grounds themselves were tremendous.
RC: As a hitter, you were just 3-44 and hit your only major league home run in 1971. Before I tell you the pitcher, can you tell me who it was you hit that off of – do you remember?
JY: Yes… I can name him. Let me think here… Do you know it?
RC: I do.
JY: Let me think… I think they released him the next day.
RC: (Laughs) It was Alan Foster.
JY: Yes, that’s right. I remember I hit it good, to left center, and prior to that, I hit the ball better. I hit a real hard line drive to left center and it was caught. I remember coming in and cussing and Bob Lemon saying, “What, you think you’re a hitter now?”
And I remember hitting that home run and I came in the dugout to get the silent treatment from my teammates – nobody said anything! I remember somebody retrieving the ball and my roommate, Mike Hedlund, actually got the ball and got it inscribed at Cleveland. I still have that ball.
RC: Besides your home run, do you have any specific favorite memories of the 1971 season?
JY: That particular day was probably the best day I’ve ever had. Came in relief in the second inning, no outs and bases loaded, and got out of the inning with no damage. Went 8 innings, gave up 1 hit, and struck out 9 or 10 guys, and hit that 3 run home run… couldn’t have a better day.
The rest of 1971 was good – they were using Ted Abernathy a lot to close. I was coming in middle relief and late relief when he’d pitched a few innings. But I had a good year – good ERA, had a few saves, and by today’s standard, a great ERA.
RC: What do you remember most about Kansas City itself?
JY: I loved it. I stayed there that winter and worked with the ball club. And Paul and I traveled with the Public Relations staff for the ballclub. Every other week we’d go out to some of the smaller cities in Kansas and Missouri. We did speeches, a lot of Elk Clubs, certain luncheons at banks, and I think at that time, banks used to sell Royals tickets around Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa. And it accounted for like 25% of tickets sold – so we did lots of luncheons with them. Loved the city.
RC: Which teammates were you closest to while in KC?
JY: Paul, and Bobby Floyd and I shared an apartment together. Dennis Paepke – we lived in southern California and I didn’t know him until the Royals, but he and I drove out from California to Florida one year. Charlie Burt was another guy who contacted me last year and went through the MLBPA trying to get my phone number, and they sent me a letter and gave me his number. And I called him, and he’s pretty good friends with Fred Patek. So I told him, “I’m going to make a trip to Kansas City, probably this year.”
RC: Have you been back to Kansas City since leaving?
JY: I was back on business, years ago, probably in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. I have not been to the new ballpark.
JY: Nope, never!
RC: You need to come back, it’s great. Following the 1971 season, you were traded with the late Lance Clemons to the Houston Astros in the deal that landed the Royals John Mayberry (and minor leaguer Dave Grangaard). What were your emotions like upon finding this news out, and what do you remember about the moment you found out?
JY: I was disappointed as hell. They called me really early in the morning… well, not really early, it was like 8 or 9, but I was still in bed. And they called to tell me, “We regret to inform you we had a chance to make a nice trade.”
Tears came to my eyes – I was really disappointed. I loved Kansas City, the ballpark, the management of the club, John Schuerholz, everyone.
RC: You were with the Astros from 1972-1975, and appeared in the major leagues each season (114 games total). Did you enjoy your years in Houston?
JY: You know, I got hurt that first year with Houston in spring training. We were about a week from breaking camp, and I was pitching in a game, and I got a blister on the middle finger of my pitching hand. And it just ripped off the whole end of my finger. So I went to Houston and this thing would just not heal. And I went through probably a month of not pitching and I had the same thing happen on my index finger when I was with Kansas City.
Right at the end of my index finger, it looked like a small blood blister, and that would not heal. And I went all winter, and it was just sensitive as hell, and I finally went back to California and my doctor sent me to a hand specialist. They said I had a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which was a circulatory problem in the fingers. So they put me on medicine and it healed immediately.
But when I went to Houston, the same thing happened on my middle finger. And I ended up missing a good month of the season until it finally healed. I started off not pitching well, and it was just kind of a struggle with Houston. I kind of lost a little from that injury from Kansas City.
RC: With the Astros, you started your only 4 games of your major league career. In retrospect, do you wish you could have started more and earlier in your career?
JY: You know, I made it to the Big Leagues as a reliever and I kind of fell into that role. I was comfortable and as long as I got to pitch, I was fine. With Houston I wasn’t pitching as much as I wanted – I needed to throw more to be effective. The more I laid off, the worse I got. I could pitch two or three days in a row, 1 or 2 innings each day. I did enjoy starting though and it was something I hadn’t done in the Big Leagues, and I was successful. I think I won 3 of the 4. It was a bit of a challenge but fun.
RC: Following 1975, you were let go of by Houston and signed with the Yankees. Was this a surprise or expected?
JY: Well, it wasn’t a surprise. I knew I’d go somewhere – they started me at end of year because they were trying to show me off. It was nice going to the Yankees – that was kind of a dream come true. You always want to play for a club like that – the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, a big name club like that.
I remember that spring though, it was the player strike, and I needed a good spring training to make the ball club. I went to Syracuse (AAA) coming out of Spring Training and I’ll tell you what, going there in March, never saw the sun the whole time I was there, with temperatures in the 40’s. But I started off pretty well, went 5-0, and then they called me up. I didn’t quite finish the year with the Yankees – right at the end of August they told me they were going to send me to AAA, and I said, “I’m not going to AAA, I’m going to retire.”
I left the stadium that night and was informed that no, they couldn’t send me to AAA, at least not without my permission, since I had three years of Big League experience, and all thanks to the contract with the players that was signed that year. They never asked my permission and so I opted for free agency.
I finally signed with the White Sox, with the agreement that I would play only with Chicago. I wouldn’t be traded, sold, nothing – I’d only for the White Sox. It was Spring Training and they said, “We have a lot of interest if you’ll go.”
But, I was tired of it. Back then, you weren’t making much money, and the money I could make in the private sector was as much or more. So I left once things weren’t going to work out in Chicago and never went back.
RC: Do you still consider yourself a Royal?
JY: If they were to retire my jersey, which of course they’re not, but if it were ever an option, I would pick the Royals, even though I played for the Astros a lot longer.
RC: Do you ever watch the Royals play anymore?
JY: I think since I quit playing, I’ve been to maybe two or three major league games, period. I haven’t been to a game in probably seven or eight years. I didn’t even watch it on TV. And recently, in fact my wife even commented on it, “You’re sure watching a lot of baseball on TV.”
She’s right - the Dodgers are televised a lot out here and I like watching them because I like Joe Torre. I remember his quote from my first spring training, and he was with the Cardinals at the time. I was having a good spring training and throwing really hard. I faced him and struck him out, and I remember him coming up to Bob Lemon and saying, “Who the hell is this guy?”
RC: (Laughs) What has Jim York been doing since 1977, and what is he up to today?
JY: I stayed in Houston and kept my home there after leaving the Yankees. I stayed there for thirteen years and was in the real estate and insurance business. I wanted to move out of Houston and get back to California, and came out and interviewed, and finally joined an international insurance firm. Was with them for several years and went out on my own. I’ve been doing that ever since.
RC: Well thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us Jim, as well as for all that you gave to the Royals. Anything else you’d like to add?
JY: No, other than I guess maybe I listen to the sports shows on the radio sometimes and they bring up, “What’s the worst trade in baseball history?” And I never get mentioned, which amazes me. I mean John Mayberry went over to Kansas City and had a hell of a career. And my career kind of flatlined. I should be mentioned in that group.