Radley Haddad might want to sharpen his shears.
The former Yankees farmhand and current bullpen catcher has a wealth of knowledge and expertise about the tools of ignorance, but his barber skills, for one Yankees player at least, are a secret weapon of sorts.
Catcher Kyle Higashioka hadn’t gotten off to the start he had hoped for in 2020. A stint on the injured list wiped out most of his August, and after a hitless series against Toronto in early September, he was batting .192 (5-for-26) with no extra-base hits or RBIs.
Like so many others trying to responsibly social distance during the pandemic, Higashioka had avoided the barber shop and let his hair grow longer than usual. But wanting to snap out of his funk, he decided it was time for a trim. He thought back to 2016 when Haddad, his teammate in Double-A at the time, attempted to shorten his sideburns and -- to the dismay of Higashioka’s now-wife, Alyse -- botched it, buzzing them off entirely. But the hack job resulted in a streak so hot that Higgy ended up as the Eastern League Player of the Week, so he figured he’d give the bullpen butcher another shot.
After Haddad did a “surprisingly really good” job cutting Higashioka’s entire head of hair, the Yankees catcher hit his first home run of 2020 in the opening game of a Sept. 11 doubleheader against Baltimore and caught all seven innings of a 6-0 Gerrit Cole shutout. For Cole’s next start, against Toronto on Sept. 16, the tightly cropped Higashioka found himself in the starting lineup once again … and had the game of his life.
“Man, what a performance,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone gushed after his catcher crushed three home runs -- narrowly missing a fourth -- and called another terrific game. “Great job behind the plate tonight and obviously a night at the plate that he’ll remember forever.”
“I think at this point, with the way he’s swinging, I may be his personal pitcher,” Cole quipped after taking a no-hitter into the sixth and notching career win No. 100.
Hitting three homers in one game is a rare feat that just two dozen players in Yankees history have accomplished. But Higashioka’s performance was unique in more ways than one, and not just because of the haircut from Haddad that spurred it on.
As he touched ’em all for a third time that evening, the normally staid Higashioka couldn’t conceal a smile. He had gone up to the plate in the seventh inning simply looking to draw a walk, something he hadn’t done since Aug. 30, 2018 -- a span of 96 plate appearances. But when Blue Jays right-hander Héctor Pérez’s second pitch came hurtling down the pipe, Higashioka -- who had just seven career homers at the start of the day -- put his barrel on it and sent it over the wall in right.
“I couldn’t help but laugh a little bit going around the bases,” Higashioka said recently when asked about his historic performance in the Yanks’ 13-2 win. “I went up to the plate thinking that I might walk, and then it ended up being my third home run of the game, which, honestly, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that I would even do that, especially at the big league level. It was just pretty funny.”
It might have been a light-hearted moment, but Higashioka joined some serious company in Yankees history. Babe Ruth -- who else? -- was the first Yankees player to collect three four-baggers in a game, and in true Bambino style, he did it in mythical fashion.
The story goes that in 1926, 11-year-old Johnny Sylvester was recuperating from a near-fatal head injury suffered in a horseback riding accident. Knowing Johnny’s sports fandom, his family reached out to see if any of his heroes might help lift his spirits. Among the items that arrived at their Essex Fells, N.J., home was a baseball signed by the Yankees and inscribed by Ruth: “I’ll knock a homer for you on Wednesday.” Ruth more than delivered on his promise, blasting three balls into the seats at Sportsman’s Park in a 10-5 win over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the World Series, and Johnny -- who went on to graduate from Princeton University and serve in the U.S. Navy -- was on the road to recovery.
The Yankees lost that Series in seven games but exacted revenge two years later. Once again, Ruth put on a show in St. Louis with three homers in the fourth game, this one a 7-3 victory that clinched the Yankees’ second straight World Series sweep.
Although Ruth’s 68 multi-home run games during the regular season far outpace the No. 2 slugger on the Yankees’ all-time list (Mickey Mantle, 46), the Sultan of Swat pulled off the trifecta only once outside of World Series play for the Yanks. Amid an unmerciful pummeling of the Philadelphia Athletics during which he blasted eight homers in four days, Ruth went yard three times in the first game of a doubleheader on May 21, 1930. His partner in power, Lou Gehrig, matched the feat the following day in the nightcap of the May 22 doubleheader.
Gehrig -- the only player to hit three or more homers in a game four times for the Yankees -- always seemed to do damage at Shibe Park. On June 3, 1932, he put on a virtuoso performance, cranking out four home runs and narrowly missing a fifth, which has never been done in a Major League game. Gehrig’s four dingers and 16 total bases that day remain franchise records.
Tony Lazzeri also had a game for the ages in Philly. In a 25-2 win on May 24, 1936, “Poosh ’Em Up Tony” became the first Major Leaguer (and still the only Yankees player) to hit two grand slams in a game, and with his solo shot in the seventh and two-run triple in the eighth, he established an American League single-game record that still stands by driving in 11 runs.
“Even though his record-setting performance occurred on the road, at the end of the game Lazzeri had to fight his way through a crowd of autograph seekers,” Lawrence Baldassaro writes in his new biography, “Tony Lazzeri: Yankees Legend and Baseball Pioneer.”
It is a commonly held belief, supported by the fact that 213 of his 361 career homers were hit on the road, that Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio would have had even more prolific power numbers had the original Yankee Stadium’s left field not been so expansive. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that all three of his three-homer games came on the road. (It should be noted that neither Ruth nor Gehrig, two left-handed hitters, did it at Yankee Stadium, either.) A 22-year-old DiMaggio became the youngest Yankees player to hit three four-baggers in a game on June 13, 1937, punctuating a twin bill at St. Louis that was called a tie after 11 innings because both teams had a train to catch.
To hit three home runs in a game takes a great deal of concentration in the batter’s box. To do so while catching the game is a mental marathon, and Hall of Famer Bill Dickey was the first of just three Yankees backstops to accomplish this rare feat. On July 26, 1939, before a sparse Wednesday matinee crowd of 4,843 at Yankee Stadium -- a far cry from the 61,808 that had packed the house on July 4 for Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech -- Dickey took three different Browns pitchers deep and caught Red Ruffing’s third straight complete-game victory in a 14-1 win.
Higashioka and Mike Stanley -- who homered three times against Cleveland on Aug. 10, 1995, while catching the penultimate start of Mariano Rivera’s career -- are the only Yankees who can truly appreciate Dickey’s deed.
“Any time you’re catching, the first priority is making sure that we win the game,” Higashioka said. “I can have a much greater effect by calling and receiving a good game behind the plate and making sure that we give up as few runs as possible, so I’m always thinking about just getting through every inning as clean as possible. It makes it easier when you get a hit in your first at-bat, let alone a home run. It allows me to relax a little bit more at the plate because you get the confidence boost of knowing you’re locked in that day.”
It’s worth noting that all three catchers produced their three–home run games at Yankee Stadium. On Sept. 15, 1950, when 37-year-old first baseman Johnny Mize homered thrice for a sixth time (the first five instances came while playing in the National League), it marked the 16th time it had been done by a Yankees player, but only Dickey, Lazzeri and Ben Chapman had done it at home. That disparity would start to balance out beginning in 1955, as 11 of the 18 occurrences since -- starting with Mantle’s first and only three-dinger game -- have happened at Yankee Stadium.
In a 5-2 win over Detroit on May 13 in which he drove in all five runs, Mantle became the first switch-hitter to hit three home runs in a game for the Yankees. The team went a decade before witnessing its next three-longball day, which came courtesy of another switch-hitter, Tom Tresh, on June 6, 1965. To that point, with the exception of Lazzeri, who batted eighth when he set the single-game RBI record, every triple-dinger performance had come from the middle of the Yankees’ lineup. That changed on June 24, 1970.
Bobby Murcer, batting second, must have been channeling the Iron Horse that day, homering four times -- in his final at-bat of a doubleheader opener against Cleveland and then three more times in the nightcap. Murcer collected just five RBIs total, as leadoff man Horace Clarke flied out or popped out prior to each of those homers. Conversely, Higashioka -- the only player in Yankees history to have a three-homer game while batting ninth -- had the unequivocal benefit of hitting next to the team’s leadoff man. AL batting champion DJ LeMahieu kicked off the festivities on Sept. 16 with one of his league-leading five leadoff homers and added a two-run jack immediately following Higashioka’s long flyout in the fourth.
“I’m not too familiar with what people expect to see in an 8- or a 9-hole hitter, but I know that I was really excited to hit ninth because that meant that I had DJ hitting behind me,” said Higashioka, a seventh-round pick of the Yankees in 2008 who made his big league debut in 2017. “It was like, ‘They definitely don’t want to get to DJ, so they’re going to give me something good to hit.’”
There’s no doubt that a hitter’s position in the lineup can make a big difference. Batting fifth between Chris Chambliss and Reggie Jackson, Cliff Johnson became the first designated hitter to homer three times in a game for the Yankees on June 30, 1977, just two weeks after being traded to New York from Houston. Johnson also did something that night that just three other Yankees players -- DiMaggio, Joe Pepitone and Alex Rodriguez -- have done: He homered twice in the same inning, going deep once in the fourth and twice in the eighth at Exhibition Stadium during the Blue Jays’ inaugural season.
Of course, none of these performances registered the seismic shockwaves that Jackson triggered that October. In Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, Jackson took three different Dodgers hurlers deep -- on the first pitch of each at-bat, no less -- a legendary performance that clinched the Yanks’ first World Series title in 15 years and birthed one of the greatest nicknames in sports history. (Just check out Jackson’s handle on Twitter.)
Yankee Stadium lost its collective mind that night, and the Bronx faithful have always showered the appropriate praise upon Bombers who go deep for a third time. (This reporter can attest, having witnessed Darryl Strawberry’s performance on Aug. 6, 1996, from a raucous Section 39 in the bleachers as a 17-year-old fan.) From A-Rod punishing the Angels’ Bartolo Colon on April 26, 2005 -- sending that season’s eventual AL Cy Young Award winner to the showers in the fourth inning after producing a three-run homer, a two-run shot and a grand slam in his first three at-bats -- to Curtis Granderson authoring the first three-home run game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2012, to Aaron Hicks making history on Sunday Night Baseball in 2018 when he became the first Yankees leadoff hitter to go deep three times in a game, these rare performances are met with eardrum-splitting adulation that players never forget.
Which makes Higashioka’s big night somewhat bittersweet. He hadn’t hit three home runs in a game since T-ball, but with this one played amid a pandemic and no fans allowed in the building, Higashioka was left to imagine what Yankee Stadium would have sounded like under normal circumstances.
“It definitely would have been one of the coolest things to have fans there,” Higashioka said. “One of my longstanding goals is to get a curtain call at Yankee Stadium, so I’ll have to do something else like that again. We need our fans back for that to happen, first. But I definitely want to accomplish that goal.”
When things return to normal and the Bronx is once again crackling with the energy of the Yankees’ rabid fans, will Higgy head straight for the Yankees’ bullpen and implore Haddad to break out the lucky clippers?
“I think I’m going to save that for when I really need it,” Higashioka said. “He’s the ace in the hole.”
Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the magazine’s Spring 2021 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications