This story has been updated.
Billy Connors and Jimmy Barbieri were lifelong friends.
They were teammates on the much-celebrated 1954 Schenectady Little League team that won the World Series, and both would go on to play pro ball.
Facing Connors on the mound in the Pacific Coast League in the 1960s, Barbieri got a broken-bat single and a double, then the third time up Connors drilled Barbieri in the back with a pitch.
“The league president at the time was a guy named Dewey Soriano, and years later when I saw Billy, I told him, ‘I still have Dewey Soriano’s signature on my back,’ ” Barbieri said with a laugh on Wednesday evening. “But that’s the way it is, when you cross the white lines, it’s all competitive, and when you leave, you go have a beer. And I always reverted back to the Little League World Series when I saw Billy.
“I will miss him.”
Connors died at the age of 76 on Monday, a New York Yankees legend credited with helping develop Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Orlando Hernandez, among many others.
The Yankees mourn the passing of Billy Connors, who contributed to the organization in countless ways over his long career as a pitching coach, executive and advisor. We extend our deepest condolences to Billy’s family, friends and loved ones. pic.twitter.com/U5uzKNoZsb
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) June 20, 2018
Headlines refer to him as “pitcher whisperer” and “guru,” but decades earlier, he and his Schenectady Little League teammates lit up the city that lights the world by winning the 1954 World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Even then, there was evidence that Connors could make his mark in coaching and the front office someday, which he did in three stints with the Yankees, as pitching coach and, from 1996-2012, vice president of player personnel, during which the Yankees won five World Series.
“We were all friends, and he was the leader,” said Bill Masucci, who made up the other half of the overpowering “Twin Bills” pitching tandem in 1954. “Mr. Control. Mr. Finesse. He threw a deuce [curveball] that would knock people on their tuchus.
“My approach was let me throw it through a wall. Even back then, he studied the game. I can see it right now: ‘OK, how am I going to set this guy up?’ ”
“It’s a sad, sad day,” said Don Blaha, a teammate of Connors on a Schenectady Twilight League team that sent four players to the majors. “It’s always sad when you lose a good friend, and he was a good person, too.”
“He was a winner, no question about it,” said Barry Kramer, a star basketball player at Linton High who was a junior at Linton during Connors’ senior year. Connors was best known for baseball, but was also a star point guard for the Blue Devils. “He would direct you and yell at you and make you play defense. A born leader. I loved him, and it’s so sad that he’s gone.”
As a kid in Schenectady in the 1950s, Connors was known for a devastating curveball.
As a long-time Major League Baseball coach, mostly with the Yankees, he was known for putting pitchers on the straight and narrow.
Connors graduated from Linton High School in 1959, then played baseball and basketball for two years at Syracuse University before being signed by the Chicago Cubs in the wake of an outstanding hitting performance in the College World Series.
The right-hander totaled 43 innings pitched in 26 major league games with the Cubs and New York Mets from 1966-68 before embarking on a coaching career that started as a minor league instructor for the Mets and Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s. Two decades later, he was one of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s closest confidants when it came to baseball.
Among his many projects was getting Dwight Gooden back on track when the former Mets star joined the Yankees in 2000. Gooden complemented a staff that drove the Yankees to a Subway Series championship in five games over Gooden’s former team.
“He gets right to the heart of the matter and makes you face the things that no one wants to face,” Gooden was quoted in the New York Daily News. “He saved me. He made it so I could contribute and get a ring that year.”
Schenectady’s 1954 Little League World Series championship followed a 1-0 loss to Birmingham, Ala., in the title game in 1953 that prompted manager Mike Maietta to vow a return to Williamsport to win the title.
Connors played one of the biggest roles to ensure that.
Schenectady got out of the 1954 regionals when he pitched a 13-strikeout no-hitter to beat Lake View of the Bronx 6-0, a perfect game except for the fact that Connors plunked the first batter he faced.
“We were picked to lose because everybody on their team was bigger than us,” said Joe Loudis, the second baseman on that team. “Billy hit the first guy on purpose and then threw a perfect game the rest of the way.”
“My attitude was, when Billy was on the mound, we were going to win, and when I was on the mound, we were going to win,” Masucci said. “Everybody said they [Lake View] were going to the World Series. We looked small, but Billy was six-feet, and he mowed ’em down.”
With Connors pitching in the semifinals in Williamsport, Masontown, Pa., scored in the fourth inning to end a 38-inning shutout streak contructed almost exclusively by the Twin Bills.
Masucci pitched in the championship game, a 7-5 victory over Colton, Calif., touching off a celebration that extended well beyond City Hall and the General Electric plant in Schenectady to the “Today” television show and two World Series games at the Polo Grounds between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians.
Connors would get to the big show eventually, too, but never lost touch with his roots.
As a player, he rode his curveball to the majors.
“His greatest attribute was he was a 12-year-old kid with a major league curveball,” Kramer said. “I used to catch him at his house, and I couldn’t catch the curveball. It was unbelievable. It broke so low and wide. He had great hands and could hold it and twist it in ways other kids couldn’t.”
“He was fun-loving and easy-going,” Barbieri said. “I think he knew what his objective was in life and that no one could stop him from achieving that.”
Connors was well ensconced in the Yankees front office when he returned to the Capital Region in 2004 to be part of the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame induction of the entire 1954 Little League team.
“I got to talk to him, but everybody wanted a piece of him that night. I had to let him go,” Masucci said. “He was the organizer. He was a great guy, and if people wanted [Yankees] tickets, Billy got them tickets without a problem.”
That same year, Loudis and his wife accompanied Connors to Williamsport, where they were honored at the pitcher’s mound with ESPN’s Harold Reynolds for the 50-year anniversary of the World Series.
“He did a lot for Schenectady,” Loudis said.
Connors did a lot for his major league employers, too.
Besides the Yankees, he coached with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners.
For much of his long stint with the Yankees, he helped run the player development system at the team’s minor league headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
“All I know is he was considered the guru,” Masucci said. “Even when he was with the Cubs, they called him that. He was the man. He knew what he was doing. He did camera work with the Mets and just studied the game.”
Connors’ heart was never far from Schenectady, though.
“I have my Little League world championship jersey up on my wall, a bat and a trophy,” Connors said in a 1994 Schenectady Gazette article about the 1954 team. “You never forget that. It’s something you never, ever forget. It was the greatest thrill of our lives.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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