RIP to Tom Yewcic, a quarterback and punter who played six seasons in the NFL for the Boston (now New England) Patriots. Before he did that, he played one game for the Detroit Tigers in 1957. Yewcic died on October 20 at the age of 88.
Thomas J. Yewcic was born in Conenaugh, Pa., on May 9, 1932. His father was a steel mill worker, and he was one of ten children in the family. Several of his older brothers played sports at the high school and collegiate levels. Yewcic was a three-sport star at Conenaugh High School, excelling at baseball, basketball and football. He turned professional in two of those sports, but he was no slouch at basketball. He was an honorable mention on the All-Pennsylvania scholastic basketball team as a junior in 1949 and them was a first-team All-Pennsylvania forward in 1950. He scored 455 points in 25 games and led the Iron Horses to 57 straight West Central League victories.
Yewcic was offered football scholarships by nearly every major college in the country. His older brothers put some pressure on him to attend places like Syracuse or Notre Dame, but he chose Michigan State University. It ended up being a brilliant choice on his part, as he would become the only athlete to ever win the Rose Bowl and be named the College World Series MVP — and he did it in the same year.
“The funny part about it is that you never know what’s ahead and what’s going to happen when you make that decision,” Yewcic said about his decision to attend MSU. “I always felt we were going to be successful no matter what. I never had a negative thought about anything. I was always very confident…and it showed up.”
He made the Spartan football team as a freshmen but didn’t play until he was a sophomore in 1951. The first pass he ever threw as a college player helped defeat Ohio State on October 6, 1951. Dubbed the “Transcontinental Pass,” Yewcic, who was in the game as a tailback, got the ball via a lateral, faked a run and then threw a pass to quarterback Ed Dorow, who took the ball 30 yards for the game-deciding touchdown.
Once Dorow had graduated, Yewcic became the team’s punter and starting quarterback — even though he’d never played quarterback in high school. Outside of football season, he became the starting catcher on the Spartan baseball team as well. The team wasn’t great, but Yewcic impressed scouts and was offered a contract by one major-league team as a junior. He opted to stay at Michigan State to complete his senior year of 1953-54 — again, a brilliant decision.
Yewcic threw for 489 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. (Note that this is a much different type of football than the pass-centric NFL of today.) The Spartans won a share of the Big Ten Championship and went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in the school’s history. They knocked off UCLA 28-20, as Yewcic led the team to two third-quarter touchdown drives. The Spartan baseball team was nearly as good, winning the Big 10 Conference championship with an 11-2 record and beating Ohio State to gain a berth in the College World Series tournament. Yewcic hit .305 with 3 homers and 12 RBIs during the season.
The Spartans lost their chance at a College World Series championship on a controversial play. They were tied 3-3 with Missouri in the top of the ninth inning in an elimination game, with a runner on first and no outs. The Tiger batter swung at a 2-2 pitch that sailed to the backstop. Yewcic, sure it was a foul tip, asked for a new ball. The home plate ump never called it a foul, and after several seconds, the batter ran to first on a passed ball. He shouldn’t have been allowed to reach, because a runner was already on first base. But he did, and Missouri scored the winning run. In spite of the elimination, Yewcic played well enough to win the tournament’s MVP award, hitting a grand slam against Massachusetts.
Yewcic was honored by Michigan State as the 2013 Baseball Distinguished Alumnus of the Year. Nearly 60 years after the fact, he was still certain that the umpire blew that call. “”It was a foul tip, I can guarantee you that,” he said. “I didn’t miss many balls.”
Once Yewcic graduated from college in 1954, he elected to give baseball a try and signed with the Detroit Tigers. He hit .235 for the Wilkes-Barre Barons in 59 games in 1954, with 5 home runs and 27 RBIs. One of those home runs was a 3-run blast in his very first professional game.
The Tigers gave Yewcic a look at spring training in 1955 before reassigning him to the Class-A Augusta Tigers of the South Atlantic League. He hit nearly .300 in 36 games and showed good power, and he was promoted up to the AAA Buffalo Bisons in mid-season. He made a great first impression by hitting a pinch-hit, game-winning 3-run home run in his first game with the Bisons. Yewcic’s progress was slowed in Buffalo, as he lost time after getting beaned with a pitch. He also had to compete for playing time with several other Tigers catching prospects, including the recently deceased J.W. Porter. Still, he was getting attention in the Tigers’ organization.
“Yewcic has fine prospects. He had been hitting very well, and his long ball has impressed our people,” said John McHale, the director of Detroit’s farm system.
The armed forces came calling, and the catcher became Second Lieutenant Tom Yewcic, stationed at Fort Polk, La., and assigned to the First Tank Battalion, First Armored Division. He stayed in the Army for all of 1956 and a good portion of 1957, playing both football and baseball in his free time. When he was discharged, he joined the Tigers’ major-league roster, because there was a rule in place that returning servicemen didn’t count against the team’s roster limit. He was, in essence, a free player for the Tigers. However, Yewcic was used pretty sparingly by the team. In fact, Yewcic joined the team around June 25 and stayed with them for the rest of the season. In all that time, he got into one game.
It came on June 27, 1957 against the Washington Senators. The Senators were leading 6-2 when Tigers manager Jack Tighe replaced starting catcher Red Wilson with Yewcic in the bottom of the sixth inning. In his one and only MLB at-bat, Yewcic hit a pop fly to shortstop Milt Bolling. In the field, he caught three strikeouts but made a throwing error when Washington’s Julio Becquer tried to steal second, allowing the baserunner to scamper to third base. Yewcic redeemed himself by catching Becquer too far off third base. The runner was erased in a 2-5-2 rundown play.
Yewcic’s career stats are 0-for-1 at the plate and an .833 fielding percentage, with an error, an assist and 4 putouts in 3 innings.
Outside of that appearance, Yewcic worked as a bullpen catcher and played in at least one exhibition game. Yewcic himself wasn’t sure where his career was headed next after the season. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League, but he said, “I don’t even have any thought of becoming a pro football player. Baseball is my game.”
Detroit still had hopes for Yewcic after the season and sent him to Mexico to play winter ball. He was one of four Tiger prospects to make the league’s All-Star team, along with Bob Miller, Steve Boros and George Thomas. The catcher was not able to get on track offensively once the 1958 season started. Splitting time between AA Birmingham and AAA Charleston, he hit a combined .209 with 8 homers and 29 RBIs in 77 games. He improved his average to .231 with Charleston in 1959, but a combination of injuries and increased competition for the catcher role limited him to 73 games.
After four minor-league seasons, Yewcic was 27 years old and had a career .233 batting average, with 30 homers in 288 games. He saw that he wasn’t going anywhere in the Tigers organization, but his experience of playing football in the Army made him think he could try that sport. He announced in 1960 that he was quitting baseball to focus on a football career with the Toronto Argonauts. He was dropped by Toronto and then signed with the Steelers to be a backup to quarterback Bobby Layne, but he was a late cut there as well.
Yewcic decided to give pro sports one more try and signed with the Boston Patriots of the American Football League in 1961. He was asked in training camp about the differences between college and pro football and replied that that the mental game of football was much tougher in college. The physical game, however, was more difficult in pro football.
“Make a mistake in college and you might get away with it. Make a mistake in pro football and you find yourself looking at a lot of large, angry, unfriendly beasts who want to do you a lot of damage.”
Yewcic made the Patriots as a punter and a backup quarterback — even though he had originally signed as a defensive end. He had a very good 6-year career with the Patriots, doing a little bit of everything.
Punting was his primary job, and he had an average of 38.6 yards per punt over his career, with a long of 70 yards in 1965. As a passer, Yewcic completed 87 of 206 attempts for 1,374 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed 72 times for 424 yards and caught 7 passes for 69 yards. He kicked a 68-yard punt in a 1963 AFL title game that stood as a playoff record until Ray Guy broke it with a 71-yarder in 1981.
Starting QB Babe Parilli was injured in 1962, and Yewcic was pressed into service as a starter. In his very first game as a starting quarterback, Yewcic threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns to beat the Buffalo Bills 21-10. For the rest of his time as quarterback, he would slip in and out of the role with Parilli, depending on who was hot at the moment.
Yewcic, then 34 years old, suffered a back injury in 1966 and was briefly waived by the Patriots before rejoining the team when he was able to resume his punting duties. It was his last season in football. He was cut in the 1967 training camp and joined the Patriots staff as an assistant coach. He later held assistant coaching roles at several colleges, coached the New England Colonials of the short-lived Atlantic Coast Football Conference and maintained close ties to the Patriots as a scout and assistant coach.
Yewcic was named the punter on the Patriots’ offensive team of the 1960s. He was also inducted into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003.