Number 12

December 1, 2010

While I wasn’t paying attention, Gil McDougald slipped away. The news got away from me over the weekend, and I did not hear until this afternoon that the former Yankee infielder had died on Sunday.

I saw Gil play many times in the 1950s, when my father used to take me to Yankee Stadium as often as three times a week. We looked at ballplayers differently then. We admired players like Gil, of course. How could we not have admired a guy who played second, short, and third at a championship level? But, aside from their prowess on the field, we didn’t think of them as being remote from our place in the world. They were celebrities, but not in the way that term is understood today.

McDougald had a business on the side; I think it was called Yankee Maintenance Service. One of his clients was the bank around the corner from our house, and we’d often see the blue Volkswagen bus parked outside while the crew was cleaning the place. Once in a while, Gil would stop by to make sure his customer was satisfied with the service. It wasn’t the sort of thing Alex Rodriguez does with his time.

The news stories about Gil’s death have reported that he played on a bunch of championship teams with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra. But he also played with Hank Bauer, Bill Skowron, and Andy Carey — just guys playing ball, like Gil.

I went to see Gil at his place of business long after he had retired from baseball. He told me that at the end of his ten-year career with the Yankees, Gene Autry offered to double his annual salary if he would play two more years with the fledgling Angels in California. Autry wanted names on the roster. Gil — a family man par excellence — said he wouldn’t disrupt his household for that price.

Gil McDougald was an All-Star at three infield positions. The  only other man who can make that claim is Pete Rose. When Casey Stengel said, after the Yankees had beaten the Braves in the 1958 World Series, “I couldn’t have done it without the players,” he was talking about Gil as much as about anyone else. And when I remember those hazy afternoons in the Stadium that greed has torn down, the guy out there gunning one over to Joe Collins, that’ll always be Gil.

 

The Polo Grounds in 1951: Gil McDougald becomes the first rookie to hit a grand slam in a World Series.

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Number 12”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    I’ll never pretend to know anything but the rudiments of baseball and the same names everyone knows. But there’s something about your post that strikes a chord – the ties between Mr. McDougald and his community.

    That’s how it used to be here on the Lake, when astronauts were peoples’ neighbors and when asked about their occupations said they “worked at NASA”. It was a meritocracy, but a friendly one with loose boundaries, and you didn’t have to have a badge around your neck to get to talk to the guys from mission control.

    When a mission was “up”, it was a community event. When business was done, people like Sinatra showed up at the Holiday Inn and partied with the folks. That was before my time, though I’ve heard stories. But I did make it over to the Outpost Tavern a few times and rub elbows with some flight engineers. It was an iconic bar, the only place Clint Eastwood could have chosen (as he did) to film certain scenes for the movie Space Cowboys.

    Whatever the rest of the world thought, around here it could be pretty comfortable, and if you happened to run into an astronaut at church or the pta meeting, he’d be as happy to talk baseball with you as launch trajectories. The familiarity bred respect, not contempt. I imagine that’s how it was with Gil McDougald.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      Money had a lot to do with it. Prior to the 1970s, most men didn’t make enough money playing baseball to carry them all year. They had winter jobs. Some sports writers were making more money than many of the players they covered. Media coverage was very different, too. The players’ private lives were pretty much off limits. Now that players are multi-million-dollar tabloid celebrities, they don’t identify with their fans or the writers in the same way that their predecessors did.

  2. bronxboy55 Says:

    Mickey Mantle was my hero when I was too young to know what the word meant. I remember wondering who this Gil McDougald guy was who took Rookie of the Year honors the same year Mantle started. Gil played a decade doing whatever the team needed him to do, and doing it very well, although in the shadows of Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and the rest. Later, he coached the Fordham University baseball team while I was a student there. I don’t know if he needed the money or just couldn’t stay away from the game, but the Rams had five winning seasons during Gil’s seven years as coach. I never heard a negative word about him.

  3. charlespaolino Says:

    No doubt he needed the money. The McDougalds raised their own children and then adopted several more. I think Gil told me his salary at the end of his career was about $42,000.

    Mantle was also my favorite. I have a book here in which Mantle’s family collected dozens of letters that had been sent to him by his fans. He seems to have affected many of them in the same way that Joe DiMaggio affected fans in his era. My father couldn’t talk about DiMaggio without choking up. There are letters in that book in which people make what are obviously sincere claims about how following Mantle’s career had affected either their lives or the lives of others. This mystified Mantle, who came from very simple circumstances and never thought of himself as extraordinary. When he was a kid, he found the adulation threatening and annoying. As he got older, he appreciated it much more, but he never understood it.

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