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.

 

 

 

BOSTON RED SOX

BOSTON RED SOX

One thing that is unlikely to appear in a photograph of Boston Red Sox players is red socks. Players for Boston, like most players in professional baseball, have forsaken the knickers and high stockings that have been a distinctive element of the baseball uniform for 140 years.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame web site, knickers were introduced to the game in 1868 by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The innovation met with some resistence. The Hall of Fame site reports as follows:

“The showing of the manly leg in varied-colored hose … [was] unheard of, and when [team captain] Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent.”

ALEX RODRIGUEZ

ALEX RODRIGUEZ

But stockings quickly became de riguer in the game and remained so for many decades. Now, however, in this epoch in which everyone does what he pleases, this tie to the past has been withering away. During last night’s game between the Yankees and the Twins, I counted only four men on the field wearing high stockings: Alex Rodriguez, R.A. Dickey, Joe Crede, and Brendan Harris. The rest looked like they were wearing their pajama bottoms — and walking on the hems at that. Besides looking foolish, they’re monkeying with something essential about The Game — its tradition.

Remember what Terence Mann told Ray Kinsella at the climax of “Field of Dreams”?

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

1869 CINCINNAT RED STOCKINGS

1869 CINCINNAT RED STOCKINGS