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.

 

 

 

MICKEY MANTLE

In the first inning of the 1961 All Star Game, Whitey Ford of the Yankees struck out Willie Mays of the Giants. It was a called third strike. The event prompted an uncharacteristic response from Ford’s teammate, Mickey Mantle, who was playing center field. Mantle clapped and whooped and hopped his way all the way back to the American League dugout at Candlestick Park, and Mays was none too pleased. Anyone in or around baseball would have understood that. Mantle had broken the “code” — the set of unwritten rules by which major league ballplayers mutually govern each other’s behavior on the field. One of the principal canons is that one player doesn’t show up another player on the field – particularly not during a nationally televised All Star Game. A player who shows up another player is often inviting a pitch aimed at his head sometime soon if not in his next at-bat.

WILLIE MAYS

Besides being irked, Mays probably was baffled because it wasn’t like Mantle to  behave that way. Even in the era before hot dogs like Barry Bonds stand in the batter’s box watching their home runs leave the park, Mantle was known for his demeanor after he hit one of his 536 homers. He circled the bases with his head down, as though he were embarrassed at causing such a fuss, and he said explicitly that he figured the pitcher felt bad enough already and didn’t need to be humiliated by a showboat. Curtain calls were virtually unknown in Mantle’s era, but he wouldn’t even look up into the crowd as he returned to the dugout. I recall one instance late in his career when he hit one of his last home runs and just touched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the fans. It caused a sensation.

WHITEY FORD

It turned out that Giants owner Horace Stoneham had arranged for Mantle and Ford to play golf at an exclusive club, and the two players had rented all the equipment they needed for about $400 and charged it to Stoneham, intending to repay him. When they saw their host again, however, Stoneham offered a wager that if Ford retired Mays the first time they faced in the All Star Game, the debt would be forgiven, but if Mays got on base, the players would owe Stoneham $800. Ford accepted the bet, and Mantle was furious because at that point Mays was six-for-six against Ford. When the showdown occurred, Mays hit two very long foul balls against Ford, and then struck out looking at a nasty curve ball. Hence Mantle’s schoolboy reaction was more about Stoneham than about Mays.

DENNY McLAIN

I learned about that incident in “The Baseball Codes,” a book by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca that explores some of the cultural aspects of baseball that are not covered by the official rules. The discussion has a lot to do with “respect” — between players, between teams, and for the game itself. At times, it seems, it’s the same kind of “respect” that governed the behavior of people like the Gallo crime family. Cheating — using a foreign substance on a ball or stealing signs — is allowed, for example, until a player or team gets caught. Then it has to stop.
One of the topics discussed in the book is the protocol regarding records. For instance, based on a 1948 story in Sport magazine, the authors report that Ed Barrow, general manager of the Yankees, had once declared a game rained out because Lou Gehrig — who was in the midst of his consecutive-games streak — was sick with the flu. There was no rain.

JIM PRICE

This also works across teams. For instance, the authors repeat the well known story about Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who as a boy had idolized Mickey Mantle. McLain wound up pitching to Mantle in a game in September 1968 — the season in which McLain won 31 games and Mantle retired. Mantle at the time was tied with Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list — both with 534. McLain decided he was going to do what he could to help Mantle hit 535 and so informed Tigers catcher Jim Price. When Mantle stepped into the batter’s box, Price let him know what was coming, and McLain stood on the mound clapping as the ball went into the seats.

NAPOLEON LAJOIE

Another twist on the records issue, as described in this book, involved the very popular Cleveland second baseman, Napoleon Lajoie (LAH-ja-way) who, on the last day of the 1910 season, was running to second to Ty Cobb for the batting title. Cobb was as disliked in the game as Lajoie was liked, and St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor was among those who despised the Tigers outfielder. So with Cleveland playing St. Looie in a double header on the last day of the year, O’Connor moved his third baseman far behind the bag to give the right-hand hitting Lajoie a clear shot down the left field line. Lajoie wasn’t in on it, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one, and he bunted for seven straight base hits in the two games. He also had a triple before he noticed the odd positioning of the third baseman. But in his last at-bat, Lajoie swung away and grounded out. Cobb ended up with a batting average of .3850687, and Lajoie with .3840947.

TY COBB

The postscript is that O’Connor’s tactic was so widely criticized that he was fired by the Browns and never managed in the major leagues again. The post postscript is that in 1981 the office of the Commissioner of Baseball ruled that Cobb had been erroneously given credit for two hits that season, so that his average was actually .383, and Lajoie — who by that time had been dead for 22 years — was declared the batting champion.
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ERRATUM: I have learned since writing this post that the Lajoie-Cobb incident may not have ended as it was described in this book. The Cleveland Indians web site indicates that it was a baseball historian at the Sporting News who found the discrepancy in Cobb’s stats for 1910, but that Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to take the batting title away from Cobb.

MICKEY MANTLE

I’m ready to talk baseball, not that I ever stop. The camps are up and running, Johnny Damon has signed with the Tigers, George Steinbrenner was out watching his grandson play in a high school game, and the Yankees are starting to say “Chamberlain” and “bullpen” in the same sentence with more and more consistency.

The more things stay the same, they more they stay the same, and Yogi Berra turned out for yet another spring training. It seems to me that there is a doctoral dissertation in Yogi Berra, maybe in American Studies. Some scholar should examine the history of Berra’s public image, which is more like Babe Ruth’s image than is immediately apparent. The man hasn’t been a day-to-day part of baseball for decades, and his name is still known to people who know nothing about the game, who weren’t yet born when Berra played his last game or, for that matter, managed his last game. He has ears like flapjacks and a hound-dog mug that now looks like a relief map of northern Greece. And we love him.

LAWRENCE PETER BERRA

It is a little early for serious talk about the 2010 season, what with Joe Girardi saying things like this: “I think our No. 1 concern is ironing out our lineup. When I say it’s a concern, I’m not concerned that we don’t have the players to do it, I’m concerned with where you place them.” Uh, did he read that in one of Casey Stengel’s old notebooks?

In my search for some baseball intelligence, the most interesting thing I found today was about a game played in 1953. Several sites have picked up on this story, originally published in the New York Times. This is a hilarious account of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle arguing about how the Yankees aborted an 18-game winning streak by losing a game to the St. Looie Browns. As the writer demonstrated, both players were sure of themselves and both had it very very wrong. It’s an object lesson for the rest of us when we’re cock sure of our memories. You can read it by clicking HERE.