In a way, Gil McDougald was the poor man’s version of Pete Rose–only with a much better personality. McDougald, who died on Sunday at the age of 82, was voted to the All-Star team at three different positions, something that Rose would match during his would-be Hall of Fame career.
Whereas Rose showed versatility in playing three infield and two outfield positions, McDougald’s versatility was restricted to the infield. Yet, he could play anywhere on the inner diamond with almost equal efficiency. McDougald was an accomplished defender at three positions: second base, third base, and shortstop. Given his deftness at the three spots, Casey Stengel had the flexibility to mix and match his infield, based both on offensive and defensive matchups.
McDougald’s talent was evident from the beginning. In 1951, he earned American League Rookie of the Year honors. The award did not come without controversy; some observers felt that it should have gone to Chicago’s Minnie Minoso, or to McDougald’s teammate, a fellow named Mickey Mantle. It’s a debatable point, but there’s no doubt that McDougald played well as a freshman. He hit 14 home runs in 402 at-bats, reached base nearly 40 per cent of the time, stole 14 bases, and walked more than he struck out. He effectively backed up three infielders (Jerry Coleman at second, Phil Rizzuto at short, and Bobby Brown at third), always giving Stengel a quality option on the infield whenever one of his regulars needed to be platooned, or just given a day off.
One of the highlights of McDougald’s career occurred during the 1956 World Series. With Don Larsen in the early stages of his perfect game, McDougald saved his place in history by robbing Jackie Robinson of an infield single. Robinson’s line drive caromed off the glove of Yankee third baseman Andy Carey. Ever alert, McDougald fielded the ricochet from his position at shortstop and fired quickly to first base, beating Robinson to the bag. Seven innings later, Larsen would have his perfect game.
McDougald’s fielding, versatility, extra-base power, and ability to draw walks made him a valuable Yankee throughout the 1950s. To put it in the context of a more modern player, McDougald was like a latter-day Randy Velarde, only at a higher level. A five-time All-Star Game selection, McDougald surprised those who ridiculed his unusual batting stance. With his arms slumped awkwardly, McDougald batted out of an exaggerated wide-open stance. One scout referred to his appearance as that of a “broken banana stick.” Stengel repeatedly asked him to change the stance, but McDougald resisted until the end of the 1952 season. A .252 batting average convinced Gil that the time was right to make a change.
The change in stances was relatively mild compared to the shock that came McDougald’s way in May of 1957. Facing hard-throwing Herb Score of the Indians, McDougald swung at a low-outside fastball and hit a searing line drive up the middle. The ball hit Score in the right eye, ending his season and forever altering the arc of what appeared to be the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career. As McDougald watched blood streaming from Score‘s injured eye, he felt stick to his stomach. He told Stengel that he would quit the game if Score lost use of the eye.
Score eventually regained his vision, but McDougald took the incident hard. A sensitive and caring man, McDougald visited Score in the hospital immediately after the game. He also remained in touch with Score over the years. No reasonable thinker would have blamed McDougald for the injury–after all, hitters cannot steer the ball–but McDougald still felt guilty about what occurred. Perhaps McDougald took Score’s injury so much to heart because of what he himself had gone through two years earlier. As the Yankees took batting practice one day in 1955, Bob Cerv hit a line drive that struck McDougald squarely in the left ear. The blow shattered one of the bones in Gil’s ear, the impact of the injury leading to significant loss of his hearing after his playing days. McDougald would remain nearly deaf until 1995, when he received a cochlea transplant.
In spite of the traumatic incidents involving Cerv and Score, McDougald remained with the Yankees through the end of the 1960 season. He last appeared on the field in Game Seven of the ‘60 World Series, playing third base and watching Bill Mazeroski’s historic home run fly over the left-field wall at Forbes Field.
Although only 32 years old, McDougald saw his power and his playing time diminishing, and thought about spending more time with his family. A few weeks after the Series, he decided to call it quits. Even though the unlikely loss to the Pirates left a bitter taste, McDougald could take consolation in the eight World Series appearances and five rings that he had accrued during a ten-year run in New York. McDougald was much more than a bystander during the decade of success, as he earned American League MVP votes in five seasons.
Those MVP votes and World Series rings were nice rewards for an underrated player who went through his fair share of hardships. They also seemed fitting for a man who was a good teammate, a likeable opponent, and a strong family man. Like so many other ex-Yankees who have left us in 2010, Gil McDougald will be sorely missed…
On Monday, the Hall of Fame will announce the results of its new Veterans’ Committee selections. (Actually, it’s not called the Veterans’ Committee anymore; it needs a new name, something like the Historical Committee, but that will have to wait for the time being.) Based on what I’m hearing from various sources, along with my own hunches, I think we will see two Yankees added to the rolls of the Hall of Fame.
One will be George Steinbrenner, who is expected to receive large support from the committee when it meets on Sunday at the winter meetings. Seven World Series titles, a huge impact on the free agent process, and the escalation of the Yankee brand will ultimately put “The Boss” in the Hall of Fame.
I think the other ex-Yankee to make the grade will be Tommy John, who never received more than 31 per cent of the vote from the Baseball Writers but figures to receive more substantial support this weekend. John has long been considered a borderline candidate, with much of the debate centering on the issue of “Tommy John surgery” and whether it should have any effect on his candidacy. The Hall of Fame’s election rules don’t specifically address this issue, so it’s really up to each of the writers to make their own interpretation. But here is a remarkable statistic related to John’s surgery. In the 13 seasons that he pitched after being operated on by the legendary Dr. Frank Jobe, John did not miss a single start. Not one.
Who will join John and The Boss in making the Hall of Fame? The chances of Davey Concepcion receiving the needed 75 per cent approval have gone up, now that former teammates Johnny Bench and Tony Perez are sitting on the 16-man committee. And then there’s the always intriguing case of Marvin Miller, whose election figures to be a close hit or miss. There are four executives/owners on the committee; if all four of those vote ‘no’ on Miller and are joined by any of the ex-players or sportswriters in voting ‘no,’ then Miller will fall short again.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.