Friday, July 24, 2009

The Forgotten Hall Of Famer

(Photo from NYT)

This weekend brings the annual Hall of Fame inductions from Cooperstown. The attention this year will assuredly be focused on Jim Rice and former Yankee Rickey Henderson, but another, lesser known, Yankee great will be enshrined with them.

Former Yankee second baseman
Joe Gordon was elected to the Hall by the Veterans Committee in December of last year, a full month before the BBWAA chose Rickey and Rice. Before there was Tom Gordon, before there was John Flaherty, Joe Gordon was "Flash", nicknamed after the popular comic book character and inspiration for the God-awful 1980 movie - Flash Gordon.

Gordon attended the University of Oregon, in the days before Phil Knight and Nike outfitted the Ducks with
abominable football uniforms. In addition to playing for the baseball team, Gordon also played football and track, and according to some sources, may also have participated in gynamstics, soccer, and/or played the violin.

Following his collegiate days, Gordon joined the Pacific Coast League, the closest thing to major league baseball on the West Coast in the years before the Dodgers and Giants left New York. He spent 1936 with the Oakland Oaks, the same franchise that would later send both manager Casey Stengel and fellow second baseman Billy Martin to the Bronx, hitting .300 but making 42 errors as a shortstop.

Undeterred, the Yankees brought Gordon East after the season and sent him to their top farm club, the Newark Bears. There, he was part of what's considered one of the greatest minor league teams of all time, where his teammates included other future Yankees Babe Dahlgren and Charlie "King Kong" Keller. Switched to second base, Gordon still made 47 errors, but also led International League second basemen in putouts, assists, and double plays. At the plate, he finished second in the International League in both home runs (26) and runs (103), while batting .280 and slugging .474. His play was enough to usurp future Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri as the Yankee second baseman for 1938.

Joining a team that had won back-to-back World Series, Gordon became a key cog in a potent offensive line-up that featured Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, and a young Joe DiMaggio, as well as potent bat in second year man Tommy Henrich, and a solid complimentary parts in George Selkirk, Red Rolfe, and Frank Crosetti. Gordon hit .255/.340/.502, posted an OPS+ of 108, slugged 25 HRs, and drove in 97. With a pitching staff anchored by Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, the Yanks cruised to their third straight pennant by 9.5 games, and swept the Cubs in the World Series, where Gordon hit .400/.438/.733 with a HR and 6 RBI.

Gordon improved as a sophomore, with the Yankees again winning the Series. He upped his batting line to .284/.370/.506 (123 OPS+), was fifth in the AL with 28 HRs, drove in 111, and made his first All-Star team. He also led AL second basemen in chances, putouts, assists, and double plays.

The Yankees' run of World Series victories ended in 1940, but Gordon turned in another exemplary season of .281/.340/.511 (121 OPS+), with 30 HR, 103 RBI, 112 runs scored. He again led AL second baseman in chances and assists and was second in putouts and double plays. The Yanks won the Series again in '41, with Gordon having another fine season (117 OPS+) and getting his second top ten MVP finish in three years. He also spent part of the year playing first base.

In 1942, with the league weakened by America's entering World War II, Gordon turned in his finest season. He hit .322/.409/.491 (155 OPS+), with all but his SLG representing career highs. His HRs dropped to 18, but that was still good for sixth in the AL, was fifth in OBP, sixth in SLG, fourth in OPS, and made his fourth straight All-Star appearance, three of them starts over fellow Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer and Bobby Doerr. His campaign earned Flash the AL MVP award, sandwiching him between DiMaggio and Spud Chandler as the second of three consecutive Yankees to win the award. The Yankees again went to the Series, but lost in five games to the Cardinals, with Gordon hitting going just 2 for 21 (.095).

The team rebounded in 1943, beating the Cardinals for the title, following another great season from Gordon. He had a 126 OPS+ and finished sixth in the AL in HR, marking the sixth time in six seasons Flash finished in the top ten. He also finished second in BB, seventh in runs, and made his fifth straight All-Star team.

Gordon lost the 1944 and '45 seasons to military service. Orginally stationed in New Mexico, he was shipped to San Francisio before being relocated to Hickam Field in Honolulu with the Seventh Army Air Force in the summer of 1944. When he wasn't performing his duties in the motor pool, Gordon played baseball for the 7th AAF, along with Yankee teamamte Joe DiMaggio. As Gordon later recalled, they weren't the only two ringers on the team: "We had Don Lang, Bob Dillinger, Walter Judnich, Dario Lodigiani, Mike McCormick and Red Ruffing on our club. At one point we had a streak of about 31 straight wins. I think we finished with about an .800 average".

Upon his return in 1946, Gordon suffered through the worst season of his career. Thinking he was finished at 31, the Yankees traded him to Cleveland after the season, getting
Allie Reynolds* in return.

Nicknamed "Superchief" due to his Native American heritage, Reynolds became the Yankees ace, as they won the World Series in 1947, and five straight from '49 through '53. Reynolds was often used out of the bullpen as well, brought in during the late innings as the afternoon shadows crept over homeplate, making his 100 MPH fastball more unhittable than usual. Hmmm.... a Yankee pitcher of Native American descent who could dominate in relief and be a front end starter as well. Where have I heard this before?

Back to Gordon. Much to Cleveland's delight Gordon was not yet done. He turned in OPS+ of 134 and 135 in 1947-48, the second and third best of his career, finishing second in HR both years and in the top ten in RBI, SLG, and OPS. He returned to World Series for the sixth and final time in 1948, and won his fifth career ring as the Indians took what remains their last World Championship.

Gordon played two more Big League seasons, turning in a league average performance both years, before returning to the PCL as a player-manager with Sacramento. At 36, he led the league in both HR and RBI. He hung up his spikes after one more season, but continued to be involved in baseball as both a scout and a PCL manager. In 1958 he returned to the Majors as the Indians manager. In the middle of the 1960, Cleveland traded him to Detroit for Tigers manager Jimmy Dykes (for those of you scoring at home the Tigers had a manager name Jimmy Dykes and later a player named Rusty Kuntz). Following the 1960 season he became the manager of the Kansas City A's, only to become the first in a long line of skippers fired by Charlie Finley. He finished his association with MLB by managing the Kansas City Royals in their innaugural season of 1969. He died in 1978 at the age of 63.

Much like Jim Rice, I'm not entirely sure that Gordon is a HoFer, but he certainly was a great player. After Flash hit .500/.667/.929 in the '41 Series, no less an authority than Yankee Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy called Gordon the greatest all-around player he'd ever seen. In his
New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks Gordon as the 16th best second baseman of all time, between Hall of Famer Nellie Fox and fellow Yankee Willie Randolph. James ranks Gordon ahead of HoFers Bobby Doerr, Tony Lazerri, Johnny Evers, Red Schoendienst, and Bill Mazeroski, but behind underappreciated and unenshrined players such as Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker. He still holds the AL record for career HRs by a second baseman, and held the single season record until Bret Boone, likely pharmaceutically enhanced, bested him in 2001 and was later passed by fellow Yankee Alfonso Soriano.

Worthy of induction or not, I'm happy to see Gordon get some long overdue recognition. More than sixty years after he last put on pinstripes, Gordon is all but forgotten by modern Yankee fans. He was a major component of five Yankee pennant winners and four World Series champions and a former MVP, but his career is overshadowed by teammates Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey. While those two were surefire HoFers and are remembered to this day in Monument Park, those Yankee teams wouldn't have been nearly as successful without the likes of Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, and of course Joe Gordon, all of whom have been undeservedly relegated to footnotes in Yankee history.


  1. great insight there matthew, but it take you the last 4 days to put this all together??

  2. No. Just been real busy at work and working late. No time to write.

  3. excuses are like assholes buddy, we all have one and most stink!