Friday, February 5, 2010

12 Days Until Spring Training: Gil McDougald

In his twelve years as Yankee manager, Casey Stengel won ten AL pennants and seven World Series. While having all time greats like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and White Ford at his disposal certainly helped, much of Stengel's success stemmed from his ability to coax worthwhile contributions from virtually his entire roster. Stengel was one the first managers to popularize a platoon system, and he was a master at it.

The Old Perfessor had an ever rotating cast of good players that he moved in and out of the line up around his cornerstones. First basemen like Joe Collins, Tommy Henrich, Johnny Mize, and Moose Skowron. Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Bobby Brown, Billy Johnson, Billy Hunter, and Andy Carey in the infield. Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Cliff Mapes, Jackie Jensen, Johnny Lindell, Bob Cerv, Irv Noren, Elston Howard, Enos Slaughter, Norm Siebern, and Hector Lopez in the outfield. And a seemingly limitless cast of pitchers shuffling between the bullpen and starting, without anything resembling a regular starting rotation. But perhaps no player was a better fit in the Stengel system than Gil McDougald.

The San Francisco born McDougald signed with the Yankees in early 1948. He spent three years in the minors, hitting .340 and slugging .510 through three different levels. In Spring Training in 1951, Stengel asked the career second baseman to learn each infield position. It would be a career altering decision. Despite never having played in AAA, McDougald broke camp with the big club. Mickey Mantle was far and away the most heralded rookie on the club, but come season's end it was the .306/.396/488 (142 OPS+) batting line of McDougald that earned Rookie of the Year honors and a ninth place finish in the MVP voting. He also became the first rookie to hit a grand slam in the World Series, as the Yankees captured the third of their record five consecutive championships.

In the field, McDougald split his time between second and third base. Through 1955 he would continue to split time between the two positions, spending two seasons as the team's primary third baseman, two as the primary second baseman, and making at least seventeen appearances at his secondary position each year. Throughout, McDougald continued to produce on offense, posting OPS+ ranging from 101 to 117 during these years.

1956 saw McDougald take up a new spot on the diamond. At 39 years old, Phil Rizzuto just couldn't cut it as the everyday shortstop any longer, with both his offense and defense slipping below acceptable standards. As such, Stengel shifted the trusty McDougald to the most important defensive spot on the field. Gil had a remarkable season as the shortstop, playing above average defense, posting his best offensive season since his rookie year, finishing seventh in the MVP voting, and still managing to see time at second and third.

McDougald remained at shortstop in 1957, when a horrific event nearly caused him to quit the game. In Cleveland on May 7th, the Tribe sent Herb Score to the mound. Score had been outstanding through his first two years in the league, winning Rookie of the Year and leading the AL in strikeouts both seasons, and in shutouts and ERA+ in 1956. With no one out in the top of the first and Hank Bauer on first, McDougald stepped to the plate. He lined Score's offering right back up the middle, striking the pitcher square in the eye. The ball caromed on the fly to third baseman Al Smith, who threw to first to double up Bauer. Score lay on the mound in a pool of his own blood. His season was over; his promising career would never be the same. McDougald vowed to retire if Score lost sight in the eye.

Score didn't lose sight, and McDougald stayed on through the 1960 season. Tony Kubek's arrival usurped McDougald as the everyday shortstop, but he continued to be a valuable member of the roster, playing well all over the infield and producing offensively. Just 32 at the end of the 1960 season, McDougald was to be left unprotected by the Yankees for the expansion draft that would fill the rosters of the Angels and Senators.

Projected to be a top pick, McDougald instead elected to retire, in order to remain close to his large family and their New Jersey home as well as to tend to his growing maintenance business. In his ten year career, McDougald played on eight pennant winners, five World Series winners, and five All-Star teams. He posted a career 111 OPS+, had three top ten MVP finishes, and won the Rookie of the Year, while making 284 appearances at shortstop, 508 at third base, and 599 at second base.

Unfortunately, an injury suffered during his playing days began to alter McDougald's life. In 1955, while picking up a ball during batting practice, McDougald was struck above the left ear by a line drive. Diagnosed with a concussion, he was back on the field in days. But the blow had fractured McDougald's skull and damaged his inner ear. He lost hearing in his left ear after some time, and then gradually in his right as well, causing to him to resign from his post as Fordham University baseball coach in 1976. He was left deaf until a cochlear implant restored his hearing in 1994. He's spent the past 15 years as an advocate for the hearing impaired.

(Photos from LIFE photo archive)


  1. Not sure why a Gil McDougald post lead to this comment, but maybe it's precisely because it's a Gil McDougald post.

    After reading this post, I decided that if I was on a deserted island and could only bring one Yankee blog (you know what I mean), it would be yours.

    I've been with you for about a year now and this blog mixes in present day Yankee news, Yankee history, analytics, damn good writing styles, and off the wall crap (it's all about Doris) like no other Yankee blog.

    The funny thing is, the one thing you are known for, the music references, are mostly not my style. My new music receptors died in the early 90's when I followed Nirvana and The Black Crowes. I'm kinda old and more of a classic rock and heavy metal guy (going to see Y&T tomorrow night).

    I just wanted you to know that I appreciate the entertainment you provide.....

    Man, did you guys rub liquid heat on your asses this morning, cus my lips are burnin'.

  2. Mode - Thanks for the kind words, man. We appreciate the fact that you stuck with us for all this time. I don't know how many others have been with us for that much of the ride but I don't think it's very many.

    That's especially high praise considering all the other excellent Yankee blogs there are out there. We're never going to keep up with all the news like RAB does, for instance, but we try to find a unique angle for each post we write. Hopefully that way, we can appeal to people who read tons of baseball blogs daily and those who only read a few, all at the same time. That's the idea anyway. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. Mode,

    Thanks a lot; that's much appreciated.

    We try to be diverse with the tunes. There's been a good amount of classic rock, we used Nirvana once, and I put up a handful of Crowes songs over the course of the year.

    Hope the Y&T show is good.