Eddie Yost, RIP: The Walking Man’s Time

Eddie Yost, stroll master . . .

The Walking Man has walked home at 86.

Eddie Yost as a player could hit a little bit, sometimes with power, usually early in the order, but had one of the most remarkable facilities for wringing first base on the house out of opposing pitchers. At his death Tuesday he sat number eleven on the all-time pass list, having led his league in walks six times, and having averaged 124 walks per 162 games in his eighteen-season playing career.

He batted a mere .254 lifetime but his apparent passion for taking ninety-feet walks up the first base line produced a lifetime .394 on-base percentage. Decades before Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball and singled out Kevin Youkilis as the sabermetrician’s Greek God of Walks (a misnomer of a nickname if ever there was one, considering Youkilis being Jewish), Eddie Yost was the Washington God of Walks, and it was to mourn that his Senators never quite seemed to have the lineup able to cash him in at better than merely reasonable intervals.

Yost almost broke Babe Ruth’s record . . . for walks in a single season. At least, he threatened the record in 1956 while Mickey Mantle was occupied with threatening Ruth’s single-season home run record. Both Yost and Mantle fell short of nudging Ruth to one side (Barry Bonds would take care of the Babe’s walks in time), Yost by eleven walks and Mantle by eight bombs, while Yost out-walked Mantle and the Yankee bombardier had to settle for winning a measly Triple Crown.

Those who think the foregoing is just so much rot might care to note that only one player since 1940 has strolled at a higher rate than Yost’s 17.6 percent: Barry Bonds, at 20.6. The odds are unfathomable for anyone believing that, for all those intentional walks (26 percent of his walks, in fact), Bonds would pull up at career’s end a mere 3.0 percent higher than an Eddie Yost who struck no fear into the heart of any opposing pitcher or manager, above and beyond that Yost would be on first base by any means necessary, possibly including extortion, the opposition having to settle for dispatching the rest of the Senators’ lineup in efforts that exercises in futility on very rare occasions.

Yost had just enough power, however, that it would be his record for leadoff home runs (28) that Bobby Bonds fractured. Rickey Henderson has long since passed both, of course. But you might get the impression, from accounts contemporary and historical alike, that any time Yost did anything with a bat other than wring out yet another base on balls, it was likely to be front page headlines in one or another American League city.

“It’s something you can’t teach,” Yost would tell a magazine in 2002 or thereabout. “Just something I was lucky enough to be born with. First, I had a good eye at the plate and knew the strike zone. Also, I took the time to know the pitchers and how they worked. And I had enough bat control to be able to foul off a lot of pitches.” If only his often feeble Senators could have produced the winning tendencies that might have justified promoting themselves by boasting, “We’re gonna win it in a walk!”

This is a player Casey Stengel selected for an All-Star team in a season during which he’d hit .192. “Every time I look up,” Stengel explained, “that feller is standing on base.” During the season to follow, Senators owner Clark Griffith spurned a six-figure offer for Yost from the Boston Red Sox, for whom he’d work in due course as a coach. Yost, Griffith would say with no sparsity of pride, “is the most sought-after .233 hitter in the American League.”

When he was traded to the Detroit Tigers after the 1958 season, the Senators needing to make room for a younger third baseman with considerable long-ball power, Yost took enough of a liking to Tiger Stadium’s short left field to give one and all who knew him in seasons past cardiac trouble. After hitting no more than twelve in any prior season and in double figures only five times in those previous fourteen seasons, hitting 21 home runs is liable to change your image considerably, if only temporarily.

Yost became expendable for the American League’s expansion for the 1961 season, and the Los Angeles Angels drafted him accordingly. It took him only two at-bats to afford the Angels a taste of his customary specialty in their first regulation game. At season’s end, Yost spent his final official at-bat hitting one out against the expansion Senators, but in his final plate appearance a short while later, he walked.

Yost (center, between Joe Pignatano and Yogi Berra), the Mets’ traffic manager at third base . . .

His strolling propensities also tended to obscure his fine performances fielding at third base, fine enough that it took Brooks Robinson to eradicate Yost’s career marks for putouts, assists, and chances by a third baseman.  He would join the expansion version Senators as a coach, first with old teammate Mickey Vernon and then with successor Gil Hodges, who would bring him along when Hodges returned to New York to manage the Mets.

That was the Walking Man himself patrolling the third base coaching line, earning a reputation as an acute traffic manager, guiding baserunners with an eye comparable to that which enabled him to make a career out of constitutionals to first base. A native Brooklynite himself, Yost was as responsible as anyone else this side of their impeccable pitching staff and Flying Wallendas defence for the Miracle Mets’ championship derring-do.

He shook off the tragedy of Hodges’ premature death (at 48) from a second heart attack to continue on the Mets’ third base line until Yogi Berra’s managerial successor, Joe Frazier, shook up the coaching staff in 1976. That’s when Yost joined the Red Sox at last, over two decades after Clark Griffith spurned their purchase offer, taking the third base box over from Don Zimmer and staying there until the end of Ralph Houk’s term on the bridge.

The Walking Man even became a figure in one of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign blunders. “My favourite Red Sox player of all time,” Kerry told a Boston radio show, “is the Walking Man, Eddie Yost.” A man who could not recall Washington spurning $200,000 to send Yost to the Red Sox, for whom he’d never play a single game, was a man clearly not trustworthy with the federal budget.

Time itself was far more kind to Yost than one politician with a scrambled memory chip. Which may be a kind of repayment in its own right, considering the hobby Yost took up during his coaching days with the Mets, restoring antique clocks. When you consider the opponents who fumed quietly that his baseball playing specialty was a waste of somebody’s time, theirs customarily, such a hobby may have been extraterrestrial vengeance. On behalf of whom, alas, the gods deign not to reveal.

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