My Friday morning e-mail included a copy of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter. Fair disclosure: I contribute to that newsletter once a month at minimum, sometimes more if called upon, and no one has requested my assassination over anything I’ve written there. Yet.
Further fair disclosure: Paul Semendinger, Ed.D., is an educator, elementary school principal, enthusiastic Yankee blogger, and author of The Least Among Them. He has even been agreeable enough to republish a few of my own writings on his blog Start Spreading the News.
Dr. Semendinger may not be so agreeable about my demurral from this: he says in this morning’s HTP that Hank Bauer deserves a Yankee uniform retirement number just as the forthcoming Paul O’Neill does. (O’Neill’s 21 will be retired this season.) Until this morning’s e-mail, and nothing against O’Neill himself, I’d never considered him a candidate for uniform retirement.
Not just because the Yankees have retired a few too many numbers already (21); not just because eight of the 21 don’t belong to Hall of Famers. (Thurman Munson’s 15 is retired, but he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown and will get one in due course from the Hall’s Classic Era Committee covering pre-1980 players.) Yankee players may be wearing triple-digit uniform numbers exclusively by the time this century is half over.
O’Neill was as solid a ballplayer as you could ask. So was Bauer. They have much in common. They were both right fielders with good throwing arms and route instincts; they both hit for extra bases as often as not; they both played on multiple World Series winners. They were both the kind of men to whom teammates looked in the clubhouse as well as on the field.
They also both played in high-offense eras though O’Neill’s was somewhat higher than Bauer’s. Neither is close to having been a Hall of Famer, but Dr. Semendinger thinks Bauer was the better ballplayer by margin enough. I’m no more convinced of that than I am that either man deserves a number retirement, however excellent they happened to be.
The traditionalists might care to note that O’Neill has a higher batting average as a Yankee than Bauer: .303 vs. .277. Even allowing the righthanded Bauer some slack for having to hit to that cavernous left center field in the old Yankee Stadium, that’s a big river between them. Bauer hit only a couple of points higher at home while slugging a few points less at home.
O’Neill was a lefthanded batter who hit better at home in two cavernous ballparks (Riverfront Stadium, the remodeled old Yankee Stadium which kept the shorter right field porch) than on the road. But the splits aren’t as wide between the two as you might think.
So we should take a look at the two right fielders as Yankees according to my Real Batting Average metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, dividing that sum by their total plate appearances. Dr. Semendinger may or may not like this:
How could Bauer have only nine more plate appearances than O’Neill despite playing three more seasons as a Yankee than O’Neill did? Simpler than you might think if you know where to look.
Bauer has been remembered as one of the near-typical elements of Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel’s platoon system, usually in hand with fellow outfielder Gene Woodling. He averaged 117 games a season as a Yankee. O’Neill wasn’t a platoon player in the Joe Torre era and averaged a percentage point short of 140 games a season in the pinstripes.
And in nine fewer Yankee plate appearances O’Neill has 190 more total bases, drew 27 more walks, and was handed 27 more intentional walks. I submit the last indicates the pitchers in Bauer’s time feared him at the plate less than the pitchers in O’Neill’s time feared him.
Dr. Semendinger points to Bauer’s 29.3 wins above replacement-level as a Yankee and O’Neill’s 26.7 WAR as a Yankee as further evidence. Well, now. If you got to play three more Yankee seasons than the next guy even if you were almost the same kind of player, of course you’re going to have 2.6 more WAR.
Bauer also has one leg up for being a slightly better defensive right fielder than O’Neill was, but have a look at their offensive WAR as Yankees: O’Neill (29.9 oWAR) has Bauer (24.0 oWAR) beaten by a decent distance. Bauer’s seven-year peak WAR is 25.7 . . . but O’Neill’s is 27.4.
Dr. Semendinger made a point of noticing Bauer’s 158 home runs in a Yankee uniform. I did mention both men had some power. But I forgot to mention O’Neill hit 185 out as a Yankee. It’s not exactly Bauer’s fault that Stengel saw him as the kind of player who’d shine in his platoon system as a platoon man, though Bauer did get remarkable enough playing time for a man made a key part of that platoon system.
But O’Neill wasn’t considered a platoon player, and I submit the final numbers say O’Neill was just that much more valuable to his generation of Yankees than Bauer was to his. Not so fast, Dr. S. might rejoin.
“If O’Neill deserves credit for being a leader on four championship teams, Bauer also deserves that same credit, and then some,” he writes. “Bauer was a leader on seven World Championship Yankees teams.” It’s O’Neill’s fault that he didn’t have the full caliber of teammates Bauer had?
Let’s see. Bauer played with three full-time Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. O’Neill as a Yankee played with two enshrined full-time Hall of Famers (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera) and a third who belongs in Cooperstown (Roger Clemens) but isn’t there yet thanks to continuing suspicions (as opposed to, you know, evidence) about involvement with actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances.
Bauer’s teams had the slightly better role and platoon players. (Imagine if O’Neill’s Yankees could have had their own Gil McDougald, to name only the most versatile.) They also had Berra behind the plate doing what almost no other catcher in major league history did: helping their pitchers pitch better as Yankees than they did a) with any other Yankee behind the plate and b) on any other team in their careers.
Bauer also played in the pre-division era where you finished in first place or you went home for the winter a couple of weeks early. He got to play in nine World Series and on seven Series winners, of course, and he finished with a .245/.279/.399 career postseason slash line. O’Neill played in seven division series, six League Championship Series (five as a Yankee), and six World Series with five rings (four as a Yankee) to show for it . . . and his career postseason slash line is .284/.363/.465.
Does this mean Hank Bauer doesn’t deserve Yankee recognition? Of course not. But if you’re going to even think about retiring his uniform number, too, you’re going to have a problem. Dr. Semendinger thinks it’s not that big a problem:
[H]ere’s the beautiful thing—retiring Hank Bauer’s number wouldn’t change anything uniform wise. His number 9 is already retired for Roger Maris. By retiring the number in Bauer’s name as well, the Yankees would simply be recognizing another great Yankee. The fact that this is so easy and obvious makes me wonder why this hasn’t been part of the plan already.
He’s kidding, right? There’d be nothing beautiful about co-retiring number 9, it’d be a downright insult—to Roger Maris, for whom it was retired in the first place, a man who was probably the single most insulted and disrespected Yankee great of them all.
Maris busted the single-season home run record held by an all-time Yankee idol and received more opprobrium than praise for doing so, for not being the glib, movie-star-handsome idol just about every Yankee fan prayed would break it if it had to be broken. And if you insist on going there, Maris was a better man than both the guy whose record he smashed and the guy Yankee World prayed would do it instead.
What might have been regarding Maris’s career remains unknown; he was ground down first by the unwarranted attacks for pursuing and breaking ruthsrecord (that’s how they said it back then, folks) and then by numerous injuries.
The Yankees have also insulted one great with a co-retired number already. There was no way they should have retired number 8 for anyone other than Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra . . . but the Yankees made it a co-retirement with Bill Dickey, the pre-integration great who mentored and taught Berra the fineries of the position. (Surely you’ve seen Yogi’s observation, “Bill is learning me all his experiences.”)
Dickey on the surface resembles a better hitter than Berra, but Dickey played in an even higher-offense era than Berra did, and Berra shook out as the far better receiver and handler of pitchers behind the plate. (Yogi also caught the same number of World Series winners as Dickey while catching one more pennant winner, by the way.)
Dickey deserved a plaque in Monument Park more than he deserved a uniform retirement. Yogi deserved the uniform retirement exclusively. Bauer absolutely deserves the Monument Park plaque (O’Neill has one), but that’s it. (For that matter, so does another Stengel Yankee, Gil McDougald.) But number 9’s retirement deserves to belong to Maris alone.
Bauer was an underappreciated ballplayer, generally. He could hit leadoff, hit third, hit almost anywhere in the order and deliver. He was also underappreciated for his World War II service as a Marine in the Pacific. That service didn’t exactly harm him as a player; he’d played only one minor league season in 1941, then enlisted at age eighteen after Pearl Harbour. (His father had to sign his enlistment papers. “I traded a bat for a rifle,” he once said.)
He saw action among the Marines who invaded New Georgia, Emirau, Guam, and Okinawa, taking shrapnel in his thigh that stayed for life because it was considered too dangerous to remove. He also battled malaria while he was at it in the middle of all that. He returned to the Yankee system and didn’t get his call to the parent club until 1949; he might (underline that) have made it about two seasons sooner otherwise.
But as Bauer settled into his fine Yankee career, according to Bill James (in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract), he endured a nastier insult than even the time comedian Jan Murray immortalised him as a man “with a face that looks like a clenched fist”:
A Congressman trolling for publicity published a list of athletes who had gotten “soft duty” in World War II, and put Bauer’s name on the list. This didn’t get the distinguished gentleman the kind of publicity he had been hoping for. “Did I say Bauer?” said the Congressman. “I meant Sauer, Hank Sauer.” Sauer had also seen combat, although not as much as Bauer, so that didn’t help much.
Paul O’Neill looked the military type (you could see him just as readily in an Air Force uniform as a Yankee uniform) but he never saw military service, never mind combat. He was 27 and six years into his baseball career when Saddam Hussein’s takeover attempt of Kuwait stirred Operation Desert Storm. As much as O’Neill looked the part, the military might not have wanted to recruit a fellow his age, anyway.