My rejoinder to Dr. Paul Semendinger’s argument to co-retire Yankee uniform number 9 in honour of Hank Bauer (it’s already retired for Roger Maris) provoked a pleasant enough debate, when Dr. S. republished it on his Yankee blog Start Spreading the News a couple of days ago. Well, it was pleasant until some comments.
Nobody attacked me, but some of the arguments addressing retired Yankee uniform numbers went from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous. Now there came calls from one or another place to think about retiring the numbers of such Yankee ghosts as Spud Chandler, Tommy Henrich, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, and Roy White.
Let’s just say for openers that the Yankees have so damn many retired uniform numbers that they’ve made the honour almost meaningless. I’ll say it again: Be not surprised if you live long enough to see the middle of this century featuring all active Yankees wearing triple digits on their backs.
But let’s say, too, that in the cases of Chandler and Henrich, there’s more than one number to ponder. Presumably, Chandler’s likeliest target for uniform retirement would be 21, which he wore for the bulk of his Yankee career. Oops. Paul O’Neill’s getting the honour of number 21 retired.
Henrich wore four numbers in his career. Of those, he wore 7 from 1939-42, when he went into World War II service; and, 15 from 1946 until his retirement after the 1950 season. Ol’ Reliable’s 7 was taken in due course by Mickey Mantle. And 15 is retired already—for Thurman Munson. Whoops.
Semendinger has no apparent issue with co-retiring uniform numbers as it is. He thinks (erroneously) that there’s nothing wrong with declaring 9 co-retired between Maris and Bauer, not to mention Nettles who wore it as a Yankee. I’ll answer that again soon, promise. But I’d like to see him come right out and argue that Chandler ought to be part of O’Neill’s number retirement or, even better, that Mantle should share 7’s retirement with Henrich or Munson should share 15 likewise.
Not even the most casual of the casual among Yankee fans would stand for that without a rip-roaring fight. (Or would they?)
Chandler was a tough righthanded pitcher for three Yankee World Series winners (1941, 1943, 1947). Much of his reputation rests on a fluke 1943, when he posted both the lowest ERA (1.64) and fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP: 2.54) of his major league career. Credited with a league-leading 20 pitching wins, Chandler was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player even though the award probably should have gone to Cleveland’s Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau. (Boudreau: 8.1 wins above replacement-level, leading the league; Chandler: 7.3.)
Why call Chandler’s 1943 a fluke? Easy: 1) Baseball was already depleted of enough prime talent by World War II. (The Yankees themselves lost Henrich, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, and Red Ruffing, not to mention a catching prospect named Yogi Berra.) 2) His ’43 ERA was 1.20 below his career mark. 3) His ’43 FIP was 75 points under his career mark. He did get a late major league career start thanks to several minor-league injuries, and the injury bug also kept him out of a few World Series pre-1941.
Chandler himself was pulled into the Army after the ’43 Series, though his injury history kept him from combat. He returned near the end of the 1945 season, posted two more solid seasons in 1946 and 47, but age and injuries compelled the Yankees to release him at 39 in April 1948.
He was a good pitcher who was probably held back by his minor league injuries in the 1930s (he didn’t throw a major league pitch until he was 29) and a few more injuries as a Yankee, where he was respected for a toughness that sometimes bordered on recklessness. But if you’re even thinking about retiring or co-retiring the uniform number of the 377th starting pitcher of all time, who isn’t even one of the ten best Yankee pitchers ever, you should quell that thought post-haste.
Henrich was a terrific player whose travel over the top of the mountain toward his decline phase was rudely interrupted by World War II—Ol’ Reliable lost three seasons to the war. He was one of the solid men when he returned, too; somehow, he remained much the same player after the war as he’d been before it.
As a matter of fact, my Real Batting Average places Henrich (.558) just behind Paul O’Neill (.565 as a Yankee) and way ahead of Hank Bauer (.500), while the defensive metrics show Henrich pretty much a match for both those men, whom Dr. Semendinger think deserve equal uniform retirement. Well, now. Henrich is ranked as the 58th best right fielder ever; Bauer, the 88th best. Case closed.
But you’re not even going to think about compelling Munson or Mantle to share a uniform retirement even with Henrich. You’re not going to compel a shared uniform retirement between the second-best catcher in Yankee history, the arguable greatest all-around player ever to wear the Yankee uniform, and the guy who isn’t quite one of the Yankees’ top ten right fielders. Not unless you require psychiatric evaluation.
Think of Monument Park as the Yankees’ team Hall of Fame. That’s where you honour the Chandlers, the Henriches, the Bauers. Strike their Monument Park plaques. (While we’re at it, do likewise for Nettles and White; Randolph already has his plaque there.) That’s it. They don’t quite deserve uniform number retirements.
Co-retired numbers are also unwarranted insults. Yogi Berra didn’t deserve to be co-retired with Bill Dickey; Berra was ten times the catcher Dickey was and he’s a hair’s breadth ahead of Johnny Bench as the greatest all-around catcher who ever strapped it on. And Roger Maris was insulted without warrant more than enough in his Yankee career without handing him one more by compelling him to share retired number 9, even with Hank Bauer.
You want to think about a Yankee uniform retirement that a) hasn’t been done yet (believe it or not) and b) would do honour to a truly underrated Yankee great? I’ll give you one. Number 12. It’s the only number Gil McDougald wore in his entire Yankee life. Of all the not-quite-Hall of Famers to play for Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel under his platoon-and-multiples system, McDougald was the best of the group.
He was a fair hitter (he led the league with nine triples in 1957) and a 1951 American League Rookie of the Year. (Even though Minnie Miñoso really deserved the award.) But he was a defensive virtuoso at the three toughest infield positions, finishing his career in double figures on the positive side for defensive runs above his league average at all three. (Second base: +46. Shortstop: +16. Third base: +13.)
Maybe McDougald gets short shrift even among Yankee fans because he wasn’t exactly one of the most glittering Yankees of his time. Maybe, too, he gets such short shrift because of Cleveland pitching legend Herb Score.
You know, the line drive McDougald cracked off Score’s face in 1957 that people to this day believe ruined the Cleveland lefthander’s career. False. Score returned in 1958, had a shaky season’s start before he began to find his proper form again . . . then blew his left elbow out pitching eight innings on a damp night. That, and not the McDougald liner, ultimately put paid to Score’s effectiveness and, soon enough, his pitching career.
McDougald tried to visit Score in the hospital but was blocked by hospital personnel. Yet Score’s sister disclosed decades later that their mother told her, “It’s bad, but he’s got the finest doctors in the world and they will do everything that they can. You need to go down to the church and say your prayers for Herb, but more than that to pray for Gil McDougald. That man is a hurting man.”
Indeed. McDougald wouldn’t quite be the same player after the Score incident, even though Score’s mother herself reached out to him as her son did to tell him the injury was nobody’s “fault.” (McDougald in gratitude visited the older woman regularly for the rest of her life as well as swapping holiday cards with Score himself.) The Yankees left him open to the American League’s first expansion draft but he elected to retire, instead.
“The way that Stengel used him,” Bill James has written of him (in The New Historical Baseball Abstract), “kept him from becoming a star . . . But then, Gil McDougald wasn’t born to be a star. He was born to be a Yankee.”
The sad irony is that McDougald suffered an almost Score-like injury in spring training two years earlier, when a batting practise line drive caught him behind his ear while he was chatting with coach Frank Crosetti. The ball fractured a hearing tube; in his baseball retirement, successful with a dry cleaning business and a building maintenance business, as well as coaching Fordham University baseball, McDougald went completely deaf by the mid-1970s.
New York Times writer Ira Berkow told the story in “McDougald, Once a Quiet Yankee Star, Now Lives in a Quiet World” in 1994. Not long after, McDougald received a cochlear implant that restored his hearing. (“They’ve turned the music back on,” he said happily.) Both Berkow’s original story and the happy followup (“For McDougald, the Miracle of Sound”) were republished in 2009’s Summers in the Bronx: Attila the Hun and Other Yankee Stories.
McDougald got to live another fifteen years with his restored hearing until his death at 82 in 2010. Like too many honours it should have been done while he was still alive to appreciate and accept. But if there’s one more Yankee who really does deserve his uniform number retired, McDougald does.