The only man in major league history who might have won legitimate Gold Glove awards at three infield positions (second base, third base, shortstop), if they’d given the award during the seasons in which he might have won them, died Sunday morning after a long run with prostate cancer at 82.
“There are three men who made Casey Stengel a genius—Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Gil McDougald,” wrote Bill James, ranking McDougald the 33rd best second baseman of all time in 2001:
Yogi was the only catcher in baseball history who could catch 145 games a year, hit cleanup, and never have an injury or a bad season. Mantle was a devastating offencive player and a solid center fielder; with those two men hitting 3-4, the Yankees were guaranteed to score a lot of runs every year. And Gil McDougald could do anything . . . It was always Casey Stengel’s style to rewrite his lineup every day. Gil McDougald enabled him to do that successfully.
Several were the Stengel Yankees remembered as critical elements of the Ol’ Perfesser’s platoon fetish. (Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling were typical entries.) It may have inspired a little derision and a lot of comedy, but it worked to the tune of ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons of Stengel’s leadership.
McDougald was probably the single most jack-of-all-trades of the bunch. He was certainly the least noisy of the bunch. If you could suggest any Yankee era having its truly quiet superstar, if you could suggest any five-time All Star being a quiet All-Star, a case could be made with little to no controversy on McDougald’s behalf.
“I couldn’t beat out a ball they kicked around the infield,” Jackie Robinson said sadly, as one of the reasons why he called it a career not long after the 1956 World Series ended.
The reference was to a key play early in Don Larsen’s perfect game. In the top of the second, Robinson hit a line drive that deflected off third baseman Andy Carey. It might have had infield hit stamped on it suddenly. McDougald, playing shortstop, picked off the deflection and did what would have been difficult, if not impossible, before Robinson’s knees reminded him malevolently enough that even he was only human, after all.
A year earlier, McDougald was one of the co-stars in the play that saved the Game Seven win for the only World Series conquest the Brooklyn Dodgers ever enjoyed. McDougald was rounding second, gunning for third, and probably had home plate on his travel itinerary as well, when Yogi Berra’s opposite field rising liner was run down and hauled in by fleet Sandy Amoros, a late substitution, at the left field line.
Amoros spun and hit shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who threw on to Gil Hodges to bag McDougald by about ten nautical miles back at first. “He put his brakes on just before the wall, and I took off for 3rd and he found the Easter egg in his glove,” McDougald described the play, inscribing a baseball for a fan. “I was a dead duck.”
McDougald led the American League in double plays in three different seasons, at three out of four infield positions. (Third base, 1952; second base, 1955; shortstop, 1957.) He was also a solid righthanded hitter, hitting practically even up against righthanded and lefthanded pitching alike, who was probably hurt most by his home park. (McDougald’s OPS on the road is a whopping 247 points higher than his OPS at home; on the road, he was a hair’s breadth shy of hitting .300 while hitting .255 in Yankee Stadium.)
But McDougald may yet be remembered most not for his field versatility but for a tragedy that occurred 5 May 1957, top of the first, one out (Hank Bauer opened with an infield out), in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
The official linescore shows, “McDougald: Line out, P-3B-1B.” Line outs don’t normally require more than one fielder, never mind three, but this was no ordinary line out. Batting against Herb Score on 2-2, McDougald looked for a low fastball and got one. He caught hold of all of it and drilled a liner right back up the pipe . . . and right into Score’s face. The tall Cleveland lefthander with the over-the-top throwing motion and the deep-dive follow-through went down in a heap, burying his face in his glove and curling up in unconscionable pain.
“I didn’t see the ball until it was right on me,” Score would remember many years later. “All I know is the ball got really big really fast.”
The ball caromed on a single hop to Cleveland third baseman Al Smith, who threw across to first baseman Vic Wertz (he who hit the drive Willie Mays turned into The Catch a couple of World Series earlier) to get the equally shaken McDougald—who never went up the first base line. McDougald’s first destination out of the batter’s box was the mound, checking on the stricken Score, who was bleeding from his face and suffered a broken nose in the bargain.
“He was a soft spoken man of great compassion and sensitivity,” New York Journal-American sportswriter Til Ferdenzi wrote of McDougald in his game report, noting Score’s similar character as well. “So when McDougald’s line drive hit Score in the right eye, it was like Sir Lancelot felling Sir Lancelot.”
Score had survived a grisly accident at age three, when his legs were crushed by a bakery truck but avoided surgery when—miraculously, many including his mother believed—the bones slipped back into place one way or another. Now he lay on the mound, never losing consciousness, wondering if he would face blindness, swallow his tongue, or even lose his hearing thanks to blood in his ears.
While Score was taken off the field to a Cleveland hospital, the Indians went on to beat the Yankees, 2-1, future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon relieving Score and staying the rest of the route for the win, popular Indians slugger (and Score’s roommate) Rocky Colavito walking with the bases loaded to push the ultimate game-winning run home in the bottom of the eighth.
After the game, McDougald threatened to leave baseball if Score lost his eye. He called the hospital constantly, even prying the home phone number of Score’s doctor out of hospital staff so he could keep track of the pitcher—who was, it turned out, managing to listen to the game on a hospital radio, cheer when Colavito walked, and polish off a bowl of ice cream to celebrate.
McDougald wouldn’t listen when teammates and his manager alike told him it could have happened to anyone. “It doesn’t help to say it was just one of those things,” McDougald insisted to Ferdenzi. “I know it was an accident. It looked like the poor guy just couldn’t get his glove up in time.”
He also told Ferdenzi he’d gotten a phone call that meant the world to him—from Score’s mother. “[She] spent a long time on the phone with me,” McDougald continued. “I’ll never forget that. But I never felt the same about baseball after that.”
It showed in his statistics. Though he went on a small hitting tear after that game, it ebbed just as swiftly. McDougald was never again the same player after the Score incident that he’d been entering that game. (He hit a mere .253 for the rest of his career, following the Score incident, as opposed to hitting .289 in his career prior.) That didn’t stop the newborn Los Angeles Angels from reaching out to pick him in the expansion draft that built their first roster, for the 1961 season, notwithstanding that he’d decided to retire.
An incident one week after the Score liner probably said more than was apparent at the time. McDougald lined a fastball up the pipe that caught Detroit Tigers pitcher Frank Lary on the leg, forceful enough to knock Lary down, too. McDougald high-tailed it to the mound again, his only thought being, “Not again!” Lary wasn’t injured after all, but observers noted McDougald altered his batting style to enable him to pull the ball more, something that wasn’t natural to the all-fields-hitting infielder.
Score, for his part, sat out the rest of 1957. When he returned in 1958, he looked at first as though he’d shaken off the McDougald liner entirely—he started slowly enough, but improved his record to 2-1 with a three-hit shutout (including thirteen strikeouts) against the Chicago White Sox. Losing a turn because of inclement weather, Score’s next start, on a cold damp night against the Washington Senators, turned to disaster in the seventh inning when his elbow began to scream and he turned up with a torn tendon.
From there Score did what only too many pitchers do when trying to recover from that kind of injury. He overcompensated, fouled up his mechanics just enough, and it cost him the hop on his once-feared fastball. He would come back from the tendon tear that June and, except for one start in which he got murdered in one and a third innings, work strictly in relief, with no won-lost record and one save. And he would never be the same pitcher again, even when the Indians swapped him to the White Sox where his first Cleveland manager, Al Lopez, now ran the show.
He didn’t lose it because of Gil McDougald.
As sad enough fate had it, McDougald had been hit in the head by a line drive two years before his liner nailed Score. It happened more freakishly—he’d been tagged during batting practise when Yankee outfielder Bob Cerv caught hold of one. That liner broke a bone in his ear, an injury that robbed McDougald of his hearing gradually, rendering him deaf by 1980.
That, in turn, prompted McDougald’s gradual retirement overall. He sold his shares in a successful building maintenance business he’d built; he resigned as Fordham University’s baseball coach; he shied away from many if not most public functions—including a Yankee Old-Timer’s Day on which the theme involved the Yankee teams for which McDougald himself had played. Most bothersome, he found himself unable to answer a telephone or partake in too many family conversations, which he missed most of all. “Especially the jokes,” he would tell New York Times columnist Ira Berkow.
“There used to be a [Times sportswriter] named John Drebinger, who covered the Yankees,” McDougald remembered to Berkow, who interviewed McDougald at home in New Jersey, the former infielder answering questions Berkow wrote for him to read. “He wore a hearing aid. We’d mock him all the time, and play tricks on him. He’d come over in the clubhouse and we’d be moving our lips, as if we were talking. He’d beat that squawk box in his ear, then he’d turn it up. And then we’d start laughing. He’d say, ‘Why you dirty so-and-sos’.”
McDougald paused to laugh at the memory. “And now,” he continued, “[deafness] has happened to me. But you go on, you learn to live with it. You make your adjustments. There’s still a lot to live for, and love.”
Including his relationship with Herb Score, who went on to enjoy a memorable and popular career as an Indians television announcer with a Jerry Coleman-like flair for malaprops. (Swing and a miss, foul back to the screen was typical.) Score and McDougald swapped notes and holiday cards for years to come.
Like McDougald, Score—who died on Veterans Day, 2006, following a series of debilitating illnesses that left him wheelchair bound—refused to think of himself as a guy who got a bad break. “People tell me that I was unlucky,” he once told a reporter. “Me? Unlucky? I started with a great team and played under a great manager. Then I went from the field to the broadcast booth at the age of thirty, and thirty years later I’m still doing the games. If you ask me, that’s not unlucky. That’s a guy who has been in the right place at the right time.”
Berkow’s article, “McDougald, Once a Quiet Yankee Star, Now Lives in a Quiet World” (10 July 1994), provoked what some might have thought the impossible. Just a few months later, McDougald underwent a cochlear implant, performed by Dr. Noel Cohen. By January 1995, almost all McDougald’s hearing was restored.
He managed to keep a sense of humour about his malady until then. Once, he argued spiritedly with his nephew’s blind wife, who said she’d rather be blind than deaf because her blindness made her more sensitive to the rest of the world, making her appreciate it more. “I’d rather be deaf,” her uncle-in-law retorted. “If I was blind, I couldn’t play golf.”
McDougald ended his baseball career at thirty, after ten major league seasons that began as the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1951 and included three top-ten finishes in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting.
When the Angels acquired the rights to draft McDougald for their inaugural, expansion roster, and offered him the highest salary he might yet earn as a player, McDougald balked. Even though they planned to make him a regular; even though they would play their first American League season in a bandbox park (Wrigley Field, formerly the home of the minor league Los Angeles Angels) that might have enabled him to hit the long ball the way he never could (112 lifetime, 83 on the road, a mere 29 in Yankee Stadium) in The ‘Stripes.
“The effect of this,” Bill James would observe in retrospect, “combined with a twenty percent increase in his playing time, would have vaulted his home run total to unimaginable levels. I am confident that McDougald would have at least doubled his previous career high in home runs, which was 14. But then Gil McDougald wasn’t born to be a star. He was born to be a Yankee.”