If They Must Retire Another Number, Let It Be Gil McDougald’s. (Special from the IBWAA)
By Jeff Kallman (Special from the IBWAA)
This article was featured in “Here’s The Pitch” the newsletter of the IBWAA and is shared with permission. This article was published in August 2022.
When Paul O’Neill stood in Yankee Stadium for the retirement of his uniform number 21 last Sunday afternoon, he gestured to five former teammates at his side—Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera plus Tino Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams—and spoke of winning.
“The fans remember the teams that win,” the former right fielder now a Yankee commentator for their YES Network said. “And we won a lot.” They’ve also retired a lot of uniform numbers. To be precise, 22 of them. (If you’re scoring at home, they haven’t retired number 22. Yet.)
Few baseball organizations are as conscious of their own history as the Yankees. Few fans are as steeped in that history as Yankee fans. But no one more than the Yankees have made the number retirement almost meaningless. The time may not be too distant when you see mostly triple digit numbers on Yankee backs.
If O’Neill wanted to say (accurately) the fans remember the teams that win, there was a generation of Yankees who won a third more than O’Neill’s generation. Those were the teams of Casey Stengel on the bridge, Hall of Famer Yogi Berra behind the plate, Hall of Famer Whitey Ford on the mound, and Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle launching baseballs into the next state when not fighting his body and his demons.
They were also the teams of maybe the most forgotten but truly most valuable Yankee other than Berra, the arguable greatest team player of the 20th Century in any sport. This forgotten Yankee wore number 12 his entire Yankee career. The very thing that made him the second-most valuable team-play asset behind Yogi might be the very thing that kept him from being a star, never mind a Hall of Famer.
Gil McDougald was a genuine Yankee jack of all trades. He was a fine hitter (including one American League leadership in triples), an American League Rookie of the Year (1951, though Hall of Famer Minnie Miñoso should have won the award), but most of all a defensive virtuoso at the three toughest positions in the infield.
Stop laughing. McDougald finished 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.) “McDougald . . . was versatile,” wrote Stengel biographer Robert W. Creamer.
He was Stengel’s third baseman, second baseman, and shortstop in different seasons, and he led the league in making double plays at each position. Of all the players Stengel managed in New York, none better exemplified the kind of team he was trying to develop than the talented, professional McDougald.
O’Neill played for five Yankee pennant winners and won four World Series rings out of the five. McDougald played for eight Yankee pennant winners—including the final three of Stengel’s unprecedented five straight as a manager—and won five Series rings.
For all his versatility, McDougald wasn’t exactly one of the Stengel Yankees’ big stars, which probably suited the quiet man from San Francisco just fine. But he may also get too-short shrift because of a Cleveland pitching legend named Herb Score.
To this day there are probably people who believe McDougald destroyed Score’s promising career with a line drive right back to the box and off Score’s face in 1957. Not quite. Score returned in 1958 and, took a short spell to find his proper form again. Once he did, alas, he did he had the misfortune to blow his elbow out pitching on a damp night.
That—not the McDougald liner—turned Score from comer to mediocre. As it happens, while McDougald was blocked from visiting Score in the hospital, no less than Score’s mother told Score’s sister, “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.”
Little did she know. Two years earlier, McDougald suffered a similar injury in spring training. Chatting with a Yankee coach, McDougald took a batting practice line drive behind an ear. (“The blow had broken a hearing tube,” he once said) The injury would leave McDougald completely deaf by the mid-1970s.
That story would be told by New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow in 1994, in “McDougald, Once a Quiet Yankee Star, Now Lives in a Quiet World.” Not long after, as McDougald himself would say through happy tears, “They’ve turned the music back on”: the former infielder received a cochlear implant that restored his hearing for the final fifteen years of his life. (He died at 82 in 2010.)
Berkow’s essay plus his happy follow-up, “For McDougald, the Miracle of Sound,” were republished in the Berkow anthology Summers in the Bronx: Attila the Hun and Other Yankee Stories.
Long before, after the heartbreak of the 1960 World Series loss and the dismissal of Stengel, the Yankees left McDougald open to the first American League expansion draft. The incoming Los Angeles Angels selected him, but McDougald chose to retire, instead. At 32.
It’s not that I want to encourage further Yankee uniform retirements to deepen the lack of meaning in the honor. But retiring number 12 for McDougald wouldn’t be truly meaningless. Role player? McDougald was a third of the cast for the price of one and enhanced, not eroded the scenes.
“The way that Stengel used him,” Bill James wrote in due course (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.” A dirty job, but somebody had to do it.
Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Met fan since the day they were born.