Missing From Monument Park – Part 1
The New York Yankees have a tradition of honoring the greatest players in their history with monuments in Monument Park located within Yankee Stadium. Currently, there are twenty-seven Yankees players recognized in this hallowed ground. (This number excludes Billy Martin who is arguably included more for his managing than his playing days as a Yankee.)
The Yankees have honored nine pitchers, seven outfielders, five catchers, three first basemen, two shortstops, and a second baseman (two second basemen if Billy Martin is included). In total, a player from every position on the diamond is recognized except for third base. There are no Yankee third basemen in Monument Park.
The lack of third basemen in Monument Park might make the casual fan assume that the Yankees have never had great third basemen. This, though, is certainly not the case. Yankees history is replete with third basemen who have been an important part of their success. These Yankees third sackers have been over-looked for far too long. It is time to begin to recognize these great Yankees and include include at keast some in Monument Park.
The first great Yankee to play third base was Frank “Home Run” Baker. An eventual member of the Baseball Hall-of-Fame, Baker became a Yankee in 1916. In four years as the Yankees starting third baseman, (1916-1919) Frank Baker hit .289 with 32 home runs. “Home Run” Baker was the Yankees first star third baseman. In each of his four seasons as a Yankee, Baker finished among the top four players in the American League in home runs. Twice he was second in the league – in 1916 when his total was bested by Yankee Wally Pipp and in 1919 when a Red Sox player named Babe Ruth led the circuit in round trippers. In addition, Frank Baker’s .306 batting average in 1918 was good enough for fifth in the American League. Baker also led the league in games played in 1919 with 141.
Frank Baker would likely have continued this path of excellence, but he left baseball after the 1919 season to care for his family during a scarlet fever epidemic. In that epidemic, Baker lost his wife and had to care for his two young daughters. His children eventually recovered.
Frank Baker returned to the Yankees in 1921 and was the starting third baseman on their first ever American League Championship team. That season he hit .294 with 9 home runs and 74 runs batted in. Baker contributed as a part time player in 1922 – a season when the Yankees again won the American League Championship.
While it is of little doubt that Frank Baker’s resume is weighted more heavily by the seven years he played for the Philadelphia A’s (leading the league in home runs three consecutive years), it is also without doubt that his stellar play anchoring the hot corner for the Yankees during his career’s final six years contributed to his induction in the Hall-of-Fame.
The next Yankees third baseman of note was the one who replaced Baker at the position in 1922. This player, often forgotten, was a minor star in his own right – “Jumping” Joe Dugan. A fourteen year Major Leaguer, Joe Dugan’s best years were the seven (1923-1928) he played third base for the Yankees. Dugan was the third baseman on the Yankees first ever World Championship team (1923) and on the legendary Murderers Row Yankees World Championship teams in 1927 and 1928. Overall, Joe Dugan played on a total of five World Series teams with the Yankees.
Like Home Run Baker, Joe Dugan began his career with the Philadelphia Athletics. In the first years of his career, his progress was slow causing him to be the target of verbal abuse from the fans in the “City of Brotherly Love.” During difficult stretches, Dugan was known to leave the team for short periods (only to return) and thus earned the moniker “Jumping Joe.” Nevertheless, by the end of his tenure in Philadelphia, his skills had become apparent. He was considered by some the finest fielding third sacker in the league. In 1922, Dugan was part of a trade that brought him from Philadelphia to the Boston Red Sox. Later that year, he arrived on the Yankees who swung their own trade with the Red Sox to get Dugan, a player they coveted for a number of years. The Yankees were in second place at the time of the trade, but with Dugan, they roared to the pennant.
In his seven years as a New York Yankee, Joe Dugan (no longer jumping away, but instead jumping for baseballs hit his way) played tremendous defensive third base. Most years he was among the league leaders in games, put outs, and assists among all third basemen. Dugan’s skills with the bat, a lifetime .286 batting average as a Yankee, also contributed to the great success of the Yankees during his tenure.
While the Hall-of-Famer Joe Sewell manned third base for three seasons (1931-1933), third base did not have a long-term permanent resident until Red Rolfe took over the position beginning in 1935. Rolfe patrolled this spot on the diamond as a starter through 1941. After his tenure, and for the following decades, many baseball historians ranked Robert “Red” Rolfe as the greatest third baseman in Yankees history.
Unlike Frank Baker and Joe Dugan, Red Rolfe was a Yankee for his entire big league career. Rolfe played a total of ten seasons in pinstripes. His 1,084 games at third base still ranks as the third highest total at that position in the history of the New York Yankees.
Over the course of his ten year career as a Yankee, Rolfe enjoyed a lifetime batting average of .289. For seven consecutive years, he scored 100 or more runs. Rolfe’s best season was 1939 when he led the American League in hits (213), runs (139) and doubles (46). Rolfe also led the league in triples (with 15) in 1936. Due to his success and reputation, Red Rolfe was a four time American League All-Star (1937-1940). The Yankees appeared in six World Series during his tenure, winning five of them. The Yankees success in the fall classic came partly because Rolfe most often excelled in the post season. He hit over .300 in four of the six World Series in which he played.
After his playing days, Red Rolfe was the head baseball coach at Yale University. He also managed the Detroit Tigers for three and one-half seasons from 1949 to 1952. Finally, he served as the Director of Athletics at Dartmouth College from 1954 through 1967. The baseball field at Dartmouth is named for Red Rolfe.
Frank “Home Run” Baker, “Jumping” Joe Dugan, and “Red” Rolfe were players who contributed greatly to the success of the Yankees in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. One could argue that it was their steady and high quality play that anchored many of the championship teams from those eras.
Each of these players is worthy of inclusion in Monument Park, but there are more great third sackers to come!
(End Part 1)
(This passage, and many more great stories, will be found in Dr. Semendinger’s great book The Least Among Them. This book will be published by Artemesia Publishing in April 2021.)