Left fielder Gene Woodling was a quietly great player for Casey Stengel's 1949-53 Yankees that won a record five World Series titles in a row. Stengel knew he wanted Woodling on his team when he took over in '49 after the damage Woodling caused to Casey's minor league Oakland Oaks team in '48 (Woodling joked, "I think I hit about .900 against his club.") Woodling played well in his first two seasons as a Yankee, hitting .278/.381/.412 with a 111 wRC+ in 234 games. He did not play quite as many games as most starting outfielders in the league because at times, Stengel would platoon him with righthanded hitters. When Woodling played in the World Series though, he was on fire. He hit .400 with three doubles in three games against the Brooklyn Dodgers in '49, then hit .429 in four games against the Phillies in '50. Woodling was a crucial member of those championship teams, and he was well-respected in the clubhouse.
Entering his prime in '51, Woodling had the best season of his career yet. He hit .281/.373/.462 with 15 homers and a 126 wRC+ as the Yankees won the American League pennant with a 98-win season. Impressively, three of those 15 homers came against a future Hall of Famer--Cleveland Indians flamethrower Early Wynn. The righthander was the defending ERA champion in the league, having posted a 3.20 mark in '50, and though he failed to lead the league in '51, he improved to a 3.02 ERA while leading the league in innings pitched (274.1). Furthermore, he decreased his FIP from 3.94 to 3.56 by improving his control. Nonetheless, he struggled with Woodling, who hit more home runs against him (seven) in his 23-year career than anyone except Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. In an odd coincidence, Woodling made homering against Wynn a monthly occurence. On June 24th, Woodling eighth inning two-run homer against Wynn gave the Yankees a 5-3 victory, and on July 24th, his sixth inning two-run homer against Wynn helped the Yankees beat him again, 3-2. For the third month in a row, the Yankees squared off against Wynn and the Indians at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on the 24th. It was an important game, as the Yankees trailed the Indians by three games in their quest for a third straight AL pennant.
Little-known veteran Stubby Overmire started for the Yankees in place of the injured Allie Reynolds. It would have been a boon for Reynolds to match up with the Indians ace since he threw a no-hitter against the Tribe earlier in the season, but Overmire pitched admirably in his absence. He did allow five hits and two walks in 5.1 innings before leaving due to an arm injury, but he held the Indians scoreless. Similarly forgotten reliever Joe Ostrowski came into the game with third baseman Al Rosen on first and center fielder Larry Doby on third with one out, and after Rosen stole second, Ostrowski induced a foul pop-up to third base, then struck out right fielder Bob Kennedy to end the threat.
Wynn also pitched shutout baseball through six innings, though he narrowly escaped a bases-loaded, one out jam created purely by walks in the third inning by getting the great Joe DiMaggio to hit a comebacker that turned into a 1-4-3 double play. In the top of seventh inning, Wynn somehow gave up a line drive single to right field to the reliever Ostrowski, a .161 career hitter. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto bunted Ostrowski to scoring position for the rookie Mantle, playing in his first game back since being recalled from AAA Kansas City. Mantle struck out, but Wynn's nemesis came up next. Woodling had already hit four decisive home runs in four different games against the Indians in '51 to key Yankee victories. Once again, the Akron native squared up a pitch from Wynn and sent it over the right field fence for a two-run home run, giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead. The enormous Cleveland crowd of 71,768 was deflated. The Yankees would not score again as Wynn and reliever Lou Brissie shut them out in the final two innnings, but Ostrowski matched them. They had a chance in the ninth inning with runners on first and second with two outs, but pinch-hitter Clarence Maddern grounded into a fielder's choice at second base to end the game.
From that game on, the Yankees went 22-10 to overtake the suddenly-slumping 15-17 Indians for the AL pennant, and they beat the New York Giants in a six-game World Series. Woodling played with the Yankees through December 1954, when he was traded in a massive 17-player deal with the Baltimore Orioles. He became an even better player in '52 and '53 by hitting a combined .308/.414/.471 with a 146 wRC+, even leading the AL in OBP with a .429 in '53, but his decline in '54 to a .250/.358/.352 led his inclusion in the big deal. Regardless, Woodling was a valuable member of Stengel's dynasty teams, and his .318/.442/.529 triple slash in World Series play was vital to the Yankees' five straight championships.
Woodling took Wynn deep for the third time in the '51 season 61 years ago today.