Name: Gene Woodling
Position: Left field
Born: August 22, 1922 (Akron, OH)
Died: June 2, 2001 (Barberton, OH)
Yankee Years: 1949-54
Primary number: 14
Yankee statistics: 698 G, .285/.388/.434, 105 2B, 40 3B, 51 HR, 118 wRC+, 16.0 rWAR, 15.7 fWAR
The pantheon of Yankees championship players is led by some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. All Yankees fans know about the Babe Ruths and the Mickey Mantles. Most are aware of some of the slightly lesser players too, the Willie Randolphs and the Andy Pettittes of the world. However, on all of those 27 World Series winning teams, there were numerous other key players whose names are not nearly as well-known. One such player was Gene Woodling.
The outfielder was one of 12 Yankees who played a part on all five squads of the amazing 1949-53 Yankees, who set a record that will likely never be broken with five World Series titles in a row. Woodling was one of the more underrated players of that dynasty, and his steadiness was pivotal in each of those years helping the Yankees annually lock down pennants and championships.
Long rise to the top
Eugene Richard Woodling was born on August 16, 1922 in Ohio to a family that had sports talent running through their veins. Woodling's older brother Red was a nationally recognized swimmer at Ohio State University, and Gene sought to follow in his footsteps. So at Akron East High School, he swam in a competitive conference while also earning high regard for his football and basketball abilities. His parents Harvey and Alvada clearly recognized that they had another talented athlete on their hands, and before long, baseball was added to Woodling's repetoire.
Interestingly, Woodling did not in fact play any baseball for Akron East until his senior year. When he finally put on the spikes though, local scouts quickly noticed his natural abilities despite the state's limited baseball schedule. The Cleveland Indians signed him just barely after he graduated and he headed an hour west, where he spent the 1940 season with the Class-D Mansfield Braves. At age 17, he tore up the Ohio State League by winning the batting crown with a .398 average and a .557 slugging percentage.
Woodling continued his ascent in the Indians' system, though he hit a wall in 1942 where he broke his ankle with the Wilkes-Barre Barons and played just 39 games. He rebounded the next year with a .344 average and a .479 slugging percentage, earning his major league debut late that year. Alas, he spent only eight games for Cleveland before Uncle Sam came calling; it was wartime after all. Woodling thus spent the next two years in the U.S. Navy, albeit mostly playing baseball for military teams skippered by Hall of Famers.
When Woodling returned stateside in 1946, the Indians didn't like how he looked in spring training, but they kept him with the team for the season. The 23-year-old didn't hit a lick, as he struggled to a .188/.280/.256 triple slash. The Indians gave up on Woodling, sending him to the Pirates in the off-season in a deal for veteran Al Lopez. The move did not pay off at all, as Lopez only played 61 more subpar games in his career while Woodling went on to appear in almost 1,800 games. You keep being you, Cleveland.
Nonetheless, Pittsburgh GM Roy Hamey did not seem to truly respect Woodling's talents either. Hell, he gave the Yankees a free look at him by optioning him to the Yankees' highly regarded Triple-A affiliate, the Newark Bears. (Such practices were odd, but not unheard of back in the '40s.) Woodling hit .289/.398/.413 for Newark, which was enough to merit another cup of coffee--22 September games for the Pirates. He was okay, but the Pirates sold him to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League at the end of the season. Little did Woodling know that this apparent demotion would be the gateway to a much more permanent stay in the majors.
Platooning for the "Perfesser"
Now 25 years old and in the PCL, Woodling was determined to prove that he no longer belonged in the minors. He went on to bat .385/.483/.603 with 202 hits, 55 of them for extra-bases. Against one manager in particular, he really stood out:
"I think I hit about .900 against [Casey's] club," Woodling said, chuckling. "Yeah, Casey got a good view of me. He probably had a lot to do with me coming to the Yankees." - SABR bio
Indeed, Casey Stengel was impressed by what he saw as manager of the rival Oakland Oaks. So when the Yankees tabbed him as their surprising hire for the 1949 season, it was not long before the Yankees arranged for a trade to bring Woodling aboard. Stengel found a spot for him in a platoon role of sorts with the more experienced Johnny Lindell and Charlie Keller. Woodling impressed Stengel and appeared in more games in left field than 114 wRC+ in 112 games. The Yankees won the American League pennant, and they triumphed in a five-game World Series victory over the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers. Woodling was up to the task in the Fall Classic, going 4-for-10 with three doubles in the three games he played. A decade which saw him take quite some time to find a regular role in the majors ended in the greatest triumph of them all.
The lefty Woodling found himself splitting time with righty Hank Bauer, another terrific Yankee during that period. (In retirement, Woodling would later serve as a coach on the Orioles squads that Bauer managed, one of which would win a World Series , too.) Bauer often played right field, but sometimes, Stengel would switch it up and give Woodling some time off. He did this in '51 in particular when some hotshot rookie centerfielder named Mickey Mantle hit the pros and deferred to the legendary Joe DiMaggio by mostly playing right field. Whatever the method was, it worked, as Woodling remained a very productive hitter for the Ol' Perfesser. Like the majority of the squad, he certainly would have preferred to regularly appear in more than the 125 games per season he typically played for Stengel, but he grudgingly admitted that platooning probably did help his career.
Woodling was remarkably productive, regularly taking more than his share of walks while posting on-base percentages in the high .380s. He didn't have Mantle power per se, but he was no slouch, either. Woodling averaged 38 extra-base hits per season from 1950-53, all while regularly posting wRC+s easily over 100. Opponents around the league held him high regard, and Hall of Famer Ted Williams even called him "one of the best players [he] ever faced in the eighth or ninth inning." Pressure did not bother Woodling, and his 26 World Series games can attest to his reputation. In those five Fall Classics, Woodling hit .318/.442/.529 with 10 extra-base hits as the Yankees won the World Series year after year. Highlights included 1950, when he hit .429 in the four-game sweep over the Phillies and 1952, when he notched a 1.032 OPS during a hard-fought seven-game victory over Brooklyn. He even got to catch the last out of their fourth straight title, matching the record of the 1936-39 squads.
In the final year of that stretch, Woodling had his best season in pinstripes by leading the AL with an excellent .429 OBP as the Yankees won their fifth World Series in a row to officially set the record. I seriously doubt any team ever even approaches five straight titles again. All great runs had to come to an end though, and '54 was the breaking point. Although the Yankees had their best regular season in the Stengel era with 103 victories, Woodling's old Indians teammates topped them with 111, which was an AL record at the time. The '54 season was a rough one for Woodling as well, who slumped to a .250/.358/.352 triple slash in 97 games. It was still productive, but it was also shortened by injury.
So at the end of the season, Woodling was dealt to the Orioles in a massive 17-player trade, the largest in baseball history. Most notably, Don Larsen and Bob Turley headed to the Yankees, where they helped the Yankees add more titles to their decade of excellence. The remainder of Woodling's career was fine in his own regard. In seven years with the O's, Indians, Senators, and Mets, he batted .287/.390/.438 with 147 doubles, 95 homers, and a 126 OPS+. Stengel named him to the 1959 All-Star team as well when he had a career year with the Orioles (a team which later named him to their team Hall of Fame) and as evidenced by his stint with the '62 Mets, thought highly enough of him to bring him aboard the comically young and shaky expansion team.
When Woodling criticized the Mets' executives for the way they were treating some of the younger players, he was let go and his major league career ended at age 39. He went on to coach for Bauer's Orioles and also had a pivotal role in improving retired players' pension plans. Just to add one more bonus to his Yankees career, Woodling was the Ohio scout who encouraged them to draft and sign future captain Thurman Munson out of Kent State with the fourth overall pick in the 1970 Draft, helping the Yankees build another iconic team.
Woodling lived a long, eventful life and was one of just six Yankees still living from the full 1949-53 dynasty when he passed away in 2001. History might overlook Woodling's contributions, but he deserves far better than that. Woodling was a hell of a player, and he was one of many reasons why those '50s Yankees teams were so special.
Andrew's rank: 68
Tanya's rank: 76
Community rank: 83.1
WAR rank: 78.5
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Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Sargent, Jim. SABR bio