When you have as much success as the Yankees have had as a franchise over the past 100 years, there are certainly going to be players who show very high levels of mental and physical toughness, and who became fan favorites due as much to their gritty personas as their skill. The most recent Yankees’ dynasty had Paul O’Neill and the dynasty of the late 70s had Thurman Munson as their models of the all-business, visibly hardnosed approach, as two prominent examples.
Yet long before “The Warrior” and the first player to be named team captain since Lou Gehrig came about was Hank Bauer. Known as “The Marine,” Bauer was the player on the Yankees during the late ‘40s through the late ‘50s that let opponents know that although the Yankees may have been loose and carefree outside the lines, they were not to be trifled with between the lines.
“When he was on the field, you were his enemy. Off the field, he was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. But on the field, it was his job.” — Yogi Berra
In January 1942, then 19-year-old Hank Bauer enlisted in the Marine Corps. In over two and one-half years of service in World War II, he was hit by shrapnel twice, earned two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, and 11 campaign ribbons. At one point his platoon landed in Okinawa with 64 men — only six returned home. It’s safe to say that since he was someone you wanted to have in a literal foxhole, he was certainly someone the Yankees appreciated having on their side of the diamond, not only for his mental and physical toughness but for his ability — particularly in tight game situations.
Of course, when playing for the Yankees from the late 1940s through the late 1950s, it was easy for good players to fly under the radar given the number of future Hall of Famers who were on those teams. Make no mistake though — Hank Bauer was a very good player. Bauer had himself a good rookie season in 1949, posting a 107 OPS+ in 103 games for the Yankees, helping them win their first of what would be five straight World Series titles. Then he upped his game from 1950 through 1955, finishing third in both WAR and OPS+ on the Yankees (trailing only Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra in both categories) among position players over that span. His play earned him trips to the All-Star Game each season from 1952-1954 and MVP votes in each season from 1952-1956 (finishing eighth in 1955).
“He helped a lot of people get used to that New York environment. He was a tough person. Thank God he wasn’t mean. When he walked onto that field, business started.” — Don Larsen
It was that kind of toughness that helped Bauer shine when the lights were brightest. Over the 1956, 1957, and 1958 World Series, Bauer recorded a hit in what is still a record 17 consecutive World Series games. In World Series games from 1951–1958 Bauer, on three occasions, recorded hits that added to the Yankees’ Championship Win Probability (cWPA) by 12 percent or more, and another four hits that added to the cWPA by five percent or more. (If you’re not familiar with cWPA, and are more familiar with the general term “clutch”, trust me when I tell you those are some very clutch hits.)
Perhaps the most famous example (among many) of coming up big in a big spot was during Game 6 of the 1951 World Series. With the Yankees leading the Giants three games to two, and with Game 6 tied at one run apiece in the sixth inning, Bauer came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. His triple to deep left field off the Giants’ Dave Koslo cleared the bases, giving the Yankees a 4-1 lead. (On a somewhat interesting note, all three runners to score on the triple — Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, and Johnny Mize — were future Hall of Famers.)
Although the triple went on to be the game and World Series-clinching hit, it certainly didn’t look that way a little while later, when the Giants came back in the ninth inning of Game 6 to cut the lead to four to three. With two outs and the Giants batting with the tying run on second base, the Giants’ Sal Yvars smoked a line drive off the Yankees’ Bob Kuzava into right field for what appeared to be the game-tying hit. Hank Bauer had other ideas though, as the second-year star came in to make a game and series-clinching sliding catch.
A 36-year-old Bauer was sent to Kansas City after the 1959 season in a seven-player deal that sent Roger Maris to the Yankees. He’d play three seasons for the Athletics before retiring and becoming their manager during the 1961 season. He’d manage eight seasons with the Athletics and Orioles, winning the 1966 World Series with Baltimore, and was a two time AP Manager of the Year.
All told, Bauer was on eight World Series winners — seven as a player, one as a manager. And although his skill as both a player and a manager was notable, he’ll always be known for instances like the one Whitey Ford shared years later:
“I’ll never forget the first game I pitched for the Yankees. I came flying into the locker room at 1 p.m. I had overslept. Nobody said anything, but Bauer gave me that look of his. I dressed and ran. As it turned out, I won the game. Afterward, Bauer came over. ‘Whitey,’ he said, ‘if you’d lost that game, you’d been dead.’” — Whitey Ford
If you’re a fan who always appreciated players who wore their hearts on their sleeve, always played with visible intensity, and always seemed to come up big in big spots, you would’ve loved Hank Bauer. He played well before my time, but he was my father’s favorite player so I knew a lot about him long before Baseball-Reference and internet videos existed. That’s why even though the No. 9 was eventually worn by both Roger Maris and Graig Nettles (and eventually retired in Maris’ honor) the No. 9 jersey hanging in my closet is in honor of Hank Bauer.