Name: George Alexander Selkirk
Position: Right field
Born: January 4, 1908 (Huntsville, Ontario)
Yankee Years: 1934-42
Primary number: 3
Yankee statistics: 846 games, 3,323 PA, .290/.400/.483, 108 HR, 503 R, 576 RBI, 127 wRC+, 23.4 rWAR, 23.8 fWAR
On Opening Day, 1935, George Selkirk took what might have been the hardest job in the history of American sport: right field for the New York Yankees, the successor of Babe Ruth. Old Yankee Stadium was about as far as you could get from the sleepy mill town of Huntsville, Ontario. 150 miles north of Toronto, it’s not a town you could get out of in the early twentieth century, unless, like George, a prosperous sale of a family business triggered a move to Rochester, New York and enrollment in the Rochester Technical School.
While at RTS, Selkirk established himself as an excellent varsity wrestler, but it was his ability to throw runners out from behind the plate combined with above-average high school power that drew professional interest. It was at the Technical School where Selkirk would conquer an early health issue; chronic leg issues that slowed him on the bases and left the teenager in pain postgame. Later, that running style would earn Selkirk the nickname “Twinkletoes”, which would follow him from the minor leagues on.
On the advice of University of Rochester trainer Spike Garnish, he began running on the balls of his feet to transfer stress away from his ankles and arches. The “bouncy” style of baserunning worked, with Selkirk even crediting the approach with helping him pick up speed. At 18, he was signed to the International League in 1927, but quickly transferred to Class D Cambridge Canners, as they had an immediate need for a backstop.
A funny thing happened at his first Class D game, as the 18-year-old walked into the wrong clubhouse, put on the wrong uniform, and came face to face with the starting catcher of the Crisfield Crabbers, who was not inclined to sit on that day. Not yet aware he was suiting up for the wrong squad, Selkirk grabbed a “teammate’s” glove and ran out to right field, just wanting playing time.
Bill Johnson, Cambridge’s manager was still short a catcher though, and confronted Selkirk postgame.
George stayed with the Crabbers the rest of that year, and I never found out if Cambridge got their game caller.
Four years later the Yankees purchased Selkirk, and he spent time shuffled between a trio of affiliated clubs before getting his shot midway through the 1934 season. As is so often the case, a young hopeful gets a promotion because of a veteran’s injury, this time when Earle Combs slammed into the wall at St Louis’ Sportsman’s Park. The future Hall of Famer cracked his skull, fractured his shoulder, and missed the rest of the year.
Up came George Selkirk, the replacement for an all-time great in a quaint little hint to what the rest of his career would look like. He hit .313 in 176 plate appearances in ‘34, cementing himself as a real option for a full time role the next season.
End of an Era
“Boston Fans Hail Ruth’s Return” sang out the cover of The Boston Globe, February 27, 1935. The Yankees, after Ruth’s second-worst season since 1917 — one where he put up a .985 OPS — released the greatest player in the game’s history. We’ll cover Ruth in depth later in this series, no doubt, and this post is about Selkirk, but you just can’t tell George’s story without the Babe’s shadow looming over everything.
So how do you replace one of the greatest players of all time?
To start with, you give his famous No. 3 to the kid that’s taking his spot. “If I am going to take his place I’ll take his number, too,” was Selkirk’s own logic, and he answered questions about the transition from the New York media in ways that would make Derek Jeter proud. Although never known as a defensive specialist, he hit .312 and was second on the team behind only Lou Gehrig in RBI. He was never going to hit 714 home runs, but if nothing else, held his own in his first full season.
In fact, Selkirk outhit Ruth in the Babe’s last, abbreviated season. Ruth walked away from the game on June 2nd of that year after batting .181. So, the Yankees won that decision, well done.
Perhaps the most important part of the transition, and indeed New York’s supreme confidence in Selkirk, was the hitter’s own self-awareness. We tend to think of hitting science as a new phenomenon, Ted Williams’ book notwithstanding. In an interview in that 1935 season, though, Selkirk walks through the hitters that he watched, studied, modeled himself after, admitting that trying to hit like Bill Terry and Frank “Lefty” O’Doul, before modelling himself just after George Selkirk.
Part of that was incorporating more of a pull happy style in his hitting approach, after manager Joe McCarthy noting how many weak fly balls were flipped out to left field. It’s never a bad idea for lefties to yank the ball at Yankee Stadium, and after averaging 42 AB per home run in his first two seasons, the right fielder cut that to 23 AB per dinger.
I think about this anecdote a lot, since it proves that we’ve all been doing the same work, forever. We’ve all been looking at players we admire, that have tools we value, and try to figure out just what exactly they’re doing and whether we can do it too. Selkirk trying what his favorite players were doing is no different than pitchers today sharing grips, it’s just much more analog. Interestingly enough, the advice has been the same too, for the most part. Hit the ball hard, in the air, to the pull side.
That devotion to observation, that ability to eventually trust himself and his tools, wasn’t just a key to Selkirk’s success on the field but a telling trait that made him a successful coach and executive in his post-baseball life.
Peak and the Playoffs
Both ‘34 and ‘35 ended in disappointment as the Yankees finished behind the Tigers in the American League table. To enter the 1936 season it must have felt as though the squad was truly loaded to bear, with Gehrig and Bill Dickey still in their primes, the lineup deepened by players like Selkirk, and the arrival of one Joe DiMaggio.
It would be a breakout year for George, who made his first All-Star team and posted a .931 OPS, right on the level with Joltin’ Joe’s .928. Oddly enough, this newly-repowered Yankee team was considered the underdogs against their crosstown rival Giants, with the press lauding the postseason experience of the New York team across the river (Gehrig and company notwithstanding). Game 1, in his first World Series at-bat, Selkirk took an offering from Giants starter Carl Hubbell into that all too familiar right field porch, the only Yankee run in a 6-1 Series-opening loss.
All told, George hit .455 with a 1.095 OPS in the Fall Classic, adding a home run in Game 5. The Yankees won the Series in six, the fifth title in franchise history, tying the Red Sox and Philadelphia Athletics for the most in MLB history. The World Series MVP award wasn’t handed out until 1955, but if it had existed at the time, Selkirk would have had a compelling case for the trophy.
George’s 1937 season was, offensively, the high water mark of his career. A 154 wRC+, the only time he posted an OPS over 1.000, was marred by a broken collarbone that limited him to 78 games. The Yankees would win the World Series that year, and the year after, and the year after that. George Selkirk would end his career with five World Series rings.
A “Loonie” Legacy
There are a hundred guys in this series. Many of them made more valuable on field contributions to the Yankees than Selkirk did in his nine seasons. Selkirk does have something that nobody else on this list does, though, and that’s the impact he had on Canadian baseball.
Bob Addy was the first Canadian to crack a big league roster, credited with inventing the slide and appearing for the Rockford Forest Citys and ending his career with the Cincinnati Reds. The list of Canadian major leaguers from the first half of the century is chock full of guys that had a cup of coffee or bounced around for a season or two. Selkirk was one of the first, and unquestionably the best, Canadian player to really stick in the majors before World War II.
I’m not sure Americans understand the grip that hockey has on the Canadian consciousness. A nation of fresh water, dominated by subzero temperatures and built in logging towns and farming communities, if we didn’t figure hockey out we would have stayed in our homes for seven months a year. Franco-Anglo tensions were borne out in Maple Leaf Gardens or the Forum. The Hockey Sweater is an iconic piece of our literature and wrestles with that very issue.
Canada had had its impact on the game of baseball — Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson cut their teeth north of the border — but no central rallying point, no one guy to point at and say “that’s ours”. You need that, to grow the game. Fergie Jenkins, later Justin Morneau and Russell Martin and Joey Votto became that. Selkirk could have been the first guy to be that, but the regional nature of baseball meant that he couldn’t be.
Baseball in Canada in the prewar era, and arguably until the Blue Jays arrived, was focused on the minor and independent leagues. Yes, Jackie cut his teeth in Montreal but did it for a Dodgers’ affiliate. There’s been a thriving independent league team in my hometown for more than a century but indie leagues just don’t send guys to the majors and certainly not Canadian-born guys.
Outside of newspaper box scores it was just too difficult for the technology of the time to pay much attention to the major leagues. One yearns to know how that small milling town in Muskoka would have followed their prodigal son as he became a star-adjacent for the most famous sports team in America.
In his Yankee career, Selkirk was a man in the right place at the right time. A starting outfielder job opened up just as he cracked the majors, and he got there a year ahead of an all-time great. Five rings in nine years isn’t a bad percentage for any player, and George’s career is the kind that I’ve often thought I would want in MLB; never the star but always just very good on a team with a half-dozen Hall of Famers.
Yet in Canadian baseball history he was probably a decade or two too early. The World Series was first broadcast on television 11 years after Selkirk had an MVP-level playoff run. The technology supporting the sport just wasn’t developed enough to beam this supremely talented Canadian into the homes of the very folks that would root for him the hardest.
Still, George Selkirk should be seen as a pioneer for every Canuck that signs a major-league deal. Like Ginger Rogers, Canadians with MLB aspirations have to do everything Americans do, but backwards and in heels. He remains a groundbreaking piece of the history of baseball in this country, and perhaps the ultimate example of a team player in a resounding 1930s dynasty.
Staff Rank: 81
Community Rank: 85
Stats Rank: 57
2013 Rank: 53