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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #22 Tony Lazzeri

“Poosh ‘Em Up Tony” was an integral part of five Yankees’ championships.

New York Yankees Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Name: Anthony Michael “Tony” Lazzeri
Position: Second baseman
Born: December 6, 1903 (San Francisco, CA)
Died: August 6, 1946 (San Francisco, CA)
Yankee Years: 1926-37
Primary Number: 6
Yankee Statistics: 1,659 G, 7,068 PA, .293/.379/.467, 120 OPS+, 121 wRC+, 1,784 H, 169 HR, 327 2B, 115 3B, 1,157 RBI, 46.4 bWAR, 48.4 fWAR

Biography

In 1935, the Yankees struck gold when they signed a Bay Area-born kid of Italian immigrants who had been lighting up the Pacific Coast League. Said player, Joe DiMaggio, would go on to be an all-time franchise and baseball legend, and may or may not — I say not so subtly winking — feature further ahead on our Top 100 list.

However, as his Yankee career was beginning, one of another player who followed a similar path was ending. Bridging the gap between the Babe Ruth era and the DiMaggio one, Tony Lazzeri was a force in the lineup and in the infield of five World Series-winning Yankees’ teams. He spent 12 seasons as a Yankee doing what he did best: Poosh-ing ‘Em Up.

West Coast Born and Raised

In 1903, Anthony Lazzeri was born to Italian immigrants Augustine and Julia Lazzeri in San Francisco. He grew up in a rough section of the city, and often got into fights as a child, and even dreamt of becoming a boxer, although a different sport would change those plans.

At 15 years old, Lazzeri was expelled from school, and after that began to work as a helper to his father, who was a boilermaker. Doing that hard manual labor helped Lazzeri develop a strong physique, which would help him out quite a bit on the baseball diamond.

While working with his father, Lazzeri also began playing semi-pro baseball for some local teams. Just as he was set to become a full-fledged boilermaker in his own right, he started to get some notice on the diamond. After Duffy Lewis — manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Salt Lake City Bees — was convinced into taking a look at the 18-year-old, the Bees decided to sign Lazzeri as an infielder.

The learning curve was a bit steep, as Lazzeri hit below .200 in his first professional season in 1922 while playing for Salt Lake City as a utility infielder. Those struggles saw the Bees farm him out to the lower-level Peoria Tractors to start 1923. The next year, he started out well for the Bees, but was asked to move off the shortstop spot he had been filling in favor of Clark “Pinky” Pittinger, who had major league experience. Eventually, the Bees would again farm out the young Lazzeri, who went to the Western League’s Lincoln Links. There, he impressed, hitting 28 home runs in 82 games.

Becoming “Poosh ‘Em Up Tony”

In 1925, the Bees changed managers, and Oscar Vitt took over. Vitt gave Lazzeri more of a chance at regular playing time. Lazzeri took the opportunity and ran with it. In 192 games (the PCL played a crazy long schedule in those days), Lazzeri hit .355 with 60 home runs. He also got his nickname of “Poosh ‘Em Up Tony” in that time. A local Italian restauranteur and fan would yell the phrase to encourage Lazzeri to push up the baserunners when he was at the plate, and the phrase would stick.

A season like that obviously got Lazzeri on the major league radar, but it took a couple of semi-lucky circumstances for him to wind up on the Yankees.

For one, teams were a bit worried that his stats were aided by the mountain air of Salt Lake City. As we know from today’s day and age and games at Coors Field in Colorado, the thin air can lead to balls flying out of the park. Players who had played with the Bees before had gone on to not work out at the major league level, and there was a bit of skepticism about people coming out of there.

Another reason that MLB teams had reservations about Lazzeri was that he was an epileptic. Teams had found out about those episodes, and several were scared off, including the Cubs, with whom the Bees had a working agreement with.

The Yankees too had some qualms about Lazzeri’s epilepsy, but scout Bill Essick was insistent about Lazzeri’s talent. He eventually convinced Ed Barrow — who was in essence the Yankees’ general manager then — of the infielder’s skill. Barrow sent further scouts out to check out Lazzeri and even did some digging into his medical history. After being convinced that the medical issues weren’t as big as they were made out to be and that Lazzeri was as good as Essick was making out, Barrow and the Yankees bought him from the Bees in August 1925.

After reporting to the Yankees for the 1926 season, manager Miller Huggins wanted to change Lazzeri’s position. While he had played shortstop in Salt Lake City, Huggins preferred him at second base, with fellow rookie Mark Koenig getting the regular shortstop role. The pair fit in perfectly along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and company. With 18 home runs, Lazzeri finish second on the team behind Ruth, helping the Yankees win the AL pennant after they had finished seventh the year before. However, the Yankees fell to the Cardinals in the World Series in seven games, with Lazzeri going just 5-for-26.

Lazzeri was also sadly responsible for the biggest missed chance of the series, as he struck out against Grover Cleveland Alexander with the bases loaded and the Yankees down one run in the seventh inning in Game 7. Despite all the success Lazzeri would have after that, his reputation was often dinged with that strikeout for many years after it.

“Murderers’ Row” and Prime Years

Tony Lazzeri Day Ruth and Gehrig
Gehrig, Lazzeri, and Ruth

Despite the disappointment of the previous season, Lazzeri and the Yankees got right back down to business in 1927. While he had been good the year before, 1927 was Lazzeri’s real breakout season. He hit .309/.383/.482 (125 OPS+) with 18 home runs and 102 RBI, often hitting sixth in the order, right behind Ruth, Gehrig, and Bob Meusel.

As a team, the Yankees won 110 games in 1927, cruising to the AL pennant. This time around, they finished the job in the World Series, sweeping the Pirates to win the franchise’s second championship. Lazzeri again didn’t have the best of series, but he drove home a run each in Games 1 and 2, helping the Yankees get the series off to a perfect start.

The 1928 season saw the Yankees continue their excellence, with Lazzeri again playing a big part. With a .332 batting average (and a 145 OPS+), Lazzeri finished tied for third in voting for the League Award, which was a precursor to MVP, despite appearing in only 116 games due to injury.

After suffering a muscle injury in August 1928, there was worry that Lazzeri would miss the rest of the season. Instead, he didn’t end up missing much time at all. He would also appear in all four games of the Yankees’ World Series sweep of the Cardinals. In the clinching Game 4 win, he also got a bit of revenge on St. Louis — recording three hits, including a key double off Alexander in the seventh inning, helping the Yankees extend their lead.

By many metrics, the 1929 season was the best of Lazzeri’s career. He matched his career high with 18 home runs, while recording his career bests in batting average, OBP, slugging, Baseball Reference WAR, and FanGraphs WAR. With a 159 wRC+, he put up 7.2 FanGraphs WAR, finishing 10th in MLB mostly behind a list of the biggest legends of that era. However, as a team, the Yankees fell to second in the AL, with Miller Huggins also tragically passing away that September.

Bridging the Gap Between Dynasties

With some of the core pieces of the Murderers’ Row Yankees starting to age out and some of the new stars of the 1930s era not there yet, the Yankees fell short in the AL pennant race every year from 1929-31. While, as mentioned, Lazzeri was excellent in ‘29, he dipped along with the rest of the rest in ‘30 and ‘31. He was by no means bad, and even drove in a career best 121 RBI in ‘30, but with just a 111 OPS+ in that period, he couldn’t help the Yankees get within 10 games of the pennant those years.

Throughout all that though, Lazzeri had established himself as a key member of the Yankees’ clubhouse. His cool and calm demeanor gained him respect as a leader in the infield and the clubhouse. He was also considered one of the smartest players in the game.

All that allowed both him and the Yankees to bounce back in a big way in ‘32. In 1932, Lazzeri put up a 138 OPS+ with 59 total extra-base hits. He was also most used by manager Joe McCarthy in the No. 5 spot in the lineup directly behind Ruth and Gehrig, which helped him put up 113 RBI. As a team, the Yankees averaged a league best 6.4 runs per game, as they returned to the top of the AL.

While the 1932 sweep of the Cubs is most remembered for Babe Ruth’s called shot, Lazzeri was also excellent in the victory. He went 5-for-17 with two home runs and five RBI and a 1.015 OPS, as he became a World Series champion for a third time.

Lazzeri followed that up with another very good year in 1933. His 135 OPS+ helped him get named to the AL roster for the first official MLB All-Star Game, although he wouldn’t appear in the game. Despite that, the Yankees again fell back in the AL, dropping to second place. While he was far from done as a good player, that would be the final year of Lazzeri’s true peak. Through his first eight big league years, Lazzeri had been a key cog in some of the best years in Yankees’ history, and had put up 433 career extra-base hits.

The Baseball Hall of Fame Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

The Yankees would again miss out of the World Series in both the 1934 and ‘35 season, with ‘34 being Ruth’s final year with the franchise. With OPS+ figures of 115 and 105 in those years, Lazzeri wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t enough to help the Yankees over the hump with some holes elsewhere.

The 1936 season saw DiMaggio join the fold, which added a jolt into the Yankees’ lineup. Lazzeri wasn’t quite back to his peak, but his 109 OPS+ looked better with the Yankees’ lineup a bit deeper. That season also saw arguably the most notable performance of Lazzeri’s career and one of the most notable in Yankees’ history. On May 24th, he went 4-for-5 with a walk, three home runs, and an AL-record 11 RBI that stands to this day.

As a team, they also returned to the top of the standings and went to the World Series. As the Yankees beat the Giants in six games for another championship, Lazzeri went 3-for-4 with a walk and an RBI in the clinching Game 6 win.

Decline and Departure

In 1937, Lazzeri had the first true down year of his career. His .244 batting average would go down as the worst of his career, and his 86 OPS+ would mark the first time he graded out as a below average hitter. Despite that, the Yankees again returned to the World Series.

Weirdly enough, despite his struggles in the season, ‘37 would feature arguably his best postseason performance. Over the course of the five-game victory over the Giants, Lazzeri hit .400/.526/.733, and would’ve been in the running for World Series MVP had the award existed.

Even though he had been a World Series hero that year, his struggles in the regular season clearly left the Yankees worried. With Joe Gordon in the organization and on the horizon, the Yankees decided to release the soon-to-be 34-year-old Lazzeri.

Not ready to be done just yet, Lazzeri signed with the Cubs in a player-coach role. He bounced back at the plate, putting up a 121 OPS+, albeit in just 54 games in a reduced role. Despite the small playing time, his skill at the plate, and likely some of his aforementioned leadership abilities, helped the Cubs win the NL and go to the World Series. However, they were quickly swept by Lazzeri’s old teammates as the Yankees won a third-straight title. Lazzeri himself appeared only twice as a pinch-hitter, going 0-for-2.

After the Cubs released him, Lazzeri spent 1939 split across the Dodgers and Giants. He again put up solid numbers at the plate in a reduced role. That would be it for his MLB career, although he continued on for a couple more years in the minors, often in a player-manager role. He finally put a bow on his playing and coaching career after the 1943 season.

Following his playing career, Lazzeri returned back to his native California along with his wife Maye, who he had married back in 1923. Sadly in 1946, Lazzeri was found dead by his wife of a suspected heart attack at just 42 years old (his epilepsy may have played a role as well). He was survived by his wife and a son.

Over 40 years after his death, Lazzeri was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee in 1991 (he still unfortunately does not have a plaque in Monument Park). While Tony had long been gone by then, Maye was around to accept the honor and gave a speech on his behalf.

In addition to being a key piece and great player for several Yankees’ championship teams, Lazzeri was also one of the first in a line of great Italian Yankees’ players, and undoubtedly was a part of many of the New York area Italian-Americans falling in love with the team.

He was never the first banana on any of his Yankees’ teams, but he was without doubt a legend in his own right and the Yankees might’ve never had their first couple dynasties without him.

Staff Rank: 25
Community Rank: 14
Stats Rank: 14
2013 Rank: 14

References

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

SABR, Glueckstein, Fred.

BR Bullpen

Baseball Reference

San Pedro News Pilot, August 27, 1928

New York Daily News

Previously on the Top 100

23. Lefty Gomez
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