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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #34 Joe Gordon

One of the game’s great slugging second baseman played his prime years in pinstripes.

Joe Gordon on the Baseball Field Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Name: Joseph Lowell Gordon
Position: Second baseman
Born: February 18, 1915 (Los Angeles, CA)
Died: April 14, 1978 (Sacramento, CA)
Yankee Years: 1938-46
Primary number: 6
Yankee statistics: 1,000 G, .271/.358/.467, 186 2B, 153 HR, 481 BB, 508 K, 120 wRC+, 36.6 rWAR, 40.0 fWAR

Biography

Though his name lacks the nationwide recognition and cultural cachet of some other Yankee greats, Joe Gordon’s impact on the game outstripped his relatively short career. A man with broad interests, Gordon’s Yankees tenure was artificially shortened by World War II, but his baseball life was as interesting as anyone’s, placing him squarely in some of the sport’s most memorable moments and finishing his career as an icon of not one but two franchises. The war may have cost him a few counting stat milestones, but there were few hitters in the league feared more during his heyday; Leo Durocher once stated that he was more afraid of Gordon than Joe DiMaggio.

Adolescence & Early Career

Born in Los Angeles, Gordon lost his father to illness at a young age and relocated to Portland, Oregon, at the age of four, where he spent the rest of his youth. It’s not unusual for pro ballplayers to have been standouts at other sports growing up, and Gordon was no different, starring on his high school’s state championship football team in addition to excelling at baseball. But even by the standards of professionals, he was an exceptional athlete, competing in gymnastics at the University of Oregon and even participating in halftime entertainment at their basketball games.

Many young athletes have options when it comes to choosing their career paths, but the doors open to Gordon were more unusual than most. Gordon was a talented musician, continuing to play in orchestras even as he starred on the field in high school and at the Oregon, where he dominated as the Ducks’ starting shortstop in 1935 and 1936. As fun as the violin is, though, baseball was his calling, and he signed with the Yankees as a 21-year-old after two years in Eugene.

Baseball Leap Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

Gordon wasn’t quite a phenom the caliber of DiMaggio, born four months prior, and spent his first season of professional ball in the Pacific Coast League, which Joltin’ Joe had run amok over as an 18-year-old several seasons prior. Gordon played shortstop for the Oakland Oaks, and while DiMaggio was ushered to the majors to fill the gaping hole in the outfield left by Babe Ruth, the middle of the Yankees’ infield was well-established between the defensive wizard Frankie Crosetti and the still-productive Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri.

Gordon hit an even .300 for the Oaks and moved to the International League in 1937, hitting 26 homers and playing a leading role on a memorable Newark Bears team that featured five other future All-Stars and won 109 games in 152 tries.

Instant Winner

When Lazzeri was released after the 1937 season, Gordon was given the keys to the keystone at Yankee Stadium. He quickly justified it, slugging 25 homers and driving in 97 in just 458 at-bats. If the Rookie of the Year Award had existed at that point, Gordon would have been in strong contention for it, tying for second among AL rookies with 3.4 rWAR and 3.9 fWAR. He had already picked up the nickname “Flash,” for obvious reasons, and it was a fitting name on the field, as both WAR totals were boosted by the stellar defense he’d become equally known for in the coming years.

There was no Rookie of the Year, but his teammates DiMaggio, Red Ruffing, and Bill Dickey all finished in the top-six of MVP voting, and New York cruised to the very first World Series three-peat, a feat that the Yankees would have an exclusive monopoly on were it not for the early-1970s Oakland Athletics. Gordon himself finished 12th in the vote, and played a pivotal role in the team’s easy sweep over Chicago, tying for the team lead with six hits and six runs driven in, including key RBI in each of the series’ first three games. The World Series MVP only dates back to 1955, but again, if it had been there in 1938, Gordon would have given Red Ruffing’s two complete games a run for their money.

The Prototypical Slugging Second Baseman

Gordon’s mark of 25 homers as a rookie second baseman stood as a record for nearly 70 years, until Dan Uggla finally cracked it with 27 (in more than 150 more trips to the plate) in 2006. Nobody else has done it to this day. It was much the same for Gordon in 1939, taking a step up in virtually every statistical category with 28 homers and 111 driven in, and when you throw in the stellar defense, he was between a six- and seven-win player according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

Gordon was the apotheosis of an archetype that’s grown in popularity in recent years: the once-rare slugging second baseman. From the dawn of time, the keystone has been the provision of hitters in the mold of Eddie Collins and David Eckstein, a place whose defensive requirements typically necessitate the kinds of hitters who aren’t going to light up the scoreboard. But there’s always an exception or two hanging around at any given time, and with the recent strategic bend of the game favoring power and fly balls, the number is increasing.

Springing from Rogers Hornsby and alongside Bobby Doerr, Gordon molded the shoes into which the Bret Boones and Jeff Kents of the world would later step in, paving the way for the Ugglas, Pedroias, and Kinslers that would follow, with echoes even in players like Brian Dozier and Jonathan Schoop. Hornsby was one-of-a-kind, but Gordon was ahead of his time: respectable in batting average, high on walks, heavy on the strikeouts (for his time), and oodles of pop, he was the closest thing you’d get to a three-true-outcomes second baseman in the first half of the 20th century. Bravo.

Spring Training - New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Fresh off his excellent postseason run, Gordon vaulted straight into stardom the next season, making the first of what would be nine consecutive All-Star appearances, discounting his war absence. The ‘39 Yankees won 106 games, and once again swept the World Series this time victimizing the Cincinnati Reds. The second baseman didn’t hit so well in that one, recording just two hits in 14 trips to the plate, but a win’s a win. He’d have more postseason fanfare soon enough.

The next season was a step back for the Yankees, as they won just 88 games and finished in third place, but it was a step forward for Gordon, whose power numbers increased again. He became the second two-bagger after Hornsby to reach the 30-homer plateau, a feat which remained accomplished solely by those two until Davey Johnson gave us one of the most bizarre 40-homer campaigns ever seen in 1973. He set career bests with 173 hits, 72 extra-base hits, and 18 steals, and once again cracked the six-win mark according to both metrics.

His layoff from the postseason was only one year, as the Yankees bounced right back to win 101 games and earn a matchup with the cross-borough rival Dodgers in the World Series. Gordon’s power numbers finally took a step back after three years of growth, batting .276 and cracking 24 bombs with 87 driven in. It was enough to make the All-Star Game, where he scored one of the winning runs on Ted Williams’ legendary walk-off homer in Tiger Stadium, and still worked out to 5-6 WAR with the excellent defense factored in.

That defense is what separates him from the Ugglas and Schoops of modern times. His power didn’t come at the expense of his dexterity in the field, and he’d have made the record books even if you had cut his power in half: I trust retroactively applied defensive metrics as much as I trust milk a week past its sell-by date, but FanGraphs credits him for 209.5 defensive runs for his career, barely a half-run off of Frankie Frisch for the best ever. And that’s with about 800 fewer games played, to boot. He wasn’t quite Hornsby, but Gordon too was one-of-a-kind nonetheless.

World Series Heroics

The Yankees’ 4-1 series win over the Dodgers in 1941 was considerably more hard-fought than the final record indicated, and it put Gordon squarely in the midst of one of the most memorable World Series gaffes of all time. Brooklyn entered the ninth inning of Game 4 with a 4-3 lead, and came just a single strike away from knotting the series at two when All-Star catcher Mickey Owen failed to corral a swinging third strike that would have ended the game, allowing Tommy Henrich to reach base and extend the game. Joe DiMaggio singled to keep the inning alive, and Charlie Keller cleared them with a double to take a 5-4 lead. After Dickey walked, Gordon put the icing on the cake by smoking a double of his own, scoring two more runs and locking down a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Portrait Of The Yankee Infield
The 1942 Yankees infield
Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

It wasn’t the first time that Gordon had stepped up against the Dodgers. His solo homer in the second inning of Game 1, which the Yankees would win 3-2, was the first blood of the series, and he drew three walks in a Game 2 loss. Finally, he lit the spark for the Yankees’ Game 5 clincher, watching the opening run score on a wild pitch while at the plate and then singling home the runner who had advanced to second base because of it.

All in all, Gordon batted an even .500 for the series, going 7-for-14 with the stick and piling up an additional seven walks for a slash line of .500/.667/.929. Accordingly, he was awarded the precursor of the World Series MVP award, and the third of an eventual five championship rings.

MVP & War Service

For the second time in his career, Gordon followed up an outstanding World Series performance with a leap forward the subsequent spring, recording the hands-down best season of his career in 1942. He simply had one of those seasons where everything looked like a beach ball, wrecking the league with a .322 batting average that would wind up nearly 40 points higher than the second-best effort of his career. His power numbers dropped to 18 homers and 29 doubles, but both still handily led MLB second basemen. And by that time, the slick-handed Phil Rizzuto had replaced Crosetti at shortstop, forming the league’s premier double play combo and leading the Yankees (along with that DiMaggio fellow) to their second straight pennant, finishing nine games ahead of the Red Sox in first place.

That last bit probably went a long way towards Gordon earning the first and only MVP award of his career over Ted Williams, who /checks notes/ won the Triple Crown and put up what remains, as of 2023, the 15th-best season ever played, by fWAR. Once again, a win’s a win, right?

Unfortunately, Gordon couldn’t repeat his 1941 World Series performance in the 1942 Fall Classic, recording just two hits in 21 walkless trips to the plate. By his standards, some might say his slump extended into 1943, by his standards. His triple slash line fell to .249/.365/.413, alongside 17 long balls and 69 RBI, all represented career lows (though New York still won it all).

Those numbers can be a bit deceiving. Fully in the throes of World War II, the selective service had by that time severely watered down the quality of the league — Rizzuto and DiMaggio were already off of the roster — and those numbers were still good for a 128 wRC+, the second-best of his career. All in all, it wrapped up one of the most dominant six-year stretches we’ve ever seen out of a second baseman, a stretch in which only DiMaggio himself produced more fWAR. Entering 1938, Lazzeri’s 169 home runs were the most by a second baseman not named Hornsby; Gordon his 142 in those six years alone.

Then, of course, the selective service came for Gordon, too. As I said, he was a man of many interests and had obtained his pilot’s license before the war, taking up flying as a personal hobby. As such, he was a natural fit for the Air Force, with whom he served for the remaining two years of the war, returning to game action for the 1946 season. Like so many of his cohort, it’s impossible to say what else he might have accomplished had he not lost two prime seasons to the conflict. He did pretty well with what opportunity he had, in any case.

Disappointing Return & New Beginning

Unfortunately for everyone, Gordon wasn’t quite the same at the plate when he returned from the war. As just about everyone could understand, he was a bit rusty, and sustained severe injuries for the first time in his career, missing the first month of the season after rupturing a tendon in his hand and dealing with a cavalcade of fractures and tears as the season went on. He appeared in a career-low 112 games, and for the first time, he was simply subpar, seeing his batting average dip to .210 with a puny .338 slugging. The Yankees finished in third place, finishing below 90 wins for the third straight year, and a good time was not had by all.

It was also somewhat of a transitional time for the Yankees. 1946 saw Joe McCarthy’s departure early in the season, the first time in over 15 years that New York needed a new skipper. Red Ruffing called it a career at the end of the season, and fellow rotation stalwart Spud Chandler did the same a year later. Within five years, the careers of Gordon, DiMaggio, Keller, and Heinrich would also come to an end. Ready to set the table for the next generation of stars in pinstripes, Gordon was traded to Cleveland several weeks after the 1946 season. He finished his Yankees career with exactly 1,000 hits in exactly 1,000 games played, a serendipity that feels right for his tenure.

Out in center field, Joe DiMaggio has just made the last put
Celebrating the last out of the ‘41 World Series
Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Even in departure, Gordon did right by the Yankees, bringing back starting pitcher Allie Reynolds in return, who won 131 games in eight years in the Bronx, earning himself a spot on this list in his own right. Fortunately for Cleveland, Gordon wasn’t done yet either. He exploded back onto the scene in 1947 with 29 homers and 92 RBI. During this time, he also grew a reputation for his veteran presence and mentorship. Hall of Famer Larry Doby credited Gordon for helping ease his transition into what was, needless to say, a hostile environment as the American League’s first Black player.

Improbably, he found another gear in 1948, setting new and final career bests at 33 years of age with 32 homers, second in MLB behind only DiMaggio, and 124 RBI. He improved upon a seventh-place MVP finish in ‘47, placing sixth in ‘48 after leading Cleveland to what remains their last World Series victory. He didn’t quite leave the mark on that one that he’d have liked, hitting just .182, but he did more than his part in getting them there.

Retirement & Coaching Career

Age caught up to Gordon relatively quickly thereafter, unfortunately. His wRC+ dropped from 133 in 1948 to 106 the subsequent year, and a year later, he was below average by OPS (99 OPS+) for the first time in his career. Cleveland, which had fallen back to the middle of the league, had seen enough, and released Gordon after the the 1950 season.

He wasted no time beginning his coaching career, returning to his roots in the Pacific Coast League as player-manager of the Sacramento Solons. Gordon dominated the league with his bat, dropping 43 bombs in 1951, but his managerial record was more suspect. When his offensive production fell off a cliff in 1952 on the way to a 66-114 record (the PCL played 180 game seasons at that time), his time as a player was finally over.

Gordon latched on with the Tigers organization as a scout shortly thereafter, but the dugout continued to call, and he returned to the PCL to manage the legendary San Francisco Seals in 1956. This try as manager went considerably better than his first one. The Seals won the league championship in 1957, which was enough to convince Cleveland to bring him back into the fold as manager of their big club in the middle of 1958, thus setting the stage for one of the most bizarre year-long sequences of events in managerial history.

Flash’s time at the helm at Cleveland was tumultuous, and marred by disagreements with “Trader” Frank Lane, the famously eccentric general manager who might be best described as a 1950s hybrid of Jerry Dipoto and A.J. Preller. Gordon’s teams were competitive enough by wins and losses — he took them to a 46-40 finish in 1958, and their 89 wins in ‘59 were good enough for second place in the AL — but the friction with his GM proved to be too much, with Gordon bristling at Lane’s repeated public questioning of his on-field strategy.

Lane fired Gordon late in 1959, after the latter had declared his intent to depart at the season’s end, only for the pair to reverse course and reconcile several days later. (Perhaps they served as a source of inspiration for George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin in the ‘70s and ‘70s.) This all led Lane to famously quip to the press, “We couldn’t think of anyone better to replace Gordon than Gordon himself.”

Spring Training - Cleveland Indians Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

That wasn’t the end of the weirdness, though. Despite their reconciliation, both sides found themselves in much the same spot a year later. This time, the solution was different, as Cleveland and the Detroit Tigers engaged in what remains the only straight-up manager trade in big league history, letting Gordon manage out the final two months of the season in Kansas City while veteran Jimmy Dykes took his place on Lake Erie. Gordon’s journey wasn’t over yet, either, as he swiftly resigned in Detroit so he could take the helm for the Kansas City A’s .

The ever-erratic Charlie Finley, however, had other plans, firing GM Parke Carroll before the season and replacing him with none other than Frank Lane. Gordon’s tenure in Kansas City, then, became one of the shortest in MLB history for a non-interim manager, lasting just 60 games (26 wins, 33 losses, and one tie) before Finley dropped the axe on him too. Gordon moved on to the expansion Los Angeles Angels, working as a roving instructor of sorts for the rest of the decade before taking one more shot as a skipper, taking control of the expansion Kansas City Royals for their inaugural season in 1969.

Managing a squad that included future Yankees outfielder Lou Piniella, Gordon guided them to a fourth-place finish before shifting to a scouting role for the team. He held that job for several years before moving on to things beyond baseball.

Gordon spent the last of his days enjoying retirement, hunting, fishing, and working on real estate deals until his death from a heart attack at age 63 in 1978. He was posthumously elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2008 and is also a member of the Hall of Fame at the University of Oregon, where he returned to finish his degree in physical education in 1940, and the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. He may not be a household name, but at his peak, he was as good of a Yankee second baseman as any.

Staff rank: 34
Community rank: 33
Stats rank: 30
2013 rank: 27

References

Anderson, Dave. “Gordon, overlooked Yankee, gets his due,” New York Times, 13 Dec. 2008

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

National Baseball Hall of Fame

Oregon Ducks Hall of Fame

Oregon Sports Hall of Fame

Wanch, Joseph. SABR bio

Previously on the Top 100

35. Dave Winfield
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