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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #33 Gil McDougald

An unsung Bomber from the ‘50s dynasty, the highly versatile McDougald was the glue that held together the Yankees infield.

New York Yankees vs Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, Yankee Photo by Charles Payne/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Full Name: Gilbert James “Gil” McDougald
Position: Second baseman, third baseman, shortstop
Born: May 19, 1928 (San Francisco, CA)
Died: November 28, 2010 (Wall Township, NJ)
Yankee Years: 1951-60
Primary number: 12
Yankee statistics: 1,336 games, 5,395 PA, .276/.356/.410, 112 HR, 697 R, 576 RBI, 114 wRC+, 40.7 rWAR, 39.7 fWAR

Biography

At a time when players were generally locked into a defensive position through high school, college, the minor leagues, and into the primes of their MLB careers, Gil McDougald broke the mold. Sixty years before the Ben Zobrists and DJ LeMahieus of the current era, McDougald served as the prototype for the modern-day utility player. He fielded shortstop, second base, and third base with aplomb, becoming one of the steadiest middle infielders of his time.

Though he never received the same recognition of teammates Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, or Whitey Ford, it was McDougald’s defensive versatility that allowed him to be the glue that held those ‘50s dynasty teams together. He provided a bridge from Phil Rizzuto to Tony Kubek all while providing steady production with the glove and in the middle of the Yankees lineup. What’s more, his consistent contributions in the postseason played a huge role in the dynasty years extending into the ‘50s and beyond.

Growing up in San Francisco

Gilbert James McDougald was the second of two sons born to Ella McGuire and William McDougald, a cigar store owner and later laundry company salesman. He grew up in San Francisco and had aspirations of a pro career in basketball, being named to the All-City team while playing for Commerce High School. It wasn’t until his senior year that he made the varsity baseball team, and even then injuries limited him to just five games.

Gil’s baseball abilities first attracted attention while attending City College of San Francisco and the University of San Francisco, during which time he played semipro ball for the Bayside Braves, a local feeder team for the Boston Braves. Most scouts were put off by his unorthodox batting stance, as in order to better hit the curveball, McDougald stood with a wide, open stance with the bat held at waist level and cocked toward the catcher.

Undeterred, Yankees West Coast scout Joe Devine was impressed by the young infielder’s makeup, leading the Yankees to sign the 19-year-old to a $200-per-month contract with a $1,000 bonus in 1948.

“You knew you were looking at a great one the moment you saw him. He has great instincts, he learns fast and he’s a spirited player.”

Gil McDougald Batting

Playing mostly second base, McDougald soared quickly through the minor league system. He earned an All-Star nod at second batting .340 in the Class C Pioneer league in 1948 and backed it up with a second All-Star selection batting .344 in the Class B Western International League the following year. This earned him a call-up to Double-A, where he joined the Beaumont Roughnecks of the Texas League under manager and Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Typically a curmudgeonly character, Hornsby took an immediate liking to McDougald, becoming the young second baseman’s mentor.

It paid off, with McDougald earning a third-straight All-Star appearance by batting .336 with a league-leading 187 hits, en route to being named the league MVP. Despite these performances, it appeared McDougald was blocked at the major league level with the Yankees returning much of roster that was coming off back-to-back World Series titles. However, with the outbreak of the Korean War, infielders Jerry Coleman, Bobby Brown, and Billy Martin became eligible to serve, so the Yankees called up McDougald to reinforce the infield. Hornsby provided his mentee with one final piece of encouragement:

“Fight hard. You are ready. You are going to get the break of your life. Make the most of it.”

Breaking in to the Yankees’ first-team

With his performances during that season’s spring training, McDougald also won over the normally stone-hearted manager Casey Stengel, who was particularly enamored with the prospect’s ability to play third base. When the team broke camp, McDougald headed to New York with the team rather than depart for the Triple-A team in Kansas City as was expected two months prior.

McDougald’s major league career got off to a slow start, not debuting until April 20, 1951 as a late-inning defensive replacement, and he mostly sat on the bench with Coleman, Brown, Martin, and Billy Johnson having returned to the roster. However, Stengel was determined to get his rookie into the mix, McDougald collecting his first big-league hit on a single off Boston’s Mel Parnell on April 27th. He maintained his spot in the starting lineup at third and cemented himself as a regular, tying a then-AL record by driving in six runs in a single inning — a two-run triple and a grand slam against St. Louis on May 3rd — a record that lasted 58 years before being broken by Alex Rodriguez on October 4, 2009.

McDougald continued to earn regular playing time, platooning with the lefty-hitting Brown and third and Coleman — who struggled mightily against righties — at second. In 131 games, McDougald led the team with a .306 average, walked more than he struck out, and turned in a career-best 142 wRC+ while also placing among the top-ten in the AL in OPS (.886). The Yankees won their third consecutive AL pennant, earning the right to face the New York Giants in the World Series after Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” captured the NL pennant over the Dodgers.

In a Game 1 loss, McDougald scored the Yankees’ only run, doubling in the second before coming around on a Coleman single. He drove in the first run of the Yankees’ Game 2 victory, the third of three consecutive singles in the first (bringing fellow rookie Mantle across home plate). He added a pair of hits and a pair of walks in a Game 3 loss and singled Gene Woodling home in a Game 4 victory that leveled the series at two games apiece. But his crowning moment came in Game 5, when he responded to the challenge of an intentional walk in front of him by becoming the first rookie to hit a grand slam in World Series play.

The 23-year-old standout would finish the Fall Classic with the most RBI (7) as the Yankees captured their third championship in a row.

The final ribbon on McDougald’s 1951 campaign saw him pip Minnie Miñoso to AL Rookie of the Year by just two votes. He also earned a significant raise, nearly doubling his salary to $12,000, and just in time with the family welcoming the birth of their fourth child and relocating permanently to New Jersey.

The glue that held together infield of ‘50s dynasty

1952 saw McDougald fall back to Earth some at the dish, his average dropping to .263 and wRC+ to 101 across 152 games. However, the Yankees secured their fourth-straight pennant over Cleveland and barely edged the Dodgers in seven games to a fourth consecutive title, McDougald swatting a game-tying home run in a Game 1 loss and scoring the go-ahead run in a Game 2 victory. He rebounded at the dish in 1953, his average returning to .285 and wRC+ to 116 along with a career-high 83 RBI in 141 games as the Yankees waltzed to a fifth consecutive pennant. He would again come up huge in the Fall Classic.

In a rematch of the previous season, the Yankees jumped out to a quick two-game lead over the Dodgers. McDougald opened the scoring of Game 3 with an RBI single, but the Dodgers would come back and win the game on an eighth-inning go-ahead homer by Roy Campanella. McDougald again came through in another losing effort the following day, his two-run homer in the fifth cutting the Dodgers’ lead in half but to no avail. He’d add a solo shot in the ninth inning of a Game 5 victory before Martin won the series with a walk-off single in Game 6 to give the Yankees five World Series victories in a row, and three for McDougald in his first three big league seasons.

McDougald returned to second base for the 1954 season, though the team missed out on a shot at six straight titles by losing the pennant to Cleveland. During the season, McDougald founded the Yankees Building Maintenance Company, which provided janitorial services to northern New Jersey and adding a little extra change to his pocket.

1955 saw McDougald lead all second baseman with 5.1 fWAR as he batted .285 with a 113 wRC+ in 141 games. They would meet the Dodgers in October yet again, this time losing in seven games with McDougald getting tagged out on a fateful double play started by Sandy Amorós in the sixth inning of Game 7.

During that offseason, the Yankees went on an exhibition tour of Japan, during which the Yankees asked McDougald to tryout for shortstop with incumbent Rizzuto entering the twilight of his career and top prospect Kubek not yet ready for the majors. Thus the modern day utility player was truly born.

“I’m not exactly in love with shortstop. But I will play anywhere as long as I get to play. Personally, I’d prefer to play second base. That’s where I really feel at home. But I think that I can get to like playing shortstop, if I play there long enough.”

As if rejuvenated by the position change, McDougald turned in a career-high .311 average, earning his second All-Star appearance. The Yankees got revenge on the Dodgers, avenging their World Series loss in a tightly-fought seven game thriller. McDougald made a sparkling defensive play on a grounder deflected by Andy Carey to preserve Don Larsen’s Game 5 perfect game, while Mantle and Berra would club three home runs each to steal back the crown from Brooklyn.

1957 represented McDougald’s most productive season in the bigs, his career-high 6.2 fWAR leading all major league shortstops while also batting .289 with a 125 wRC+ and a career-high 87 runs scored.

New York might have fallen to the Milwaukee Braves in that year’s World Series with McDougald held to a .571 OPS, but he rebounded in the 1958 rematch despite a decline in regular-season play. New York fell behind Milwaukee 2-0 and found themselves down 3-1 heading into Game 5. McDougald opened the scoring of that game with a solo shot in the third and would drive in two more with a double in the sixth. Then in Game 6 with the score tied heading to extras, McDougald led off the 10th with a solo shot off Hall of Famer Warren Spahn.

The blast was followed by an RBI single by Moose Skowron to send the series to Game 7, where some more Moose heroics helped the team capture their fifth ring of the decade.

A pair of freak accidents two years apart

McDougald’s life was changed by a pair of freak on-field incidents in 1955 and 1957. In spring training 1955, McDougald was standing behind the screen at second during batting practice when he was hit in the head by a Bob Cerv line drive.

“I saw a ball lying on the ground nearby and reached to pick it up, my head going just beyond the screen. Just then Bob Cerv hit a ball that hit me in the ear. I collapsed and everyone came running over. They carried me off the field and I was out of action for a few games. The doctors told me I’d be all right. Well, I wasn’t. The blow had broken a hearing tube. At first it just affected one ear, my left. One time I’m getting needled by some fan at third base and I turned to Rizzuto at short and said, ‘Too bad I didn’t get hit in the right ear, then I wouldn’t have to hear this guy.’”

Diagnosed with a mild concussion at first, it turned out that the impact had resulted in a skull fracture which caused damage to Gil’s left inner-ear, leading to deafness first in that ear and then in both ears.

Two years later, facing promising Cleveland starter Herb Score, McDougald hit a line drive that hit Score square in the right eye.

“I heard the thud of the ball hitting his head and then saw him drop and lie there, bleeding, and I froze. Someone hollered for me to run to first. When Score was taken off the field on a stretcher, I was sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to play any more. [Stengel] said, ‘You’re getting paid to play.’ And while that seems harsh, it was right. It’s like getting right back on a horse after you’ve been thrown. But I said that if Herb loses his eye, I’m quitting baseball.”

Herb Score

Score had established himself as one of the dominant young lefties in the league, capturing the 1955 AL Rookie of the Year, winning 20 games in 1956, and leading MLB in strikeouts both seasons. He already looked to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory, but the freak injury resulted in facial fractures and, while he narrowly avoided losing sight in his right eye, Score missed the rest of 1957 and most of 1958 and was never the same pitcher.

Despite numerous occasions where Score forgave or reassured McDougald, the latter was disconsolate for years after the event.

“I guess I didn’t pray hard enough. I feel that I jeopardized a good living for him. He had a lot of years ahead of him, good years. If there was anything I could do, I’d do it. But there’s nothing. All I can do is pray... He pitched again after I hit him but he was never the same again. I could see him recoiling after he threw, rather than following through as he had before. But he’s done very well, as an announcer for the Indians, and I’m glad to see it.”

Hearing loss and retirement

Perhaps affected by the gradual hearing loss and the guilt over what happened to Score, McDougald’s career went into decline starting in 1958. His batting average would hover around .250 while he lost playing time to Kubek and Bobby Richardson up the middle and Clete Boyer at third. McDougald would announce his retirement following the 1960 season, citing the wear of travel and desire to spend more time with his family.

Elston Howard - New York Yankees
Elston Howard, Bob Turley, and McDougald

McDougald’s final appearance came in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, entering as a pinch-runner in the top of the ninth to score on a Berra grounder to tie the score at 9-9, only for Bill Mazeroski’s famous walk-off home run in the bottom-half to win the series for Pittsburgh. There was speculation that he retired when general manager Roy Hamey placed him on the list of eligible players for the 1960 Expansion Draft, however McDougald had privately notified the team of his intention to retire before that list was created.

McDougald became more and more of a recluse as his hearing loss became more profound. He was forced to sell his shares as owner of the maintenance company he founded as he could no longer conduct calls over the telephone and gradually stopped attending social events, including Old-Timers’ Day, eventually losing all hearing by the late ‘80s.

A new lease on life

Upon learning of McDougald’s withdrawal from society, Ira Berkow of the New York Times penned a profile of the former Yankee, which captured the attention of doctors who identified him as a candidate for hearing impairment surgery. He was put in touch with Dr. Noel Cohen, chief of otolaryngology at New York University Medical Center, who recommended the installation of a cochlear implant in late 1994. Six weeks after the surgery, McDougald visited an audiologist with his family, where he finally regained the ability to hear for the first time in almost a decade.

“It’s really a surprise. I mean, I really didn’t expect. . . They’ve turned the music on.”

McDougald became an ardent supporter of charities for the hearing impaired after the successful operation, striving to spread awareness about cochlear implants, especially for children.

“When I quit baseball, I didn’t think I’d ever have to do another interview. But name association is so important. I have a role to play, which is to make people aware of the benefits of this technology. When you meet little children with implants, it’s amazing what they can do. Look at them and you can feel the joy it gives them to be able to communicate. There’s a real need to build awareness of the technology, particularly as you get farther out from the big cities. When you’re fortunate and something good happens, even though you weren’t expecting anything, that’s when the payback comes. When you see the progress, particularly with little children, it’s so satisfying. It’s like hitting a home run with the bases loaded.”

McDougald passed away from prostate cancer in his home on November 28, 2010 at the age of 82. Over the course of his 10-year Yankees career, McDougald was a member of five World Series winning squads (1951-53, 1956, 1958) and earned six All-Star nods (1952, 1956-59). He still sits among the top-25 Yankees all-time in WAR, placing 22nd in fWAR (39.7) and 23rd in rWAR (40.7).

Although McDougald’s name might not be the first associated with that era in the Bronx, the work he did on and off the field make his legacy immortal. The Yankees of that era were a special group, and McDougald was truly among the best.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
Jerry Coleman and McDougald at Old-Timers’ Day
Photo by M. Davild Leeds/Getty Images

Staff rank: 35
Community rank: 39
Stats rank: 29
2013 rank: 30

References

Baseball Reference

Berkow, Ira. “BASEBALL: McDougald, once a quiet Yankee star, now lives in quiet world,” New York Times, July 10, 1994.

Berkow, Ira. “BASEBALL: The sweetest sound of all; McDougald, Yankee star of 50’s, can hear again after operation,” New York Times, January 4, 1995.

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

Golenbock, Peter. Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964. Hoboken: Prentice Hall, 1975.

Lamb, Bill. SABR Bio

Reisler, Jim. “Sounds great to him: Former Yankees star Gil McDougald regained his hearing after cochlear implant,” Sports Illustrated, September 16, 1996.

Previously on the Top 100

34. Joe Gordon
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