I like to think that the abstract ballpark in the Gil McDougald card from Helmar (shown above) is Yankee Stadium. I like to think that the skyline in the background is New York City. Or Gotham, as the City was popularly known in the 19th century.
“Gotham” just seems like the perfect place for the great Bronx Bombers to have done their thing in the 1950s, with Mickey, Whitey, Yogi & The Gang. Plus the quiet gentleman Gil McDougald in the fray.
McDougald had a strong, long, handsome face with a flat top and the back of a ducktail hairstyle. He was lean and athletic. He just looked like a guy who would wear a white satin collared shirt and high-waisted wool pants and freshly-polished shoes standing outside a restaurant on the street in New York City, puffing on a cigarette. “Gotham Gil,” if you will.
But Gil wasn’t an East Coast city boy, he was a kid from “The Bay,” a skinny teenager who tried desperately to earn a spot on the baseball team at Commerce High School in San Francisco. McDougald was such a late bloomer that he didn’t make the varsity team until he was a senior.
Gil latched on with the Bayside Braves after high school, a semi-pro team that was known to occasionally produce a promising ballplayer. A DiMaggio Gil was not. He was long-legged and a bit awkward as a young player, but he was filled with so much gumption that he refused to give up. He had one glaring weakness to overcome.
As a young player, McDougald could not get his bat on a breaking pitch. Pitchers in the Bay area knew to toss slow ones whenever they saw Gil dig his cleats into the batters box. A steady stream of looping curves where his diet until he made an adjustment. McDougald opened his stance to face the pitcher straight on, so he could track the breaking ball. Once he started doing that, scouts flocked to Gil like Bobby Soxers to Sinatra.
A Yankee scout offered McDougald the most money, and soon Gil was pounding the baseball in baby pinstripes. In his first professional season when he was 20 years old, McDougald batted .340 with 16 homers. The following season he batted .344 with 44 doubles and 13 homers, and the next year in Beaumont, Texas, Gil batted a cool .336 with 13 homers. Some observers tagged McDougald as a better prospect than another heralded young Yankee, the 19-year old kid from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle.
As soon as he finished a military obligation, Gil was in the Yankees lineup in 1951. That season he just kept on hitting and was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year. He hit .306 and proved invaluable to the team, playing 82 games at third and 55 games at second base. “Mac” earned his Yankee pinstripes when he belted a home run in Game Five of the World Series that fall against the Giants.
Casey Stengel loved Gil McDougald. I think had Gil been a woman, he would have married Gil. To Casey, there was nothing more assuring than to have a player like Gil who could play a number of positions, and play them well enough for his team to win. And that’s just what Gil did, and what the Yanks did for the decade he was in their uniform.
In 1952 and 1953, Gil split time between third and second. In both 1954 and 1955, he played primarily at second base, but the next season, with Billy Martin at the keystone, Gil switched to shortstop. He replaced Phil Rizzuto, and the Yankees didn’t miss a beat, winning the pennant (again) in 1956 and 1957 with McDougald at short.
“I’m not exactly in love with shortstop,” McDougald said during his career. “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.”
In 1957, McDougald smacked a line drive up the middle that caromed off the right eye of Cleveland left-handed pitcher Herb Score. The baseball bounced off the pitcher as if it hit cement, the force do strong. McDouglad was sick to his stomach, watching as Score writhed in agony on the field. The unfortunate event hampered Score’s promising career, and haunted Gil for the rest of his life.
McDougald played his entire career in a terrible home ballpark for a right-handed batter, the original Yankee Stadium. He has one of the worst home/road splits in history. His career home OPS (on-base plus slugging) was .680, on the road it was .847. Essentially in neutral ballparks he hit like Gil Hodges, but at cavernous Yankee Stadium his power was diminished. Gil outhit Yogi Berra on the road when they were teammates.
On the Yankees, Gil fit in somehow, even though he was not the type of guy who spent early morning hours drinking martinis at the Copacabana Night Club. Mickey, Billy, and Whitey were his pals, but Gil was more likely to catch a movie and tuck himself into bed early. He was a devout Christian and he became well-known for his charitable nature, especially with kids. He and his wife had seven children of their own, nearly enough to form a McDougald Nine.
Comedian Joe E. Lewis once proclaimed that “rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.” Never was that more true than in the 1950s, when McDougald and the Yankees, with the mighty Mantle leading the charge, won eight pennants in the decade. Gil hit seven home runs in 53 World Series games, earning one ring for every finger on one hand as a member of the Bombers.
“I love being a Yankee,” Gil once said. “The thrill of putting on my uniform is the best feeling I’ve had as a professional, [and] it tickles me when I do something on the field to help the Yankees win.”
In addition to his Rookie of the Year honor, Gil was an All-Star five times, and he played three positions in the Midsummer Classic, showing off his versatility to the baseball world. He batted .276 with a .356 on-base percentage and .410 slugging percentage for his career. He was one of the most popular Yankees of that era, the type of guy women wanted to date and men wanted to have as a son-in-law or best friend.
The arrival of Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, and Clete Boyer hastened the end of McDougald’s career, and shortly after Bill Mazeroski’s homer ended the 1960 World Series in crushing fashion in Game Seven for the Yankees, Gil announced his retirement after only ten years. He figured the Yanks were going to trade him and he didn’t have any desire to move his young family away from the city.
In his retirement, McDougald experienced a mixture of comfort and discomfort. He earned a coaching job at Fordham University and had some success. But he also eventually lost his hearing due to an old injury he suffered in the batting cage when a baseball had bounced up and hit him in the head. Gradually, Mac could not communicate with people and he withdrew. For years, McDougald refused to return to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Games because “I can’t hear the crowd cheering.”
Late in life, Gil received a cochlear implant and his hearing was restored. When he heard his grandchildren’s voices for the first time, the old ballplayer broke down crying. He died in New Jersey at the age of 82 in 2010.