Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gil McDougald, 1928-2010

Gilbert James McDougald died on Sunday, of prostate cancer. He was 82 years old.

Gil was a native of San Francisco, one of several Yankee stars from that city, including Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri and Lefty Gomez. He usually played 3rd base, but could also play shortstop (as he did making a key play in Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series) and 2nd base. He wore Number 12 for his entire career.

He arrived in 1951, and he, not Mickey Mantle, was that season's American League Rookie of the Year. In Game 4 of that year's World Series, he hit a grand slam against the New York Giants, only the 3rd slam in Series history, following Elmer Smith of the 1920 Cleveland Indians and Lazzeri in 1936.

He left in 1960, his last act as an active player scoring the tying run in the top of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series... only to have that wiped from memory by Bill Mazeroski's home run.

Gil played 10 seasons, winning 8 Pennants (1951, '52, '53, '55, '56, '57, '58 and '60) and 5 World Championships (1951, '52, '53, '56 and '58). In 5 seasons, he was named to the All-Star Team.

Sadly, he's probably best known for one of the most unfortunate incidents in Yankee history. On May 7, 1957, the Yankees were playing the Indians, and Gil hit a line drive right back at the pitcher, Herb Score. Score had a pitching motion that left him rather exposed, and he never had a chance. The liner broke several bones in his face. He did pitch again, and insisted until his death that it was an arm injury the next season that cut his career short, not that reverse-beaning.

McDougald was apparently never the same player, either. He said he would quit baseball if Score lost the use of his eye. (Herb did wear glasses for the rest of his life, including a 37-year career as an Indian broadcaster. He was their Phil Rizzuto, their Richie Ashburn, their Ron Santo.) Nevertheless, he did get some key hits in the 1958 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves.

Gil knew how it felt: In 1955, he'd been hit in the head by a batting practice foul ball, and began to lose his hearing. When interviewed for the videotape New York Yankees: The Movie, released in 1987, his speech was slurred. Not knowing about his deafness, I thought at the time that he might have had a stroke.

A few years later, I saw him in Cooperstown, New York, signing autographs at a store near the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he was wearing a cochlear implant, which restored his hearing. When interviewed for several YES Network Yankeeography broadcasts, his speech and memory were both clear.

He retired after the 1960 season, rather than be left unprotected in the expansion draft, and became a coach at Fordham University in The Bronx. He lived near the Jersey Shore, in Wall Township.
Jerry Coleman and Gil McDougald,
at Old-Timers Day a few years ago

A story he liked to tell was of the 1953 season, when the Yankees went on an 18-game winning streak, followed by a 9-game losing streak. Of manager Casey Stengel, he said, "When we were winning 18 in a row, Casey was just a miserable old man, as they say. But when we were losing 9 in a row, he was beautiful. And we all said, 'Hey, let's lose a few more!'"

But Gil McDougald was a winner.

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In case you're wondering, McDougald's death leaves 5 players from that 1951 Yankee team, DiMaggio's last and Mantle's 1st, still alive: Yogi Berra, Bobby Brown, Bob Kuzava, Charlie Silvera and Jerry Coleman. This does not count Whitey Ford, who had been drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War and missed the 1951 and '52 seasons.

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Also recently deceased:

* Dave Niehaus, the Hall of Fame voice of the Seattle Mariners since their 1977 inception.

* Tom Underwood, a pitcher for several teams, including the Yankees in 1980 and '81, who in 1979 was outdueled by his brother Pat in Pat's first major league game (Tom for the Toronto Blue Jays, Pat for the Detroit Tigers)

* Danny McDevitt, who briefly pitched for the Yankees in their "M&M Boys" season of 1961, but is best known for pitching a shutout for the Brooklyn Dodgers over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last game at Ebbets Field, on September 24, 1957. (He and his catcher, Joe Pignatano, were honored in a ceremony at the Brooklyn Cyclones' ballpark in 2007, the 50th Anniversary of that game. Pignatano, also an original 1962 Met and a Met coach on their 1969 "Miracle" team, is still alive.)

* Rob Lytle, a football star for the University of Michigan and the Denver Broncos.

* Gaye Stewart, who starred with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was a member of their 1942 and '47 Stanley Cup winners, and also briefly played for the Rangers.

* And, of course, former Devils, Leafs and Montreal Canadiens coach Pat Burns, who lost his battle with cancer. I will forever be grateful to him for the 2003 Stanley Cup. He also led the Canadiens to the Finals in 1989, and the Leafs to the Conference Finals in 1993 and '94.

May they all rest in peace, except for those times when they take a seat in the ultimate skybox. On those occasions, I hope they have a lot of excitement.

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