McDougald key cog in Yankees machine

Noble: McDougald key cog in Yankees machine

Before Dick McAuliffe and long before Jeff Bagwell assumed awkward positions in the batter's box, Gil McDougald made us all scratch our heads. Why would anyone stand like that? They say you want to be comfortable in the box. Was he? McDougald changed his batting stance almost as often as Sparky Anderson changed pitchers. But the one stance that stuck with me when I was at the age when imitating stances was cool was McDougald sitting on an invisible chair, holding the bat almost perpendicular to the ground, with his knees bent.

He looked ... well, silly. So uncool. A man with a knife sticking out of his back would have looked more comfortable. When we played fantasy baseball, we had bats in our hands and we mimicked the big guys. Everyone could imitate Yogi and Mick. Ellie Howard's closed stance was easy, and, later on, Bobby Richardson's distinctive bat movement before the pitcher was cool. But no one wanted to look like McDougald. That semi-squat he used was tough on the knees even then.

There were at least five times when I wanted to look just like him, though. McDougald played for five World Series champion Yankees teams, all in a 10-year span. Only two of his teams missed playing in the World Series. Nothing awkward about that. He was one of the glittering components of the Yankees during baseball's Golden Age, as much a part of early October as Mick and Whitey and Columbus Day.

And now, McDougald is gone, too. In the same six-month period that took George Steinbrenner, Bob Sheppard, Clyde King and Ralph Houk, one of Casey Stengel's favorite soldiers has died. Prostate cancer killed him Sunday. He was 82 years old.

I recall a photo in Life Magazine in 1958. It showed Casey approaching McDougald after a World Series game, his hand extended. It might have been taken in the immediate afterglow of the Yankees' victory against the Braves in Game 7. McDougald had a good Series. The caption said Stengel had singled him out for congratulations. I believed what I read then. And perhaps that was the genesis of my understanding and appreciation of how the game was to be played when baseball's weren't sailing over the fences.

McDougald was one of those players, a predecessor of players like Willie Randolph and Jay Bell. His five-tool belt might have had an empty pocket or two, but he could play. Mel Allen and Red Barber explained the virtues of hitting behind the runner, and McDougald demonstrated how it was done. He could get a bunt down; he could hit-and-run. And when the Yankees had a runner on third with less than two outs, McDougald could hit one into the outfield for a run. The art of the sacrifice fly has gone the way of the Sunday doubleheader and choking up with two strikes.

McDougald never approached 20 home runs, but he hit 100 in his first eight seasons and drove in 70 runs per 162 games in his career. He wouldn't have helped a lesser team as much as he helped those formidable Yankees.

McDougald had genuine value. Witness his thrice placing among the 10 leading candidates in the MVP balloting. He received American League MVP Award support in five elections at a time when teammates Mantle and Berra were winning five awards. His greatest value, in Stengel's view, was his ability to play second, third and shortstop reliably. Casey liked to fiddle. McDougald's versatility and reliability afforded him that option. Stengel groomed Kubek to provide the same services, but needed him to play shortstop regularly.

McDougald was the shortstop when he made a play that has gone overlooked for too long. He was positioned between second baseman Blily Martin and third baseman Andy Carey on Oct. 8, 1956. Don Larsen was pitching against the Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, leading off the second inning, hit a line drive Carey couldn't handle. It caromed to McDougald, who threw out Robinson.

No one was thinking "perfect game" at that point, but no one would have had reason to later, if not for McDougald's quick action and accurate throw to Joe Collins.

McDougald retired Robinson in more ways than one. Two years later, Robinson and Bud Collier ("Beat the Clock") were speakers at a church function on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. A 10-year-old blond kid attended. When refreshments were served, I moved toward Robinson, a cup of coffee -- not "Chock Full of Nuts," I'm afraid -- in my hand. We chatted. Actually he spoke, and I listened, but finally I summoned the nerve to ask a question. "Why'd you retire?"

Robinson had declined to report to his new club in December 1956 after the Dodgers had done the unfathomable and traded him to the Giants. He retired after a 10-year career rather than join the enemy. But Robinson also cited McDougald's play as a factor in his decision. "I couldn't beat out a ball they kicked around the infield," Robinson said. "It was time."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.