It’s March, 1952, and on the cover of SPORT magazine – America’s premier sports publication at the time – is Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees. Sorry, who? Yes, there’s a long list of Yankees legends you’d recognize from the first half of the 20th century, but Gil McDougald probably isn’t one of them.
McDougald was a defence-first player (.975 career fielding percentage), originally from San Francisco, that played all of his ten Major League seasons with the Yankees. He won five World Series during that time, was a six-time All-Star, and won Rookie of the Year in ‘51. A career to be proud of, no doubt, but it wasn’t enough to get McDougald into the Yankees’ Monument Park, nor Cooperstown.
He’s best known for coming “from out of nowhere,” as SPORT put it, to win that RotY award, and for hitting pitcher Herb Score right in the eye with a line-drive (unintentionally, of course). Score would recover, thankfully, so the lasting memory we have of McDougald is rightfully that ‘51 season.
The Yankees had won the World Series in three of the last four seasons prior to McDougald joining the team, and had five future Hall of Famers on the roster: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, and Mickey Mantle. The Mick was also a rookie that season. So for McDougald to make the impact he did – .306 batting average (the only Yankee to hit .300 or better), 63 RBIs, and 72 runs – was no small feat.
McDougald had an unusual batting stance. He would start by standing with his front foot out pointing towards the pitcher, completely open, with the bat parallel to the ground and his head tilted to one side. It would come together a bit as he swung, but you can’t blame folks for assuming this ugly duckling wouldn’t be able to hit big-league pitching.
But did he come "from out of nowhere?” Well, I for one will argue that just isn’t true. On his way to New York, Gil McDougald played ball in Victoria, BC! From 1946 to 1951, Victoria was home to the Western International League “Athletics.” The Athletics played at Royal Athletic Park (which today is still in operation and plays home to the Victoria HarbourCats, a summer-collegiate team), and were a Yankees minor league affiliate from 1947-49. McDougald spent the ‘49 season with the Athletics.
While the stats from that season are incomplete, we know McDougald hit .344 with 13 homers. He actually had very consistent power numbers, hitting at least ten round-trippers a season for ten-straight seasons. Only in his last two years did he drop below that. Not bad for a shortstop of that time.
As it happens, one of The SPORT Gallery’s own alumnus, Ian Brackman, has a connection to the Victoria Athletics: his grandfather was an ardent supporter and one-time batboy. In one of his old programs from the '49 season, there is mention of McDougald. It says the infielder was named “most outstanding rookie” for his first season of professional baseball, in 1948, with Twin Falls. He was also voted “the player most likely to reach the major leagues.” Aha!So, while we can forgive SPORT for their claim – anyone would have seemed “from out of nowhere” compared to Mickey Mantle, one of the more natural ballplayers that ever was – they should have done better research. Those who watched McDougald knew he was bound for greatness. And he did come from somewhere... Vancouver Island!