July 31 – Happy Birthday Hank Bauer
Based on everything I’ve learned about former Yankee outfielder, Hank Bauer, I wish I could have seen him play. I was born a few years too late and didn’t start really following and understanding Yankee baseball until 1960. By then, Bauer was an ex-Yankee, winding down his 14-season big league playing career with the horrible Kansas City A’s. That career should have been longer but Hank Bauer did not catch too many breaks early on in his life.
He had been born to a large family in East St Louis, IL on July 31, 1922. His father lost a leg in a mill accident. So when the Great Depression hit, Bauer was one of nine children in a family with a one-legged Dad before the days of Social Security, workmen’s compensation or employer liability. That explains why and how Bauer became known early in life as a fighter. His teen aged years were filled with fist fights and American Legion baseball. After he left high school, he got a job as a pipe fitter. Fortunately, his older brother was a good enough baseball player to get signed to a Minor League deal by the White Sox. When the time was right, that older sibling arranged a tryout for Hank. Bauer did well enough to get signed but then that Bauer family luck struck again. This time, it took the shape of swarms of Japanese planes attacking an island in Hawaii.
Hank enlisted in the Marines and he spent the next three years of his life storming the beaches of islands in the Pacific and leading a battalion of men in fierce jungle fighting with a merciless enemy. He was awarded two bronze stars and a pair of purple hearts. When he returned home, he figured his chance at playing baseball had passed him by and he went back to fitting pipes. A scout for the Yankees remembered Bauer and signed him to contract. It took Bauer three years to make it to the Bronx and by the time he did, in 1948, he was already 26 years old. But when he finally did put on those pinstripes, he played the game like he lived his life, hard at it all the time.
He became a key contributor on seven New York Yankee World Championship teams, including the squads that won five straight Fall Classics from 1949-1953. During his 12 seasons in pinstripes, Hank averaged .277 during the regular season and belted 158 home runs. He also had one of the best outfield arms in all of baseball at the time. His World Series portfolio includes a record 17-game hitting streak and a four home-run, eight-RBI performance against the Braves in 1958. As he had proved on Guam and Okinawa, he was a natural leader. Mickey Mantle credits Bauer with teaching him how to play the game. He could party as hard as anybody but he never took it to the extreme. Whitey Ford recalled the time he had a few too many the night before a big game and the next day in the dugout, Bauer threw the bloodshot eyed pitcher against the wall and screamed, “Don’t mess with my money.”
Yankee historians often couple Bauer’s name with his fellow outfielder and Yankee teammate Gene Woodling. The two played together on those five straight Yankee championship teams from 1949-53. Casey Stengel would often platoon the right-hand hitting Bauer with the lefty-swinging Woodling but more often than not, and especially in important games, Bauer would be in right-field and Woodling in left. Their hitting, their defensive skills and their leadership on the field and in the clubhouse was the glue that stuck those five championship teams together into one magnificent run.
After the 1959 season, Bauer was included in the deal that made Roger Maris a Yankee. He went on to become a successful big league manager when his playing days were over. He won two Manager of the Year awards and his eighth World Series ring when he skippered the Orioles to their 1966 World Series sweep against the Dodgers. He passed away in February of 2007. I repeat, it would have been a thrill to see him play the game.
Bauer shares his birthday with this one-time third string Yankee catcher.