September 19 – Happy Birthday Nick Etten
The best Yankee players from just about any era in the history of the franchise are generally accorded all the trappings and honors that go with that designation. These guys usually receive serious Hall of Fame consideration if not outright induction. Many are honored with plaques in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park and you still see their names and uniform numbers on the backs of tribute-paying fans who attend Yankee games. At the very least, their names are still mentioned in polls that ask who the top five all-time Yankees are at each position. So I ask why have most Yankee fans never heard of Nick Etten?
Etten was the best and most celebrated player on three consecutive Yankee teams. He captured an AL Home Run crown and an AL RBI title as well. In fact, during his peak three seasons with New York, he drove in more runs than any other player in the American League. He also won a World Series ring in pinstripes. So I ask again, why do so few Yankee fans even know who Nick Etten is?
The answer lies in timing. Etten had his best seasons as a Yankee when the best Yankee players were wearing military uniforms instead of pinstriped ones. Buddy Hassett, who played first for New York in 1942, had been drafted into the military so the Yankees needed to replace him. They targeted Etten, a native of Spring Grove, IL, who was then playing for the Phillies and traded for him. Why Etten? Probably because he was a left handed hitter who could reach the short right field porch of Yankee Stadium and they could get him pretty cheap (two guys named Ed Gettel and Ed Levy and ten thousand Yankee dollars did the trick.)
In any event, Etten did exactly what the Yankees needed him to do, offensively at least, by driving in 309 runs during the next three seasons. Defensively, it was an entirely different story. I’ve read that Etten was the worst defensive first baseman in Yankee history. He refused to move to his right on any ground ball hit that way, which turned the hole between first and second in the Yankee’s wartime infield into a canyon. When he did manage to get his glove on the baseball, Etten had a tough time holding it and throwing it. He made 50 errors during his three seasons as the Yankee’s first baseman. For comparison’s sake, Mark Teixeira has committed a total of just 11 errors during his three seasons as Yankee first baseman and Jason Giambi, who was the poorest defensive first baseman I ever saw play for New York, committed just 36 miscues during his eight seasons with the team.
Etten’s moment in the Bronx sun ended pretty quickly when the drafted and enlisted Yankees returned from military service. He continued to start at first for most of the 1946 season but his average and run production numbers tumbled. In April of 1947, the Yankees sold him back to the Phillies and he was out of the big leagues for good before the end of the 1947 season.