Results tagged ‘ third baseman ’
Like hundreds of other young big league prospects from the same era, Staten Island native Hank Majeski’s baseball career was put on hold for military service during World War II. Nicknamed “Heeney,” he had started his baseball career as a second baseman, but when he made his big league debut with the Boston Bee’s in 1941, Boston manager Casey Stengel switched him to the hot corner. It was a wise move by the “Ol Perfessor” as Majeski evolved into one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball over the next decade. Before that happened, however, the Yankees acquired him from Boston and before he had a chance to play in the Bronx, he turned in his baseball uniform and put on the uniform of the US Coast Guard, which he wore for the next three years.
By the time he was discharged in 1946, he was already 29-years-old. Major League Baseball had expanded rosters to thirty slots at the end of the war to accommodate all of the ballplayers returning from military service. That made it easier for Majeski to make his first Yankee team that spring but also created a crowd of third baseman competing for playing time. With Snuffy Stirnweiss, Billy Johnson and Bobby Brown all on the same roster, its real easy to understand why Majeski only got into eight Yankee games during the first half of that 1946 season. It also explains why the Yankees sold him to the Philadelphia A’s that June.
Connie Mack immediately made his new acquisition the team’s starting third baseman and for the next five seasons, Majeski played brilliantly in the field, setting the MLB record for best fielding percentage by a third baseman (.989) in 1947. Though he hadn’t been known for his offensive skills, Majeski developed into an excellent hitter as well, averaging over 280 during his six years with Philly and surprising everyone in baseball in 1948 when he drove in 120 runs, set a career high in hits with 186 and batting average, with a .310 figure.
Heeney Majeski later got sold to Cleveland and ended his big league career with the Orioles in 1955 at the age of 38. After his playing days, he became a big league and college coach. He died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 74.
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Though the transaction took place over four decades ago, I know I screamed in anguish when I heard about the trade. Three weeks before Christmas in 1971, the Yankees sent their 1968 Rookie-of-the-Year-winning right-hander, Stan Bahnsen to the Chicago White Sox. They took a guy who had won the impressive total of 55 games for some mediocre New York teams during the previous four seasons and sent him to the Windy City in exchange for a 25-year-old utility infielder named Rich McKinney.
I knew what Yankee skipper Ralph Houk and the team’s GM, Lee MacPhail were thinking when they pulled the trigger on that one. New York desperately needed a good starting third baseman. They hadn’t had one since they traded Clete Boyer to the Braves in 1966.
McKinney, a native of Piqua, OH, had been in the big leagues for just two seasons and was coming off a decent year in which he had averaged .271 in 114 games as Chicago’s primary utility infielder. There was nothing in his resume that indicated he was going to be anything special, but after trying to win with guys like Charley Smith and Jerry Kenney at the hot corner, Houk and MacPhail figured this kid was worth a shot. But he wasn’t worth Stan Bahnsen!
The veteran right-hander took his “Bahnsen Burner” to Comiskey Park and won 21 games in 1972. Meanwhile, McKinney was a complete bust in the Bronx. He started out slow and never got better. By June he was playing down in Syracuse and the Yanks were using the infamous Celerino Sanchez as their starter at third. That November, McKinney’s Yankee career ended, when he was traded to Oakland in the deal that brought Matty Alou to New York.
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Before Derek Jeter came along and reserved a spot on the wall of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park for his pinstriped jersey, the most famous number “2” in Yankee history had been a red-headed graduate of Dartmouth named Robert Abial Rolfe. Though hair-color earned him the workingman’s nickname he made famous, Rolfe was an Ivy League gentleman. An article in “Baseball Digest” once referred to him as “the best-educated, best dressed, politest Bronx Bomber of the thirties.”
Those Joe McCarthy-led Yankee teams put up some incredible offensive numbers during their pre-WWII era of success and it was their great third baseman Rolfe, batting second, who would help light the fuse for the team’s explosive lineup. Here’s some examples: In the three-season period from 1937-to-1939, Rolfe scored a total of 414 runs. In 1937, Rolfe scored the incredible total of 143 runs and didn’t even lead the team in scoring that year because Joe DiMaggio scored 151. In 1938, five different Yankees scored at least 109 runs. The 1939 Yankee team lost Lou Gehrig to ALS disease yet seven members of their starting lineup scored at least 87 runs that year and the team won 106 regular season games and then swept the Reds four straight in the World Series. During Rolfe’s decade-long Yankee career, he averaged 130 runs scored for every 162 games he played.
Rolfe was one of Manager Joe McCarthy’s all-time favorite players because he worked so hard and so smart at getting better and gaining every possible advantage over an opponent on the field. It was Rolfe who was one of the first players in baseball to keep a “book” on opposing hitters that he would use to change his fielding position at the hot corner, based on who was in the batters box. His book on opposing pitchers was just as detailed. He knew and could tell his Yankee teammates what pitch to expect in a pressure situation from every pitcher in the league. He did not ignore opposing fielders either. He would make notes how an outfielder fielded line drives and if they had a tendency to drop to their knee or back up on the ball, you could be sure the next time Rolfe hit one of his patented line drives at them he’d end up sliding safely into second. It may have been because Rolfe did so much thinking as a player he never found time to just relax and enjoy the game he played so well. He developed painful ulcers which were the primary reason he retired at the young age of 33 after New York lost the 1942 World Series to the Cardinals.
Rolfe got back into the big leagues as a Manager with the Tigers in 1949 and led Detroit to a 95-win season the following year, just three games behind the AL Pennant-winning 1950 Yankees. At the time, he attributed his success to cracking the whip on a bunch of Detroit players who he claimed had grown complacent. By 1952, many of those same players turned on Rolfe, claiming he was impossible to satisfy and the Tigers fired him. Born on October 17, 1908 in Penacook, NH, Rolfe returned to Dartmouth as athletic director. He died in 1969. Dartmouth’s baseball stadium is named after him.