Bronx Bomber

I can’t say when the Yankees first were referred to as the Bronx Bombers. For sure it wasn’t before Yankee Stadium opened in 1923. Before that, the Yankees had always played in Manhattan (the Polo Grounds in Harlem and Hilltop Park in Washington Heights). Prior to 1923, if you read anything about a Bronx Bomber, it probably would have been an article in one of the local Hearst papers about an outer-borough anarchist.

Once major league ball got going in the Bronx, it looked like it was going to be the permanent home of the American League home run title. For nine straight seasons, from the stadium’s inaugural year through 1931, a Yankee led the league in home runs. Jimmie Foxx, then with the A’s, halted the streak in 1932 with 58 long balls.

Eventually, other American League teams crowned their own home run kings, but the Yankee sluggers still loom large in American League history. Despite the worst home run title drought in franchise history (1981 through 2004), a New York Yankee has managed to lead the pack 28 times during the modern era.

Deadball star Wally Pipp, before his name became synonymous with unemployment, was the first Yankee to lead the league in homers with 12 in 1916. The following season, he was the last AL single-digit home run king with nine.

Three years later, Babe Ruth opened the floodgates with 54. The following year, he hit 59 for an encore. But that was during the Yankees’ tenure at the Polo Grounds.

The Babe hit the first-ever home run at Yankee Stadium and went on to lead the league with 41 in 1923. Subsequent Yankee home run champs include Bob Meusel, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Etten

Wait a minute, Nick who? Run that name by me again.

His name may not ring a bell, but Nicholas Raymond Thomas Etten, a left-handed hitting first baseman, once hit enough dingers to win the American League home run crown. Pay close attention here because you might be able to win some bar bets with this guy.

Etten’s career started off quietly enough when he debuted with the Class B Davenport Blue Sox in 1933 at age 19. He made his major league debut with the Philadelphia A’s on Sept. 8, 1938. Through the end of the season, he went 21 for 81 (.259) with no homers and 11 RBIs. In other words, neither here nor there.

In 1939, he split the season between the majors and the minors. In 1940, he was strictly minor league, but he hit .321 at Double-A ball. That earned him a return ticket to Philadelphia (this time with the Phillies) in 1941, and he did not disappoint. On opening day, he went 4-for-4 with a homer. At the end of his first full MLB season, he had a .321 average with 14 homers and 79 RBIs.

Then came World War II, the ultimate game-changer. But Etten was not a participant. He was only 28 years old on Pearl Harbor Day, so I can only speculate as to how he avoided service. Maybe he was 4-F, maybe he had too many dependents, maybe he was an only surviving son, maybe his maiden aunt was on the draft board. Whatever, he remained a full-time major league ballplayer for the duration.

In 1942, his results were mediocre, but mediocrity with the last-place Phillies (42-109) was enough to make him a team leader. He led the team in OPS at .732. His eight home runs and 41 RBIs placed him second, right behind Danny Litwhiler, who finished the season with nine homers and 56 RBIs.

That same season, the Yankees won the AL pennant with a record of 103-51. What did they want with Etten? Well, first base had become something of a revolving door for them.

Johnny Sturm, their rookie first baseman in 1941, was in the service. His fame in baseball history resides in the fact that he was the first married major leaguer to get drafted. As it turned out, his rookie year was simultaneously his last year. Given his .239 batting average and just three homers and 36 RBIs in 524 at-bats, he was probably not destined for a long career in the Bronx anyway.

His 1942 replacement, Buddy Hassett, acquired from the Braves, went into the Navy at the conclusion of the season. At age 31, his major league career was over, as he played only minor league ball after the war.

Hassett was an upgrade over Sturm, but he was no candidate for Cooperstown. After seven years in the bigs (including three seasons apiece with the Dodgers and the Braves), he had 1,026 hits and a .284 batting average, but only 12 home runs. Only five of those home runs came in 1942 when he was playing half his games in Yankee Stadium with its 296-foot right field line and a 3-¾ foot high wall. I think it is safe to conclude that Hassett was no power hitter.

Etten was a left-handed batter, but he was hardly a slugger. On the other hand, he had hit 14 homers in 1941, and Yankee Stadium might have been more to his liking than Shibe Park. More importantly, the Phillies were financially strapped and needed to slash the payroll. Perhaps most significantly, Etten was not subject to military service, and that might have enhanced his value. A reliable warm body at first base was not to be taken for granted during the World War II years.

The deal worked out superbly for Etten and the Yankees in 1943. He not only duplicated his home run high of 14, he also drove home 107. The Yankees won the pennant and the World Series (versus the Cardinals). And as it turns out, the Phillies didn’t miss him, as they improved their record to 64-90, which vaulted them all the way to a seventh-place finish.

This brings us to 1944, the year Etten really earned his wings as a Bronx Bomber. The military losses finally took their toll, as the Yankees slumped to third place with a record of 83-71. But Etten took his place in the history books as the American League home run leader … with the princely sum of 22.

Apparently, AL pitchers wanted no part of him, as he also led the league in walks with 97. Throw in a batting average of .293 and 91 RBIs and you have the ingredients of a pretty decent season, even if it was during the tainted years of World War II.

But how to account for Etten’s total of 22 leading the league? That was the lowest total since 1918. Sure, the talent level was lower during the war years, but that held for American League pitching staffs, too, so hitters should have been a match for them. Etten somehow managed to hit more homers than such name players as Vern Stephens (20), Rudy York (18) and Bobby Doerr (15).

One might be tempted to conclude that someone or something put a hoodoo on the American League that year. After all, this was the one and only season the St. Louis Browns won the pennant. And if you’re curious, the National League leader was Bill Nicholson of the Cubs with 33 long balls. Not an earth-shaking total, but it was 50 percent more than Etten had.

So what could Etten do for an encore in 1945? Well, it was a forgettable year for the Yankees, who finished in fourth place at 81-71, but Etten led the league in RBIs with 111. He also had 18 homers and a .285 average, and a spot on the AL All-Star squad. Apparently, he had found a home as the Yankees’ first baseman.

Then the war ended. Time for the Yankees to get back to business as usual, namely winning American League pennants. But results were not immediately forthcoming. In 1946, they finished at 87-67, which got them only as high as third place, 17 games behind the Red Sox.

In 1946, all those front-line American League pitchers came back from the military, and Etten became a part-timer (323 a- bats). The nine home runs and 49 RBIs weren’t bad, given his number of plate appearances, but that .232 batting average was cause for concern.

Obviously, it was time to shake up the Yankees. So they acquired veteran George McQuinn to play first base in 1947. He responded with 13 homers, 80 RBIs and a .304 average, and the Yankees responded with a pennant and a World Series title.

Etten became expendable, so he was sold down the riverthe Delaware River, that is—and back to the Philadelphia Phillies. Well, once you’ve been a league-leading power hitter and won a World Series ring, such a deal was quite a blow.

In 1946, the Phillies actually had finished in fifth place with a 69-85 record. But in 1947, the best Etten could do for them was one home run, eight RBIs and a .244 average in 41 at-bats. The Phillies returned him to the Yankees, who wanted no part of him and sent him to the minors, where he remained through 1950.

Etten did have one last season of glory, however. At age 34, in 164 games for the PCL Champion Oakland Oaks, he hit .313 with 43 homers and 155 RBIs. In those days, the Pacific Coast League was considered by many baseball pundits to be an unofficial third major league, so Etten’s season is particularly noteworthy.

The record books bear witness to Etten’s offensive talents, but it must be noted that he was a notoriously bad fielder, the Dick Stuart of his day. Like Stuart, Etting and his fielding lapses inspired witticisms.

During Etten’s career, players left their gloves on the field before returning to the dugout between innings. After observing a foul ball rolling into Etten’s glove behind first base, sportswriter Joe Trimble noted, “Etten’s glove fields better without Etten in it.”

Unlike Stuart, Etten never led the league in errors (he had anywhere from 16 to 23 during his five full-time years of 1941-1945), nor did he have the lowest fielding percentage at his position. Of course, to make an error, one usually has to touch the ball, and Etten felt his job was not to field grounders but just to take throws from other infielders.

According to second baseman Danny Murtaugh, his teammate on the Phillies, “There were a few balls hit between first and second that I felt Nick should have tried for, but he’d just run to the bag and let me attempt to get them. So one day I said to him, ‘Nick, I think there are a few balls being hit down there that you should make an effort to reach.’ He looked at me and replied, ‘Son, they pay Ol’ Nick to hit. You can’t hit, so you catch all those balls, and I’ll knock in the runs for both of us.”

When Murtaugh managed the Pirates, one of his charges was Stuart. It was less physically taxing to watch an inept first baseman from the dugout, but doubtless just as painful.

Etten’s career MLB totals are 89 homers and 526 RBIs. Not exactly Ruthian, but in 1944 and 1945, when so many Yankees were serving on bombers, he was a bona fide Bronx Bomber.

If you don’t believe Nick Etten once was the AL home run leader, then, as Casey Stengel was wont to say, “You can look it up.” He should know because, after all, he managed Etten in Oakland in 1948.

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Comments

  1. Oz said...

    One other reason for low HR totals during the war was that various reports indicate that the baseballs used at that time were of lower quality.  Can’t really be quantified, but….

  2. northern rebel said...

    Absolutely right about the baseballs, Oz. Plus they weren’t replacing them as often.

    Etten had a couple of fine years, but Wally Pip was an excellent ballplayer, if not a borderline Hall Of Famer. He had a good glove, good speed, and his lifetime totals are reduced by playing half his career during the dead ball era.

    He scored and drove in nearly 1000 runs each, even though his 15 year career included only 11 where he played more than 100 games.

    When the yanks shipped him off to Cinncinatti before the 1926 season, he tied for 4th with 15 3B’s, and finished tied for 4th with 99 rbi at age 33, in a league that was much slower to embrace the new slugger’s era.

  3. Philip said...

    Oz, the majors hadn’t lost too many players to the war effort in 1942. Most were drafted or enlisted in 1943-45. So one can certainly see quantified differences between 1941 and 1942 with very little being the result of talent loss.

    When you look at home run totals, you see that the National League went from 597 HRs and slugging .361 in 1941 to 538 HRs and slugging at .343.

    The change in the American League was even more apparent: 734 and .389 to 533 and .357.

    According to author Zack Hample, a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. government prohibited the use of crude rubber in baseballs. Hample says that Spalding and Reach claimed to have enough rubber in stock to have enough baseballs for the 1942 season.

    Hample says that evidence also suggests that the majors started experimenting with lower quality horsehide and rubber that wasn’t up to par with the 1941 ball stock.

    Retrosheet.org also shows that major league slugging averages plummeted as the year went on, the highest percentages being in the colder months of April and May.

    The differences, again, more apparent in the A.L.

    Apr .370
    May .371
    Jun .358
    Jul .359
    Aug .337
    Sep .350

  4. Hal said...

    I remember Nick Etten’s player disk in Ethan Allen’s “All-Star Baseball” game as a kid.  Etten was a “current” player in one of the sets that a friend of mine’s uncle handed down to him from the forties.

  5. John Fain said...

    When I was a sophomore in HS (I am now 75)the most open position was 1b for which I had to buy a glove.  It was a Nick Etten model.  Being a stat head even then I looked him up so I know most of this stuff.  Fun read.  Although I was a better fielder than hitter I now know I can blame my few misplays on the glove <g>.

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