Card Corner: Dick McAuliffe

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I’ve never met or interviewed Dick McAuliffe, but his face has always reminded me of a Hollywood heavy from the 1930s or ’40s. Maybe that’s why his teammates called him “Muggsy.” With that dark complexion and those heavy eyebrows, both fully apparent in his 1974 (and final) Topps card, he looked like a gangster in an Edward G. Robinson film. Or perhaps he could have filled a Jimmy Cagney role. Or maybe he could have done a lighter turn as one of the wisecracking Bowery Boys (“Slip” and “Sach”) of Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall fame.

It wasn’t just McAuliffe’s face that was distinctive among major league players. There might not have been a hitter throughout the 1960s and 1970s who had a more unusual batting stance than McAuliffe’s. He used such an open stance that he practically faced the pitcher, like a left-handed version of a player of more recent vintage—former Orioles and Blue Jays third baseman Tony Batista.

As he eyed the pitcher, McAuliffe held the bat ridiculously high in the air, so high that it seemed like a caricature of a major league batting stance. He held the bat in such a lofty position over his head that he put Carl Yastrzemski and Bobby Tolan, two other high-bat holders, to absolute shame. As the pitcher delivered the ball, McAuliffe lowered his hands and kicked his right leg toward the plate, in a style reminiscent of the great Mel Ott. McAuliffe’s batting stance was so peculiar that it was often imitated by young fans of the era, who also liked Willie Stargell’s rhythmic windmilling of the bat and Joe Morgan’s chicken-wing flap with his elbow.

McAuliffe’s stance and visage overshadowed another significant reality: He was a damn good ballplayer. Filled with intensity and grit (he had to have grit with that face), he became one of the unsung stalwarts of some very good Tigers teams. Though usually obscured by more popular stars like Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Hall of Famer Al Kaline, McAuliffe played a critical role as a leadoff batter and second baseman.

He wasn’t the prototypical leadoff man of the ’60s; many of the era’s leadoff batters relied on high batting averages and base-stealing ability. McAuliffe did not succeed in either of those areas. His game was predicated more on his ability to draw walks and lift his on-base percentage significantly above his mediocre batting average. He twice drew more than 100 walks in a season and regularly topped 60 bases on balls a season. He also hit with good power for a middle infielder, often hitting 15 to 20 home runs a year, a rarity for second basemen of the day. And he played the keystone position very well, combining good hands with the range of a shortstop and an ability to turn the double play. Given his many strengths on both sides of the ball, McAuliffe was a Sabermetric darling at a time when such a thing was not quite so fashionable as it is today.

For the bulk of the 1960s, McAuliffe filled an important role as a Tiger mainstay. He remained a prime player as the team improved, evolving into eventual world champions. As the Tigers’ leadoff man during their championship season of 1968, Muggsy proved productive and reliable, leading the American League with 95 runs scored while not once grounding into a double play.

McAuliffe remained with the Tigers for five more seasons. As he aged in the early 1970s, he eventually platooned with another veteran second baseman, Tony Taylor, one of the subjects of last week’s article on helmet-less players. Though clearly declining at the age of 32, Muggsy was a part of the memorable 1972 team that Billy Martin guided to an American League East title before a tough playoff loss to the eventual world champion Oakland A’s.

In 1973, McAuliffe rebounded offensively, hitting 12 home runs and reaching base 36 per cent of the time in a platoon with Taylor. With his trade value heightened, the Tigers dealt McAuliffe to the Red Sox for Ben Oglivie, at the time a young slugger who was struggling to grasp a starting job in Boston’s crowded outfield. Oglivie would show flashes of power in four seasons with Detroit, but the departure of McAuliffe placed second base in the overmatched hands of journeyman Gary Sutherland. McAuliffe would not be adequately replaced in the Motor City until the 1977 arrival of a rookie named Lou Whitaker.

The trade to Boston allowed McAuliffe to play near his hometown of Farmington, Conn. It also gave him a chance to take regular swings at Fenway Park’s monster. Unfortunately, McAuliffe’s legs began to fail him, both in the field and at the plate. He played 100 games in 1974, but eventually lost the starting job to the younger and more athletic Doug Griffin. After the season, the Sox gave McAuliffe his unconditional release.

With his career seemingly over, the Red Sox gave him a reprieve him and brought him back to Boston in August of 1975. The 35-year-old McAuliffe appeared in seven games, but was left off the postseason roster, thereby losing a chance to play in that fall’s iconic World Series against Cincinnati. Still, the Red Sox did not overlook the popular McAuliffe. Though he had only played a smattering of games in August and September, the Red Sox awarded him an American League pennant ring, the same ring given to the likes of Yaz, Carlton Fisk, and Luis Tiant.

If nothing else, McAuliffe deserved that ring as a kind of lifetime achievement award. No less an authority than Bill James has rated McAuliffe as the 22nd best second basemen of all time. That’s not enough to put him in the Hall of Fame, but puts McAuliffe just a couple of tiers below Cooperstown worthiness. Whether it was his underrated effectiveness as a player, or his weird batting stance, or that legendary face, Muggsy will always remain a memorable player to this author, too.

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Comments

  1. Bruce Markusen said...

    Bob, a good question. McAuliffe was no speedster—he had slightly above average speed—but perhaps the 440-foot dimension to center field at Tiger Stadium had something to do with it. If you could get the ball over the center fielder’s head at Tiger Stadium, you had a decent shot at three bases.

  2. Bob Rittner said...

    “But I don’t understand the low amount of doubles for Wills considering his great speed.”

    This is pure speculation on my part, but is it possible that triples are more a speed hit while doubles are more a power hit. That is, the line drive that splits the outfielders becomes a triple for speedy baserunners when it might just be a double for slower ones, so the fast runner gets triples rather than doubles out of it.

    On the other hand, many doubles are ground rule hits that bounce into the stands. Wills did not hit for much power, so the few times he hit scorching line drives into the gaps over his career he might have run them into triples, but the rest of the time his hits were not hard enough to reach the seats even on a bounce.

  3. tom meagher said...

    I remember when Mac came up in the early 60’s , my buddy told me about a new shortstop you had a big night at the plate, he started out at shortstop, He was my favorite tiger for the whole decade, I remember when he charged the mound after being hit by Tommy John, mac got suspended, Tommy John had a dislocated shoulder, Mac didn’t just want to beat you he wanted to beat you, he was a fiery ballplayer and he gave it 110% , I grew from a preteen to a man following the tigers and my faverite ballplayer, Dick M.  and listening to Earnie Harwell , who I just heard the sad news about today, Mac was my hero,

  4. Bob (BlftBucco2) said...

    Bruce & Bob

    Good points by both of you.

    Although the Tigers were not a speed team during the McAuliffe era, he typically led the team or was near the top in triples. Maybe he was underrated as a baserunner.

    I think you are correct on Wills.  His doubles/triples ratio compares to slap type hitters/speedsters like Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno, and Lance Johnson.  I guess once you get the ball past the OF’er you are standing on third base.

    Probably not much benefit to try to stretch a single to a double when you can just steal the base.

    I guess that’s why Rickey Henderson with his respected power didn’t accumulate all that many triples in his career.

  5. Bob Tufts said...

    Dick only hit into 2 DP’s in 1967. Having grown up in the Boston area, I remember the second one, as it caused the last outs of an 8-5 loss to the Angels that allowed the Red Sox to win the AL title.

  6. Coach said...

    …and he hit into zero DP’s in the WS year of 1968.  Pretty phenomenal in lieu of the fact that he had over 650 PA’s.  Growing up in Detroit, he was the grit of that team, the guy you could always count on to grind out an at-bat or complete the double-play.

  7. Bob (BlftBucco2) said...

    Bruce,

    Any insight on why McAuliffe had what seems to me a high number of career triples?  He didn’t have the greatest speed but amassed 71 career triples against 231 doubles in 1530 career hits.

    This seems an anomaly to me, much like Maury Wills career stats of only 177 doubles along with the same 71 career triples as McAuliffe. But doing so with 2134 career hits.

    I can understand the high career triples for Wills but not McAuliffe. But I don’t understand the low amount of doubles for Wills considering his great speed.

  8. glenn said...

    I believe he only hit into 1 DP in the entire ‘67 season, and that was on the last at bat in the last game of the regular season against the Angels, and it got the Tigers eliminated from the pennant chase.  Maybe my favorite Tiger as a kid in Detroit, even though Kaline was my hero (as he was for just about every Detroit kid).

  9. Kahuna Tuna said...

    I checked McAuliffe’s ‘67 daily stats at Retrosheet.  He hit into two double plays that season:  the first in game #158, in the third inning of a 1-0 Tigers win over the Yankees, and the second to end game #162.  Pretty remarkable.

  10. Joe said...

    McAuliffe’s record of not hitting into double plays was remarkable to be sure.  That said, it’s not like he had a lot of opportunity, particularly in 1968.  He was mostly following Don Wert (.258 OBP), Ray Oyler (.213 OBP) and the pitcher that year.  McAuliffe came to the plate 658 times that year, but only 78 with a man on first and less than two outs.

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