Filling Lou’s shoes

The New York Yankees in 1939 were the most dominant dynasty in the history of major league baseball, exactly at their apex. They won their fourth consecutive pennant that year, and their margins over their second-place pursuers in those four straight flags were 19.5, 13, 9.5 and 17 games. They would win the World Series in every one of those seasons, losing just three of 19 World Series games, outscoring their World Series opponents 113 to 52.

In an era when not every major league franchise had a full-scale farm system, the Yankees in the late 1930s had a powerhouse minor league talent factory at their disposal. They had not one but two Double-A affiliates (the highest minor league classification, the equivalent of today’s Triple-A), and one of those, the Newark Bears of the International League, presented teams in this period that are considered among the greatest in minor league history. The 1937 Bears went 109-43, and in ’38 they were 104-48.

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ other top farm club, the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, put up a 107-47 record in 1939.

In short, the Yankees in 1939 were overflowing with talent and resources. And yet early in the ’39 season, when their all-time great first baseman Lou Gehrig was stricken with ALS and forced to retire, who did the Yankees summon as his replacement?

Babe Dahlgren.

When I was a kid, learning the Gehrig story—reading bland school-library biographies, watching a snowy, discount-tire-commercial-interrupted Pride of the Yankees while fussing with the rabbit ears—I always assumed Dahlgren must have been a stud prospect. I mean, obviously the Yankees didn’t have a need for first base depth in all those years with The Iron Horse chugging along, but when the time came for Columbia Lou to step aside—and his illness notwithstanding, Gehrig was 36 years old in 1939; one would think the Yankees would be undertaking some manner of contingency planning—you’d think they’d have reached into their fabulous system and pulled out someone with real potential.

But, no. Babe Dahlgren wasn’t any kind of stud prospect. He was 27 years old in 1939, a journeyman utility player the Yankees had purchased from the Red Sox in 1937. He could play a little third base as well as first, but he wasn’t much of a hitter—his major league OPS+ in 706 plate appearances through 1938 was 78.

With all the vast resources at their disposal, this was the guy to whom the Yankees handed the first base job Gehrig had handled so tremendously since 1925. And manager Joe McCarthy kept Dahlgren there on a full-time basis, in very nearly every inning of every game, for the rest of 1939 and all of 1940, despite the fact that Dahlgren was producing in his predictably mediocre fashion, putting up an OPS+ of 76 in ’39, and 86 in ’40.

It would prove to be just the first in a long sequence of extremely curious first base choices by the Yankee organization in the decade following Gehrig’s departure.

The Dahlgren alternatives

What other options did McCarthy and general manager Ed Barrow have in 1939-40? Several seem fairly obvious, at least worth giving a try, as Dahlgren amply proved he was nothing more than a stopgap at filling Lou’s shoes.

1) First baseman Jack Graham could have been promoted from the minors. Graham wasn’t a good hitter for average, but he was a big, strong left-handed swinger with exceptional pull-hitting power, seemingly made-to-order for Yankee Stadium. Graham led the Eastern League in home runs in 1939 and again in 1940, and would go on to hit 384 long balls in his long and extraordinary minor league career. But Barrow never called him up for an inning of action with the Yankees before trading Graham in December 1940 for Boze Berger, a banjo-hitting utility infielder who would also never see the light of day with the Yankees.

2) Tommy Henrich could have been moved in from the outfield to play first base. Henrich was a left-handed thrower who would play quite a bit of first base later in his career. Shifting Henrich to first would require a replacement for him in right field, and there the Yankees had several viable choices:

2a) George Selkirk, the Yankees’ fourth outfielder through this period, could have played right field full-time. In both 1939 and 1940, Henrich and Selkirk shared right field (indeed, Selkirk got most of the playing time). Selkirk was a terrific player, easily meriting full-time play (vastly moreso than Dahlgren).

2b) Walt Judnich could have been promoted from the minors. Judnich was a fine all-around player, a left-handed hitter with power, who in fact could play first base as well as the outfield. But despite Judnich’s putting together solid seasons in the Pacific Coast League, American Association and International League successively in 1937-38-39, Barrow never called him up, and instead sold him to the St. Louis Browns in January 1940.

2c) Tommy Holmes could have been promoted from the minors. Holmes didn’t have Judnich’s power, but he was a very good contact hitter, and an excellent defensive outfielder. Yet though he hit over .300 for Newark in 1939, 1940 and 1941, Barrow never called him up either.

Gordon/Sturm

The Yankees’ string of pennants was snapped at four in 1940, and perhaps that was the factor prompting the organization to decide that Dahlgren wasn’t the best they could do at first base. In February of 1941 they sold him to the Boston Braves. For the ’41 season, McCarthy devised a bold approach to fill Lou’s shoes.

The Yankees that year were ready to promote their sensational rookie double play combo of shortstop Phil Rizzuto and second baseman Jerry Priddy, who’d jointly torn up the minor leagues. There was plenty of room for Rizzuto at shortstop, as longtime incumbent Frank Crosetti had endured a miserable 1940 campaign and was clearly ready to be replaced.

However, there was no apparent room for Priddy at second base, as Joe “Flash” Gordon was already there as a tremendous all-around young star. But McCarthy decided this was the chance to kill two birds with one stone: He would shift Gordon to first base, replacing Dahlgren and allowing the abundantly talented Priddy to take over second.

While one can easily question the wisdom of wasting Gordon’s fielding brilliance at first base, it’s certainly the case that such an alignment would make for a spectacular defensive infield. Yet McCarthy demonstrated no commitment to his plan: Barely one month into the 1941 season, the 21-year-old Priddy wasn’t hitting well, and McCarthy demoted him to utility infielder, moved Gordon back to second, and installed rookie Johnny Sturm as the regular at first base.

Like Dahlgren before him, Sturm was not the sort of talent a championship team deploys as its regular at first base. He was 25 years old, and in the minors had consistently hit for a good average, but utterly without power. For the Yankees in 1941, Sturm failed to hit for average, power or anything else, putting up an OPS+ of a feeble 58—yet McCarthy stayed with him at first base for 568 plate appearances, with Priddy picking up nothing more than fill-in work.

Hassett

Despite the black hole at first base, the ’41 Yankees returned to their familiar position as pennant- and World Series winners. Nevertheless, they recognized the need to give something else a try at first base. In December, they traded Holmes to the Braves, and as part of the return package they received the veteran Buddy Hassett.

In their deployments of both Dahlgren and Sturm, McCarthy and Barrow had demonstrated a remarkable willingness to favor defense over offense at the first base position, a decidedly “old school” mode that harkened back to the Dead Ball era. Very few teams since the early 1920s had continued to tolerate minimal run production from a first-string first baseman. One of the last of the Old Guard, however, a throwback type if ever there was one, was Buddy Hassett.

Hassett wasn’t an especially little guy (5-foot-11, 180), but he was a contact hitter who generated virtually no power. He generally hit for a good average, but that was his only redeeming offensive characteristic. Hassett drew few walks, and in more than 3,200 plate appearances in the National League, he’d delivered a grand total of seven home runs.

Yet this was the fellow the Yankees got to fill Lou’s shoes, and like Dahlgren and Sturm before him, Hassett was deployed as a full-time regular in 1942. He delivered a decent batting performance—for Hassett. His OPS+ of 95 was typical of a Hassett season, but significantly worse than that of the league-average first baseman.

Etten

During the 1942-43 off-season, Hassett was drafted into military service, so the search was on again for a Yankee first baseman.

One option was already on the roster. In late August of 1942, the Yankees had picked up 28-year-old switch-hitting outfielder-first baseman Roy Cullenbine from the Senators. Cullenbine had bounced around and hit inconsistently, but at his best he’d been terrific, showing decent power and extraordinary strike zone discipline.

With the Yankees in ’42 Cullenbine took over the right field job from Henrich, who’d been inducted into the military. Cullenbine caught fire, hitting a ferocious .364/.484/.532 (188 OPS+) down the stretch, and batted third in all five games of that fall’s World Series. But Barrow declined to bring Cullenbine back in 1943 as either his right fielder or his first baseman, instead executing a mystifying trade in December of ’42, sending Cullenbine along with Buddy Rosar, a pretty good catcher, to Cleveland for two journeymen, outfielder Roy Weatherly and infielder Oscar Grimes.

Then, in January 1943, Barrow traded cash and prospects to the Philadelphia Blue Jays (f.k.a. Phillies) for first baseman Nick Etten. In Etten, the Yankees were going in a very different direction: He was no slap hitter, but a big, strong guy (6’2″, 200) who through the age of 28 had shown potential (though not sustained performance at the major league level) as an excellent hitter with good power. But he was regarded as a dreadful defensive first baseman.

Etten would settle in for the remainder of World War II and provide the Yankees with splendid production at first base (offensively, anyway). It’s difficult to know just exactly how good he was, given the twin distortions of depleted wartime competition (which inflated Etten’s stats) and the deadened wartime Balata ball (which depressed them), but in any case Etten was among the American League’s best hitters in 1943-44-45, in at least two of the three years in the top 10 in OBP, SLG, OPS+, home runs, RBIs and walks.

But with the war’s end, in 1946 the 32-year-old Etten’s production significantly declined. Over the course of the season he lost his status as the Yankees’ full-time first baseman. Henrich played there quite a bit, as did fellow outfielder Johnny Lindell, and also a 27-year-old rookie with some power, Steve Souchock. For 1947, it was wide open as to whom the Yankees were going to try to find to fill Lou’s shoes.

McQuinn

Barrow had retired in 1945, and the mercurial Larry MacPhail was now the Yankees’ GM. Of all the first base alternatives MacPhail might have taken at this point, the one he went with was perhaps the least expected.

George McQuinn had been a solid, line-drive-hitting regular first baseman in the American League for many years (though of unusually light weight for the position, at 5’11″, 165). But in 1946, at the age of 36, he’d been terrible, putting up a meager 78 OPS+ for Connie Mack’s last-place Philadelphia A’s.

After the season, Mack had found no takers for McQuinn in the trade market, and so simply released him. It looked for all the world as though McQuinn had hit the end of the line.

But for whatever reason, MacPhail decided to give him a chance, signing McQuinn as a free agent in January 1947. Bucky Harris, now the Yankees’ field manager, installed the 37-year-old McQuinn as the first base starter and kept him there all season. The veteran responded with a terrific year, producing a career-best OPS+, making the All-Star team, and finishing sixth in the league’s MVP tabulation as the Yankees won their first pennant since 1943.

But in 1948, McQuinn would decline, and once again the first base scramble was on. This time, the Yankees would pursue an entirely new approach to filling Lou’s shoes.

Casey

MacPhail’s successor, George Weiss, stunned the baseball world by hiring veteran ne’er-do-well National League manager Casey Stengel as the Yankees’ skipper. Stengel, in turn, would proceed to perplex and amaze all observers with his arcane, unorthodox, creative and startlingly effective lineup constructions, and at no position would his nimble juggling be more artful than at first base.

Stengel simply eschewed having anything resembling a regular first baseman. In 1949, The Old Perfessor deployed four players (Henrich, Dick Kryhoski, Jack Phillips and Billy Johnson) in more than 20 games at first base, but none in more than 52, yet they combined for solid performance and the Yankees were once again champions. It would set in motion a kaleidoscopic-yet-robust fluidity to the Yankees’ first base circumstance that remained for nearly the duration of Stengel’s 12-season tenure.

Over that period, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Don Bollweg, Bill Skowron, Eddie Robinson, Marv Throneberry and Elston Howard all would play significant roles at first base for the Yankees. But not until 1960, Stengel’s final year in the Bronx, would any individual appear in more than 120 games in a season as the Yankee first baseman.

Never in that time was first base anything close to a weakness for the Yankees, indeed often the production they received from the position was tremendous. The organization had found a way to satisfactorily fill Lou’s great shoes at last, though it was in the manner least similar to that of the ever-steady Iron Horse.

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