Friday, October 26, 2012
A tribute to The Walking ManPosted by Bruce Markusen
“The Walking Man” sounds like it might have been a prequel to The Running Man, the 1987 cult film that featured a devious Richard Dawson as a sadistic game show host. In this case, The Walking Man refers to former major league third baseman Eddie Yost, who died earlier this month at the age of 86.
Yost first came into my consciousness in the 1970s, when he was a perennial member of the Mets’ coaching staffs. Regardless of the manager, the Mets always seemed to have Yost, Joe Pignatano, and Rube Walker in their employ as coaches. (It was common for coaches to stay with teams for long stretches back then, even with changes of managers.) I did not know much about Yost at the time, other than figuring he was a loyal company man who could work for any manager. Well, there was more to Yost than met the eye.
Eddie Yost is proof positive that if you can control the strike zone then you can prosper in the major leagues, even if your other skills are only average. Yost was not a particularly slick defensive third baseman; in fact he was likely average to below-average. He hit with some power, but his home run totals were compressed by the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Griffith Stadium in Washington. His lifetime batting average was a mediocre .254. Nor was he was an accomplished basestealer. Yet, he lasted for 18 seasons in large part because of his ability to draw walks and reach base as the leadoff man for the Washington Senators. In so doing, The Walking Man found a unique way to contribute as an above-average major league player.
Originally signed by the Senators in 1944, Yost bypassed the minor leagues completely and made his major league debut that August. (It helped him that the Senators were not a good team and that many of the major leagues’ best players had already been called to military service.) Then the reality of World War II hit Yost himself, forcing him to give up all of his 1945 season. He returned from the Navy to play briefly in 1946, before receiving a regular shot at playing time. But for the rest of the 1940s, he struggled, failing to gain traction as a hitter. Perhaps only Washington’s status as a second-division club kept Yost in the lineup, or in the major leagues at all.
Still only 24 years of age, Yost found his way in 1950. He hit a career-best .295. He reached double figures in home runs. And his walk numbers exploded. After drawing a plentiful 91 walks in 1949, he pumped that figure up to a league leading 141 in 1950. He became a master of the strike zone, able to recognize pitches and whether they fell within the confines of the zone, or faded just outside of its perimeter. He also became a master of fouling off pitches, particularly with two strikes. With an on-base percentage of .440, Yost had arrived as an offensive force and a pest to opposing pitchers.
That summer marked the beginning of a stretch of seven seasons in which Yost accumulated at least 123 walks six times and led the league in bases on balls four times. He was also amazingly durable during that stretch, as he played in 152 or more games six times. He also made his lone All-Star team during that span of seasons, as he was selected by Casey Stengel despite being in the midst of a .233 season.
Stengel and the Yankees coveted Yost for much of the early 1950s. They felt that Yost would help them immensely at third base. They initiated trade talks with the Senators on several occasions, but could never finalize a deal for The Walking Man.
Yost’s numbers, along with his durability, fell off in 1957 and ‘58. With Harmon Killebrew projected as the team’s future third baseman, the Senators traded Yost and colorful infielder Rocky Bridges to the Tigers for a package that included outfielder Jim Delsing. Yost enjoyed a revival with the Tigers. In two seasons with Detroit, he led the league in walks and on-base percentage each time, and also took advantage of the dimensions at Tiger Stadium. Yost’s 21 home runs in 1959 were by far his best output. (While playing in Washington, Yost had played at a distinct disadvantage; the left field dimensions at Griffith Stadium made it a nightmare for right-handed hitters. From 1944 to 1953, Yost had hit only three home runs in Washington’s cavernous bone yard.)
The Tigers would have liked to keep Yost, but he was now 33, so they left him exposed in the expansion draft. The Los Angles Angels selected him, made him their leadoff man, and watched him become the first batter in the history of the franchise.
Unfortunately, Yost’s skills left him by the time he joined the Haloes. With his hitting and power completely diminished, and with pitchers challenging him more often, Yost’s ability to draw walks was all that remained. That was not enough to keep him in the lineup, nor in the major leagues. After the 1962 season, Yost called it quits.
If not for his walking, Yost would not have had nearly the career that he did. His lifetime on-base percentage was better than several Hall of Fame hitting masters, including Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Frank Robinson and Willie Mays. Of all players who are not Hall of Famers and are eligible for election, Yost stands as the career leader in walks. On the all-time list, he currently ranks 11th in bases on balls.
As someone who controlled and studied the strike zone, Yost was regarded as an intelligent player. He was also bright enough to become the American League’s player representative. So it was no surprise when he became a coach, first with the Angels, and then with the Senators, Mets and Red Sox. He also managed the Senators for one game.
When Gil Hodges left the Senators and became the manager of the Mets in 1968, he brought Yost with him from the Washington staff and made him his third base coach. After the Mets stunned the universe by winning the World Championship, rumors surfaced that the Twins would hire Yost as Billy Martin’s replacement. But it never happened, so Yost returned to New York.
After Hodges’ death in the spring of 1972, Yost remained on the Mets’ staff, working first for Yogi Berra and then for Roy McMillan. He continued as third base coach until 1976, when the Mets hired a new manager in Joe Frazier, who decided to cut Yost loose. The Red Sox snapped up Yost as third base coach, keeping him there until 1984. By the time he retired, Yost had accumulated 22 seasons as a third base coach.
Twenty-two seasons of coaching, along with 18 seasons of playing. That’s a pretty good career for a player whose major strength was his ability to take a walk. There should be a lesson in there: learn the strike zone, boys and girls, and you might have a chance to do what Eddie Yost did.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.