Card Corner: Dick McAuliffeby Bruce Markusen
September 04, 2009
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.
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.
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