This annotated week in baseball history: Feb. 13-Feb. 19, 1915

On February 18, 1915, Joe Gordon was born. The 1942 Most Valuable Player and nine-time All-Star, “Flash” was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009. Richard looks back at his life and career.

As part of my continuing efforts to better educate myself about the careers of members of the Hall of Fame, we come to one of its most recent inductees: Joe Gordon. Gordon was elected—posthumously, which always seems a shame—to the Hall by the Veterans Committee in 2009. This week, we’ll look back on Gordon’s career, and examine the issue of his candidacy for the Hall.

Gordon was born in California in 1915 and attended the University of Oregon, where he played not only multiple sports, but also violin in the school orchestra. But baseball was clearly where his greatest talent rested, and by age 21 he was batting .300 in the Yankees’ minor league system.

Gordon earned a call-up to the big club in 1938 and made an instant impact. Though he hit just .255, his 25 home runs ranked tenth in the league—in fewer than 130 games—and advanced defensive metrics ranked him the best second baseman in the American League. Gordon finished twelfth in the MVP voting that year.

Most important of all in the eyes of Yankee fans, he made sure the team didn’t miss a beat as the defending World Series champions won again, defeating the Cubs in a sweep. Gordon was the offensive star of the series for the Yankees, batting .400 with a home run and six RBI.

(I would like to say that if they had given World Series MVP honors, the title would be Gordon’s, but in truth it probably would have gone to Red Ruffing. Ruffing was 2-0 with two complete games and a 1.50 ERA in the series that year. That’s some MVP-worthy pitching.)

The next season Gordon was even better, playing a full year while raising his OPS more than 30 points. At just 24, Gordon was a key contributor to arguably the greatest team of all-time, placing behind only Joe DiMaggio in home runs and RBI. Once again, the Yankees won the World Series, though this time Gordon struggled in October, hitting just .143 as the Yankees swept away the Cincinnati Reds. Gordon’s regular season exploits were justly recognized, however, with a top-ten finish in the MVP voting that year.

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The Yankees’ “other” Flash Gordon (Icon/SMI)

Gordon held steady for the next couple of seasons but exploded in 1942. In the midst of a string of eight straight All-Star appearances, Gordon had his finest all-around season. He batted .322, ranked in the top ten in the AL in batting, OPS, runs, hits, homers, RBI and walks.

It is true that the MVP that year probably should have gone to Ted Williams—having a characteristically great season—but Gordon’s Yankees beating out Williams’ Red Sox by nine games for the pennant no doubt weighted heavy in the minds of many sportswriters.

Gordon—nicknamed “Flash” for the popular comic book hero, rather than the foot speed that saw him total just 89 steals in 149 tries—was never that good again but continued to maintain a strong standard for most of the rest of his career. The only exception was 1946 when Gordon hit just .210 and was traded by the Yankees after the season to Cleveland for Allie Reynolds.

Though the trade worked out nicely for New York, as Reynolds would establish himself as one of the dominant postseason pitchers in baseball history, Gordon proved he still had talent left. It seems likely his ’46 season was at least partially owing to shaking off the rust after missing two seasons serving in the Army during World War II.

(Gordon also left the Yankees with an odd statistical quirk: he played 1000 games for the club, and recorded 1,000 hits. Until this past year—when Robinson Cano went by him&mdashthat put Gordon in the top five all-time among Yankee second basemen.)

Still a strong second baseman, Gordon is credited with being among the finest to turn the double play in his era. Gordon’s bat rebounded in 1947, and in 1948 he posted another strong season and helped lead the Indians to the World Series. Though he struggled in the Series itself—another odd feature of his career was his feast-or-famine play in the World Series; Gordon hit both .400 and .500 in a Fall Classic, but also under .200 three times—the Indians prevailed.

1948 was the last of Gordon’s truly great seasons, and after a subpar year at age 35 in 1950, he left the majors for good. Although he still probably possessed enough talent to play in the big leagues (Gordon posted a 1.026 OPS in Triple-A in 1951), he had already begun the move to the next stage of his career: managing.

Despite, or perhaps because of, a kinetic but likeable personality, Gordon never developed into a strong manager. Though he led the Indians to a second place finish in 1959, he feuded with the team’s general manager and was traded (midseason!) in 1960 to the Tigers for their manager, Jimmy Dykes. Neither Gordon nor Dykes significantly improved his new club, but you have to admire any trade that involves two people with a combined age of well over 100.

Gordon bounced around managing and served as the first manager of the Kansas City Royals in 1969 but was replaced after just one season in charge. He never managed again; he went into the real estate business, and died in 1978.

Gordon’s Hall of Fame selection was not without some controversy. Though he did miss two seasons due to the war, his games total is on the low end for Hall of Famers, as are numbers like his hit total (just over 1,500). This has led to some stories like one headlined “Joe Gordon Headed for Cooperstown: The Hall Embarrasses Itself Yet Again.” That is, in truth, a severe overstatement. Given Gordon’s strong defensive reputation, his election is, at worst, borderline.

Given the short nature of Gordon’s career and his death more than thirty years before his Hall of Fame election, it is little surprise he is not better known. But he was a fine ballplayer at his best, and a worthy recipient of baseball’s highest honor.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Nice article.  Just a couple of nitpicks.  It would probably be more correct to have said something like “current advanced fielding metrics rank Gordon as the best second basemen in the AL that year.”  They didn’t have the advanced metrics so this would have been retrospective.

    Also, you call his performance in the World Series an “odd feature” of his career because he was so up or down.  I don’t see what is so odd about it; given the limited number of games, you would likely expect there to be a lot of variation between series, especially facing different pitchers.

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