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Remembering a former New York Yankee

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Column by Jim Clark

With all the nasty stuff we read about sports participants, it’s nice to recall one famous athlete who was a decent guy.

In the mid 1960s, I was named basketball coach of the 7th-8th grade team at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Tenafly, N.J. I was fairly young at the time, in my early 20s, but I had graduated from a good basketball school, Bergen Catholic, and had a good hoops background from spending time on the bench as the team manager with two great coaches.

When I held my first team meeting, there was a set of brothers, Gil, an eighth-grader, and Todd, who was a seventh-grader, whose last name was McDougald.

I immediately recognized their father, Gil McDougald, who had been a rookie of the year in the early 1950s and played 10 years for the New York Yankees before retiring from baseball.

Talk about pressure! Here I was a young guy who had never met a “celebrity,” and all of a sudden I’m responsible for coaching a pair of children whose father was once a member of the Yankees.

Remember, in those days, players’ salaries were not as mind-boggling as they are now. When players retired, they needed to establish another income source. Gil had set up some sort of cleaning service, called Yankee Building Management, and was evidently quite good at it.

As practice went on and we got close to the first game, we went through the practices without a hitch. Our setup was that every Saturday one of the six teams in our division would host all three games, and as luck would have it we drew the opening week. That meant we played the third game, but we would have to have the gym open and ready for the 9 a.m. contest.

Since we hadn’t done much, and it was our responsibility, to make the gym and the entrance presentable, we called a work day for the Saturday before opening day, “inviting” the parents and players to a morning of work.

On Friday, Gil, who probably could have been a good basketball player, too, asked if he could borrow my key. He said he would come in early and start some work. Since even then I was smart enough not to ignore someone else’s wishes to do my work, I said sure.

So Saturday morning I got there about 8:45 for the 9 a.m. meeting. Gil was just loading up his items and was getting ready to leave. He apologized for not being able to stay, but I thanked him for making an effort.

When I got inside, the gym floor, the entrance way and locker rooms had all been cleaned and buffed. The gym looked beautiful. I was a little shocked, but I soon realized that in dealing with Gil McDougald, I was dealing with someone special, someone who didn’t want to stay around and get the thanks from the other parents.

You always hear stories about “Little League parents” and some of the bad things they do. It applies, of course, to all sports. Over my years of coaching I’ve had a few, but for the most part the parents I’ve worked with have been great. Gil McDougald set the tone for what I wanted parents of my players to be, and I often cited his example at preseason meetings.

His baseball career was exemplary, and this is coming from a Mets fan (the Mets didn’t exist when he was playing). He started with the 1951 season, where he was Rookie of the Year, beating out teammate Mickey Mantle and the Chicago White Sox’ Minnie Minoso (who would have been a deserving winner) in the voting, and retired after the 1960 season, when it appeared he would be taken by Washington in the expansion draft. In those 10 years, he played on eight American League pennant winners and five World Series champions. The versatile infielder singled in the winning run in the 1958 All-Star game, and was the first rookie to hit a grand slam in the World Series as the Yankees won in 1951. His last game was the seventh game of the 1960 World Series where he scored as a pinch runner to tie the game in the top of the ninth, only to see Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates hit a Series-winning home run in the bottom of the inning. In 1956, he was playing shortstop in Don Larsen’s perfect game, and threw out Jackie Robinson on a ball that had deflected to him off the third baseman.

He later became a successful baseball coach at Fordham University.

Gil McDougald died on Nov. 28, just about a month ago, from prostate cancer at the age of 82, still living in New Jersey. His obituary said he had seven children (I only knew the two) and had grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, which meant that possibly the boys I coached are now grandparents (makes me feel old).

In his later years he had a cochlear transplant to restore hearing he lost as a result of being hit with a line drive in batting practice years before. He regained his hearing and was a spokesman for the surgical procedure.

Unfortunately, he is remembered by folks my age for something else, a line drive he hit in 1957 that smashed into the head of Cleveland pitcher Herb Score. The Indians’ hurler was never the same after that injury.

But even that incident showed the true side of McDougald, who was upset for years after that game. He and Score reportedly stayed in touch.

All of today’s ballplayers should study the life and times of Gil McDougald, and use him to model themselves into ballplayers who are excellent human beings, not the spoiled rich brats that some of them (not all) turn out to be.

Sports would be a much better pastime if more athletes behaved like him.

 

Jim Clark is the editor of the South Marion Citizen. He can be reached at editor@smcitizen.com, or at 352-854-3986.