A Tale of Two New York Giants
The New York (baseball) Giants often lagged behind the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers in attendance when the Big Apple was home to three major league baseball teams. Authors who write about the franchise's history tend to focus on a few areas.
Christy Mathewson and John McGraw have been the subjects of numerous articles and books. Moving to the 1930s, Mel Ott and Bill Terry have gotten a fair amount of attention from baseball historians. The 1951 "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff" home run by Bobby Thompson that put the Giants in the World Series is a perpetual topic for New Yorkers and others. Add in the non-stop coverage of Willie Mays, the books on Leo Durocher plus accounts of journeyman Dusty Rhodes' heroics in the 1954 World Series, and that pretty well sums up what's available on the east coast version of the Giants.
Since 2007 is the 50th anniversary of the team's last game in the Polo Grounds, it's an appropriate time to look at two lesser-known Giants. They were managed by Durocher, and both men were teammates during the Mays era. While these players were starters on the same roster, their approaches to the game couldn't be more different.
Catcher Wes Westrum and outfielder Don Mueller spent much of the 1950s in the shadow of Mays. As everyday players on a team that appeared in two World Series (1951 and 1954), Westrum and Mueller played vital supporting roles in the franchise's last seasons at the Polo Grounds.
As a grade schooler obsessed with all things baseball, I knew Westrum had replaced Casey Stengel when the Old Professor retired from managing the Mets after suffering a broken hip during the 1965 season. Applying the normal standards of the day, I had a typical late 1960s reaction when reviewing Westrum's career numbers.
"What were the Giants thinking? How could they keep such a terrible hitter for so long?", I asked after being exposed to the Minnesota native's .217 lifetime average from 1947 to 1957, all with the New York Giants. How wrong I was.
While Westrum was subpar in one category, he made up for it elsewhere. He finished fourth in the National League with 92 walks in 1950. Combine that with a .236 average to arrive at a .371 OBP plus a career-best 23 home runs and 71 RBI.
Add in durability (140 games as a catcher) and Westrum's pitch calling and defensive skills - just one error for a .999 fielding percentage - and it quickly becomes obvious just how valuable he could be.
Although his average fell to .219 in 1951, Westrum was still an asset to the pennant-winning Giants. A career-high 104 walks (third in the NL) in 361 ABs led to a .400 OBP, which would had been good enough for sixth in the league if Westrum had a few more at-bats to qualify. His 20 HR and 70 RBI were far above normal from a bottom of the order hitter.
To call Westrum's season productive is an understatement, as he had nearly an RBI for each of his 79 hits. His walk total exceeded the hit count by 25, so opposing pitchers had to work hard to put Westrum away. He occasionally batted higher in the lineup. Westrum was in the cleanup slot behind Mays on May 28, 1951. That was the day when the Say Hey Kid smacked the first of his 660 career home runs against Warren Spahn.
The average stayed nearly the same at .220 (71 for 322) in 1952. Westrum's walks (76) exceeded his hits (71) for the second consecutive year, and a .374 OBP would have been eighth in the NL with enough plate appearances.
Westrum's playing time decreased for the next five years - possibly because of the era's focus on batting average. He made numerous appearances as a late-inning defensive replacement during the final three years of his career. In that time (1955-57), the right-handed hitter appeared in exactly 200 box scores, with just 360 ABs.
With nearly as many career walks (489) as hits (503), Westrum's OBP of .356 is above the NL average of .343 during his career. Even with a combined .228 average in 1950 and 1951, Westrum was clearly a solid offensive catcher during those years. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1952 and 1953.
Unlike Westrum, Mueller was a high-average type. His ability to make contact and slap singles earned the left-handed hitter the nickname "Mandrake the Magician" after the popular comic strip character.
The St. Louis native provided an accurate preview of his career in 1948. In 36 games and 81 rookie ABs, Mueller hit .358 with just three strikeouts and no walks. 1950 was Mueller's first full season with the Giants. He hit .291 (153 for 525) with 7 HR and a career-best 84 RBI. Twenty-six strikeouts combined with 10 walks says it all about Mueller's approach to hitting.
Mueller cut the Ks in half to 13 in 1951, when he went 130 for 469 for a .277 average with 16 HRs (a career high) and 69 RBI. Although he nearly doubled his walk total to 19, Mueller's .307 OBP was 36 points below the NL average of .343.
The Giants rightfielder experienced what had to be one of the most heartbreaking moments in baseball history. Mueller broke his ankle when sliding into third base during the ninth inning of the famed "shot heard round the world" pennant clincher of October 3, 1951. If the injury hadn't occured, Mueller would have had his usual starting role in that year's World Series against the Yankees.
By his impatient standards, Mueller was operating at a Rickey Henderson-like level of taking pitches in 1952. A career-best 34 walks with 24 Ks in 456 ABs (128 hits, .281) led to a 26-point jump in OBP to .333.
Mueller showed why he was tagged with the Mandrake moniker in 1953. He hit .333 (160 for 480), and just 20 of those knocks (12 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR) went for extra bases, which meant Mueller earned a Ph.D in punching singles. The BA was good for fifth in the NL, and the 13 Ks and 19 walks were a rerun of 1951. Even though he often hit third, Muller led the NL in singles in 1954 (165) and 1955 (152) along with a third place finish (140) in 1953.
It was onward and upward in 1954. Mueller came through with career bests in hits (212), batting average (.342), doubles (35) and OBP (.363). Only teammate Mays (.345) surpassed Mueller, who hit an RBI double in his first All-Star appearance.
The year was rounded out with seven singles in 18 World Series ABs (.389) as the underdog Giants swept the Indians in the Fall Classic. With just 17 Ks and 22 walks, opposing fielders had to be alert when Mueller was at the plate. 1954 was the second of four consecutive seasons where Mueller reigned as the league's toughest strikeout.
A .306 (185 for 605) campaign in 1955 was good enough to earn Mueller a second All-Star nomination. Although his doubles plunged from 35 to 21, the RBI count rose from 71 to 83. As always, Mueller was the supreme master of putting the ball in play, with 12 Ks (less than one every 50 ABs) and 19 walks.
Mandrake ran out of tricks in 1956, as his ability to hit for average vanished. After a trio of .300 plus performances, Mueller fell to .269 and .258 in the Giants' final two seasons in upper Manhattan. With his free-swinging approach, that meant OBPs of .290 and .280.
Mueller was still all but impossible to strike out, as he had just seven Ks in 453 ABs in 1956. The contact master closed out his career as a part-timer with the White Sox in 1958 and 1959. Mueller's .296 lifetime average (1292 for 4364) is just 26 lower than his .322 OBP, which is 18 points under the NL average of .340. Many 21st century players have more Ks in one season than Mueller's career total of 146, but his 164 walks would scare off modern numbers crunchers.
Two teammates with radically different hitting styles. How could Westrum and Mueller have anything in common with a bat in their hands? In one respect, these Gotham Giants are two peas in a pod.
Both patient, powerful Westrum and slap at anything Mueller were allergic to doubles. Westrum's best season of 13 came in 1950 when he had a career high 437 at-bats. It was all downhill from there. Westrum smacked a dozen two-baggers in 1951, 11 in 1952 and five in 290 ABs in 1954.
While hitting .187 in 1955, Westrum had just three doubles in 246 ABs. Eight homers and 45 walks meant he wasn't a total offensive zero, but even a gun to his head wouldn't have gotten doubles out of Westrum in 1955 and 1957. In those years, Westrum had a lone double per season in 132 and 91 ABs.
Just 59 doubles in 2322 career ABs is a lowly number, but Westrum's final five campaigns are almost freakish. From 1953 to 1957, the catcher had a mere 15 doubles in 896 ABs. There may be a contributing factor, which will be explored later.
Toss out 1954 when he was eighth in the NL in doubles, and Mueller had just 104 two-base hits in his other 3745 ABs. He had just 10 doubles along with seven triples in 469 ABs in 1951. That total crept up to 14 in 456 ABs the following year. Never known as a consistent longball threat, Mueller actally had more homers (28) than doubles (24) in those two seasons.
A dozen doubles in 453 ABs in 1956 doesn't look good, but it sure beats the seven two-baggers in 450 ABs that Mueller produced in 1957. Add in a triple and six HRs, and it means 102 of that season's 116 hits were singles.
Could there another reason why Westrum and Mueller are deficient in doubles? The odd, bathtub shape of the Polo Grounds meant deep alleys but a narrow outfield. Anything clubbed over an outfielder's head had a chance to go for a triple or even an inside-the-park home run, but there was relatively little space to cover in the gaps.
In the Polo Grounds, line drives and gappers could be cut off easier by outfielders with average to poor speed. That would be especially true if outfielders played deeper than normal. Without having the time to make an exhaustive study, a look at National League doubles leaders provides some insights.
Giants second baseman Larry Doyle (no relation) led the NL with 40 doubles in 1915, a season when he also led the league with a .320 BA. The next Giant to lead the NL in doubles was Alvin Dark (41) in 1951. No other New York or San Francisco Giant has topped National League in doubles since. That's not a great surprise, as the team spent 40 years in wind-whipped, blustery Candlestick Park after leaving New York.
With just one league leader in 88 seasons of the live ball era, it's not a stretch to say the Polo Grounds could have cut into the doubles totals of Giants hitters. If that's not the case, then why would extreme opposites such as Westrum and Mueller have such similar results in that department?