Remembering Don Mueller, the New York Giants’ Batting “Magician”

When looking back at Don Mueller’s outstanding career, one thing jumped out at me. In 93 percent of Mueller’s plate appearances, he put the ball in play—no strike outs or walks. In twelve major league years, his most productive ones with the New York Giants, Mueller struck out only 146 times, a total exceeded in a single season by Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Mike Schmidt.

Mueller’s father Walter J., a Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder from 1922 to 1926, taught his son contact skills by showing him how to grip the bat and how to use pressure with one hand or another depending on where he wanted to place the ball. In what might have been his greatest lesson, Mueller’s father pitched corn kernels to his son that he would hit with a broomstick. As Mueller recalled his training, “Concentrating on such a small object improved my depth perception.”

During the 1954 season, the year he finished second in the Nation League batting title race, Mueller got at least a single in most games. Willie Mays eked Mueller out by a mere three points, .345 to .342

On July 11 however, against his father’s old club, Mueller hit for the cycle by collecting four hits off four different Pirates’ pitchers (Vernon Law, Bob Friend, Jake Thies and Paul La Palme): a double to left field, a triple to right center, a single to center, and in his final at-bat, a home run into the right-field seats off lefty Dick Littlefield. The round tripper, Mueller’s first home run of the season, was a rarity for the man known as “Mandrake the Magician.” Mueller often described himself as a Leo Durocher-type of ballplayer —hit and advance the runner.The preceding year, Mueller finished fifth in the batting race, .333, and was the most difficult batter to strike out, whiffing only 13 times.

Mueller is best remembered for his pivotal role in the 1951 National League final playoff game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Giants. With the Dodgers leading New York by 13-1/2 games in August, the Giants went on a late season tear to win 39 of their final 47 games that forced the do or die series.

Tied at one game each and with the Dodgers leading 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning of the deciding contest, the Giants’ Alvin Dark singled. Mueller, the next batter, took ball one but then noticed that first baseman Gil Hodges was holding Dark close to the bag. Mueller promptly singled passed Hodges to move, Durocher-esque, Dark to third. Whitey Lockman doubled to left to score Dark. But Mueller as he advanced to third tore tendons in his ankle. Mueller missed the rest of the game and the ensuing World Series against cross town rival New York Yankees

With Bobby Thompson the next batter, Giants’ fans would have settled for a single that would have scored pinch runner Clint Hartung, Mueller’s roomy, and tied the game. Instead, Thompson delivered the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” winning home run (5-4) off Ralph Branca which Mueller listened to on the radio, alone in the clubhouse.  (See Thompson’s home run here.)

Mueller, 84, died in suburban St. Louis on December 28.

Kaline vs. Yaz

Editor’s note: “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” will run on Friday this week. For now, please enjoy the latest from Alex Putterman.


Statistical comparison between baseball players decades removed from each other is undeniably dangerous – conditions and circumstances change wildly from generation to generation, making such analysis exceedingly difficult. For example, hitting 15 home runs in 1910 is much different than hitting 15 home runs in 2011, and winning 20 games in 1910 is much different than winning 20 games in 2011. But, like many dangerous things, these cross-era comparisons are often too tempting to resist. We love to argue over whether Barry Bonds was a better hitter than Babe Ruth and whether Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season was better than Walter Johnson’s 1913 or Bob Gibson’s 1968.

This enjoyment of comparison was the impetus for a blog post published here a few weeks ago, for this post, and for others I plan to write in the coming months. Today, I’ll break down the statistics of two all-time great Hall of Fame outfielders and attempt to conclude whose career was more productive. There’s of course no right answer, and if the players I’ve selected are as comparable as they seem to me, this should spark some debate and maybe even objection. What I present is only one opinion, achieved through totally objective, un-biased analysis of statistics.

Despite that preface and disclaimer about comparing players from different eras, the two players I’ll examine here actually overlapped by 14 seasons. Each reached the 3,000 hit plateau while playing for one team throughout his entire career. Each combined hitting prowess with excellent defense at a corner outfield position. And each was easily elected to Cooperstown in his year of eligibility.

Here are blind resumes of the two greats in question:

Player A: 399 home runs, 137 stolen bases, 134 OPS+, 91.0 WAR, 15-time all-star, 10-time gold glover, four top-5 MVP finishes

Player B: 452 home runs, 168 stolen bases, 129 OPS+, 88.7 WAR, 18-time all-star, seven-time gold glover, one MVP, two top-5 MVP finishes

Choosing between the two based on those numbers alone is very difficult, although player A probably gets the slight nod, having apparently been a more efficient hitter and better fielder than player B. As it turns out, player A is Al Kaline, the legendary Detroit Tigers rightfielder, and player B is Carl Yastrzemski, the similarly hallowed Boston Red Sox leftfielder.

And as close as those statistics appear, the deeper you delve into the careers of Kaline and Yastrzemski, the more and more difficult it become to discern who was better.

During Yaz’s absolute prime, the eight years from 1963 to 1970, the leftfielder posted an OPS+ of 152 and a WAR of 54.1. That stretch is far more impressive than any consecutive eight year period Kaline can boast of (Kaline’s best consecutive eight year run was probably 1955-1962, a time during which his OPS+ was 137 and his WAR 46.7). In what we’re calling his prime, Yaz led the league in batting average thrice and OPS+ four times. In Kaline’s entire career, by contrast, “Mr. Tiger” only once led the league in either category, winning a batting title in ’55. Yastrzemski’s triple crown 1967 season was by far the best single season ever by either player, and his ’68 and ’70 seasons were arguably better than Kaline’s best season (probably ’55) as well. For those who value peak performance over longevity, the argument stops right here. Yaz’s best was better than Kaline’s best, and, to some, that means the Red Sox star was a better player than his Tiger counterpart.

But the wider the window through which we compare the two, the more the stats favor Kaline. If we extend the aforementioned eight-year stretches into 10-year stretches, Yaz’s WAR edge dwindles, and when we tack on three more years and examine the players’ best consecutive 13-year intervals, thereby taking into account Kaline’s excellent 1967 season, the Tiger grabs a slight lead in WAR. The bottom line is that while Yaz had by far the best single season, easily the best two-year period, and even the best eight-year stretch, Kaline, due to superior consistency and extended excellence, had, I believe, the better career.

Since Kaline’s advantage in OPS+ is essentially negated by Yaz’s extra 2,500 career plate appearances, we can conclude the two were roughly equal as hitters. Both those who watch baseball and those who design algorithms agree Kaline and Yastrzemski to have been terrific defensive players; Yaz is 7th all-time in dWAR according to, while Kaline is tied for 14th, but Kaline was, if gold glove totals are to be accepted as evidence, considered by his contemporaries as slightly superior with a glove, and right field in Tiger Stadium was certainly larger and therefore more difficult to cover than left field at Fenway Park.

The difference between the two players might be base-running. Although Yaz has a few more career stolen bases than Kaline, Kaline swiped his bags at a much better rate (68% to 59%). According to baseballreference, Kaline was, over the course of his career, worth 41 runs above replacement on the bases, while Yastrzemski was actually two runs below replacement. Speed wasn’t the defining aspect of either player’s game, but Kaline appears to have employed his better than did Yaz.

Yaz won the MVP trophy Kaline could never get his hands on, but Kaline’s wealth of high finishes shows that while he may never have been the single best player in the American League, he was consistently among the elite. Yastrzemski’s inability to match Kaline’s tendency to year after year finish among the top vote-getters for the MVP award supports what we concluded earlier: Yastrzemski had a terrific peak but didn’t remain MVP-caliber as long as Kaline did.

And so this discussion comes down to the unavoidable debate of peak vs. longevity. I don’t mind considering prime performance as a tie-breaker, but while this match-up is very nearly a tie, I think Al Kaline was, ever so slightly, a better player than Carl Yastrzemski. When gauging the productivity of the two players’ entire careers, Kaline seems to come out ahead. If you prefer Yaz on the strength of his dominance in ’67 and ’68 or, more broadly, from 1963-1970, that’s fine too. You take the better eight years; I’d rather the better 22.

A starting lineup of current and former Supreme Court justices

I haven’t done one of these in awhile, so here goes. This is an occasional BPP feature and probably the most allegorical thing we do. Credit the great Josh Wilker for originally posting a lineup card of his favorite writers. Today, we look at high court justices, past and present.

P- Earl Warren: The longtime head of the Supreme Court might be its Cy Young. Among Warren’s biggest decisions: ending school segregation, guaranteeing Miranda Rights, and ensuring that political representation correlated with population size. And in his bravest performance, akin to Young’s 20-inning loss to Rube Waddell in 1905, Warren overcame personal reservations and led the commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

C- William Howard Taft: The only man to serve as both president and chief justice would crush any runner dumb enough to challenge him. Scott Cousins would long for the days of flattening Buster Posey while being pried out of Taft’s 330-pound girth. Never again would the Miami Marlins agree to an exhibition against a court.

1B- William Brennan: Lou Gehrig’s got nothing on Brennan, an Iron Horse of justice from 1956 to 1990. Brennan was a progressive, known for his views and writing the decision in New York Times v. Sullivan that established that actual malice was needed for libel judgments involving public figures. The journalist in me appreciates that almost as much as my inner baseball historian loves Gehrig’s “luckiest man in the world” speech.

2B- Thurgood Marshall: Marshall was the first African American justice with his appointment in 1967, so he’ll patrol where Jackie Robinson played the most games in his career.

SS- Sandra Day O’Connor: Who’s the perfect double play partner for the first black man on the court? The first woman. Granted, O’Connor would protest vociferously, telling court beat writers she’d been a star right fielder in the federal appellate leagues. None of the writers would listen, though, unaware O’Connor found their Phil Rizzuto comparisons deeply patronizing. And Rizzuto, for his part, would never get over his subsequent nickname of Sandra.

3B- Hugo Black: The 1919 Chicago White Sox were a deeply divided team with first baseman Chick Gandil refusing to speak to star second baseman Eddie Collins for two years. Black and Marshall might be the Gandil and Collins of this team, thanks to Black’s one-time membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

RF- Antonin Scalia: Right field’s an appropriate place for a right-leaning judge. Scalia would be known for his rifle arm, confusing to some who’d question if it was a reference to his support for the National Rifle Association.

CF- Oliver Wendell Holmes: Ask the average high school or college student to name any Supreme Court justice who hasn’t sat on the bench in their lifetime. They might know of Holmes, who has a name out of a Charles Dickens novel and was a legend of the 19th century high court. He’s Pete Browning here.

LF- William Rehnquist: Rehnquist marched to his own beat during his time on the court, a Nixon-era appointee who cast the deciding vote in Bush v. Gore in 2000. He’ll play left field.

Other starting lineups: Beatles songsex-presidentswriters

Getting nostalgic about classic baseball cards

Today is the first day of a brand new year and while I usually simply consider the night before and this day to be just like any other, my thoughts have been turning recently and more and more to the past.  Guess it’s a result of getting older and a somewhat slow baseball off season.

It all started a couple of months ago when an ad for old baseball cards caught my eye.  As I scrolled down the list of this particular website, a set which I had thought no longer existed and one which I had occasionally dreamed about owning again one day caught my eye.  The 1962 Post Cereal baseball set.

I can’t recall how many of the actual set I had owned as a kid, (probably not more than 30 or 40 of the original 200 cards), but I have never forgotten the very first cards I cut off the back of the cereal box.  Looking at the pictures of the cards brought back a flood of memories.  I remembered the smell of the cards.  I remembered   making my mother wait (patiently?) In the grocery store while I searched for those cards I didn’t yet have never mind the type of cereal it might be, and I remembered emptying the box in a bowl, not being able to wait a week or so until the box was empty.

I would look at my six new cards over and over again, carefully cataloguing them with any others I might have.  I would listen to that night’s game on the radio and whenever a player came to bat, or pitched, I would pull out that card.  In my mind’s eye, I could see all the action on the field all those many miles away.  My card collection continued to grow and one lucky day, a friend of mine who was moving to Germany that fall, gave me a shoe box stuffed with baseball cards.  I now had Bowman and Topps and I can’t remember what else, but there must have been a couple of hundred cards in that old shoe box.

No one else I knew cared about baseball, Canada was then and is now a hockey country, and the only baseball game on television was the once a month Saturday Yankee or Dodger game on the French station of the Canadian Broadcasting corporation.  I didn’t at that time understand any French but that didn’t matter.  I really didn’t know any of the players, which ones were stars and which were not.  To their credit, my parents would let me watch the game.  They had no interest in baseball and probably didn’t understand my love for the game.  I probably didn’t understand it either-but I knew for whatever reason, I cared about nothing else.

In those days, the off season really was the offseason.  It was next to impossible to find any baseball news from the end of the World Series until that first Saturday game in April.  Sometimes there were no games until May or even June.  I suppose the information was out there in magazines such as The Sporting News and sports Illustrated, but I didn’t have the money to subscribe to any of those publications.  The first baseball magazine which came out each year was Baseball Illustrated with their pre season preview and I sometimes managed to find a copy of Street and Smith.  Baseball Illustrated had color pictures of the leagues previous season leaders.  These, of course, went up on my wall first thing.  My chances of actually seeing a major league game were less than nil.  These pictures, along with my Post baseball cards, were all I had to look at and dream about.

Over the past couple of months I have been purchasing the 1962 Post Cereal baseball cards from what has turned out to be an excellent and very reliable website. I don’t usually go for the stars although I have purchased Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax to name a few of the stars from that era.  But my most prized are the three I originally cut off that cereal box way back in 1962.  Woody Held, Vada Pinson and Lee Maye were those first.  I take those three out and look at them every day.  I have a special box for them.

When I look at them, I am seven years old again. When I look at them, baseball once again is free of player salaries and steroid scandals and all the rest. I am innocent and I feel safe. I know I’m not alone.