In the Clutch, Few Were Better Than Gene Woodling

In 1953, Sport Magazine published an article titled “The Yankee They Take for Granted,” a reference to the great and underrated Gene Woodling.

With the World Series recently completed, few remember that Woodling was one of the most consistent clutch hitters in series history. The lefty swinger helped the New York Yankees win five straight World Series from 1949 through 1953 when he averaged .318. His 27 postseason hits included five doubles, two triples, and three home runs. Woodling was one of twelve Yankees who played on all of the five winning teams. His mates: Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Brown, Charlie Silvera, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, and Allie Reynolds.

Woodling credited his big league success to the time he spent in San Francisco playing for the Pacific Coast League Seals under manager Lefty O’Doul’s tutelage. In 1948, the Pittsburgh Pirates sold Wooding to the Seals even though he had led four different minor league teams in hitting including back to back years of .394 and .398 in Class C and Class D.

Despite Woodling’s lofty averages, O’Doul moved him closer to the plate, placed his feet together and changed the position of his bat. When Woodling held his bat back, he assumed the crouched stance that he became so famous for and led the PCL in batting with a .385 average.

Woodling’s Seals teammate and former New York Giants pitcher Jack Brewer explained how O’Doul improved Woodling’s plate performance:

I remember in spring training Woodling was a punch and Judy hitter. He faced the pitcher in such a way that he couldn’t much power in his bat. O’Doul tied a rope around his waist to get him in the proper stance. To keep him from lunging, he worked with Gene by the hour and pulled that rope so he wouldn’t lunge out in batting practice. Woodling got his timing right and, boy, he was knocking down the fence that season.

In the PCL, Woodling caught Oakland Oaks’ manager Casey Stegel’s eye. When Stengel took over the managerial reins for the Yankees in 1949, he persuaded ownership to purchase Woodling’s contract for $100,000.

Once in St. Petersburg, the Yankees’ spring training site, Woodling joined another rookie Hank Bauer as well as Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Heinrich, Big Johnny Lindell and strong-armed Cliff Mapes in the bid for the starting spots.

In an interview with my SABR colleague Jim Sergent, Woodling laid to rest the common opinion that Stengel platooned him with Bauer.
Said Woodling:

Casey only platooned us in about seven games a year. Nobody ever checks the records. You know what he’d do? We’d get a five-game lead, and Casey would platoon us. We’d get down to a tie or one or two games ahead, we’d play every day.

Woodling played left; Bauer, right and center, Joe Di Maggio until he gave way to Mickey Mantle.

Even during the last two years of his seventeen year career at ages 38 and 39, Woodling was still hitting. In 1961, he hit .313 for the Washington Senators and in 1962, a combined .279 for the Senators and the New York Mets.

When his buddy Bauer became manager of the Orioles, Woodling served as his first base coach between 1964 and 1967 and, in 1967, he was the Orioles’ hitting coach.

After Woodling passed away in 2001 at age 78, Ralph Houk said: “He was just such a great guy.”

3 Replies to “In the Clutch, Few Were Better Than Gene Woodling”

  1. I love reading this stuff from Guzzardi because I learn something each time. I mean, this bit about tying a rope around Woodling’s waist so he could improve his timing really brings home to me the value of employing common sense to help one improve one’s performance in whatever endeavor they are engaged in.

  2. While Signor Gorak is intrigued by learning something new in Guzzardi’s columns, for the most part they transport me back to the days when “baseball was the only game in town,” even if that “town” was New York City.
    Who could not remember Gene Woodling – #14 for the untutored? Part of the indestructible “damn Yankees” of the late 40s and early 50s, they were champions in every sense of the word – and with the exception of Billy Martin, gentlemen, too.
    But in my mind’s eye, Woodling is memorable by his batting stance: Stan Musial on steroids. Wound up like a pretzel, he attacked the ball, and, if memory serves, didn’t strike out often. Woodling did yeoman’s service in those Yankee outfields of the 1950s, a team that had more than its quota of “clutch hitters,” but Gene Woodling was “primus inter pares.”

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