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.

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

  1. Wow, fantastic article. I had never heard of him before!

    I was curious as to how his contact rates compare to someone like Ichiro? Or even Sisler?

  2. Albert’s comment reminded me of why I believe that baseball has become a game of celebrities, not of team players. The reason is a transformational change in professional sports – all of them: players such as Don Mueller are no longer considered indispensable to any team because they do not to attract the large audience base required to pay the bloated salaries of the more publicized players.
    I’m glad Giuseppe noted Mueller’s amazing ability not to strike out, something I was very much aware of when #22 played against his hometown rivals, my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. Mueller seemed to get on base just about every time he faced the Dodger pitcher, which is why, as watched (on tv) as he strode to the plate in the ’51 playoff game, my stomach sank.
    If “the golden era” of our national pastime” was the 1950s, then, surely, Don Mueller is part of that legacy, for he was not only an outstanding ballplayer, but a gentleman as well.

  3. Don Mueller was a cousin of mine. My grandmother used to babysit him when he was growing up. I had the privilege of attending a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game with him in the 80s. He gave me several signed mementos and I cherish them to this day. RIP Don.

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