In this edition of Nine Innings, we look at how history is made by the victors, at the expense of the losers. History also has a way of evening the score. Enter Hank Bauer.
In this season of prolific power numbers, two of the ‘Baby Bombers’ have already added themselves to rarified air, so much so that their inclusion on this list should probably come with an asterisk. Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth dominate this list, as the ’27 Yankees dominated everyone in their path. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris went dinger crazy chasing Ruth down in 1961.
Mantle comes as no surprise; Berra tied a career-high with 30 HR in 1956, but Hank Bauer? What’s he doing here?
Bauer, the long-time Yankee outfielder, was the low-powered compliment to Mantle, with a smattering of other third outfielders during his Yankee career (Gene Woodling held the position, then a season of Irv Noren, then Elston Howard, then Norm Siebern.) He had a respectable major league career: a three-time All-Star and member of seven Yankees World Series championship clubs, Bauer was a .277 hitter in 12 seasons in New York and hit 164 home runs over his 14-year playing career.
In 1956, Bauer hit a career-best 26 home runs. (Other season totals never really came close.) Ten of those 26 came at the expense of the Kansas City Athletics. Seven of those ten were hit out of Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. Where Yankee Stadium was historically a hitter’s park, particularly with tantalizing porches in left and right, Municipal Stadium was a pitcher’s park: 312 down the left field line with a 24-foot fence-plus-screen, but 430 to center and 347 down right with a 12-foot fence.
The A’s were also a bad team in 1956, finishing 52-102, allowing 831 runs while yielding 187 dingers. It would make sense for the Yanks to stomp on a bad team on their own turf; but Bauer did his damage on the then-western frontier of the American League, some 500 miles further westward of their closest opponent in Chicago. By way of contrast, Mantle (7 HR at Yankee Stadium) and Berra (6) feasted on Athletics pitching at home.
It’s a historical curiosity: Bauer, a solid major leaguer, but an otherwise unremarkable power hitter, going off in a ballpark where a hitter had to legitimately earn his home runs, to the tune of a season-best 1.211 OPS in Kansas City. Moreover, his power hitting counterparts–Mantle’s tape-measure shots are, of course, the stuff of baseball legend–couldn’t match his power production out west.
So, I wanted investigate how Hank Bauer ended up owning the Athletics and Municipal Stadium in 1956. Thanks to Retrosheet and Baseball Reference, we can review every Bauer bomb and find out.
May 20, 1956
Mired in a slump that saw his batting average fall from .250 to .193, Yankee manager Casey Stengel had moved Bauer from his customary leadoff spot to sixth in the lineup; not quite penthouse to outhouse, but enough to apparently shake things up without being punitive. The Yankees were also in the midst of a 12-game Midwest road trip. On an unseasonably hot Sunday afternoon, Bauer was 0-2 going into the sixth inning against A’s starter Jack Crimian. Hitting second, Bauer took Crimian deep to increase the Yankee lead to 2-0. The Yankees would hold off the A’s, winning 4-2.
Losers of four in a row and at the tail-end of an extended road trip, Bauer hadn’t hit leadoff regularly since the end of May. Again, with his batting average hovering around .200 and coming off the bench in seven of the last 13 games, Bauer went 2-5 from the two-hole, homering off reliever Jose Santiago and singling in a run off Bobby Shantz in what would result in a 9-3 blowout.
Still without Stengel’s trust atop the lineup card, Bauer hit sixth and homered off Art Ditmar in the top of the 8th, scoring Mantle and increasing the Yankee lead to the eventual 5-2 final. Bauer was in the midst of a streak that would see his average climb from .201 to .218 when the calendar turned to July. As the summer heated up, so did Hank Bauer.
Despite Bauer’s hot bat in July, he hit only three home runs that before another muggy Missouri Sunday afternoon. Again facing Ditmar, Bauer had walked, struck out and grounded out to third. After a double play from Bill Skowron wiped out a Berra walk in the 8th, Bauer stepped to the plate and hit an exclamation point home run to push the Yankees to a 5-3 lead.
Bauer’s July line: .297/.357/.495, ten walks, 13 strikeouts, 15 RBI, .306 BABIP. His batting average jumped 48 points from that .193 mid-May nadir. The Yankees went 21-10 and were officially well on their way to yet another AL pennant. The Athletics, by contrast, went 9-19 en route to the cellar.
Kansas City was still in honeymoon mode with their new team and somehow managed to draw the fourth-largest American League crowd in 1956. The more things change, and so forth.
Bauer sustained his hitting through August, while the Yankees played .500 ball and spent most of the month at home and, in particular, battling the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox. They also took both games at home against the visiting Kansas City Athletics.
On their final road trip of the season, the Yankees made their first stop in Kansas City, starting by design from the furthest point west and working their way back home. Bauer entered that final series at Municipal Stadium locked in at the plate, hitting .333 in the last 13 games with a .925 OPS. Stengel had also put him back atop the lineup September 2, closing a series with the Washington Senators (he responded by going 2-5 with a double in the loss.)
Facing Art Ditmar again on a hot September night, Bauer led off with a dinger, flew out to right in his second at bat, singled up the middle the third time up and grounded out in his fourth. In the top of the 9th, Bauer led off with another shot, this time off the familiar foe in Crimian. The Yankees staved off an A’s rally, winning 9-5.
Bauer encored on Wednesday night, leading off with a home run off Bill Harrington. After a three-run third to pull within one at 4-3, the Yankees couldn’t muster anything off Wally Burnette: the A’s won 7-4. After Tom Carroll stole second in the 9th, Bauer was caught looking and Enos Slaughter, plucked off waivers from the Athletics two weeks prior, ground out to end the game.
Bauer enjoyed the successes that came with being a Yankee in the 1950s: seven world championships, nine postseason appearances, even garnered enough tallies for a top-10 appearance for MVP in 1955. In 1956, he joined Berra and Mantle in hitting the cover off any ball coming from the hand of a Kansas City Athletic.
Those Athletics pitchers, despite pitching primarily in the spacious confines of Municipal Stadium, weren’t very good: Jack Crimian went 4-8 with a 5.51 ERA in 129 IP. Jose Santiago pitched 24 total innings for the Athletics to the tune of a 8.31 ERA and a WHIP north of 2.4 and never pitched in the majors again. Art Ditmar, the de facto ace of the staff, led the rotation to a 12-22 record with a hit for each of his 254 innings pitched and a 108 walks to boot. Bill Harrington, like Santiago, never pitched in the bigs again after 1956. As a staff, Athletics pitching ranked worst or second-worst in the AL in nearly every available metric.
Even Bobby Shantz, who won MVP honors in 1952 when the A’s still made Philadelphia their home, struggled until he became a prototype for the closer…a year later, in 1957, as a member of the New York Yankees. He’d go on to win eight Gold Gloves and, as mentioned, help innovate the closer’s role. The most famous person on that pitching staff isn’t even remembered for his play. Tommy Lasorda went 0-4 with a 6.15 ERA in 18 appearances in what became his swan song season. He’d rejoin the Dodgers when they moved west to Los Angeles and the rest is managerial history.
Bauer had one final effective season in 1957 before showing signs of undeniable decline. After the 1959 season, he, Siebern, Don Larsen and Marv Throneberry were traded. To the Kansas City Athletics. He finished his career as a player-manager.
In return, the Yankees received two players who were both out of baseball by the end of 1961. They also received Bauer’s replacement: Roger Maris.
Bauer was back in his home state, but mustered six total home runs in part-time duty over two seasons at the park where he had caught fire only a few years prior. When we celebrate these arcane achievements, on the one hand, yes, it’s not easy to hit a Major League home run. On the other, consider that it can take extraordinarily bad teams to create the context in which history can be made. It’s not just that Berra, Mantle and Bauer hit 27 home runs against the Kansas City Athletics, they beat up on a bad team. They did what good teams do. History is made at the expense of the losers.
In good times and bad, the arc of history bends toward justice. In many ways, Bauer’s life and life in baseball had Kansas City as its center of gravity. Born on one side of Missouri, he made his home on the other side in Kansas. He started his pro career with the Kansas City Blues and finished as a scout with the Royals.
Hank Bauer passed away in 2007 in Lenexa, now a Kansas City suburb.
Despite the laundry Sanchez and Torres wear, their stories are yet to be told. They may end up like Mantle and Berra, immortalized in the Hall of Fame. They may end up like Hank Bauer, a good player on great teams, otherwise unheralded unless one cares enough to dig deep enough to find them.
They may end up dealt for spare parts. They might be the spare parts one day, jettisoned to a moribund franchise. Hey, perhaps they’ll end up Orioles.
No one goes out a winner. Eventually, teams lose. Eventually, we all lose.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.