The path to the Red Sox starting first baseman’s job went through a revolving door during the first eight years of the 1950’s. Six different players started at the right corner of Boston’s infield during that time.
Ironically, everyone thought the first of those six was destined to end up in Cooperstown. That would be Walt Dropo, who followed up one of the greatest rookie seasons in MLB history in 1950 with a big dud of a performance in 1951. Dick Gernert then took over the position the next two years and though he hit a combined 40 home runs during that time, Red Sox management was unhappy with his defense and his relatively low batting average.
That opened the door for “The Greek God,” Harry Agganis, a local boy who became a Boston area sports legend during his high school and collegiate (Boston U) baseball and football careers. He probably would have held the job for the next decade if a blood clot in the vein of his calf hadn’t broken loose, traveled to his lung and killed him in June of his second big league season, when he was just 26 years of age. A shocked Boston front office then handed the first baseman’s mitt to a big rookie named Norm Zauchin, who had been battling Agganis for starting time. When he finished the ’55 season with 27 home runs and 93 RBIs, everyone thought the job would be his again in 1956. Everyone was wrong.
That November, the Red Sox made a ten player deal with the Senators that landed Washington’s veteran first sacker, Mickey Vernon in Boston. Already 38 years-old at the time of the trade, conventional wisdom was that the native of Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania would be Zauchin’s backup at first and a left-handed pinch-hitting option for Boston skipper, Pinky Higgins. Instead, Vernon began the year with a hot bat that never cooled off and he ended up starting at first and averaging a very productive .310 with 15 home runs and 84 RBIs.
When he slumped at the plate the following season, Dick Gernert won back the starter’s job and the Red Sox placed Vernon on waivers in January of 1959. He would hang on as a player for three more seasons and was then named manager of the Washington Senators. This seven time All Star and two-time AL batting champion died in 2008 at the age of 90.
A decade before Tony Conigliaro’s career was cut short by that fateful pitch from Jack Hamilton, the most tragic Boston Red Sox story was that of Harry Agganis. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, this son of Greek immigrants was a legendary high school athlete. He was such a great high school quarterback that more than 20,000 people would show up to watch his games. He could have played quarterback for any college team in the country, but Agganis chose to remain home and play for Boston University where he became a collegiate All American in both football and baseball and earned the nickname, “The Golden Greek.”
Agganis was as big a Boston-area sports legend as there ever had been. He signed with Boston in 1952 and when he made his big league debut two years later in 1954, Agganis was the most heralded first year player in the team’s history. He hit .251 during his rookie season with 11 home runs and 57 RBIs. His teammates loved him and everyone agreed he would evolve into a big league all star.
That prediction looked like it was coming true as the 1955 season opened. Agganis got off to a hot start that year and was averaging .313 in early May, when he complained of bad chest pains. Admitted to a local hospital, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, treated and released. But upon rejoining the team he had no energy and his persistent cough grew worse. Sent back to the hospital, his condition continued to deteriorate and it was also discovered that the very sick first baseman had a blood clot on his calf. On June 27, 1955, doctors wanted Agganis to sit upright in a chair. As nurses were positioning him to do so, the clot in his calf broke free and traveled to his lung. He was pronounced dead from the resulting pulmonary embolism, twenty minutes later. He was just 26-years-old.
You can learn more about Agganis’s life and career from this profile published by the Society for American Baseball Research.
Jake Stahl is one of just 11 Red Sox players to have won AL home run titles. He performed the feat way back in 1910, during the Deadball Era, which helps explain why Stahl’s 10 home runs were enough to lead both leagues. He’s also one of just six Red Sox managers to win a World Championship with Boston.
A native of Elkhart, IL, Stahl starred in both baseball and football for the University of Illinois before making his big league debut with the Red Sox as a backup catcher with the 1903 team. Boston then sold him to the Washington Nationals where Stahl was immediately inserted as that team’s starting first baseman. At the time, the Washington franchise was barely surviving and being run by AL President Ban Johnson until new ownership could be found. Johnson liked the college-educated Stahl so much, he made him the team’s player manager in 1905. Though he had some early success in that role, the team then faltered and Stahl was traded to the White Sox in 1906. By then he had married a girl he met in college, who had a wealthy businessman for a father and Stahl had started a second career in the banking business. He probably would have retired from baseball then and there except for the fact that he was traded back to the Red Sox in 1908.
He put together three solid seasons as Boston’s starting first baseman but was faced with a career dilemma. He was doing much better financially with his banking career than he was playing baseball and he knew the wise personal decision was to quit the game and devote himself full time to the financial industry. That’s what he did after the 1910 season.
Then in 1911, he was approached by the Red Sox with an offer to become player-manager of the team and a co-owner of the franchise. He accepted and led the 1912 Red Sox to an AL Pennant and a World Series victory over the New York Giants. Stahl started at first base for that ball club and hit a career high .301. The success didn’t last. By the following season he was done as a player and after quarreling with the team’s other owners over how the club was being run, he quit and went back to his banking career. Unfortunately, he pretty much worked himself to death, suffering a nervous breakdown in 1920 and then dying in a California tuberculosis sanitarium two years later, at the age of 43.
The six Red Sox managers who won World Championships with the club are: Jimmy Collins, Stahl, Bill Carrigan (twice), Ed Barrow, Terry Francona (twice) and John Farrell. Here is a list of Boston’s AL Home Run champions
As the 1979 All Star break approached, the Houston Astros’ front office knew they had little chance of re-signing their veteran first baseman, Bob Watson, who’s contract was expiring at the end that season. So rather than get nothing for a guy, who at the time held the highest career batting average in Houston’s franchise history (.297), they sent Watson to Boston for a big 22-year-old right-handed pitching prospect named Pete Ladd who had put together two-and-a-half impressive seasons in the Red Sox’ farm system. Boston also threw in a few bucks from the Yawkey estate to bring the right-hand hitting native of Los Angeles to Beantown.
Watson’s tenure at Fenway was both impressive and short. He appeared in the remaining 84 games Boston played that season, mostly at first base, where he replaced a slumping George Scott. He became an instant offensive force, averaging .337, hitting 13 home runs and driving in 53 runners but he didn’t make the Red Sox a better team. Their club’s record at the time they got Watson was an impressive 49-29. With Watson in the lineup, Boston finished the year just 42-42.
That may help explain why the Red Sox let this guy, who was known by the nickname “Bull” sign as a free agent with the Yankees that November. After two seasons in New York and three more in Atlanta, Watson retired as a player and became a coach for the Oakland A’s. He later was the GM for both Houston and the Yankees.
The “Boomer” played in over 2000 games during a solid fourteen-year career as a power-hitting American League first baseman. He was an eight-time Gold Glove winner and a three-time AL All Star. Raised dirt poor in Mississippi, Scott was a three-sport star in high school, who chose a baseball career over college scholarship offers to play hoops and football because he didn’t want to wait another four years before he could begin helping his mother live a better life.
He burst onto the big league scene with Boston in 1966. Originally slated to play third base, he ended up starting at first with fellow Red Sox rookie Joe Foy taking over at the hot corner. Scott belted 27 home runs that first year, drove in 90, made his first All Star team and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He also led the AL in strikeouts. One year later he was an integral part of the Miracle Sox team that captured the 1967 AL Pennant.
Most of the Red Sox had off years in 1968 and most of the blame for that went to Red Sox skipper, Dick Williams. It seemed to many observers (and Red Sox players) that after losing the Series to the Cardinals in ’67, Williams’ managerial style went from being a strict disciplinarian to a maniacal dictator. Nobody was more negatively impacted by the change than Scott, who got off to a horrible start that April and remained in the angry skipper’s doghouse the entire season. Williams wrath toward Scott got so bad at one point that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey took it upon himself to order his manager to play the guy. Scott finished the year with a woeful .171 batting average, but he also won his second straight Gold Glove.
After three more OK seasons, Boston traded him to the Brewers in October of 1971 as part of an 11-player super deal. Scott then had his best year in the big leagues for Milwaukee in 1975 when he set career highs with 36 home runs and 109 RBIs. After slumping the following season, he was traded back to Boston for Cecil Cooper. He blasted 33 home runs in his 1977 return to Fenway but he had a horrible year in ’78 and then started complaining that the Red Sox front office was mistreating him. In June of 1979, he was traded to the Royals. When he couldn’t get along with manager Whitey Herzog, Kansas City released him and the Yanks picked him up at the end of August. He told the press he had wanted to play for the Yankees’ his entire career and proceeded to average .318 during his brief 16-game tenure in pinstripes. He also hit his 271st and final big league home run while wearing the Yankee uniform. New York released him one month after the ’79 season ended and when no other big league team showed an interest in him, he finished his playing career in Mexico. He passed away in July of 2013 at the age of 69.
The “Greek God of Walks” will be laying off bad pitches in the “Land of the Rising Sun” in 2014 after signing a one-year-deal with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League. Rakuten fans will be desperate to find something new to cheer about after their team’s long-time ace pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka took the reverse route of Youkilis and signed with the Yankees.
Its been less than two years since Youkilis walked off the Fenway infield and into the home dugout for the last time, after hitting a triple in the seventh inning in a late June intra-league contest against the Atlanta Braves. He had just been traded to the White Sox and fans in attendance that day, surmising “Youk” had been dealt, gave him a great send-off ovation.
At the time, he was not getting along with new Boston skipper, Bobby Valentine and had pretty much lost the starting third baseman’s job to rookie Will Middlebrooks. Thus ended a great 9-season run in Beantown, during which the native of Cincinnati won two Rings, a Gold Glove and was named to three All Star teams.
The Youkilis that was leaving Boston however, was not the same player who had topped the .300 mark in batting average three years in a row as a Red Sox. He had serious back problems that hindered his play with Chicago and pretty much wiped out his 2013 season with the Yankees, limiting him to a total of 28 games.
Though he’s heading to the far east in 2014, Major League baseball fans may see more of Youkilis in the future. He recently told reporters he had not ruled out returning after his year in Japan is up.