Saturday afternoon, writing in the basement, I took a break to surf the Internet. A headline caught me up short.
“Hank Bauer dies.”
The name means nothing to Americans under 60. But to a grade-schooler in the 1940s and 1950s, who looked on the New York Yankees as a synonym for American greatness and invincibility, Hank Bauer was a hero. If Lou Gehrig was “The Pride of the Yankees” in the post-Ruth era, Bauer was the soul of the Yankees of the 1950s, the greatest team ever assembled.
Born in East St. Louis, Ill., across the river from “The Hill” in south St. Louis where Yogi Berra grew up, Bauer fought as a Marine in the Pacific, where he picked up two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. In the battle to capture the Okinawa airfield, he lost 58 of the 64 Marines in his unit. On Iwo Jima, he picked up shrapnel he would carry the rest of his life.
Bauer’s first full year in the Majors was 1949, the beginning of the Casey Stengel era. From 1949 to 1953, Bauer and the Yankees won five straight pennants and five straight World Series, breaking the record set by the Gehrig-Dimaggio Yankees of 1936-1939.
“He was my best friend in life,” first baseman “Moose” Skowron related on hearing of Bauer’s death. “When I came up in ’54, we won 103 games and still didn’t win the pennant. Hank told me: ‘We win every year. This is all your fault.’ I told him, ‘I did all I could.’ I hit .340 that year, but Hank was just getting on me.”
As the Daily News obit writer put it, “Bauer was the unofficial Yankee ‘enforcer,’ customarily straightening out players who failed to hustle with a terse ‘you’re messin’ with my money’ admonishment.”
Rough-hewn, tough, full of spirit and fire, a proud professional, Bauer was the quintessence of what it meant to be a Yankee. He hit when it counted, setting a record still unbroken for hitting safely in 17 consecutive World Series games. In the 1955 Series, he batted .429.
No beauty, a 1964 Time cover story about Bauer, when he managed the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series victory, said looking into Bauer’s face was like “looking into a bowl of mashed potatoes.”
In a famous incident at the Copacabana in May of 1957, Bauer, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Berra and Billy Martin were celebrating Martin’s birthday, when the next table began to heckle the entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr. A brawl broke out, and a patron claimed the man who cold-cocked him was the right fielder and ex-Marine.
No other witness came forward to identify Bauer, but all the Yankees involved were fined $1,000. Fifty years later, I yet recall the depiction of the incident by a sportswriter who wrote that Mantle, Bauer and Berra had been walking home from early mass, when they had been accosted by male models.
A month later, Billy Martin was traded to Kansas City. A bad influence on the team, it was said. Two years later, Bauer followed in a seven-player deal that brought to the Yankees a kid by the name of Roger Maris. With Bauer’s departure, to this writer, the era was over. Though the Yankees won the pennant all four years from 1960 through 1963, they were not the Yankees I had grown up with, the Yankees of Dimaggio, Phil Rizzuto, “King Kong” Keller, Eddie Lopat, “The Big Chief” Allie Reynolds, “Fireman” Joe Page, Hank Bauer and Yogi Berra.
I had all their autographs. The Yankee Clipper’s was the toughest to get. He came out of the locker room fast, brushed past the kids who raced after him and walked straight to the bus. But persistence paid off for me once. Don’t know what became of that autograph book, but it would be worth a lot to me today. And not in money.
Griffith Stadium was where the Yanks came to play. On opening day 1956, Mantle drove two over the centerfield fence. Two days later, he drove one over the left field wall, 405 feet from home plate, over the bleachers and out of the park. They said the ball went 565 feet. No one had ever done that before. No one ever did it again.
“The Mick” was MVP that year and won the triple crown — leading the American League in batting, home runs and runs batted in. The last was easiest. The Yankees ahead of him in the batting order were almost always on base.
Two years ago, I traveled with “The McLaughlin Group” to Palm Desert, Calif. Nothing to do one morning, I went to the hotel health club. As I reached the door, a short older man trotted up. I held the door. As he came close, I stared into his face. “Are you who I think you are?”
“Are you who I think you are?” he replied.
For 15 minutes, Yogi Berra and I talked of the old Yankees and Nats. With the autograph-hunting kids, Yogi had been the best, signing until every kid was gone. I told him how hard it had been to get Dimaggio’s autograph.
“Yep, that would be Joe,” Yogi said.
As I said, it was a great time for America, and they were the greatest.