SABR

Don Mueller

This article was written by J. A. Petterchak.

As an outfielder/first baseman for the Chicago White Sox in the late 1950s, Donald Frederick Mueller had passed his prime playing days. Earlier in the decade, however, the two-time All Star with the New York Giants participated in some of the most memorable games of the era.

Born in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, Missouri, in 1927, young Mueller learned hitting from his father, Walter J. Mueller, a 1922-1926 Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder. “He taught me an awful lot,” Don recalled. “He showed me how to grip the bat, to use pressure on one hand or the other to hit where you want to hit. He also had me focus on the ball by pitching corn kernels that I would hit with a broomstick. Concentrating on such a small object improved my depth perception.”

Mueller played two years of American Legion baseball, then won a spot on his high-school team, batting left-handed and throwing right-handed. Developing into the caliber of a professional ballplayer, Don received offers from several teams, including the Chicago Cubs, “except,” he said, “my dad didn’t like the contract they offered me.” Walter’s choice was the New York Giants, whose scout Gordon Maguire took Mueller to Sportsman’s Park in 1944, when the Cardinals were playing the Giants. Manager Melvin Ott, who had been Don’s favorite professional player, approved signing the 17-year-old, still in high school, for the Giants’ Triple-A farm team in Jersey City, managed by the great Chicago Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett. Mueller played three games that season, driving in three runs with one hit in seven at-bats.[1]

The following year, as a high-school senior, he was invited to the Giants’ spring training camp. While serving in the merchant marine for two years, he played during shore leaves for the Jersey City team. After leaving the merchant marine in mid-1946, Mueller batted .359 for Jersey City during the final weeks of the season and in 1947 hit .348 at Jacksonville.

Mueller was back with Jersey City in 1948. Hitting .348 with 10 homes runs, he was called up by the Giants and made his major-league debut on August 2, playing 36 games and posting a .358 average.[2] The Giants had replaced Ott as manager that year with the fiercely competitive Leo Durocher. Under Ott, the offense had been known as the National League’s “lumberjacks,” for the big but slow power hitters. “The team did not have a good won-loss record,” Mueller explained.[3] “Leo got rid of the home-run hitters. He wanted base hits, with good pitching. I got the job because I was his kind of ballplayer: hit, advance the runner.”

In 1949 the 22-year-old Mueller married his high-school sweetheart, Genevieve Babor, and after a successful stint in Minneapolis batted a meager .232 in 51 Giants games. Then in 1950, he became the team’s regular right fielder, after the Giants traded home-run hitter Willard Marshall. Durocher, who on his selection as manager had announced, “I come to win,” confidently predicted a pennant that year. Mueller batted third in the lineup, and his job was to drive leadoff hitter Eddie Stanky home and Alvin Dark to third, so that, theoretically, the Giants would score a run, with two men on and none out, and sluggers Monte Irvin and Whitey Lockman coming to the plate.

Early in the season, the team played mediocre ball, with poor hitting and worse pitching. By June, Mueller was batting .185, causing Durocher to drop him to seventh in the order and then to bench him.[4] But in early August as a pinch hitter, Mueller began improving, with soft singles and line drives. Again in the lineup, he hit well over .300 during the final two months and ended the season at .291. Sportswriters dubbed him Mandrake the Magician for his ability to stroke the ball through holes in the defense.[5] 

The Giants finished third in 1950, five games behind the pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies. Durocher  told reporters in the spring of 1951 that the Giants would “take it all.” Unfortunately, after an Opening Day win, his team lost the next 11 games. After one particularly bad outing, Durocher berated each of the players, surprising even veterans with his foul-language tirade.[6] “It was a turning point,” recalled one teammate. “From the next day on we played fantastic baseball,” a winning stretch that continued through the season, aided by the team’s 20-year-old rookie sensation Willie Mays.

Mueller, who had been among the slumping hitters, saw his average improve over the summer. Of his 65 career home runs, five came in two consecutive games on September 1 and 2 against the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds, tying a record held by Adrian Anson, Ty Cobb, Tony Lazzeri, and Ralph Kiner.[7]  

Trailing the Dodgers by 13½ games in August, the Giants won 39 of their final 47 games to end the season in a first-place tie, forcing in a three-game playoff for the pennant. With the series tied, 1-1, and the Dodgers leading 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning of the final playoff game, the Giants’ Alvin Dark singled. Mueller, taking the first pitch for a ball, noticed that first baseman Gil Hodges was holding Dark close to the bag. The Magician hit the next pitch sharply to the left of first base, out of Hodges’ reach, allowing Dark to reach third. Whitey Lockman lined a double into left field, scoring Dark. Mueller, scrambling for third, slid past the bag and tore the tendons on both sides of his ankle. Writhing in pain, he was carried into the clubhouse.

The pinch-runner, his roommate Clint Hartung, was about to become a footnote in history. Bobby Thomson, a journeyman outfielder in the biggest at-bat of his career, stepped to the plate. Giants players and fans hoped for a single that would tie the game, but Thomson hit an astounding walk-off three-run homer into the left-field stands.[8] “I played the whole game and got a big hit in the ninth inning,” Mueller recalled. “When Bobby Thomson hit his home run—The Shot Heard ’Round the World—I was the only one in the clubhouse, listening to it on the radio.”

Mueller’s injury kept him from the World Series, in which Casey Stengel’s Yankees won their third straight championship, four games to two. Some analysts believe that had Mueller been in the lineup, the Giants might have won the Series. Indeed, his right-field replacement, Henry Thompson, hit only .143 in the Series and committed two damaging errors.[9] 

With a 16-2 start in 1952, fans anticipated another good season. But the team soon felt the loss of their power hitters. Mays left in May for military service, while Irvin was out with a broken ankle. The other hitters, including Mueller, felt pressure to attempt home runs. His ineffectiveness, however, caused Durocher to bench him for 34 games. Mueller also had to prove his ability in right field, vying with Thomson, Thompson, Hartung, and others, but played more games than any of them and ended the season with a .281 batting average.

Early in the 1953 season, after being benched again for lack of home-run power, he stopped trying to be a power hitter. “My chance of hitting a single is very good,” he said at the time. “My chance of clouting a homer is very poor. It is certainly better for the team this way. If I am on base, I save a chance for Mays, Irvin, Thompson, or somebody to knock me in.”[10] As proof of his theory, Mueller finished fifth in the National League with a .333 batting average. And with only 13 strikeouts, he was the most difficult batter to fan that year.

In the first five games of 1954, Mueller found himself benched twice in favor of long-ball hitters. Then he hit a pinch single during an eighth-inning rally and played in every game for the rest of the season.[11] On May 2, he “stood in right field and watched five balls go over my head” at Busch Stadium when Stan Musial hit five homers in a Giants-Cardinals doubleheader, all into the right-field seats. Although Mueller had hit five home runs in two consecutive games in 1951, Musial became the first player in baseball history with five in one day. Mueller contributed to the Giants’ win in the second game, going 5-for-5, including a double and a triple, producing two RBIs. “My 5-for-5 got exactly two lines in the paper the next day,” referring to the extensive coverage of Musial’s feat. 

National League All-Star Team manager Walter Alston, the Dodgers’ skipper, selected Mueller for the 1954 team. Pinch-hitting for pitcher Robin Roberts in a five-run fourth inning, Mueller came through with a clutch double, though the Nationals lost the game, 11-9.

Nearly all season, he made at least one hit per game, and on July 1, against four Pirates pitchers, he hit for the cycle: 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 lefthander Dick Littlefield, his first homer of the season. As a left-handed batter, Mueller said, “Normally, I didn’t try to pull left-handers. I took them the other way. But I was a situation hitter and this was a situation. So I pulled him over the right-field wall for the home run.”[12] That homer was one of Mueller’s four that year. He was the first Giant to hit for the cycle since Harry Danning in 1940 and the only major leaguer to accomplish the feat in 1954.

Willie Mays, who had returned from two years of military service, hit 41 home runs to lead the Giants to the 1954 National League championship. On the final day of the regular season he and Mueller were tied for the batting title. Mueller singled twice, but Mays had three hits to win the crown at .345, to Mueller’s .342. Though runner-up in the batting race, Mueller accumulated 212 base hits, the most in the league that year, and 17 more than Mays.[13] 

Entering the 1954 fall classic, the heavily favored Cleveland Indians, with four future Hall of Fame pitchers and a league-record 111 wins, had ended the New York Yankees’ five consecutive years as world champions. But Durocher managed a four-game sweep. Mueller played right field in all four games and batted a composite .389.

Named to the 1955 National League All-Star Team, he garnered one hit in two at-bats as the Nationals won 6-5. He ended the season with 185 hits and a .306 average.[14]

The following years saw steady declines in Mueller’s ability. His batting average dropped to .269 in 1956 and .258 in 1957. Mueller looked forward to the Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1958, but in March the team sold him to the Chicago White Sox for an estimated $25,000.[15] The Sox had a strong 82-72 second-place season under manager Al Lopez but Mueller, well past his peak years, saw limited playing time: 42 hits in 166 at-bats, for a .253 average. The following May, appearing in only four games and under treatment for gout and arthritis, the 32-year-old retired from baseball.[16] He enjoyed the memorable 1959 World Series from his St. Louis home.

Mueller is probably best remembered for putting the ball in play (that is, not strike out or walk) in 93 percent of his career plate appearances. “Many 21st century players have more K’s in one season than Mueller’s career total of 146,” wrote baseball analyst Al Doyle, “but his 164 walks would scare off modern number crunchers.”[17] Mueller’s career batting average of .296 remains a proud accomplishment.

 An avid outdoorsman, during offseasons Mueller, his brother, and fellow players often spent time together fishing and hunting. After his playing days, Mueller raised cattle on the family farm and for a few years scouted for the Giants in Missouri and Illinois. Then he began a lengthy career as an insurance company investigator.

In 1992 the New York Baseball Writers awarded him the Casey Stengel Award, and in 2001 he was elected to the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame. Why the Dodgers? “Well, the Giants didn’t have a Hall of Fame, and I guess the Dodgers were acknowledging that I was a pain in their butts.”

Mueller and his wife settled in suburban St. Louis, where they could enjoy activities with the families of their three sons. When they were youngsters, Mueller taught each of them to hit corn kernels, with a Wiffle Ball bat instead of a broomstick. 



This article is adapted from “The Magician” by Petterchak, which appeared in the 2007 issue of SABR’s The National Pastime.



[1] Tom Meany, The Incredible Giants, New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1955: 93.


[2] Thomas Kiernan, The Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975: 237.


[3] Author interview


[4] Kiernan: 35.


[5] Kiernan: 57.


[6] Kiernan: 65-66.


[7] Meany: 90; The Sporting News, May 10, 1961: 8.


[8] David S. Neft and Richard M. Cohen, The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985: 286.


[9] Meany: 94.


[10] Meany: 90.


[11] Meany: 91.


[12] John C. Skipper, Inside Pitch; A Closer Look at Classic Baseball Moments, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996: 77.


[13] Neft and Cohen: 298-301.


[14] New York Times Book of Baseball History, New York: Quadrangle, 1975: 182.


[15] Chicago Daily News, March 22, 1958.


[16] Larry Kalas, Strength Down the Middle: The Story of the 1959 Chicago White Sox, Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1999: 215.


[17] Past Times, December 13, 2007.

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