The Magician: Don Mueller and the New York Giants

This article was written by J. A. Petterchak

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)


As outfielder for the New York Giants in the 1950s, Donald Frederick Mueller played in some of the most memorable games of the era. Now approach­ing his 80th birthday, he reflected on a career of some 50 years ago.

Born in the St. Louis suburb of Mount Pleasant (now Creve Coeur), the young Mueller learned hitting from his father, Walter “Heinie” Mueller, who played for four years in the 1920s with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “He taught me an awful lot,” said his son,

because he picked the minds of a lot of the good ballplayers, what made them good hitters. 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, so in comparison, the baseball would seem a large object.

Mueller played two years of American Legion baseball, against larger, older boys. “I realized I couldn’t overpower what those pitchers were throwing,” he recalled. “1 didn’t have the strength. Just naturally, I guess, l didn’t choke the bat, but just met the ball instead of trying to kill it.”

At Pattonville High School, he won a spot on the baseball team, batting left-handed and throwing right­ handed. As a junior he joined his older brother, Leroy, as athletes at the high school of Christian Brothers College in the St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights. (Leroy would go on to a minor league stint with the Red Sox and Yankees in the mid-1940s.)

Developing into the caliber of a professional ball­ player while still in high school, Don received offers from several teams, including the Chicago Cubs, “ex­cept,” he said, “my dad didn’t like the contract they offered me.” Walter Mueller’s choice was the New York Giants, whose scout Gordon Maguire brought Mueller to Sportsman’s Park in 1944, when the Cardinals were playing the Giants. Manager Mel Ott, who had been Don’s favorite professional player, approved signing the 17-year-old 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, Mueller was invited to the Giants’ spring training, “with permis­sion from the CBC Brothers to have my lessons mailed to me.” Observers would later credit Mueller’s keen eye and excellent coordination for his hitting success. He credits his father’s tutelage with the corn kernels.

During those World War II years, transportation re­strictions confined spring workouts to the northern states. The Giants and Jersey City players practiced on the grounds of the John D. Rockefeller mansion in Lakewood, NJ. Even though the house was a distance from the ball field, the lanky Mueller smashed a hit through the front window, observed by astonished New York sportswriters. Reporting his feat, they predicted that the teenager would become a figure at the Polo Grounds.

He played only five games for Jersey City before join­ing the Merchant Marines.2 In the service for two years, during 30-day shore leaves he returned to the team. Expected to become a slugger, he instead developed a controlled swing, choking up on the bat a bit, and meet­ing the ball rather than trying for power.3

After his Merchant Marines discharge in mid-1946, Mueller battled .359 for Jersey City during the final weeks of the season. The next year Mueller hit .348 in a full season at Jacksonville, played in 99 games at Jersey City in 1948, then batted .358 in 36 major league games at the Polo Grounds. After a brief stay in Minneapolis, hitting .311, he was brought back to New York.4

Giants owners had replaced Ott as manager in 1948 with the fiercely competitive Leo Durocher. The offense under Ott had been known as the National League’s “lumberjacks,” for the number of big, slow power hitters. “The team did not have a good won-loss record,” Mueller explained. “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.”

Mueller became the regular right fielder for the 1950 season, after slugger Willard Marshall was traded to Boston. Durocher, who on his selection as manager had announced, “I come to win,” confidently predicted a pennant that year. Batting third in the lineup, Mueller’s job was to drive leadoff hitter Eddie Stanky home and Alvin Dark to third, so that, theoretically, the Giants would have scored a run, with two men on and none out, and sluggers Monte Irvin and Whitey Lockman coming to the plate.

Early in the season, however, the team played mediocre ball, with poor hitting and worse pitching. By June, Mueller was bat­ ting an anemic .185, causing Durocher to drop him to seventh in the order and then to bench him.5 But in early August as a pinch­ hitter, Mueller began lifting his average, with soft bounders and line drives. Returned to the lineup, he responded by hitting well over .300 during the final two months, as did Stanky, Irvin, Dark, Lockman, and Henry Thompson.6 Had the season lasted another week, the improved Giants might have swept past both the Phillies and the Dodgers to take the pennant.

Mueller ended the season with a .291 average, earning the reputation of a scrappy place hitter. Sports writers named him Mandrake the Magician for his ability to stroke the ball through holes in the defense.

His confidence restored, Durocher told reporters in the spring of 1951 that the Giants would “take it all.” Many agreed, including a writer for the Times:

For the first time since their last  pennant-winning days in ’36 and ’37, the Giants toe the mark a definite pennant contender. Durocher, in the face of severe criticism from all sides, does seem to have achieved the objective he had in mind when he dismantled the power-laden but other­ wise inept array that for so long failed to bring a pennant to the Polo Grounds. In its place he has developed a tal­ented, fine-spirited group of players. The Polo Grounders do look primed for a quick get-away this spring.7

Unfortunately, the Giants lost 11 games straight after opening with two wins in three games. After a paticularly bad loss, Durocher berated each of the players, surprising even veterans by his foul-language tirade.8 “It was a turning point,” recalled one teammate. “You could feel the tension and pressure of those first dismal two weeks lift-like breaking through the clouds into clear sky when you’re in an airplane. From the next day on we played fantastic baseball,” a winning stretch that would continue through the season, aided by the talent and enthusiasm of 20-year-old rookie Willie Mays.

Mueller, who had been among the slumping hitters, saw his average improve over the summer. Of his 65 careers home runs, five came in two consecutive games on September 1 and 2, 1951, against the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. “The count was one ball and no strikes,” he recalled of a memorable at-bat in the first game. “Monte Irvin was on deck. He shouted to me, ‘We got a call in the dugout. Your wife just had a baby boy.’ I hit the next pitch, out of the park,” for his second homer of the game. The new arrival was the first of three sons born to Don and Genevieve Babor Mueller, who had met as Pattonville High School and married in 1949.

The day following three home runs, Mueller was retired by big Don Newcombe in three consecutive at-bats. Then in both the sixth and eighth innings, Mueller hit the ball into the stands. Five homers in two games, tying a record achieved at that time only by Adrian Anson, Ty Cobb, Tony Lazzeri, and Ralph Kiner.9 Trailing the Dodgers by 13 ½ games in August, the Giants won 39 of their final 47 games to end the season in a first-place tie. With the Dodgers leading 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third and final playoff game, leadoff Giant Alvin Dark singled off Newcombe. Mueller took the first pitch for a ball and noticed that Dark was being held close to the bag. The Magician hit the next pitch sharply to the left of first base, out of reach of first baseman Gil Hodges.

“I knew what I wanted to do,” Mueller said later. “If he would have been playing back and not holding Dark, I would have tried to go up the middle. I always favored the middle.” 10 On the single, Dark raced to third. Monte Irvin, representing the tying run, popped up for the first out. Then, with men on first and third, Whitey Lockman lined the ball into left field for a double. Dark crossed home plate, and Mueller, scrambling for third, slid past the bag and tore the tendons on both sides of his ankle. Writhing in pain, he was carried off the field on a stretcher into the clubhouse.

His roommate, Clint Hartung, called in as the pinch runner, was about to become a footnote to history. The Dodgers brought in Ralph Branca in relief of the tiring Newcombe. Bobby Thomson, a shy journeyman out­ fielder in the biggest spot of his career, stepped to the plate. Giants players and fans hoped for a single to tie the game, but Thomson delivered with a walk-off three-run homer into the left-field stands.11 “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 playing in the World Series, in which Casey Stengel’s Yankees won their third straight championship, four games to two. Some writers 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 four games and committed two errors.12

Giants fans anticipated another good year for 1952, with a 17-5 start. But they soon felt the loss of power hitter Mays, who left in May for military service, while Irvin was out with a broken ankle. The other hitters, including Mueller, felt pressure to attempt hitting for home runs. His ineffectiveness, however, caused Durocher to bench him for 28 games. Mueller also had to prove his ability in right field, vying with both Bobby Thomson and Hank Thompson, Hartung, and others, but played more games than any of them, ending the season with a .281 batting average.

In 1953, after being benched again for lack of home­ run power, he decided to forgo any attempts at power hitting. “My chance of hitting a single is very good,” he explained to a writer. “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.” 13

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. The team, however, finished in the second division.

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. 14

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 double­ header, 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 five for five, including a double and a triple, producing two RBIs. “My five for five 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, but the Nationals lost the game, 11-9.

Nearly all season, he made at least one hit per game, and on July 11, against four Pirates pitchers, he hit for the cycle: a double to left field, triple to right-center, and single to center. At his final at-bat, he sank one into the right-field seats off left-hander Paul LaPalme, his first homer of the season. As a left-handed batter, Mueller explained, “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.” 15

The homer was one of four that Mueller hit 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 League championship. On the last day of the regular season he and Mueller were tied for the batting title. Mueller singled twice, but Mays, with three hits, won the crown with a mark of .345. Mueller, who throughout the season was close in average to Mays, finished at .342. Though runner-up in the batting race, Mueller accumulated 212 hits, most in the league that year, and 17 more than Mays.16

Entering the 1954 fall classic, the heavily favored Cleveland Indians, boasting four Hall of Fame pitchers and a then league-record 111 wins, had ended the New York Yankees’ five consecutive years as World Champions. But the Series was brief, with Durocher managing a four-game sweep. Mueller, described by a Time magazine reporter as “a quiet, conscientious com­petitor,” and “always a power at the plate,” played right field in each of the games and batted a composite .389. His team’s batting average totaled .254, while the Indians managed only .190. 17

Mueller surmised that the Indians’ quest for the American League win record hurt their chances in the Series. “They captured the pennant real early that year,

but manager Al Lopez continued playing all of the regulars seeking the win record.” 18 The 1954 Series was the most lucrative to that time, a record pool of $881,763.72, with full portions for each Giant of

$11,147.90. The attendance of 251,507 also set a four­ game Series record. 19

In early 1955, with the Giants playing the Reds, the two teams went 16 innings, combining for a record-tying 10 double plays. Mueller started a rally in the 16th, hitting an outside fourth-ball pitch for a pop single that led to a 2-1 Giants victory.

That summer Mueller was again selected for the National League All-Star team. Batting twice, he garnered a hit off Early Wynn, the Indians’ star right hander, in the fifth inning. The Braves’ Henry Aaron ran for Mueller, then replaced him in right field for the remainder of the game, as the Nationals won in 12 innings, 6-5.20

Mueller’s batting average began declining from .306 in 1955 to .269 in 1956 and .258 in 1957. The Giants finished third in 1955 and sixth in both 1956 and 1957. Mueller and his family looked forward to the Giants’ move to San Francisco in 1958, but in March the team sold him to the Chicago White Sox. He saw limited playing time that year, with 166 at-bats and hitting for a .253 average. The following year, suffering from gout and arthritis, the 32-year-old retired from baseball, with a lifetime .296 batting average.

An avid outdoorsman, in the off-seasons 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 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.”

In St. Louis County, Mueller’s neighbors may be unaware that they reside near a two-time All-Star with a World Series ring, but they might notice the baseball bat he hangs in front of his home for first-time visitors. Occasionally attending Cardinals games at Busch Stadium, these days he and Genevieve prefer family ac­tivities. Their three grandsons attend college on athletic scholarships, while their granddaughter is a high school athlete in track and softball. When they were youngsters, Mueller taught each of them to hit corn kernels, with a wiffle-ball bat in place of the broomstick. 

J.A. PETTERCHAK, a Little League scorekeeper at age 13, was the director of the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield. He now researches and writes biographies as well as business and organization histories.

 

Notes

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

2. Meany, 93.

3. Bob Brian, ‘”Hitting’ the High Spots,” Scholastic Coach, March, 1965, 13.

4. Thomas Kiernan, The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975, 237.

5. Kiernan, 35.

6. Kiernan, 57.

7. Kiernan, 24.

8. Kiernan, 65-66.

9. Meany, 90; The Sporting News, May 10, 1961, 8.

10. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 3, 2001, B5.

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

12. Meany, 94.

13. Meany, 90.

14. Meany, 91.

15. John C. Skipper. Inside Pitch, A Closer Look at Classic Baseball Moments. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996, 77.

16. Neft and Cohen, 298-301.

17. Time, October 4, 1954, 71.

18. Skipper, 79.

19. The Sporting News, Official World Series Records, 1903-1978. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1978, 199.

20. The New York Times Book of Baseball History, New York: Quadrangle, 1975, 182.

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