Classic Yankees: Bob Meusel

bob-meuselIt’s hard for a New York Yankee to be underappreciated, underrated or undervalued. Especially now since the Yankees brand is probably the most famous brand in the world. It’s even harder when you were part of what many consider the finest baseball team ever assembled.

But as the years go by, it seems like that is what “Long” Bob Meusel is. An underappreciated star of the 1920’s Yankees. It seems that many forget just how good Meusel was.

When we think of the 1927 Yankees, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig immediately come to mind. But that team had other stars, one of which (Earle Combs) I profiled earlier. Others, like Combs, Meusel, Waite Hoyt, and Tony Lazzeri seem to be overlooked given the brilliance of Ruth and Gehrig, despite the fact that Combs, Hoyt and Lazzeri are all in the Hall of Fame.

For instance, from 1918 through 1931, Ruth led or tied for the AL HR lead in every season except two. Those two years were 1922 and 1925. In fact, of all the years Ruth led the AL in homers during that period, he led the majors as well, except for 1930, when Hack Wilson hit 56 in the NL to Ruth’s 49 in the AL.

In 1922, Ken Williams led the AL in HR with 39. Ruth had 35. Ruth probably would have won in 1922 had he not been suspended for the first six weeks of the year due to his appearing in a barnstorming tour (along with Meusel) after the 1921 World Series.

As for that 1925 season, well, that was known as the year of the “Babe’s Big Bellyache.”

Guess who was the HR champ that year? Bob Meusel.

Meusel, born in 1896, joined the Navy during WWI. He made his MLB debut for the Yankees in 1920. By that time, his brother, Emil “Irish” Meusel, was a major league player. The Meusels would go up against each other in three consecutive World Series from 1921-1923, when Emil played for the NY Giants.

Meusel was known to have a gun for an arm. In fact, in 1921 he had 28 assists, and he followed it with 24 in 1922. In his rookie year, Meusel hit .328-11-83 (eleven HR was a lot for anyone not named Ruth back then), OPS+ 126. Primarily a corner outfielder, Meusel did play some first and third base in his career.

Now for some quotes on Meusel’s arm, from various sources:

“He had lightnin’ on the ball”—Casey Stengel

“I never saw a better thrower”—Babe Ruth

“Meusel’s arm was the best I ever saw. And I’m talking about strong arms, not merely accurate ones. Meusel threw strikes to any base from the outfield.”
Bob Quinn, former Red Sox and Braves President

Meusel hit .318-24-135 in 1921, providing lineup protection to the Great Bambino as the Yanks won their first pennant. Meusel also stole 17 bases and had an OPS+ of 128. He was 6 for 30 in the Series with 3 RBI. He even stole home in Game 3 of the Series. In one game that season, he had four assists.

In 1922, Meusel and Ruth were suspended for the first six weeks of the season for breaking a baseball rule forbidding barnstorming after the season by World Series participants. The loss of both Meusel and Ruth hurt the Yanks, and it contributed to them barely winning the AL pennant by the slimmest of margins—just one game. Meusel was 6 for 20 in the WS, with 2 RBI, but the Yanks were swept by the Giants as Ruth only hit .118. Despite missing those six weeks, Meusel finished 15th in MVP voting with a season of .319-16-84 and 13 SB, OPS+ 130.

1923 brought a new Stadium and the Yankees’ first World Championship. Meusel hit .313-9-91, with 13 SB and an OPS+ of 116. He was 7 for 26 in the Series with 8 RBI.

1924 and .325-12-120 with a career high 26 SB. OPS+ 120 but the Yanks finished 2nd. Before that season, a tragedy occurred. From Wikipedia: Before the 1924 season started, Meusel’s close friend Tony Boeckel, shortstop for the Boston Braves, was killed when the car in which he was riding flipped over in San Diego. Meusel was a passenger in the vehicle but escaped unhurt.

Also during that 1924 season (Wikipedia, again): In a game against the Tigers on June 13, Meusel was involved in one of the most notorious brawls in baseball history. With the Yankees leading 10–6 in the top of the ninth inning, Ty Cobb, the star and manager of the Tigers, gave pitcher Bert Cole the signal to hit Meusel with a pitch. Ruth saw the signal and warned Meusel, who was hit in the back and rushed to fight Cole. Both teams rushed onto the field to brawl, and Cobb and Ruth started fighting as well. Over a thousand fans also rushed onto the field, and a riot erupted. The police managed to control the brawl and arrested several fans. The umpire of the game, Billy Evans, pushed Meusel and Ruth out of Navin Field to safety. American League President Ban Johnson punished Meusel and Cole by fining them and issuing a ten-day suspension.

Meusel was one of the few bright spots in that 1925 “Babe’s Bellyache” season in which the Yankees plunged to 7th (in an 8-team league). He led the league in HR and RBI, hitting .290-33-138, 13 SB, and an OPS+ of 125. He finished 18th in the MVP vote.

Now for a bit of historical perspective. As you may recall, it was 301 down the LF line at the old Stadium, 402 to LF, 457 to LCF, 461 to CF and 407 to RCF. In Meusel’s day, LCF to RCF were even deeper.

In the old Stadium, 1923-1973, only three right-handed batters had seasons of 30 or more HR in a season. Bob Meusel, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe Gordon. The Stadium was murder on righty hitters.

Even now, it’s difficult. When the Stadium reopened in 1976, it was still 387 to LF and 430 to LCF, 417 to CF. From 1985-1987, LCF was narrowed down to 411, then in 1988 to 399, which is what the new Stadium has. CF was cut down from 417 to 408. It’s still deep out there. Dave Winfield and Alex Rodriguez are two righty hitters who were able to top 30 with the shortened configuration. But the old Stadium saw only Meusel, DiMag, and Gordon do it.

1926 saw another typical Meusel year but with a strange ending. Meusel hit .315 with 12 HR, 81 RBI and 16 SB. OPS+ 120, 21st in MVP voting despite missing some 40-45 games. But in the WS, in Game 7, Meusel made a key error and failed twice with men on. Still, in the 9th, he could have won the Series for the Yanks. With two out, Ruth walked. Meusel came up (not Gehrig, as the myth persists; Meusel hit cleanup in this game. Gehrig became the cleanup hitter in 1927). Ruth however, with Meusel in the batter’s box and Gehrig on deck, inexplicably tried to steal second. He was gunned down, ending the series—one in which Meusel went 5 for 21.

For that great 1927 team, Meusel hit .337 with 8 HR, 103 RBI and 24 SB. OPS+135. He was just 2 for 17 in the WS. In one game that year, he stole second, third and home in the same game.

1928 was Meusel’s last great year. He turned just 32 in midseason, but faded fast after 1928. His 1928 season saw him hit .297 with 11 HR and 113 RBI. It was the fifth time he topped 100 RBI. His OPS+ was 114. In the WS, Meusel was 3 for 15 with his only WS HR, and 3 RBI. In 34 WS games, Meusel hit just .225 with 1 HR and 17 RBI. He was on six pennant winners, and three World Series Champions. That year saw Meusel set a record that he still shares; he hit for the cycle three times in his career.

1929 saw Meusel collapse along with the Stock Market. The career .309 hitter slumped to .261, with just 10 HR and 57 RBI. OPS+ a poor 79. He was sold to the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he played just one year, 1930. After hitting .289-10-62, OPS+ 93, his major league days were over.

Meusel ended his career with a .309 batting average, 156 HR and an OPS+ of 118. His 162 g. average would translate to .309-18-123 with 16 SB.

Meusel’s HOF chances were hurt by several different things. For one, his career only lasted eleven seasons. For another, the perception of him. He wasn’t the most popular of players among his teammates, opponents, fans or the media. Meusel has been described as a heavy drinker and womanizer who did not get along with his teammates. His manager Miller Huggins called him “indifferent”. He was quiet and reserved, rarely giving newspaper interviews until his career was winding down. He was also known for his lazy attitude, such as refusing to run out ground balls, which many said kept him from achieving greatness. Another description of Meusel said that “he played the game with such ease that some thought he didn’t give 100% all of the time.” Obviously I never saw him play. The numbers show a very good ballplayer whose career needed to be a bit longer for true greatness. The era shows someone overshadowed by Ruth and later by Gehrig as well. But there is no doubt that the brevity of his career, as well as the perception of Meusel, helped keep him from the Hall.

Meusel worked as a security guard at a U.S. Naval base after retirement. If you catch the movies “The Pride of the Yankees” (a good movie, despite some flaws) or “The Babe Ruth Story” (downright awful), you will see Meusel playing himself. You also will see Meusel in old film footage of Gehrig’s July 4, 1939 speech.

The Yanks were the first team in the majors to put uniform numbers on the backs of their uniforms. They started it in 1929, Meusel’s last year with the team. Numbers were given out according to one’s position in the batting order, then the pitchers and bench players came later. Meusel batted fifth, hence he got #5. #5, of course, is retired in honor of Joe Dimaggio.

Meusel’s brother Emil died in 1963 at the age of 69. As for “Long Bob,” he passed on in 1977 at the age of 81.

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2 Responses to Classic Yankees: Bob Meusel

  1. CHUCK says:

    He should be in the Hall . The reason for the shortness of his career was service during WW1. The policy
    after WW2 was different than WW1 . Namely returning players got credit for War Time Service .
    This was not the case of WW! players and the attitude of owners who treated players as property espeically
    prior to Curt Flood . Also , it was names that brought in fans . Home runs are crowd pleasing . As stated
    many power hitters were not power hitters due to deep center fields . Most teams had fair to poor hitting
    cetner fielders due to the need of excellent fielders playing CF which were needed due to the deepness
    of outfield especially in CF. Further the balls were not made to fly out of the park as they are now . Muesel
    had about 80% rbt to at bats .

    • I agree chuck. with that arm and his defense he was one of the best of his era. and the years missed from entering, fighting and returning from WW1 hurt his chances as he wasn't discharged from the service right away. SANDY Koufax only played ten years, and he is in the hall. if you allow for Ruth AND Gehrig's greatness, head and shoulders above everyone else, and you see Combs and Meusel were pretty close in talent. if you are old enough, and spoke with some of the old timers who played against him, or saw him play, they to a man, rave about how great he really was. one even told me he reminded the of shoeless Joe as an outfielder and same type of arm if not stronger.

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