Classic Yankees: Tony Lazzeri

He was overshadowed by the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Joe DiMaggio and it took him far too long to make it to the Hall of Fame even after he died far too young at the age of 42 from a fall.

Tony Lazzeri also was one of the best hitting second basemen ever. He still holds the AL record for RBI in a game with 11. He is one of 14 men to hit for the natural cycle (single, double, triple, then homer) in a game, and the only one to conclude it with a grand slam. He was the first player to hit two grand slams in the same game. He hit 60 homers and drove in 222 runs in an extended Pacific Coast League in 1925. While Ruth hit 60 HR and Gehrig 47 in 1927, it was Lazzeri who came in third with 18.

From Wikipedia: He was nicknamed “Poosh ‘Em Up” by Italian-speaking fans, from a mistranslation of an Italian phrase meaning to “hit it out” (hit a home run).

In 1925, the Yankees fell to seventh place in an eight-team league. Meanwhile, Lazzeri, playing 197 games for Salt Lake City in the Pacific Coast League (Baseball Reference lists it as AA) hit .355 with 60 HR and 222 RBI. The Yanks took notice.

Lazzeri joined the Yankees in 1926 at the age of 22, and promptly helped the Yanks to the AL Pennant by hitting .275-18-114, OPS+ 108. He also stole 16 bases in 23 attempts. He finished 10th in the MVP balloting. There was no Rookie of the Year award back then. He did lead the majors in striking out, and his 1926 campaign is remembered by a famous strikeout.

Lazzeri went 5-for-26 with a double and 3 RBI in the 1926 World Series. In Game seven at Yankee Stadium, the Yanks were losing 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh. The bases were loaded and Lazzeri was up with two out. The Cardinals brought in Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, who had pitched a complete game victory the day before. Lazzeri fouled one deep to left that just curled around the wrong side of the foul pole, just missing a grand slam. Alexander then struck out Lazzeri and pitched two more scoreless innings to give the Cardinals their first World Series championship. For years, Alexander stated “Less than a foot made the difference between a hero and a bum.” One irony in that matchup was this: Alexander, like Lazzeri, was an epileptic.

In 1927, Lazzeri’s 18 HR was good for third in the AL, behind Ruth’s 60 and Gehrig’s 47. It’s a symbol of how things were back then. Lazzeri’s .309-18-102 season, with 22 SB in 36 attempts, gave him an 11th place finish in the MVP race. His OPS+ was 125. He was 4 for 15 with 2 RBI in the WS, and was at bat when Pittsburgh’s Johnny Miljus threw a WP to allow the winning run to score in Game 4, handing a WS sweep to the Yanks (and what a way for a WS to end, on a wild pitch!).

In 1928, Lazzeri finished 3rd in the MVP vote after a .332-10-82 season, OPS+ 145. He stole 15 bases in 20 attempts. He did miss about 35 games this season. One thing to note: the MVP award at this time was called the League Award. The rules were different. Once you won the award, you couldn’t win it again. For example, Babe Ruth won the award in 1923. He was ineligible for the award in 1927 and as such, even with his 60 HR, didn’t receive an MVP vote because he was ineligible. In 1928, Gehrig, the 1927 winner, was ineligible, as was Ruth. The MVP award as we know it today took effect in 1931.

Lazzeri went 3 for 12 in the 1928 WS as the Yanks repeated as WS champs.

Lazzeri, a quiet man from San Francisco, spent most of his career at 2B, but did play 166 games at 3B in his career, along with 87 at SS. He got into two games in LF and one at 1B.

In 1929, “Poosh ‘em up” hit .354, with 18 HR and 106 RBI. OPS+ 159. Lazzeri’s power numbers are more impressive when you realize that he was a righty hitter in the Old Yankee Stadium with its Death Valley in LCF, over 450 feet away. Not only that, but Lazzeri, a second baseman, was not a big man, 5’11” and 170 lbs.

1930 saw Lazzeri hit .303. His HR dropped to nine, but he did drive in 121 runs. OPS+ 114.

Lazzeri had a bit of an off-year in 1931, but still posted an OPS+ of 107. .267-8-83 with 18 SB.

He rebounded in 1932 as the Yanks won the World Series. Lazzeri hit .300-15-113, OPS+ 137 and finished 8th in the MVP voting. He had 16 triples. Lazzeri hit 115 triples in his MLB career, and six times hit 10 or more triples in a season. He stole 11 bases in 1932, and was 5 for 17 with 2 HR and 5 RBI in the World Series. His WS efforts were overshadowed by Ruth and Gehrig’s series, especially by Ruth’s “called shot.”

Getting overlooked, of course, wasn’t new to Lazzeri. There was that 1927 season, when his 18 HR, good for third in the league, was overshadowed by Ruth (60) and Gehrig (47). What Lazzeri did on June 3, 1932 was overshadowed by what Gehrig did, and also by what Giants’ manager John McGraw did.

On that day, McGraw, the long-time Giants managerial genius, announced his retirement. He would be dead less than two years later.

Lazzeri hit for the natural cycle that day, single, double, triple, then finally the HR, in that order. He is the only man to hit for a natural cycle by hitting a grand slam for the home run.

But as I have just written, not only was Lazzeri overshadowed that day by the “Little Napoleon,” McGraw, but also by Gehrig, who hit four homers that day and just missed a fifth. Gehrig’s drive for five was caught near the flagpole in deep CF at old Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium), some 460 feet away (it was 468 to the deepest part of CF).

Lazzeri was an All-Star on the first All-Star team in 1933. It was his only All-Star selection. That year Lazzeri hit .294-18-104 with 15 SB and finished 14th in the MVP voting. OPS+ 134.

In 1934, Lazzeri hit .267-14-67 with 11 SB, OPS+ 115. He hit .273-13-83 with 11 SB in 1935, OPS+ 105.

On May 24, 1936, Lazzeri set an AL record that still stands by driving in 11 runs in one game. During that game, he became the first major league player to hit two grand slams in the same game. Fellow Italian and San Franciscan Frankie Crosetti had been his teammate since 1932, and this year (1936) saw another quiet Italian from the S.F. area join the team—Joe DiMaggio. But it was Lazzeri, who arrived in 1926, who was the first Italian-American superstar.

Lazzeri hit .287-14-109 in 1936 as the Yanks won the WS. OPS+ 109. He went 5 for 20, 1 HR and 7 RBI in the World Series. The HR was a grand slam in Game 2.

1937 saw serious slippage in the 33 year old Lazzeri. He dropped to .244-14-70 with 7 SB. The OPS+ was just an 86. He was 6 for 15 with a triple, HR and 2 RBI in the World Series, but with Joe Gordon on the horizon, it would be Lazzeri’s final year in pinstripes.

Lazzeri went to the Cubs in 1938, where he was a backup, playing in only 54 games. He hit .267-5-23, OPS+ 120 and helped the Cubs to make the World Series against Lazzeri’s old team, the Yankees. The Yanks swept the Cubs in four straight, Lazzeri going 0 for 2.

In World Series play, Lazzeri hit .262 with 4 Hr and 19 RBI in 107 at bats. He played on five World Series Champions and seven pennant winners.

Lazzeri had a brief stint in the majors in 1939. He started the year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and hit .282-3-6 in 14 games. He was released by Brooklyn; signed with the NY Giants and in thirteen games as a Giant, hit .295-1-8. He played his last game on June 7, 1939, and wound up 1939 at .289-4-14 in 27 games, OPS+ 133. Less than one month after playing his final game, Lazzeri was at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 for Lou Gehrig Day. You can see him in films of that day.

Lazzeri managed Wilkes-Barre in the Eastern League for a while in the early 1940s.

Lazzeri, an epileptic, fell down the stairs at his home on August 6, 1946 at the age of 42. The NY Times obituary stated, that “the one-time baseball great apparently had struck his head against a banister in slipping or falling in the house, family friends said. A coroner’s officer declared that he had been dead approximately thirty-six hours when the body was discovered at 4 P.M. (PST) today and said death might have been due to a heart attack.”  Lazzeri’s wife was away at the time Lazzeri fell, and came home to find Lazzeri’s body. It is now believed that it wasn’t a heart attack, but that Lazzeri had an epileptic seizure at the top of the stairs, fell, and that injuries suffered in the fall killed him. Lazzeri never had a seizure on the field.

Lazzeri hit .292 with 178 HR in his MLB career, OPS+ 120. Seven times he drove in 100 or more runs. His 162 g. average was .292-17-111 with 14 SB.

Lazzeri wore a couple of numbers with the Yanks. He started with #6 in 1929 and wore that sporadically through 1937. He also wore numbers 5 (1930-1931), 23 (1932) and 7 (1933).

For many years, I wondered why “Poosh ‘Em Up” wasn’t in the HOF. He was overshadowed not only by his great teammates, but also by 2B contemporaries Rogers Hornsby and Charlie Gehringer.

From Miller Huggins, who died in 1929, and who only saw Lazzeri for four years (from Harvey Frommer’s A Yankee Century): “I’ve seen a few better second basemen, but not many. He has a phenomenal pair of hands, a great throwing arm and he covers acres of ground.” Notice that Huggins didn’t even get to Lazzeri’s bat.

In 1991, the Veterans Committee finally put Lazzeri in The Hall.

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