Classic Yankees: Joe “Flash” Gordon

You wouldn’t think someone who hit .406 one year and who won two Triple Crowns would have NO MVP awards to show for those three years, but that is exactly what happened to Ted Williams. The “Splendid Splinter” did win the MVP award in 1946 and 1949, but he lost to DiMaggio and the streak in 1941 when he hit .406, and lost to Joe D. in 1947 by one point despite winning his second Triple Crown.

In 1942, Williams won the Triple Crown but lost the MVP to Joe Gordon. Gordon was the successor at second base to the previous Classic Yankee profile, Tony Lazzeri, and like Lazzeri, made it into the Hall of fame posthumously via the Veterans’ Committee after a long wait.

From Wikipedia: Gordon attended the University of Oregon, where he also competed as a halfback on the football team as well as in gymnastics, soccer and the long jump. Not limiting himself to sports, he also played the violin in the college orchestra.

Gordon played with the 1937 Newark Bears, often regarded (from Wikipedia) as the best minor league team in history with future all-stars George McQuinn, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Babe Dahlgren, and Spud Chandler joining Gordon to lead the team to an incredible 110 wins in 158 games.

“Flash” Gordon came to the Yankees in 1938. Like Lazzeri, he was a righty hitter with surprising power for a middle infielder. At 5’10”, 180 lbs., Gordon, also like Lazzeri, was hurt by the old Yankee Stadium’s Death Valley.

In the days of the Old Stadium, when it was 402 to the bullpen in straightaway left, 457 to LCF and 461 to CF, only three right-handed hitters topped 30 HR in a season—Bob Meusel, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe Gordon. Gordon was the first AL second baseman to hit 20 home runs in a season, doing so seven times.

Gordon’s rookie year saw a .255 BA, but with 25 HR and 97 RBI. He stole 11 bases and finished 12th in the MVP voting (no ROY award then). OPS+ 108. Gordon went 6 for 15, 1 HR and 6 RBI in the WS.

In 1939, he earned the first of his nine All-Star selections (the only years he wasn’t chosen were his first and last). He hit .284-28-111, OPS+ 123, stole 11 bases, and finished 9th in MVP voting. He went just 2 for 14 in the WS.

1940 saw another AS selection, and Gordon’s 30 HR year.  .281-30-103, 18 SB, OPS+ 121. 23rd in MVP voting. He hit for the cycle on September 8, 1940.

In 1941 Gordon hit .276-24-87. 10 SB. OPS+ 117, 7th in MVP voting, once again an All-Star. This year he was teamed with the “Scooter,” Phil Rizzuto, as the DP combo. Prior to that, it was with Frankie Crosetti. Rizzuto was a rookie in 1941, and would say of Gordon that he was the best second baseman he ever played with (with no slights meant toward Stirnweiss, Coleman or Martin). Gordon was said to have great range. There were no Gold Glove Awards in Gordon’s day, but he was said to be an excellent defensive player. He led the AL in assists four times and in double plays three times.

Despite his prowess at second, Gordon got into 30 games at first base in 1941 since the Yanks were looking for a replacement for Lou Gehrig. Babe Dahlgren didn’t cut it after taking over for Gehrig in 1939. Uncomfortable at first, Gordon went back to second and Johnny Sturm had his only MLB season at first for the Yanks in 1941. Buddy Hassett took over in 1942, then there was Nick Etten, George McQuinn, Joe Collins, an aging Johnny Mize…the Yanks had a lot of first basemen between Gehrig and Skowron. Gordon was an experiment that didn’t pan out. It’s just as well.

Gordon was 7 for 14, double, triple, HR, 5 RBI in the 1941 WS.

In 1942, Gordon hit .322-18-103, 12 SB, OPS+ 154, and was an All-Star. Despite leading the league in strikeouts and GIDP, Gordon won the MVP award over the Triple Crown-winning Williams. He got 12 first-place votes and 270 points to Williams’ 9 first-place votes and 249 points. (In case you are wondering, Joe D. finished 7th, no first-place votes).
Gordon had a miserable WS in 1942, going 2 for 21.

Gordon slumped in 1943, hitting .249-17-69, OPS+ 126. Once again an All-Star (he was an All-Star 1939-1943, and 1946-1949). He finished 25th in the MVP voting. In the 1943 WS, he was 4 for 17, HR, 2 RBI.

WWII then interrupted his career. Gordon missed all of 1944 and 1945 due to military service in the Army.

Gordon couldn’t get it together in 1946 after two years off.  He only hit .210-11-47, OPS+79, and missed 40 games. He was named an all-star despite that poor campaign.

Gordon then was traded to the Cleveland Indians for Allie Reynolds. Gordon played in exactly 1000 games for the Yankees and racked up exactly 1000 hits.

Gordon rebounded with the Indians in 1947, hitting .272-29-93, being an All-Star, and finishing 7th in the MVP voting. He had an OPS+ of 134.

The following year, Gordon helped the Indians to a WS title, their last to date. He finished 6th in the MVP voting (won by Cleveland’s player-manager, Lou Boudreau) by hitting .280-32-124, OPS+ 135. He went 4 for 22 in the WS with a HR and 2 RBI. Gordon’s 32 HR was the AL record for a second baseman until broken in 2001 by Bret Boone.

During this time, Gordon played a big role in helping Larry Doby adjust to the major leagues. Doby was the first black player in the AL, and is noted in Wikipedia as stating that Gordon was his first friend in white baseball.

Gordon played on six pennant winners and won five World Series. He hit .243-4-16 in WS play in 29 games. Gordon hit .251-20-84 in 1949, when he made his ninth and final All-Star team. OPS+ 103. In 1950, Gordon’s average dropped to .236. He still had 19 HR and 57 RBI, OPS+ 98. He was 35.

Gordon’s career totals were a .268 batting average, 253 HR. His 162 game average is .268-26-101. OPS+ 120.

Gordon went back to the west coast after 1950, serving as Sacramento’s player-manager in the PCL in 1951 and 1952. From 1953-1956 he scouted for the Tigers before going back to the PCL to manage in 1957.

In 1958, Gordon was tapped to manage the Indians, replacing Bobby Bragan. Gordon went 46-40 for the Indians as they finished 4th in the league. In 1959, Gordon came close to winning a pennant for Cleveland. The Indians finished second.  One of Gordon’s players that year was Billy Martin.

1960 saw something strange… two managers traded for each other in mid-season. Gordon started the season with Cleveland, and then was traded to Detroit for Jimmie Dykes. While with Cleveland, Gordon was 49-46 and in fourth place. The Tiger team that finished 1960 with Gordon as manager went 26-31.

Gordon started the 1961 campaign as manager of the Kansas City Athletics, but was let go (replaced by Hank Bauer) after starting the season 26-33. Gordon then became a scout and minor league instructor for the Angels through 1968.

Gordon returned to managing in 1969, managing the expansion Kansas City Royals. To his credit, the expansion team actually finished 4th in the AL West, at 69-93. Gordon was let go, however.

Gordon then went into real estate, and died far too young at the age of 63 from a heart attack in April 1978.

In 2009, Gordon was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee. One wonders, had it not been for WWII costing him two seasons, if Gordon could have achieved the 300 HR mark, which for a second baseman is a nice feat—without even taking into account the dimensions of the ballpark which he called home.

More from Wikipedia: His only daughter, Judy Gordon of Idaho Falls, Idaho, gave his induction speech in Cooperstown in front of 21,000 people in attendance. “He (Joe) insisted against having a funeral,” Judy said in the closing remarks of her speech. “And as such, we consider Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame as his final resting place to be honored forever.”

On 29 April 2010, Wall Street Journal sports writer Russell Adams wrote a piece entitled “Who Is the Greatest Yankee?” Adams ranked Gordon as the 9th greatest Yankees position player in franchise history. He wrote, “Gordon’s great strength was defense — his range was the best of any of the 30 candidates we studied.”

Gordon himself took more pride in his fielding than in his hitting, saying “Hitting, what is there to it? You swing and if you hit the ball, there it goes. Ah, but fielding. There’s rhythm, finesse, teamwork and balance.”

There is a famous story about Gordon. When asked why he liked Gordon so much, Joe McCarthy called Gordon over. “Joe, what is your batting average right now?” “I don’t know,” Gordon replied. “What about your fielding average?” “Hell if I know,” Gordon replied, whereupon McCarthy dismissed him. “That’s why I like him,” McCarthy stated. “All he cares about is winning.”

From contemporary and fellow HOF 2B Bobby Doerr: “He was a great hitter, probably lost 30 points on his average being a right-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, yet he could drive the ball out of that park.”

Gordon, like his HOF predecessor at second base Tony Lazzeri, wore #6 as a Yankee. He wore #4 as an Indian.

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