Now that we’ve thoroughly hashed and rehashed Derek Jeter, maybe it’s time to turn and look at another man who played shortstop for New York. There have been a lot of them from Ernie Courtney who started the first game for the New York Highlanders in 1903 (they were in Baltimore in 1901 and 1902) through Tony Fernandez, the guy Jeter replaced. The man I want to look at is Mark Koenig, the shortstop on what is arguably the most famous of all teams, the 1927 Murder’s Row Yankees.
Koenig was born in San Francisco on 19 July 1904 (almost exactly 107 years ago). He was a good ball player in high school, got a tryout with the local team, made the low minors in 1921 (he was 16 when the season started), got to St. Paul in 1924 and stayed there through 1925. His 1924 team won the American Association title and got a chance to play in the “Little World Series”, a post season playoff between the AA champ and the International League champion (those were the top minor leagues of the era). St. Paul won in ten games (5-4 with a tie). Koenig played well enough that the Yankees bought him and brought him to the Major Leagues in 1926. He was a disaster. He led the American League in errors with 52 (and four more in the World Series). He hit OK at .271 with no power and more walks than strikeouts. In the Series he hit only .125 with one double and his fourth error led to the Cardinals’ World Series clinching run in game seven. So far, he wasn’t much.
In 1927, the Yankees produced what many people conclude is the greatest of all teams. Koenig hit second and stayed at shortstop. His error total dropped to 47, still first in the American League, but he was also third in assists. He hit .285, still had no power, didn’t walk much (and struck out less), and had 15 sacrifices (a factor for the two hitter). In the World Series he hit a team leading .500 with two doubles and scored five runs. In 1928 his errors increased to 49, but he dropped to second in the league (Red Kress of the Browns had 55). His average topped out at .319, with a .415 slugging percentage, an OBP of .360 (all career highs at the time). With the Yanks in the Series for the third straight year, Koenig hit .158. and scored one run in the four game sweep of the Cardinals. During his tenure, the Yankees adopted numbers for the players. They did it by simply giving the first hitter number one, the second number two, the third number three, and so on. That’s why Ruth was number three. So Koenig was the original number two for the Yanks (I wonder if Derek Jeter knows that).
In 1929, he became the backup infielder, playing 116 games and hitting .292. Leo Durocher was the new shortstop, hit terribly, but fielded much better than Koenig. After 21 games in 1930, he was sent to Detroit where he teamed with Charlie Gehringer at second base. Koenig remained there through 1931 and ended up sent to the Pacific Coast League in 1932. Late in the season he was called up by the Cubs and hit .353 with three home runs, and 11 RBIs in 102 at bats. He was considered by many to be the spark that helped the Cubs to the National League title and a World Series matchup against his old team, the Yankees. The Series was controversial for two reasons. First, the Cubs granted Koenig only a half-share of the World Series payout, a not unreasonable act considering he’d only played in 33 games. This got the attention of Babe Ruth, who liked Koenig. Ruth began riding the Cubs for the entire Series for being cheap, the Cubs returned the favor by referencing Ruth’s ancestry (among other things). All that climaxed in the Series’ second great controversy, Ruth’s “called shot,” which I’m not about to weigh in on.
Koenig stayed with Chicago in 1933, didn’t do much, was traded to Cincinnati in 1934, had a decent year and was involved in one last controversy. The Reds were pioneering using airplanes to travel to away games. Koenig was one of two players (Jim Bottomley was the other) who refused to fly. It got him into some trouble with the team’s front office, but they arranged to send him by train to away games.
He moved back to New York, this time with the Giants for the final two years of his career (1935-36). He got into one last World Series in 1936 (again against his old Yankees team), went one for three (a single) in a losing effort. He was through as a Major Leaguer after the Series. He played one final season in San Francisco and retired at age 33. He spent his last years running service stations and working in a brewery in the San Francisco area. He retired to Sacramento and died in April 1993, the last of the 1927 Yankees. I remember they made a big deal about it in the papers in ’93.
For his career, Koenig hit .279, slugged .367, and had an OBP of .316 for an OPS of .683 (OPS+ of 80). He had 1190 hits for 1567 total bases, 195 doubles, 49 triples, and 28 home runs. He also drove in 443 runs, and stole 31 bases. In fielding he led the AL in range factor in 1927, but offset that by making a ton of errors (even for his own day he was a terrible fielding shortstop).
He’s remembered now only for being part of the 1927 Yankees, and I guess that’s fair. He wasn’t a star, he wasn’t a great player, but he did contribute to a great team. Ultimately, that’s an acceptable legacy for a ball player.