You ever listen to baseball fans about how the Designated Hitter is the worst thing that ever happened to baseball because it changed the game? Or how about that interleague play is awful because it changed the game? I remember all the way back to when they argued that adding a round of playoffs would change the game. You know what? Baseball has never been static. It changes all the time and the notion that the game is set in stone and that nothing should ever change flies in the face of reality. Let me give you one real simple example.
In the beginning (catchy, right?) of baseball there were small rosters. Those made it absolutely necessary for players to be adept at playing more than one position. We call those guys utility players and in 19th Century baseball they were ubiquitous (didn’t think I knew a word that big, did you?). Then they began to die out as rosters expanded and free substitution was allowed. Those kinds of players are still around and still valuable, just not as common as 120 years ago. Two of the best played against each other in the 1950s.
Gil McDougald arrived in New York with the Yankees in 1951. He stayed through 1960, retiring rather than move to the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was one of the Yankees’ finest players and most people never noticed. He regularly played 120 to 140 games (his low was 119 in 1960 and his high was 152 in 1952), usually hit in the 280s (he hit .300 twice and as low as .250 in 1958), popped an average of 14 home runs, and had an OPS+ above 100 all but two seasons (and one of those was 98). In other words he hit well and had he been a fulltime started might have hit even better. What he did was fill the infield hole, wherever it was. Over his career he played 599 games at second (come on, Casey, give him one more game at second), 508 at third, and 284 at shortstop. In 1952 and 1953 he spent more time at third than any other player while still logging a number of games at second. In 1954 he had more games at second than “regular” second baseman Joe Coleman. By 1956 he’d moved to shortstop where he settled in for that season and the next. In 1958 he went back to second base. No matter the infield position (except first, where I’ll bet he would have done well also), McDougald could be plugged in and you were set for the season. In his last two years he floated among all three of his former positions and solidified the infield. He was never flashy, never a star, but was a solid and important member of the 1950s Yankees dynasty.
Throughout most of the 1950s into the mid-1960s, the Dodgers had a similar player, Jim Gilliam. “Junior” spent a short amount of time in the Negro Leagues before the Dodgers picked him up. His debut was 1953, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year. He was a switch hitter who could play anywhere. Over his career he hit .265, had about two and a half walks for every strikeout, scored over 1100 runs, and generally had an OPS+ in the 80s or 90s. Again, like McDougald, what he could do best was plug a hole. Over his career he played 1046 games at second, 761 at third, 203 in left field, 222 games in the outfield in which he switched positions during the game, and a smattering of games in right field, center field, and first base (never at shortstop). He came up to replace an aging Jackie Robinson at second and by 1955 was also spending a lot of time in left field. In 1958 (with the arrival of Charlie Neal) he was more or less the fulltime left fielder, although he put in 44 games at third. In 1959 and 1960 he was the regular third baseman. In 1961, ’62, and ’63 he was sliding between second and third. In 1964 and 1965 he was more or less the primary third baseman. His final year was 1966 and he spent most of his time at third.
Both McDougald and Gilliam were valuable assets to their teams, while falling below the level of stars. Both had difficult jobs having to fill in whatever position the team needed that year (or occasionally that week) and both did their job well. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that without these two men, the Stengel Yankees and the “Boys of Summer” would have been less successful.