Some disrespectful fans in these parts often unleashed a special yowl when Eddie Yost, the Washington Senators’ longtime leadoff man, strode to the plate in the 1950s: “Take the bat off your shoulder, Eddie!”
When Yost died last week at 86 in Weston, Mass., he was properly remembered as “The Walking Man” — an otherwise undistinguished batter who drew more than 100 bases on balls in eight seasons, led the American League in six and reached first 1,614 times without putting the ball in play.
In some ways, Yost was a victim of his reputation. Taking far more good pitches than he should have, he batted under .250 in eight of his 16 full seasons with the Senators and two other teams and never was much of an offensive threat after hitting .295 in 1950 and .283 in ‘51.
Nonetheless, third baseman Yost qualified as one of the few significant ballplayers on mostly terrible Washington teams of the Truman and Eisenhower years. Only first baseman and two-time batting champion Mickey Vernon was as generally popular as long with the area’s long-suffering baseball faithful.
Eventually, however, many wearied of seeing Yost pass up hittable strikes while waiting for free passes to first. Before sluggers Roy Sievers, Jim Lemon, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison arrived in the late ‘50s, the Senators had very few hitters capable of driving in Yost or anybody else.
Earlier in the decade, Yost was considered a valuable piece of horsehide horseflesh. After Eddie made the AL All-Star team for the only time in 1952, Senators owner Clark Griffith babbled, “I wouldn’t swap him for Mickey Mantle straight up.”
If you’re scoring at home, mark that down as EO — error owner.
“I suppose Eddie might have got locked in waiting for walks too much,” said Bob Wolff, who broadcast the Senators’ games for most of Yost’s career, “but he saw his primary job as simply getting on base. He had a very quick bat that enabled him to foul off a lot of pitches.”
After Yost batted just .224 in 1958, the Senators swapped him to Detroit for Reno Bertoia in a multiplayer deal that proved disastrous. Eddie rebounded to hit .278 with a career high 21 home runs for the Tigers in ‘59 while Bertoia pecked away at .237 for the Senators.
Sometimes ya just can’t win, literally and figuratively.
I don’t know whether Yost was unlucky in love, but he certainly was unlucky in baseball. During his 12 full years in Washington, the Senators had one winning season. And Griffith Stadium’s cavernous dimensions — 405 feet down the left-field line compared with 337 at Nationals Park — prevented Eddie from hitting more than 12 homers in a season. So perhaps it was no wonder that he swung less than Lawrence Welk.
Yost’s career batting average was .254, but his on-base percentage was a whopping .394, higher than those of Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Tony Gwynn and Willie Mays among others.
“Those pitchers aren’t walking me because they feel friendly to me,” Yost told The Washington Post in 1953. “They pitch to me like I’m a .400 hitter.”
Maybe Eddie was born 60 years too late. He should have been playing in 1887, when walks counted as hits and a guy named Tip O’Neill (no, not the future speaker of the House) batted .435 for the St. Louis Browns of the then-major league American Association.
In retrospect, Eddie Yost wasn’t a great player — merely a good one with a great batting eye. But it’s interesting to speculate what he might have done statistically had he not so often stood there until, to quote from a popular Gilded Age song, after the ball was over.