- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

Hank Bauer was supposed to be a tough guy, an ex-Marine who won two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars during nearly three years of combat in World War II. On the field he lived the part. When he rumbled down the basepaths on behalf of the lordly New York Yankees, the earth shook — along with quite a few enemy infielders.

In the mid-1950s, outfielder Bauer became Public Enemy No. 1 in Chicago after clobbering Nellie Fox, the diminutive White Sox second baseman. Asked to explain, Hank growled, “What did those guys expect me to do, roll out of Fox’s way? It took me long enough to win a regular job in this league without endangering it by playing gently. This is how I make my living, and I got to play it this way every time out.”

In other words, you could like it or lump it.

Appropriately, Bauer had the kind of mug not even a mother could love. Time magazine once said seeing his face was “like looking into a bowl of mashed potatoes.” Fortunately for the writer, perhaps, the magazine did not put bylines on its stories back then.

Like a lot of tough guys, though, Bauer was a softie at heart. Once upon learning that a couple of young autograph seekers had been stiffed by Mickey Mantle outside the clubhouse, Hank signed both their pads and cooed, “Don’t take it so hard, boys. Mickey is a good guy, but he’s had a bad day [possibly after a bad night].”

Bauer, who died of lung cancer at age 84 on Feb. 9 in Shawnee Mission, Kan., never earned the money or accolades paid to Yankees superstars like Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford, but he was a key cog on teams that won nine pennants and seven World Series in 10 seasons from 1949 to 1958.

“The Yankees had superstars, and they had MVPs, but you can’t do it without guys like Hank,” said Tony Kubek, a longtime teammate and later a noted baseball broadcaster.

So true. Though his career batting average was just .277 and he never drove in more than 84 runs in a season, Bauer typified the Yankees in terms of hustle and desire — two words that weren’t considered corny when he played.

In his later years, long after retiring as a player and leading the Baltimore Orioles to their first pennant and a World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, Bauer loved to tell how Casey Stengel reminded him to go all out on every play.

“It was in my first season,” Hank recalled. “I hit a little fly ball and jogged down to first base. When I got back to the dugout, Casey asked me, ‘Tired?’ I never took it easy on a ballfield again.”

Actually, Stengel did Bauer no favors by platooning him with the left-handed-hitting Gene Woodling for the first several seasons of Hank’s career. Both men bristled at not playing every day — and because of it probably played better when they did.

Though it didn’t exactly go with his rough-hewn image, Bauer had an impressive sense of humor. When he was accused of belting a drunken heckler in New York’s Copacabana nightclub in May 1957, Hank denied it with some heat.

“I didn’t hit him,” said Bauer, who was batting .203 at the time. “I ain’t hit anybody all year.”

OK, so it wasn’t Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield — but it wasn’t bad either.

Bill Skowron, an equally rock-rumped sort, was a rookie in 1954 when the Yankees lost the pennant by eight games to a Cleveland Indians team that won 111 — this after the pinstripers collected five flags and five World Series titles in Bauer’s first five full seasons.

“Hank told me, ‘We win every year, so this is all your fault,’” Skowron recalled. “I did all I could, hit .340, but he was just getting on me.”

Nor did Bauer lose his appreciation for a one-liner in old age. Columnist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan tells how he encountered Hank at a California health club a few years ago and inquired, “Are you who I think you are?”

Bauer’s quick comeback: “Are you who I think you are?”

Bauer’s finest hours came in the World Series. In 1955, he batted .429 as the Yankees lost to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three years later, he went 10-for-31 with four home runs and eight RBI as the Yankees rallied to beat the Milwaukee Braves in seven games after being down 3-1 and extended his Series hitting streak to 17 games (a record that still stands). But Hank was about through as a player, and in 1960, the Yankees traded him to his hometown Kansas City Athletics in the deal that brought Maris to the Bronx.

Bauer managed the helpless A’s for two years but then found himself in the middle of pennant races again when he took over the young, improving Orioles from Billy Hitchcock in 1964. Although his teams won 97, 94 and 97 games, plus the glorious World Series triumph of 1966, the Orioles sacked Bauer when the club started 43-37 in 1968 after skidding to a 76-85 record and a seventh place finish the year before.

Successor Earl Weaver pretty much obliterated memories of Hank in Charm City by winning three straight pennants from 1969 to 1971 and adding another in 1979. But Bauer, the craggy ex-Yankee, was the guy who got there first with the O’s.

When the Orioles found themselves leading the American League by 13 games on Aug. 1, 1966, the media fell all over itself hailing Hank as a genius.

“Baloney!” grumped the old leatherneck. “I just crank ‘em up and turn ‘em loose.”

And why not, with Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, et al, on the premises?

For his 4 seasons in black and orange, Bauer went 407-318 for a .561 winning percentage. But then again, winning was in Hank’s heart and soul.

“Hank wasn’t big on team meetings or rules,” Powell recalled. “He just expected you to act [and play] like a man, nothing less.”

Well, why not? Hank Bauer certainly was a man.

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