Death of A Clenched Fist

I was listening to MLB Radio on Friday when I heard Jim Leyritz mention that former Yankee Hank Bauer had died. The 84-year-old Bauer was a real throwback, a disciplined military man who epitomized toughness and grit. He also lived one of the most fascinating lives of any ballplayer, succeeding on completely different levels as a player, manager, and soldier.

*Bauer was a legitimate war hero. While serving in the U.S. Marines during World War II, he overcame a bout with malaria to earn 11 campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. During the battle of Okinawa, he served as the commander of a battalion of 64 men. Only six men survived, with Bauer sustaining a shrapnel wound to his thigh. The injury would send him home, but Bauer still lost four of his prime professionals seasons to wartime service.

*Bauer was once described as having a face that looked like a "clenched fist." He made himself look even more intimidating because he always wore his hair in a Marine buzzcut, even years after his military tenure ended.

*Though not blessed with an array of physical talents, Bauer made the most of what he had. He hustled at all times and prided himself on playing the game in a fundamentally sound way, especially in the field and on the basepaths. He also hated seeing younger teammates who didn’t hustle, coining the phrase that became popular with Yankee veterans in addressing a youthful lack of enthusiasm: "Don’t mess with my money." Younger Yankees like Mickey Mantle and White Ford heard that refrain a few times.

*A good player in regular season play, Bauer became a larger-than-life force in his later World Series. After struggling badly in his first four Fall Classics, Bauer emerged as a terror in the 1955 and 1958 World Series. Bauer batted .429 in the ’55 Series against Brooklyn and then clubbed four home runs in ’58 against Milwaukee. Bauer managed to string together a 17-game hitting streak in the World Series, establishing a major league record.

*After winning seven World Championships as an outfielder with the Yankees, Bauer added a world title as the manager of the Baltimore Orioles in 1966. Bauer was an underrated manager, most likely because his managing days ended rather abruptly. Emphasizing discipline and accountability, he led the 1967 Orioles and 1969 A’s to second-place finishes. Bauer’s tough-guy approach might not have worked with players in the 1970s, but he obtained good results in the sixties.

*Bauer carried on a celebrated feud with Earl Weaver, who succeeded him as Orioles manager. Bauer had refused to hire Weaver as a coach, and Weaver returned the disfavor. Several years ago, one of my relatives approached Bauer and Weaver at a baseball function. Not knowing of the bitterness between the two, he asked the two rivals if they would pose for a photograph. After the photo was taken, Weaver remarked to Bauer: "That might be the only picture that exists that shows us together." Even though he couldn’t stand Weaver, Bauer still managed to laugh.

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