Known mostly for his single that extended the inning and contributed to the rally leading up to Bobby Thomson’s famed homer to win the 1951 NL pennant for the New York Giants, Don Mueller passed away yesterday at the age of 84. Alvin Dark had singled, and with Gil Hodges holding Dark close to the bag, Mueller lined a ball past Hodges into right field for a hit. After an out, Whitey Lockman doubled – but Mueller slid awkwardly into third base and was carried off the field – Clint Hartung replaced him and scored on Thomson’s home run. Mueller missed the 1951 World Series, but came back to nearly lead the league in batting in 1954 and was a key contributor to the Giants beating the Indians in the World Series that season.
As a hitter, Mueller could make contact with anything – earning the nickname Mandrake the Magician, after a cartoon character of the 1930s. He used a short compact swing, choked up on the bat, and would slap line drives between infielders for singles. His ability to make contact was a good and bad thing; Mueller rarely struck out and he walked even fewer times – usually about 25 times in a full season. A modern analyst reviewing Mueller’s stats would read his batting line and think, “wow – he made a lot of outs…” Still, he only struck out 146 times in his entire career – think about that next time you see the single season strikeout numbers of many modern players.
Though not generally known as a power hitter, Mueller is one a few players to have hit five home runs in over the span of consecutive games. Mueller’s five homers came as his wife, Genevieve, was home in labor – he must have really been concentrating considering how he must have missed being home with his family. Instead, it being September and with his team trying to rally to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers down the stretch in 1951, he stayed with the Giants and helped ignite the final stretch run with his heroics. After hitting three homers in the second game of a Dodgers series on September 1st, he hit two more on September 2nd – the second after Monte Irvin tapped Mueller on the shoulder while in the on deck circle. Irvin told Mueller that his hands were sweating and he should dry them off – and then relax because he was the father of a baby boy and everybody was alright. So, within minutes of hitting his fifth homer of the series, he was passing out cigars in the locker room.
Baseball Digest ran a fantastic article by Harold Sheldon that covered his trip from a St. Louis childhood learning baseball from his dad, Walter (himself a former outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1920s), whipping his way through semi-pro baseball and the minors after a short stint in the Merchant Marines at the end of World War II, and his making it to the Giants and finally becoming a regular outfielder. [Harold Sheldon,”Don Mueller – Star by Birth”, Baseball Digest, Nov. 1951, Pages 67 – 69.]
Mueller played alongside Willie Mays in the 1950s and, if you read any of the Mays biographies, you learn that Mueller was one of a handful of Giants players that were jealous of the fame and accolades given to Mays at that time. When Mays edged Mueller to win the batting title on the final day of the 1954 season, Mueller seemed to take it personally, and manager Leo Durocher didn’t help any by coddling his star and referring to Mueller as the guy who lost the batting title to Mays. [James A. Hirsch, Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, pages 187 – 188].
By the late 1950s, Mueller’s batting average – at one point over .300 for three straight seasons – fell to the .260 range. Not necessarily a fine fielder, the Giants cut Mueller who then signed with the Chicago White Sox. He was a backup outfielder and pinch hitter in the 1958 season and got four pinch hitting appearances in 1959 before being released in mid-May, missing out on a third opportunity to play in a World Series.
After his playing days were over, Mueller returned to the St. Louis area, worked a family farm, did a little scouting for the Giants, and eventually worked as an insurance investigator. He spent his final years in Chesterfield, Missouri.