Woodling earned hitting merit badge from skeptical scouts

John Steadman

June 19, 1992|By John Steadman

Right out of high school, a green teen-ager and in his first season as a professional baseball player, Gene Woodling batted .398, good enough to lead the Ohio State League. The Cleveland Indians, who owned his contract, weren't as impressed as he was. "Question his hitting," the club's official scouting report read. A dubious assessment.

Woodling was a product of a tough era, where men who had played their way to the major leagues often exited the same way they had come up -- only it was down the minor-league ladder. The country's financial times, in 1940, weren't the best. Even the low minors meant a chance to make more money than working in a factory, taking a job on the farm or playing for the hometown semi-pro team on Sunday afternoons.

Woodling's competitive couldn't be denied and ultimately he played 17 successful years in the American and National leagues. He was an important member, too, of five straight New York Yankees championship clubs and an Oriole on three different occasions as an outfielder and coach.

Today Woodling was to be honored at a luncheon at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, which is a part of his enshrinement in the Orioles Hall of Fame, a production put on by the Oriole Advocates.

"When the Yankees traded me here in 1955, I couldn't wait to leave," he said. "Then I couldn't wait to get back. Now, years later, comes this great award in Baltimore."

Woodling's first tour here, as part of the 17-player deal with the Yankees, involving the likes of Bob Turley, Billy Hunter, Don Larsen, Willie Miranda, Gus Triandos and Harry Byrd, among others, lasted only two months. He was given a reprieve and went to Cleveland with glee.

Then, after two seasons, the Orioles dealt for him again and, at age 36, he had successive years of .276, .300 and .283. His ability to hit left-handed pitching, even though he batted the same way, was remarkable. In confrontations against the Yankees and Whitey Ford, it was astonishing how frequently he drove the ball hard and far.

Young players respected Woodling and sought his advice on everything from hitting to salary negotiations. "I only wanted the club to be fair," he explained. "Often a general manager would try to take advantage of a kid and I'd tell the player what to say. But if the offer was decent, I'd suggest he run in the office and sign the contract as soon as possible."

In one of Woodling's last jobs in uniform, while a New York Mets' player-coach, Marv Throneberry was in camp but hadn't signed. He asked Woodling's opinion. Gene told him the Mets were too low in their offer. Unknown to Woodling or Throneberry, on the other side of the row of lockers, hearing the conversation, was Johnny Murphy, the Mets general manager.

Murphy criticized Woodling and said since he was a part of management, he shouldn't have been helping a player. Words were exchanged. Woodling said it was a free country and his rights to express himself could not be denied. So there went Woodling out the door -- sacrificing an entire year's pay because he was doing what was a favor for a player.

Now baseball is infested with agents and the executives who sign the checks only wish they could get help from a Woodling rather than a peddler with a briefcase. Later, Gene was to scout for the Indians and Yankees and was instrumental in signing Thurman Munson. "That was no big thing," he said. "If you had rocks in your head you could look at Munson and see what he was."

Woodling was well connected in Baltimore. Frequently, with an open date, he would leave Memorial Stadium driving a Volkswagon on his way to the airport and be escorted by two motorcycle policemen. It made for an odd tableau. Sirens screaming, lights flashing and a tiny automobile, with Woodling wedged inside, being led through the downtown area.

Without a doubt, baseball was at its best in the post-World War II years. Woodling had failed in trials with the Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1948, with the San Francisco Seals, manager Frank "Lefty" O'Doul put Woodling in a crouch, moved his feet together, only six inches apart, and with this odd, yet distinctive stance, watched him bat .385 in 1948.

That got him a ticket to the Yankees and he contributed to five straight World Series championships. "Back then there was a lot of talk about the great Yankees farm system," he remembered. "At a victory party, Allie Reynolds, the Oklahoma Indian, got up and said, 'I hear all about what our minor-league clubs produce but, if you look around, you'll see a bunch of us from other places, like Eddie Lopat, Irv Noren, Johnny Mize, Billy Martin, John Sain, Woodling and myself.' We really got a kick out of that."

Gene Woodling, strong willed and ready to stand up for a cause, made a lasting impression because of what he represented. He was no "donkey" ballplayer.

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