GENE WOODLING – 1959 Most Valuable Oriole
The 1959 Most Valuable Oriole got booed out of Baltimore four years earlier in his first stint with the team.
Gene Woodling was a stocky -some would say chunky- left-handed hitting corner outfielder whose patience at the plate helped him lead the American League with a .429 on-base percentage in 1953. He earned his fifth consecutive championship ring with the Yankees that season, batting .318 with three home runs in twenty-six total World Series games. Woodling joined the Orioles in November 1954 as part of a seventeen-player trade.
The second-year Orioles got off to a horrendous 14-36 start in 1955, largely because they weren’t scoring, and Woodling drew the wrath of the press and boos of the fans by hitting only .221 by mid-June. “The writers, they crucified me in Baltimore. They really did,” Woodling recalled years later. “They said I didn’t want to play there and this stuff.” When the June 15 trading deadline arrived, manager-general manager Paul Richards told Woodling “I better get you out of here before they kill you”, and dealt him to Cleveland. There, Woodling angered Orioles fans even more by starting to hit again almost immediately. In 1957, he batted a career high .321 to finish third in the league.
Two weeks before opening day in 1958, news that Richards swung a trade to bring Woodling back to the Orioles surprised many. “He had the guts of a burglar to bring me back in that town,” Woodling remarked years later.
Ten days into the season, Woodling won back a number of Baltimore fans with a dramatic two-out, two-strike double in the bottom of the ninth at Memorial Stadium to beat Whitey Ford and the Yankees 2-1. He further repaired his good standing with the Baltimore faithful by pounding New York pitching at a .431 clip all year.
Woodling put up solid numbers overall in 1958, other than a slump in the season’s final month when his 36-year-old body ached all over. He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to play in 1959 when he returned to his farm in Remsen Corners, Ohio for the winter, but a winter regimen of “clean living” left him ready to go by spring training. “I got up every morning at ten minutes to five,” Woodling told a reporter. “I must’ve walked, well, about 20,000 miles.”
Whatever he did, it worked. Woodling played a career best 140 games, and played them very well. While the nicest thing anybody could say about his glove work in left or rightfield was “what he touches, he catches”, Woodling’s hitting spoke for itself.
One of his biggest nights was a 3-4 effort in front of the largest crowd ever (at the time) to fill Memorial Stadium, for Interfaith Night against the Indians on June 9. He homered deep to right off Mudcat Grant in the bottom of the first with a man aboard, starting the Baltimore scoring in a win that moved the O’s into a tie for first. Woodling hit .389 in April, .303 in May and .307 in June out of his signature crouching stance, but he was just getting started.
Woodling batted .410 the first 27 days of July, culminating with his most glorious day as an Oriole. On July 27 in Detroit, Woodling drove in all five Baltimore runs in a victory over the Tigers, including the first grand slam of his career off Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. With nine RBI in two games, he passed Gus Triandos for tops on the club, and his batting average improved to a league-leading .344. To top it all off, he was named to his first All-Star team the very same day. The Frederick County farmers presented him with a pedigreed Holstein calf when the Orioles returned home to raise on his farm. “I’ve been lucky, and they’re throwing where I’m swinging,” he said humbly. “I’m playing like I did when I started out nineteen years ago.”
Though Woodling’s .366 average with runners in scoring position demonstrates how important he was to the Orioles, Richards made an effort to keep him fresh by only starting him only once when Baltimore played doubleheaders. “He plays so darned hard that it’s not good for him to stay in for both games,” explained the Orioles skipper. Woodling was nearly as dangerous coming off the bench as in his usual cleanup or third slot in the batting order, though. In twenty-one plate appearances as a pinch-hitter in 1959, Woodling batted .556!
Unfortunately, by the time Woodling turned 37 on August 16, he was already in a deep slump that saw him bat just .215 after August 1. It marked the second straight season that he wore down late in the year. Four days after he was honored with a car on Gene Woodling Night at Memorial Stadium on September 15, his batting average dipped below .300. He picked up his only ejection of the season arguing a called third strike the next day, but went 3-8 in two games at Fenway Park to finish the season at .300 with 14 homers and 77 RBI. Woodling drove back to Ohio a couple days befofe the season was over to be with his mother, who’d suffered a stroke.
Woodling notched one more solid season in Baltimore before the Senators chose him in the expansion draft. Washington sold him to the Mets in 1962, which proved to be the final stop of his playing career.
Woodling returned to Baltimore a third time to serve as a coach from 1964 – 1967. After that, he became a scout for the Yankees. Sadly, a crippling stroke got the best of Woodling in 1997 and passed away four years later.