Gene Woodling (center, in photo above) did Casey Stengel favors, things that occurred from coast to coast involving two men some 33 years apart in age playing roles as adversaries and wearing the same uniforms.
Woodling landed in San Francisco for the 1948 Pacific Coast League season with a mixed resume. It included three lower minor league batting championships at Mansfield (.398), Flint (.394) and Wilkes-Barre (.344) contrasted against non-descript partial years in Cleveland and Pittsburgh sandwiched between World War II military service. Under the watchful eye of Seals' manager Francis J. "Lefty" O'Doul, he changed his batting stance to a crouch. It worked. Woodling achieved The Sporting News' Minor League Player of the Year award (.385, 13 doubles, 13 triples, 22 homers, and 107 RBIs). There was, however, a detour.
Woodling and the Seals engaged Stengel's Oaks in Emeryville late in May, the usual seven game PCL series format concluding with a Sunday double header. When these long time rivals clashed, the first game on Sunday took place in the visitor's park, followed by the second on the home team's field.
Then standing in fourth place, the Oaks dropped the second game and the series on a bright Sabbath at Oaks Park, 6-2, before an overflow crowd of 13,828, May 28, 1948.
Solid at 5'10" 180lbs Woodling roamed center field in traveling gray. Lloyd Christopher, a fine hitter in his own right, patrolled the area for Oakland. These adult males seemed like giants to kids like me who were laying on the outfield grass under a rope which kept the SRO's off the designated portion of the field for play. We were located in ground rule double territory within the scoreboard's shadow. I remember two baggers, but not how many that went into the on the field crowd.
Leading the PCL at .386, Woodling pulled a rocket into the right field corner near a rolled up tarp west of the bullpen, turned second, sprinted to and slide under Dario Lodigiani's tag at third. O'Doul signaled for a squeeze play. It went poorly on two counts. Out at the plate, Woodling injured his leg in the process, rendering him unable to play for about six weeks. Advantage Oaks.
As a footnote, that week Oakland obtained Ernie "Botch" Lombardi from Sacramento, bring the lumbering catcher home to finish his career denting the left field wall (we thought it was made of wood covered by tin) with line drives that were good for singles.
The Acorns intercepted Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco to take the PCL pennant by two games over the Seals. Mr. Stengel got his flag, a new job in New York, many World Series rings and his place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager.
Mr. Woodling was sold to the Yankees for cash and three players. He stayed for six years, hitting .319 in five World Series during a resurrected big league career fueled by his batting crouch. Ralph "Pine Tar" Buxton, the Oaks' losing second game pitcher May 23, 1948, spent some time with the Yanks in 1949, pitching in fourteen games. Second baseman Billy "The Kid" Martin followed in 1950.
Though Woodling and Stengel parted company in 1955 when the outfielder was traded to Baltimore, later going to Cleveland and Washington, the two were reunited on the fabled 1962 Mets. Woodling was an exception to Casey's famous line, "Can't anybody play baseball around here?" He contributed .274 in 80 games at age forty for his seventy-three year old manager.
- - - as I remember it - - by John Gilmore - - -