Baseball lost one of its best-kept secrets on Tuesday: Eddie Yost, the “Walking Man,” died three days after his 86th birthday. While he never played for the Mets (his final year was New York’s first), he spent eight years with the team as a coach, and I think it’s appropriate to pay tribute a man whose Glory Days came long before anyone recognized them as glorious.
Eddie Yost spent 14 of his 18 big-league seasons with the old Washington Senators, primarily as the leadoff man in the batting order. A career .254 hitter, he was far from the fastest runner in the league, only stealing 72 bases in 138 attempts. So what was this seemingly ordinary hitter doing as Washington’s first men up year after year? He was getting on base often enough to make Kevin Youkilis, the Greek God of Walks, look like Dave Kingman. Yost had the plate discipline of a ninja, and he used that patience to the tune of 1614 walks and a career on-base percentage of .394, good for 85th all-time. He led the American League in that category twice, nine times got on at a .400 clip, and topped the AL in bases on balls twice.
So why was it I had never heard of Eddie Yost before yesterday when my dad shared his obituary with me? Because in Yost’s heyday, analysts couldn’t see beyond the man who never hit more than .295 in a single year. Eddie played in an era far before sabermetrics were on anyone’s mind. Heck, the organization sabermetrics was named for, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) wouldn’t be founded until nine years after he hung up his spikes for good. Billy Beane wouldn’t assemble the Moneyball A’s for 40 years, but can you imagine how much he’d be salivating over a player like Yost today?
Still, Yost’s greatness wasn’t lost on everyone. It just took an Old Professor to figure it out. For years Casey Stengel and the Yankees tried to lure the Senators with a trade, but Washington would never bite (can you imagine a guy like that hitting ahead of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra?). The one time Yost went to the All-Star Game was when Stengel picked him for his 1952 squad, a year Eddie finished hitting just .233 but getting on base at a rate of .378. Undoubtedly the best quote that sums up the kind of player Yost was comes from Stengel himself: “Every time I look up, that feller is on base.”
The 1950s were a good time for New York baseball, a bad time for blood pressure patients with fear of nuclear war, and a great time for Eddie Yost. Thankfully, we were finally able to spot his greatness and appreciate the Walking Man before he walked on.