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Don Mueller, 1927-2011

Posted by John Autin

Don Mueller, a 12-year MLB veteran who led the majors with 212 hits in 1954, passed away on December 28.

Mueller, a right fielder, was a two-time All-Star and the runner-up to Willie Mays in the 1954 NL batting race. But he is most often remembered for his role in the final game of the 1951 NL playoff. With the Giants down 4-1 in the 9th, Mueller's single off Don Newcombe brought the tying run to the plate. He reached 3rd on Whitey Lockman's double, but broke his ankle sliding into the bag and was carried off the field. Bobby Thomson then followed with his famous shot off Ralph Branca to win the pennant for the Giants.

Of the 24 players who appeared in that game, only six are still living: Monte Irvin (age 92), Andy Pafko (90), Alvin Dark (89), Don Newcombe (85), Ralph Branca (85) and Willie Mays (80). The number has been halved in the past three years by the passing of Mueller and Duke Snider in 2011, Bobby Thomson and Clint Hartung in 2010, and Whitey Lockman and Larry Jansen in '09.

The 1954 NL batting race went down to the wire, and Mueller -- after going 22 for his previous 45 -- began the day leading Mays by .3426-.3422. Each Giant hit safely in his first trip and made out in his second. Mays took the lead by hitting in the 7th and 8th innings, while Mueller made outs. But as the game went into extra innings, the crown was still in play; two hits by Mueller and two outs by Mays would have made Mueller the champ. Both did come up twice in the extra frames, but Mueller managed only one hit and finished at .342, while Mays surged to .345 and his only batting title.

(Duke Snider began the final day wedged between the two Giants at .3425, but he went 0-3 in his finale and finished 3rd at .341. The bigger drama in Snider's game was the 2nd appearance by Brooklyn rookie Karl Spooner, who followed up his record-setting 15-K, 3-hit debut against NYG with a 4-hit, 12-K whitewash of Pittsburgh. He remains the only live-ball pitcher with double-digit Ks in each of his first 2 games.)

The broken ankle kept Mueller out of the '51 World Series, and his RF replacements went 2-18 in the 6-game loss to the Yankees. But he excelled in the Giants' 1954 sweep of Cleveland, pacing the club with 7 hits. He also hit safely in both of his All-Star games, going 2 for 3 with an RBI double. Hank Aaron's first All-Star appearance came in 1955 as a pinch-runner for Mueller.

Mueller's other famous feat was hitting 5 HRs in a span of 2 games on September 1-2, 1951. He was the 4th player to do that, following Ty Cobb (1925), Tony Lazzeri (1936), and Ralph Kiner (twice in 1947). The opposing starters in Mueller's big games were Don Newcombe and Ralph Branca, and Bobby Thomson also homered in each of those games.

Despite that power burst, Don Mueller was an extreme high-contact singles hitter. He was the NL's toughest strikeout in 5 of his 8 full seasons, and his 1956 campaign (7 strikeouts in 474 PAs) marks the last time a qualifying batter had single-digit Ks.

He also rarely walked, averaging 22 walks and 19 strikeouts per 162 games. Out of 1,670 players with 3,000+ PAs since 1893, Mueller had the 4th-highest rate of Balls In Play as a percentage of PAs, at 90.4% (trailing only Emil Verban, Lave Cross and Lloyd Waner). Mueller and Verban are the only players who both walked and struck out in less than 3.7% of their PAs.

Another oddity on Mueller's stat sheet was his historically low rate of doubles. Out of 965 players with 1,000+ hits in the live-ball era, Mueller had the 4th-lowest ratio of doubles to hits, at 10.786%. Those with lower doubles rates were all speedsters -- Maury Wills (586 SB), Luis Castillo (370 SB) and Otis Nixon (602 SB) -- whereas Mueller stole just 11 bags.

His doubles rate was partly due to playing his home games in the Polo Grounds, whose absurdly short foul lines turned many would-be doubles into HRs or outs. At home, Mueller hit just half as many doubles as on the road (47-93), but three times as many HRs (50-15). In 1951, just one of his 10 doubles came at home, while 12 of his 16 HRs were in the Horseshoe.

Because of his limited power and few walks, Mueller had a career 88 OPS+ despite a .296 BA. With little defensive value, his career depended on his batting average; when he hit .269 in 1956 and then .258 in '57 at age 30, his career was essentially over. Those last two full seasons were valued at -2.3 and -2.2 WAR, making him one of just 20 players since 1893 with multiple seasons valued at or below -2.0 WAR.

Don Mueller's father, Walter, played parts of 4 seasons with Pittsburgh in the 1920s. In his debut, Walter hit the first pitch he saw from Pete Alexander over the head of CF Jigger Statz for a 3-run, inside-the-park HR. He added a double and finished with 5 RBI; until 1954, he stood as the only person in the game-searchable era with 5+ RBI in his debut. The record was matched by Joe Cunningham, Pat Borders and Ben Grieve, and finally broken last year when Starlin Castro drove in 6 in his debut.

Don Mueller's son, Mark, played 3 years in the minors, and his grandsons Eric and Andrew played varsity ball at St. Louis University and the University of Missouri, according to this 2009 story from The Missourian.

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