It ranks as a mere footnote in the career of Tony Lazzeri, but the Hall of Fame second baseman enjoyed a 254-game stint with the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1939 and 1940.
A valuable but overshadowed member of the storied 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees, Lazzeri was a quiet leader, renowned for his baseball smarts.
“He was like a manager on the field,” recalled teammate Frank Crosetti in an interview for the book, Cooperstown: Where the Legends Live Forever.
Though sometimes a joker away from the field, Lazzeri was all business on the diamond.
“He was the guy who taught us what it meant to be a big leaguer,” noted Lefty Gomez in an interview with The Sporting News. “He taught us what it meant to be a Yankee. What was expected of us, and how we had to behave.”
Sharing the field with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, you can understand how Lazzeri was overlooked. For 12 seasons, Lazzeri would man second base for the Yankees. During that tenure, he would drive in more than 100 runs seven times, hit over .300 five times and be part of five World Champion squads.
He still holds the American League record for most RBIs in a game (11 on May 24, 1936). For his career, he hit .292, belted 178 homers and drove in 1,191 runs. He was also considered one of the best defensive infielders of his era.
Raised in the rough part of San Francisco, Lazzeri suffered from epilepsy. At that time, little was known about the disorder and big league teams shied away from signing him due to his affliction. But after belting 60 homers with Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League in 1925, Lazzeri was inked by the Yankees, who lured him to the Big Apple with a $55,000 signing bonus.
Unfortunately, Lazzeri’s heroics are often overshadowed by one at bat against Cardinals pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1926 World Series. In the seventh inning of the seventh game of the Fall Classic that year, Cleveland would strike Lazzeri out with the bases loaded. The Cards would go on to win the game and the series, and Lazzeri developed a reputation as a player unable to come through in the clutch.
“Funny thing, but nobody seems to remember much about my ball playing, except that strikeout,” Lazzeri told syndicated sports columnist Bob Considine in a 1945 interview in the tavern he would own after his playing career. “There isn’t a night goes by but what some guy (sic) leans across the bar, or comes up behind me at a table in this joint, and brings up the old question. Never a night.”
After the Yanks cut him lose after the 1937 campaign, Lazzeri toiled for short stints with the Cubs, Dodgers and Giants, before landing a player/manager’s job with Toronto. Fifty-seven games into the 1939 season, Lazzeri would replace Jack Burns as the Leafs bench boss and guide a team that included future Cooperstowner Heinie Manush and future Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Marchildon to a 44-52 finish. Lazzeri returned to the Leafs in 1940, but the team was a dreadful 57-101 and finished in eighth place. Marchildon and fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Dick Fowler both pitched on the 1940 squad.
Sadly, after retiring to San Francisco, Lazzeri would die when he was just 43. There are differing reports on his cause of death, but the consensus seems to be that he suffered an epileptic seizure and banged his head on a banister in his house. Away on vacation at the time, his wife, Maye, came home to discover her husband, who had been dead for approximately 36 hours.