The New York Yankees dominated Major League Baseball from 1936 to 1943. In eight seasons, the Bombers won 100 games five times, went to the World Series seven times, and claimed the MLB crown six times. The organization’s success was largely due to the exploits of its superstar players. Lou Gehrig picked up his final MVP award in 1936 and continued to play at an elite level through the 1938 season. DiMaggio, who swaggered into New York at the start of the ’36 season, quickly became one of the best players in the Bigs.
Of course, all great teams have more than a couple of superstars. The Yankees of the late 30s and early 40s were more than Gehrig and DiMaggio. Other spectacular Yankees from the era include Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez. Dickey and Rizzuto have had their numbers retired by the organization, and Ruffing and Gomez are widely considered to be two of the best pitchers in team history.
There is one great Yankee from this era, however, who rarely gets the praise he deserves: Joe Gordon.
Nicknamed “Flash” because of his excellent speed and defensive wizardry, Gordon spent seven seasons playing second base in the Bronx. He earned six All-Star selections, won an MVP award in 1942, and helped New York secure four championships. Today, I want to take a look at his career and shed some light on one of the most under-appreciated players in Yankee history.
Into the Fire
Gordon signed his first contract with the Bronx Bombers in 1936. Coming off of an exceptional sophomore season at the University of Oregon in 1935, Joe decided to forego his last two years of college and begin a career in Major League Baseball. The Yankees were excited about their young prospect, who went on to dominate the minors in 1936 and 1937. Gordon’s exploits at the plate convinced the Yankees that he was ready to join the Big League club in 1938.
For Flash, a promotion to the Yankees in 1938 was a baptism by fire. New York was gunning for its third consecutive title and the roster was packed with established stars. Expectations for the team were sky-high. Gordon was replacing Tony Lazzeri, a long-time Yankee who won five titles during his time in pinstripes. It was a difficult situation that easily could have overwhelmed an impressionable young player.
Fortunately, Flash thrived in the Bronx. Under the tutelage of famed Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy, Gordon quickly cemented himself in the lineup. He was dazzling on defense, hit 25 home runs, and drove in 97 runs as a rookie. The Yankees won their third straight title and Flash finished 12th in MVP voting. It wasn’t a bad start for the new kid in New York.
Gordon’s Glory Days
Joe’s rookie season was impressive, but it was nothing more than the first act in an outstanding career. In 1939, Gordon was elected to his first All-Star Game. He raised his average from .255 to .284, clobbered 28 homers, and drove in 111 runs. The Yankees swept the Reds to win their fourth championship in as many years. Gordon played the hero in the final contest of the series, hitting an RBI single in the top of the 9th that sent the game into extra innings.
Flash continued to play well for the Yankees in 1940 and 1941. He was named an All-Star in both seasons, continued to hit for power (totaling 54 homers and 190 RBI from 1940 to 1941), and amazed the Bronx faithful with his glove. The 1941 season was Rizzuto’s first in New York, and Flash and Phil quickly became baseball’s premiere double play pair.
Facing the hated Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1941 World Series, Gordon played the series of his life. Over the course of the five games he recorded 7 hits (3 for extra-bases), drove in 5 runs, and assisted in 5 double plays (still the record for a five-game World Series). In what was arguably the greatest moment of his young career, Flash ripped a two-run, game-winning double off of Hugh Casey in Game 4. Following the series, Joe McCarthy called Flash the greatest all-around ballplayer he had ever seen—high praise from a man who coached Gehrig and DiMaggio.
If the 1941 World Series was Gordon’s greatest postseason, then the ’42 campaign was his greatest regular season. Here are the numbers from his fifth year in New York:
In addition to earning his fourth consecutive All-Star selection, Flash grabbed AL MVP honors for the 1942 season.
Struggles and Service
While Joe was spectacular all year, the Yankees ended up losing the 1942 World Series to St. Louis. In 1943, Gordon took a step backward. Just one season removed from his MVP performance, Flash’s batting average dipped below .250 for the first time in his career. Additionally, Joe’s ability to hit for power, an ability that had always made him such a formidable slugger, began to dissipate. Regardless, he remained an excellent fielder, went to the All-Star Game, and helped the Yankees win the 1943 World Series.
Like so many other pro ballplayers, Gordon left the game to serve his country during World War II. Flash spent two years in the U.S. Army (1944 and 1945), before returning to the Major Leagues for the 1946 season. Despite missing back-to-back years, Gordon managed to stay productive after rejoining the Yankees. His batting numbers weren’t stellar, but he remained a rock at second base. In his final season with the Bronx Bombers, Gordon was named an All-Star for the sixth time.
The Reynolds Trade
Change was in the air after the Yankees finished third in 1946. During the offseason, Gordon was traded to Cleveland for a phenomenal young pitcher named Allie Reynolds. Reynolds pitched brilliantly for the Yankees during his eight years with the team. Ultimately, Gordon’s departure made it possible for the Yankees to acquire the pitcher who would anchor their championship staff of the early 1950s.
Flash continued to play well for his new team. He was an All-Star from 1947 to 1949, and he helped the Indians win a World Series over the Boston Braves in 1948. He hung up his spikes after the 1950 season at the age of thirty-five. In 2009, he was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.
Today, Gordon’s name is rarely mentioned by Yankee fans. He may appear on lists of great Yankee second basemen, but he is much less famous than his undeniably great teammates.
I believe that Joe “Flash” Gordon deserves a larger place in the story of the New York Yankees. He was a tremendous fielder, a formidable hitter, and, most importantly, a champion. While he only played seven seasons in pinstripes, his impact on the organization was remarkable. Whether he was saving pitchers with his glove or winning World Series games with his bat, Flash was always in the middle of the action. He was the quiet, consistent contributor that his championship teams needed. He was an indispensable Yankee.