He has no plaque in Cooperstown and you won’t find a hometown field with his name. But back in the day, George Hartley McQuinn of Arlington, Va. could pick it with the best of them. In 1938, just his first full season in the big leagues, he hit safely in 34 straight games for the lowly St. Louis Browns. Later, he hit .304 while playing for the New York Yankees.
Born in 1910, George McQuinn was a seven-time All-Star and a major leaguer for 12 years. He helped win two American League pennants and a world championship ring as the unlikely spark for the 1947 Yankees. And at the end of each season, he came home to Arlington, where as a boy living near modern-day Ballston, George played ball with his five brothers. He was even named the first captain of the Washington-Lee baseball team.
Just before his final season in the big leagues, George bought himself a sporting goods store back home at 1041 N. Highland St. in Clarendon, gave it the winning brand “McQuinn’s,” and took an active role in running the place. He returned to the store for a year after his retirement following the 1948 season, but baseball wasn’t finished with him yet. George managed various minor league teams, winning four championships with the Braves in Quebec. As time went on, he accepted part-time scouting positions for the Braves and then the Washington Senators while spending more time at his store and writing a concise but thorough “Guide to Better Baseball.”
Clarendon’s downturn in the 1960s forced McQuinn to close his store, and he finally left baseball in 1972. He moved to Alexandria and became an apartment manager, spending more time with his family. George McQuinn died following a stroke on Christmas Eve 1978. He was 68 years old. McQuinn was never voted into Cooperstown. But in the last spring of his life, he was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in Portsmouth. His official photograph shows him wearing the Yankees uniform.
Saturday, May 29th, is the 100th anniversary of George McQuinn’s birth. For more about him, read this article by Peter Golkin, from which this Back Pages is taken.
Arlington’s All-Star–George McQuinn
He has no plaque in Cooperstown and you won’t find a hometown field with his name. But back in the day, George Hartley McQuinn of Arlington, Va. could pick it with the best of them. Kids bought first basemen’s mitts bearing his name. And his bat also made an impression. In 1938, just his first full season in the big leagues, he hit safely in 34 straight games for the lowly St. Louis Browns.
George McQuinn was a seven-time All-Star and a major leaguer for 12 years. He helped win two American League pennants and a world championship ring as the unlikely spark for the 1947 Yankees. And at the end of each season, he came home to Northern Virginia.
Born on May 29, 1910, McQuinn grew up learning the game on various fields around then-“Alexandria County.” One makeshift diamond required shooing cows from the Lacey pasture north of Washington Boulevard and west of Buchanan Street. More ball could be found on the future site of the Parkington Shopping Center, later Ballston Common.
“Baseball became my life very quickly,” McQuinn told the Washington Post’s Bob Levey in 1976. “We never had nine guys, only about seven or eight, but that didn’t make any difference. I used to play all spring and summer and go hunting and fishing all fall and winter. The other kids used to say, ‘You’re going to be a big leaguer.’ And I knew it in my heart.”
While George and his five brothers played in and around their Ballston neighborhood, their father was always somewhere nearby, driving the Fairfax-to-D.C. line for the Washington & Dominion rail line. Football and basketball also filled out the days but by high school, McQuinn’s grace in the field and at the plate stood out. He was named the first captain of the Washington-Lee baseball team.
Topping out at 5 foot 11 inches and about 165 pounds, McQuinn made up for average size with an impressive physical discipline and natural ease. Soon after graduation, he hit the semi-pro leagues and caught the eyes of Yankees scouts as a potential heir to another leftie, Henry Louis Gehrig.
“The Yankees were so much richer and better run than the rest of the teams,” McQuinn remembered. “I wouldn’t have minded playing in Washington before the home folks, but New York was kind of the ultimate. And everybody knew about Gehrig, oh, my yes.”
His contract with New York meant sharpening his game in farm towns like Wheeling, Albany, Binghamton and Scranton. But despite consistently hitting above .300, McQuinn couldn’t gain much traction toward reaching the Bronx. He was never even invited for a look at Yankees spring training. Why bother since the “Ironhorse” Gehrig would no doubt play day-after-day, season-after-season?
“I should have said sell me or trade me. There was no future in playing minor league ball behind Gehrig. But I didn’t,” McQuinn recalled. “Maybe that’s why when I finally did make the big leagues, it didn’t seem like so much of a thrill.”
Even without a request, the Yankees eventually cut McQuinn loose—twice in fact. Instead of apprenticing in the Bronx, his 1936 major league debut came on a conditional contract with Cincinnati, followed by one more year of promise with the Newark Bears back in the Yankees’ system.
Lacking a first basemen among many things, the St. Louis Browns grabbed McQuinn for 1938. The Yankees hadn’t bothered to protect him on their roster. In that first full rookie year, he rewarded the Browns’ faith hitting .324 along with 42 doubles, second in the American League. He was also second among first basemen in fielding.
By painful coincidence, McQuinn’s 34-game summer hitting streak ended during a trio of back-to-back-to-back doubleheaders in Philadelphia, just before the Browns visited the Bronx. A building cache of publicity for McQuinn was wiped out. At the same time no one, especially the Yankees, could have known that Gehrig had only a few more months left in baseball.
Despite some horrendous Browns season records (55 wins-97 losses in 1938, 43-111 in 1939), McQuinn generally thrived during his St. Louis years. But looking back, he couldn’t shake the trajectory of his career. “We’d finish last every year. I began to think God didn’t intend for me to become a Yankee.”
World War II took many ballplayers overseas, leveling pro fields across the United States. For the Browns in ’44, it meant their one claim to an American League pennant. McQuinn helped lead the way. Known to wear a brace for recurring back pain, he had failed two Selective Service System physicals. And by ’44, he was considered too old for military induction. The Cardinals, who also shared Sportsman Park, would win the “Trolley Series” four games to two but McQuinn’s .438 average topped both teams and his would be the only Browns’ homer in Series history. The team became the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.
While George McQuinn spent the war playing ball among what was known as an “all 4-F infield,” his younger brother Kenneth served in the Naval Reserves. A ship’s cook, he died during the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy, leaving behind his wife and toddler son back in Arlington. Kenneth Warner McQuinn is among the names on the Clarendon memorial to Arlington’s war dead. Another brother, Army Staff Sgt. Charles McQuinn, was decorated for gallantry in France and Belgium.
At the end of the ’45 season, McQuinn found himself traded to the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia A’s. He later acknowledged being troubled by the Browns playing that year with a one-armed man, Pete Gray, in their outfield. With the A’s, McQuinn was plagued by chronic back pain and an anemic .225 batting average. Upon his release in the fall, A’s manager Connie Mack reportedly suggested: “George, you played one year too long.”
McQuinn was 36 years old, almost a senior citizen in pro ball. That January at their Virginia home, his wife Kathleen asked about spring training just weeks away. “Honey, what are you going to do? Baseball or work?”
McQuinn was jolted. “That word work. It hit me between the eyes,” he remembered.
Cold calls to several clubs failed to generate much interest. Then, saved for last, McQuinn reached out to new Yankees manager Bucky Harris. The aging first baseman would try to close the loop on his old dream of pinstriped glory. With the Bronx Bombers still haunted by the sudden end of the Gehrig era and hobbled by the war years, McQuinn said he knew how to get the Yankees back to the Series for the first time in four years.
As Harris later recalled, “Naturally I asked how and he said, ‘Sign me.’ Now I know McQuinn, and have known him for several years. I figured if he had enough confidence in himself to come to me like that I couldn’t lose trying him.”
McQuinn wouldn’t take the opportunity for granted. “How many times do you get to live a dream?” he asked in 1976. “I prepared for that season like I’d never prepared for anything else.”
Tenacity and dedication paid off in ‘47. McQuinn beat out four others for the starting job at first and hit .304 that year—second-best on the team. He drove in 80 runs and homered 13 times. At one point during the season, the Yankees notched a 19-game win streak. In October, they took a dramatic seven-game Series from the Dodgers. McQuinn made the cover of Sport magazine and writers declared him the “baseball Cinderella story of the year.” Joe DiMaggio said McQuinn was the key to the team.
“I made them forget Gehrig for a while, anyway,” McQuinn reflected later.
His career had almost ended before its remarkable comeback. But McQuinn was now also ready to prepare for “work”—life after the game. He bought himself a sporting goods store back home at 1041 N. Highland St. in Clarendon, gave it the winning brand “McQuinn’s,” and took an active role in running the place. And he was still a Yankee—a world champion.
The 1948 season came quickly and despite all best hopes, there would be no second straight magical year in New York. McQuinn spent much of the season watching from the dugout. He hit .248 and he drove in just over half the runs of the previous year. His season ended with a failed pinch-hit appearance in Fenway Park. The defending world champions finished third, Harris lost his job and McQuinn was released in October. But it would be a different off-season from the one before.
Satisfied that he had nothing left to prove, McQuinn readily accepted retirement. He had appeared in 1,550 games, had 1,588 hits, a lifetime average of .276 and 135 homers. On the field, there were 13,414 put-outs, 1,074 assists and just 113 errors. Very solid numbers.
He returned to Arlington and the store on Highland full-time—for a year.
With the 1950s came the familiar baseball pangs. Now he would try managing in the minors, returning to familiar towns up into Canada and west to Idaho. In Quebec, where he also manned first on occasion, his Braves won four championships. But as a new decade approached, more time at home became his goal.
McQuinn eased into the part-time life of a scout for the Braves and later the Browns-like Washington Senators. “I knew I would never be a big league manager. I was just too easygoing,” he later told the Post. With his lifetime of know-how and love for the game, McQuinn reached out to the next generation of coaches and players, writing a concise but thorough “Guide to Better Baseball.”
Northern Virginia kids and their parents still sought out the local celebrity-retailer. Phil Wood, then in grade school and now Washington’s noted baseball historian-broadcaster, recalls his own visit in the early ‘60s:
“George’s sporting goods store in Clarendon was a very short walk from my grandmother’s house. My dad took me in there once and introduced me to him. Now, my dad didn’t really know George McQuinn but George acted like they’d been friends for years. I was still in the single digits, but tall for my age and was actually switching to first base in Little League because of some knee issues. And George talked about how to choose the right mitt, and how much bigger they were than when he played (although they would get still bigger as the years went by). He was obviously a good businessman [and] knew how to charm the customers.”
By the mid-60s, Arlington’s once-vibrant shopping districts like Clarendon faced serious challenges from the new outlying malls. Parking issues, limited space and upkeep took their toll. McQuinn closed his store. A few years later he formally left baseball, retiring in 1972 from a scouting post with the Montreal Expos, Washington’s future Nationals.
McQuinn was living in Alexandria where his business and management skills went to use overseeing an apartment building just on Martha Custis Drive, just south of I-395. He had time to watch his grandson play Little League and welcomed the occasional chance to talk about his own days on the ballfield.
George McQuinn died following a stroke on Christmas Eve 1978. He was 68 years old.
“I always regretted not looking him up again after the business closed,” Phil Wood says. “Especially when he passed away at a fairly young age. Good player, great glove man, and more of a power hitter than you might expect—lots of extra base hits.”
McQuinn was never voted into Cooperstown. But he was the first inductee of the Arlington Sports Hall of Fame when it was created in 1958 by the county’s Better Sports Club. And in the last spring of his life, McQuinn was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in Portsmouth. His official photograph shows him wearing the Yankees uniform.