Saturday, February 13, 2010

Charlie Gehringer - The Quiet Man

"'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be."
You would've liked Charlie Gehringer. If you needed to talk to someone, he'd listen. He didn't say much, but when he did it was worth hearing. He was very, very good at what he did - something only 1 in 50,000 can do at all. But you'd never know it by the way he treated you. Those who knew him best, the other players, thought he was the nicest guy on the team. He kept no record of wrongs . . . except, maybe, for Ty Cobb. But then, he had company on that one.

Gehringer grew up feeding slop to pigs on his family's farm in Fowlerville, Michigan.

He didn't like it.

So he started playing baseball in the farm pastures. The Tigers heard about him when he was at the University of Michigan. Two years later he was their starting second baseman - Cobb's last year as player-manager for the team.

Gehringer had a good rookie season. He hit .277 (with 17 triples!) and strong defense. Not good enough for Cobb, I guess. Gehringer later said of Cobb that he was a "hateful guy" - Gehringer said that Cobb thought he could make players better by belittling them.

Gehringer survived. With Cobb gone in 1927, Gehringer hit .317. In 1929, he hit .339 with 215 hits. Always with great defense. He not only got to more balls than the other second basemen in the league, he made the play when he did. He had style too. Soft hands; graceful motion.

That year the Tigers held a "Charlie Gehringer Day." He had 4 hits including a home run and handled 10 chances at second base - he also stole home.

Gehringer stayed a bachelor his whole career. His mom was a diabetic. Gehringer moved her to Detroit where he could look after her. He said later he didn't marry because he couldn't ask someone to share that burden.

"He says 'Hello' on Opening Day and 'Goodbye" on Closing Day - in between he hits .350." Mickey Cochrane, Tiger Manager.

The '30s would give Detroit the best teams the city ever had. Gehringer kept hitting at the pace set in 1929. He along with with first baseman Hank Greenberg, shortstop Billy Rogell, and third baseman Marv Owen became an infield offensive powerhouse.

The Tigers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals Gashouse Gang in 1934 in a famous 7 game series. (Gehringer believed a bad call in the 6th game cost the Tigers the Series. He hardly ever complained. So you have to wonder.) In 1935 it would be different. The Tigers played the Cubs and beat them in 6 games. Gehringer hit .375 and slugged .500.

In 1937, Gehringer was 34 years old, an age at which baseball skills have eroded for most players and careers end. Gehringer, as the saying goes today, never got the memo. He hit .371 that year - and with pop: 14 home runs and 96 RBIs. He won the Most Valuable Player award.

He hit over .300 the next 3 years too including 1940 when the Tigers won the American League pennant, stopping the Yankees' run of 4 straight. (The Tigers lost to the Reds in the Series.)

After that Gehringer, called the "Mechanical Man" by Lefty Gomez because of his consistency, started to rust. He was 39 and the country was at war. He was under no pressure from the draft because of his age, but he enlisted in the Navy anyway. When he got out, he started a business selling fabric to automobile manufacturers.

And became wealthy.

After his mother died, Gehringer met someone and set a date to marry in 1949 - the same year he was elected into the Hall of Fame. Someone scheduled the wedding a few days after the induction ceremony at Cooperstown was to take place. Gehringer skipped Cooperstown; his bride would not have to wait.

Gehringer was featured in the classic baseball card sets of the '30s. There are 2 great Goudey cards of him, one in 1933 (above left) and one from the "Heads Up" series in 1938 (lower right). His '33 Goudey card is a favorite of mine but the price of a copy in good condition exceeds my budget and eludes my collection. He also appeared in the 1935 Diamond Stars series (top right) and the 1941 Play Ball series.

I have a cut autographed card of Gehringer in my collection that was created by Upper Deck for its 2007 SP Legendary Cuts edition. The card does not have the style of the '30s cards but it features a famous Gerhringer personality trait. The autograph has his first name spelled: "Chas." his customary signature for fans. He was asked once why he didn't sign as "Charlie." He said "Why should you use 7 letters when 4 will do." Why, indeed.

He died in 1993 after 44 years of marriage. He is generally regarded as one of the top 5 second basemen of all time. Bill James ranks Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, and Rogers Hornsby over Gehringer. After looking at Gehringer's career and reviewing his numbers, however, you wonder if James underrated him.

Gehringer could field as well as Morgan and Collins and much better than Hornsby. He could hit as well as Morgan and Collins - maybe better. Hornsby could hit better than Gehringer, true, but Gehringer was Hornsby's superior in the field. Gehringer also performed at a high level for a longer period of time. Gehringer comes out well when you compare.

Gehringer himself was embarassed by his celebrity. An argument over who was better would have found no support from him. If history underrates him, it would have suited him.

Another reason you would've liked him.

"Where true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed. To turn, to turn, 'twill be a delight, when by turning, turning, we come round right."


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