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Gehringer, Charles Leonard ("Charlie")

GEHRINGER, Charles Leonard ("Charlie")

(b. 11 May 1903 in Fowlerville, Michigan; d. 21 January 1993 in Bloom-field Hills, Michigan), baseball player who starred for the Detroit Tigers between 1926 and 1942. Known for his consistency and durability, Gehringer helped the Tigers win American League pennants in 1934 and 1940 and a World Series in 1935.

Gehringer was born on a farm about sixty miles north of Detroit. Perhaps because he anticipated a future milking cows, slopping hogs, and plowing fields, Gehringer became enamored with baseball at an early age. Although his parents objected, Gehringer and his brother Al laid out a diamond on the farm. "I was born and raised on a Michigan farm," Gehringer recalled, "and knowing first hand how much back-breaking work that involved, I decided pretty early what I didn't want. I figured maybe baseball would have shorter hours and easier work, so I figured I'd go after that."

Detroit Tigers outfielder Bobby Veach hunted pheasant in the vicinity of the Gehringer farm and, on one of his trips, heard about the five-foot, eleven-inch, 185-pound Gehringer from a local hunter. Veach recommended that Detroit give Gehringer a tryout under the supervision of the legendary Tigers manager, Ty Cobb. Rumors persist that Cobb doubted Gehringer's ability to hit major league pitching, but Cobb remembered the occasion differently. "I knew Charlie would hit," he explained, "and I was so anxious to sign him that I didn't even take the time to change out of my uniform before rushing him into the front office to sign a contract." Thus in 1924, after completing his freshman year at the University of Michigan, Gehringer signed with the Tigers' London, Ontario, Canada, farm club in the Class B Michigan-Ontario League. He received no signing bonus, just "some free advice from Cobb on stock market investments, which didn't do me much good because I didn't have any money to invest."

After a full season in Toronto with the Class AA International League (IL), during which he batted .325, slammed 25 home runs, drove in 108 runs, and led IL second basemen in fielding, Gehringer was called up to Detroit for the final eight games of the 1925 season. He played five games and batted .462 with 6 hits in 13 at bats. In 1926 he became a mainstay of the Tigers infield, a fixture at second base until 1942.

Gehringer, first baseman Hank Greenberg, and outfielder Leon Allen "Goose" Goslin were dubbed the "G-Men" and led the Tigers to a pair of American League (AL) championships during the 1930s, and in 1935 to a World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs. In twenty World Series contests, the "Mechanical Man," as Gehringer was nicknamed for his incredible consistency, hit .321. Appearing in six consecutive All-Star games, including the first Mid-Summer Classic in 1933, Gehringer batted .500.

Gehringer played in 2,323 games during his career. He scored 1,774 runs, collected 2,839 hits, and stroked 574 doubles, 146 triples, and 184 home runs. He also drove in 1,427 runs, stole 182 bases, and compiled a lifetime batting average of .320 to accompany an on-base percentage of .404. After hitting .277 during his rookie season in 1926, Gehringer hit an impressive .317 in 1927 and .320 in 1928. His first truly great season, however, came in 1929 when he batted .339 and led the AL in hits (215), runs scored (131), doubles (45), and triples (19). His finest year statistically was 1937 when, as Most Valuable Player, he won the AL batting title with a .371 average.

Taciturn and diffident, Gehringer was uncommonly articulate with glove and bat. The incomparable grace and ease with which he fielded his position enabled him to lead AL second basemen in fielding percentage nine times, in assists seven times, and in putouts three times. Yet, if he made few errors, he also rarely made a spectacular play. Relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of AL hitters, Gehringer seemed always to be in the right place at the right time so that even the most challenging play seemed routine. Baseball historian H. G. Salsinger wrote that Gehringer "lacks showmanship, but he has polish that no other second baseman, with the exception of the great Napoleon Lajoie, ever had."

Gehringer batted over .300 in 13 of his 19 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. He scored 100 runs 12 times and had more than 100 runs batted in and 200 hits 7 times. Only once between 1927 and 1940 did Gehringer's batting average fall below .300 for a season. In 1932 he hit .298 with 44 doubles, 11 triples, 19 home runs, and 107 runs batted in. "I went for distance," he later admitted. "Got off to a great start.… I had eight homers when [Babe] Ruth had only three or four. I believe I still had eight when he hit his thirty-fourth. But I kept going for distance. Wound up under .300."

When his batting average dipped to a career low of .220, Gehringer announced his retirement following the 1941 season. Tigers management convinced him to postpone his departure for one year to help counter the shortage of players resulting from the U.S. entry into World War II. Gehringer obliged, then retired in 1942 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age thirty-nine. He spent three years as a naval fitness instructor, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander.

Returning to civilian life, Gehringer, who had never earned more than $35,000 a year playing baseball, became a partner in Gehringer and Forsyth, a lucrative automobile parts and accessories business from which he grew wealthy. Between August 1951 and October 1953 Gehringer also served as Tigers general manager, remaining with the organization as vice president until 1959.

Gehringer died at age eighty-nine after suffering a stroke, and is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in South-field, Michigan. He was survived by his wife Josephine, to whom he had been married for forty-three years. The couple had no children.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, Gehringer was its oldest living member at the time of his death. Stylish, elegant, and accomplished, yet modest, unassuming, and reserved, Gehringer long enjoyed the respect and admiration of his peers. "He says hello on opening day and goodbye on closing day," said teammate and manager Mickey Cochrane, "and in between he hits .350." Doc Cramer, a Tigers outfielder, added that "You wind him up on opening day and forget about him." "All I know," remarked Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez, "is that whenever I'm pitching, he's on base." Gehringer credited Gomez with giving him the nickname the "Mechanical Man" in recognition of his consistently stellar play game after game, season after season. Bob Feller, a Cleveland Indians pitcher who faced him many times, put it most succinctly. Gehringer was, Feller wrote, "a gentleman and a great second baseman."

For information about Gehringer and his career, see Martin Appel and Burt Goldblatt, Baseball's Best: The Hall of Fame Gallery (1977); Anthony J. Connor, ed., Voices from Cooperstown: Baseball's Hall of Famers Tell It Like It Was (1998); Morris A. Eckhouse, "Detroit Tigers: The Cornerstone of Detroit Baseball Is Stability," in Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Team Histories: American League, edited by Peter C. Bjarkman (1991); Bob Feller with Burton Rocks, Bob Feller's Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom (2001); John McCallister, The Tigers and Their Den: The Official Story of the Detroit Tigers (1999); and David Pietrusza et al., Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Jan. 1993).

Mark G. Malvasi

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