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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 was considered the premier second baseman of his generation and who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949.

Gehringer was one of three children born on a family farm sixty miles north of Detroit. His parents’ full names are unknown. He loved baseball so much as a boy that he and his brother carved out a diamond on their farm so they could play every day. Gehringer was devoted to his mother, Teresa, who had diabetes. He lived with her until he was forty-three and did not marry until after her death because he felt his responsibility for her care left no room for a wife in his life.

Gehringer was a star third baseman for his Fowlerville High School team, and he played both baseball and football during 1923, the only year he attended the University of Michigan. The lean, five feet, eleven inch, 185-pound youngster, who threw right-handed and batted left-handed, impressed the Detroit Tigers’ player-manager Ty Cobb during a 1924 tryout at Navin Field. Cobb did not take time to change his uniform before he rushed Gehringer to the front office to sign a contract. Gehringer said Cobb, with whom he spent many hours of long train rides discussing the secrets of hitting and baserunning, became like a second father to him.

Gehringer played in the last five games of the 1924 season and batted .462. After a successful 1925 minor league season in Toronto, where he hit .325 with 25 home runs and 108 runs batted in (RBIs), he played in the final eight games for the Detroit Tigers. In 1926 Gehringer became a team regular, beginning a string of sixteen years as their starting second baseman.

An intense-looking man with his cap fixed tightly on his head, Gehringer was known as much for his silence and lack of color as for his legendary fielding and batting skills. He was nicknamed the “Mechanical Man” by the Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez, who said of him: “They wind him up at the start of the season and he never runs down. All I know is that whenever you played the Tigers, you would look up and he would be on base.” His Detroit manager Mickey Cochrane explained, “Charlie says ‘hello’ on Opening Day, ‘goodbye’ on Closing Day, and in between hits .350 and fields for a .980 average.”

Gehringer covered second base with a smooth, seemingly effortless style. Possessed of quick hands and an encyclopedic memory of opposing batters, he positioned himself so astutely that he rarely made diving catches and his plays did not appear spectacular. As a defensive player he led American League second basemen in fielding percentage nine times, led or tied in assists a record seven times, and was the leader in putouts three times.

Gehringer’s offense was as impressive as his defense. Because of his controlled batting swing, he was difficult to strike out, and in sixteen full seasons his strikeouts ranged from sixteen to forty-two. The 1929 season exemplifies the Mechanical Man’s all-around playing excellence. That year Gehringer led the league in stolen bases, doubles, triples, hits, runs scored, games played, putouts, and fielding average while batting .339. On 14 August 1929 the Tigers’ management and fans celebrated Charlie Gehringer Day at the ballpark, and Gehringer responded in turn. He handled cleanly ten chances in the field, slugged a home run, smacked three singles, and stole home to help the Tigers beat the visiting New York Yankees. A smart and powerful hitter, Gehringer slapped the ball to all parts of the field and was consistently among the league’s leaders in extra bases with doubles and triples. Although not a home run hitter, he did slug ten or more home runs in eleven seasons, ending with a career high of twenty in the 1938 season.

As further proof of his consistency, the Mechanical Man played seven seasons with 200 or more hits and seven seasons with over 100 RBIs. In thirteen seasons he batted over .300, and his lifetime batting average of .320 mirrors his lifetime World Series average (twenty games) of .321. He played every inning of the first six All-Star Games (1933-1938) and at the beginning of the twenty-first century was still the career leader with a .500 batting average (ten for twenty). Gehringer was on first base and scored when an aging Babe Ruth hit the first All-Star home run in 1933. In 1937 Gehringer’s .371 average made him the oldest player to win his first batting title, and he was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player. He led the Detroit Tigers to their first World Series championship in 1935 and to pennants in 1934 and 1940. From 1924 to 1942 he played in 2,184 games; collected 2,839 hits; scored 1,774 runs; drove in 1,427 runs; slugged 184 home runs, 574 doubles, and 146 triples; and fielded .976. His highest major league salary was $35,000.

Gehringer enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943 and served for three years as a fitness instructor. In 1949 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Echoing the priorities he established earlier in his life, he did not show up for his summer induction ceremony at Cooperstown, New York, instead marrying Josephine (maiden name unknown) in California. They had no children. In 1951 Gehringer became the Detroit Tigers’ vice president and general manager. In 1953 he relinquished the general manager duties, but he remained vice president until 1959.

After suffering a stroke in December 1992, Gehringer entered a nursing home near his home. He died there less than a month later and is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan. Before his death in 1993 he was the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Although taciturn and undemonstrative, Gehringer is famous for two baseball quotes: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you an idiot,” and “Us ballplayers do things backward. First we play, then we retire and go to work.” During his entire career blacks were excluded from major league baseball. But in 1929, after the Negro League pitcher Bill Foster shut out the Tigers in an exhibition game, Gehringer said, “If I could paint you white I could get $150,000 dollars for you.” When asked who was the best pitcher he ever saw, he picked another Negro League legend, Satchel Paige. In 1976 Gehringer established the Charlie Gehringer Golf Classic, an annual tournament benefiting charity, in which he and his wife played each year until his death. At the time of baseball’s centennial celebration in 1969, a special committee of baseball writers named Gehringer the game’s greatest living second baseman.

Gehringer’s career reminiscences can be found in Lee Allen and Tom Meany, Kings of the Diamond (1965); Martin Appel and Burt Goldblatt, Baseball’s Best: The Hall of Fame Gallery (1970); Tom Meany and Paul McFarlane, TSN Daguerreotypes of Great Stars of Baseball (1971); Ken Smith, Baseball’s Hall of Fame (1978); and fill seventeen pages in Richard Bak, Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times (23 Jan. 1993) and the Detroit Free Press (23 Jan. 1993).

Mark A. Blickley

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