Baseball 99: Charlie Gehringer

Sportswriters teed off on Charlie Gehringer when he did not come to own his Hall of Fame ceremony in June of 1949. It's funny if you think about it. Gehringer had long been celebrated by those same sportswriters, and everyone else, as the man of few words, Baseball's silent hero. They called him "The Mechanical Man." They loved Gehringer for his refusal to celebrate himself.

"Wind him up in the spring," Lefty Gomez said, "turn him off in the fall, and in between, he hits .340."

Then, The Mechanical Man didn't show up for the Hall of Fame and they tore into him for not celebrating himself.

Charlie Gehringer grew up on a farm in Fowlerville, Mich. -- "a town of something like 1,200 humans in Livingston County," the Detroit Free Press explained -- and the only thing he knew for sure was that he didn't want to spend his life on that farm. His father died when Charlie was just going out into the world. His mother was powerfully opposed to him playing baseball. So he went to Michigan with the idea of becoming a coach. He played baseball, tried out for football, lettered in basketball. Gehringer was a raw and rare baseball talent, and he already had that Mechanical Man detachment from emotion.

"Don't get too excited about this game," Michigan baseball coach Ray Fisher said to him at practice one day.

Gehringer looked curiously at his legendary coach, as if he couldn't quite understand.

"Don't worry," he finally said with perfect equanimity. "I won't."

Those four words -- "Don't worry, I won't" -- represent a Charlie Gehringer soliloquy: He did not talk. He didn't see the use of it. Gehringer made the Tigers after impressing Ty Cobb himself during a tryout in 1924. Gehringer became a consistent All-Star, an MVP, a baseball star of the highest order. But his singular trait was his silence, his refusal to make a show of anything, his ghostlike ability to fade into the background.

"He’d say hello at the start of spring training and goodbye at the end,” Cobb said.

"He was a man of mechanical precision," Branch Rickey said, "and obscure so far as showmanship was concerned."

“You just forget him,” teammate Doc Cramer says.

"He hadn't missed a tag or said a word in 15 years," Leo Durocher said after Gehringer missed a tag on Dizzy Dean in the World Series.

[caption id="attachment_22920" align="aligncenter" width="256"] Gehringer's plaque went up in Cooperstown in 1949, but he wasn't there to see it.[/caption]

We tend to think of such reserve and taciturnity as admirable -- the Quiet American and all that -- and Gehringer was widely celebrated for it. He was also staggeringly consistent as a ballplayer. From 1927 through 1940, he hit .300 every year but one (that year he hit .298). He scored 100 runs in all 12 healthy seasons he had, he regularly had 200 hits, 30-plus doubles, double-digit homers and stolen bases. He regularly knocked in 100 or so runs. He regularly played 150-plus games.

And he improved, always. He was good in his early 20s. He got better in his mid-to-late 20s. And he got even better after he turned 30. At 31, he led the league in hits and runs. At 33, he cracked 60 doubles -- he's the last player to break 60 doubles in a season. At 34, he won his first and only batting title by hitting .371, and he was named MVP.

And there's a striking jump in his defensive value, too. It's hard to know exactly what to make of defensive numbers from the 1930s; Gehringer always had a sterling reputation as a defender ("There is not a surer pair of hands in baseball ... he is a high-class defensive ball player," one sportswriter wrote in 1929). Still, if you look at Gehringer from age 21 to 29, he was eight runs below average as a defender.

And from age 30 to 34? He was 55 runs BETTER than average, making him not just the best defensive second baseman in the American League, but the best fielder at any position. A player's defensive numbers almost never improve after he turns 30. There was something relentless about the Mechanical Man. On the field, though, he played with ferocity. Off the field, he was profoundly shy. He lived with his mother and took care of her throughout his career; every morning, Charlie and his mother went to mass together.

He was admired for all of it -- his silent conviction, his overpowering modesty, his "keep your head down and work hard" approach to baseball and life. One story that made all the papers involved Gehringer at a banquet. He was introduced in a dramatic way, and he stepped behind the lectern.

"I’m known around baseball as saying very little," Gehringer said. "I’m not going to spoil my reputation." Then he sat down.

Everybody loved it! Silent Charlie! The Mechanical Man!

[caption id="attachment_22919" align="aligncenter" width="406"] Gehringer forged a reputation for quiet brilliance in his 19-year career.[/caption]

Then, as mentioned, he didn't show up for his own Hall of Fame induction. Gehringer said the reason involved "business pressures." And all those same people who loved Silent Charlie suddenly went bonkers with anger.

"I take no great satisfaction now in having cast one of the votes that might have helped to install Charlie Gehringer in the Baseball Hall of Fame," famed sportswriter Shirley Povich wrote in The Sporting News. "I was just thinking he might have found time to detach himself for a few hours to be on the scene on a day when baseball was finding a niche for him among the immortals. That shows how easy it is to overrate a fellow."

That seems harsh.

"It is still the highest tribute the game can offer," Povich wrote. "Of course, there's no cash award accompanying it."

And that seems even harsher. Povich was Gehringer's most prominent detractor, but he wasn't the only one. Several attacked Gehringer for skipping out on Cooperstown, and like Povich, they often threw in that "He must want to get paid" stinger. I'm sure it puzzled Gehringer -- not coming to Cooperstown perfectly aligned with how he had always acted, how he had always lived, and how he had always played. It was why so many people loved him in the first place.

People -- as in OTHER people -- can be so inconsistent.

As it turns out, Povich and the rest got the story all wrong. Gehringer didn't miss his Hall of Fame day because of "business pressures." That was a cover. At 46, he had gone to the West Coast to get married for the first time.

From The Sporting News:

When Charlie Gehringer returns from his honeymoon in the West, he'll find Detroit considerably relieved that he had a legitimate excuse for missing the enshrinement ceremonies that put him in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. ... Charlie has always been shy, and as a 46-year-old bachelor he made secret wedding plans.

And from the Detroit Free Press:

He wanted to get married to his Detroit girl out in California, to avoid all the fuss that this old town would have stirred up. Throughout his career Charlie has never sought the spotlight; in fact, the spotlight has been kept out of breath chasing him.

There were a few apologies after that; I don't know if Gehringer accepted them or cared about them. Decades later, someone asked him about Cobb, and he explained that while they were once close -- Cobb had been like a second father to him -- they eventually parted bitterly. He was never sure why; Cobb was a hard case. But Gehringer did remember one game in which Cobb was upset that nobody on the field seemed to be into the game. He ordered that they start chattering, you know, showing some pep out there. Nobody really did.

When they got back to the dugout, Cobb went off on everybody, including Gehringer, for not chattering more. Gehringer looked the Georgia Peach in the eye and said, "I was talking as much as anybody else."