Tigers' Gehringer was elegant afield, quiet and graceful with a perfect swing

John Steadman

January 25, 1993|By John Steadman

When it came to handling a baseball bat, there are purists who insist he had "the perfect swing" -- never hurried or off-balance but under control and a within-himself style of his own. Satin-smooth. Charlie Gehringer, who died last Thursday from a recent stroke, lived to the grand age of 89 and, without a morsel of doubt, was one of the greatest second basemen of all time.

As a man, conservative in demeanor and speech, he was endowed with a rare and priceless quality -- elegance. Mickey Cochrane, player-manager of the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers in 1934 and 1935, offered a succinct description of Gehringer in remarking, "He says 'hello' Opening Day, 'goodbye' closing day and, in between, hits .350."

He was to spend 19 productive years with the Tigers, playing in three World Series, six All-Star Games, leading the American League in batting with .371 in 1937, winning the Most Valuable Player award, and recording a .320 lifetime average. Yet it was the gentlemanly presence, and the quiet, unobtrusive manner, which set him apart.

Gehringer remains a model for the ages. He didn't need to become embroiled in controversy or shouting matches with sportswriters to draw attention. His last season with the Tigers was 1942 and, when he retired, left a picture of the consummate performer -- effective with bat and glove, yet never engaging in self-aggrandizement or polluting the ozone with idle talk.

Of course, elevating humanity by being a first-rate individual doesn't earn points for the Hall of Fame. One of the first men in baseball to work with a camera analyzing swings was Lew Fonseca, a former American League batting champion who later managed the Chicago White Sox. After looking at what he estimated as more than 5,000 batting strokes, he offered the opinion "that what Gehringer has is without a doubt the soundest, smoothest and most ideal."

Joe Cascarella, who pitched against Gehringer and was a teammate on the 1934 American all-star team that toured Japan, where they were roommates, admired him as a person and a player. "When our team went to Detroit, I expected to find him at the train station waiting to carry my bags," said Joe with a smile. "I'm sure he never wanted anything to happen to me. He hit me like it was batting practice. His swing was smooth and easy. Such natural grace."

It's not widely known, but Gehringer was directly responsible for the Tigers' signing of Al Kaline. This had its origin when he was helping coach a team in the Hearst Newspapers Junior Baseball Classic in New York, where Kaline, representing Baltimore, was the most valuable player at a mere 15 years of age. Gehringer went back to Detroit extolling the youngster who, two years later, 1953, was signed by the Tigers. Kaline, without benefit of minor-league seasoning, played 22 seasons as a Tiger and, as with Gehringer, made the Hall of Fame.

Gehringer hit to all fields with a dead-level swing but also could pull for distance. In the field, he was known as the "Mechanical Man" because he made plays look so easy with his smoothly coordinated movements. It's generally accepted he ranked with Eddie Collins and Napoleon Lajoie as the best second basemen of all time. Take your pick.

Oddly enough, Charlie was the only living player voted to the Hall of Fame -- it happened in 1949 -- who didn't attend his own induction ceremony. He had a good excuse. It was the day he married the former Josephine Stillen. But the honor meant so much to him that he made an annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., to attend every subsequent installation until last summer..

Asked to compare baseball to a half-century ago, Gehringer once said: "In our day, you didn't see the plays you do today. I can't remember anybody catching one like jumping over the fence and having the ball stick in the glove because it wouldn't. Maybe I dove for a ball once or twice, but you'd probably only hurt yourself and still wouldn't do more than knock it down.

"Today the balls stick in the glove. You can get up and throw out the batter if they're hit hard enough. Nobody seemed to think fielding was that important when I played. The emphasis was on hitting, and that made all the difference."

Charlie Gehringer, in the field and the batter's box, was a symphony in motion. An artist who painted such pretty pictures.

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