Failed phenoms are commonplace in baseball, since it is the game of failure. Dick Wakefield, the first bonus baby, was the most expensive flop the game had ever seen.
When he signed with the Tigers in 1941, he was hailed as another Ted Williams, even — blasphemy in Detroit — the second coming of Ty Cobb. He looked a bit like Williams then, a lean six-foot-four left-handed batter, without the same results. When he turned into only an above-average hitter instead of a great one, he paid the price for falling short of extravagant expectations.
Nobody thought Wakefield was a bad guy. Many teammates loved him, chuckled at his foibles, shaking their heads. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley described him as “big, good-looking and good-natured [with] tremendous charm, personality and talent.” Daley added: “It isn’t that Dick is a drinker, a carouser or anything of that sort. It’s just that he is the most nonchalant person imaginable.”1 “Nonchalant” and “lackadaisical” were his constant companions, one hanging onto each arm.
Nothing seemed to bother him. When he went hitless, he would say, “Tomorrow is another day and another game.”2 He laughed off his misadventures in the outfield. Manager Steve O’Neill, who spent years alibiing for him, finally benched him. Instead of exploding, Wakefield told him, “I’ve been going lousy and you just do what is best for the team.”3
The prevailing opinion was that he lacked the drive to be great, didn’t want it badly enough to work for it. He blamed the press for trashing his reputation: “They figured that because a guy could smile when things went bad, he had the wrong attitude.”4 Smiling in the face of failure violated the code.
Richard Cummings Wakefield was born in Chicago on May 6, 1921, the second of four sons of Frances (Cummings) and Howard Wakefield. Howard had been a promising catcher early in the century until a dead arm ended his major-league career at 23. He brought up his sons to be ballplayers, even tearing down the family’s garage to make room for backyard batting practice. Only Dick made it all the way. He gave the credit to his dad.
Like Howard, Dick started as a catcher. When he entered the University of Michigan, coach Ray Fisher already had a standout behind the plate, so he put Wakefield in the outfield. In his first varsity season in 1941, he hit .368 with 9 homers in 26 games to lead the Wolverines to the Big 10 championship. He counted scouts from 11 teams following him.
Before the end of the school year, his father died suddenly at 57. Howard’s legacy was baseball, not wealth. Dick decided to leave school and use that legacy to provide for his mother and brothers.
The auction was quick and intense. In two weeks he worked out for at least five clubs. Detroit owner Walter O. Briggs told him to listen to all offers, and the Tigers would top the highest one. The Brooklyn Dodgers anted up a reported $35,000, the Washington Senators $40,000, the Cleveland Indians, his father’s original team, $50,000.
Briggs was as good as his word. The Tigers’ bonus was reported to be $52,000, but Wakefield said it was $51,000.5 Either way, it was by far the biggest check ever handed to an amateur player, equivalent to about one million 2019 dollars. The highest-paid major leaguer, Detroit’s two-time MVP Hank Greenberg, was making $55,000. Briggs, who had made his fortune in the auto industry, threw in a sleek new Packard for Dick’s mother. The 20-year-old bought his own sweet ride, a Lincoln Zephyr, for $1,400, even though he didn’t know how to drive. His mother invested the rest of the money.
The Tigers gave him a taste of the majors: seven pinch-hit appearances with one single. He spent most of his 1941 season at Class-B Winston-Salem, where he hit .300 in 55 games. The next spring the club sent O’Neill, one of the major-league coaches, to watch over the prodigy at Class A-1 Beaumont. Wakefield was named MVP of the fast Texas League with a .345 batting average, .423 on-base percentage, and 90 RBIs. “If he has a batting weakness, I haven’t found it,” O’Neill said.6
Wakefield lived up to the hype when he joined the Tigers in 1943, with O’Neill taking over as manager. He was challenging for the batting title in July. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy tapped the rookie to start the All-Star Game, replacing the injured Charlie Keller. “He’s my type of player,” McCarthy said. He had roomed with Wakefield’s father in the minors, but it was not a sentimental choice; Wakefield was the first major leaguer to reach 100 hits for the season.7
He singled and doubled to help the American League stars to victory. “He’s going to be a great player — just like Ted Williams,” the venerable Athletics manager Connie Mack said. “He runs like Williams, acts like him and hits like him.”8 No one would have bet that this would be his only All-Star appearance.
The phenom led the league with 200 hits and 38 doubles while finishing second with a .316 batting average. The only clouds in his sky were his seven home runs, not exactly in Williams’s class, and “sloppy and careless” defense in left field, very Williams-like.9
He hit like a star and strutted like a star. Or a 22-year-old’s idea of a star. Loud sportshirts, two-tone shoes, fat Cuban cigars. Some teammates naturally resented the bonus and the flash, but Wakefield’s agreeable personality won most of them over.
Detroit scout Wish Egan, one of Wakefield’s loyal boosters, thought his spectacular rookie year was his undoing. “All of a sudden he concluded he was a big-league hitter,” Egan said later. “What he didn’t take into consideration was that he was hitting against wartime or, for the most part, second-class pitching.”10
The war claimed Wakefield in the fall. He went to naval aviation training in Iowa City, Iowa, but by July 1944 the Navy concluded that it had more pilots than it needed. Half of the cadets were given the option of receiving an honorable discharge and taking their chances in the draft. With the second half of the baseball season beckoning, Wakefield went home.
He was in the Detroit lineup five days after he became a civilian again. He had played ball for a Navy team and brought his batting stroke home with him: two singles and two RBIs in his first game, a home run the next day, and another the next. But he knew he could be snatched back into the military at any moment.
The Tigers were in seventh place, looking up at the St. Louis Browns. The American League’s perennial doormats had assembled a cast of aged and 4-F players (medically or otherwise unfit for military service) to climb to the unfamiliar altitude of first place. Detroit caught fire as soon as Wakefield returned and played close to .700 ball the rest of the way. He ignited the offense with a .355 batting average. .464 on-base percentage, .576 slugging percentage, and 190 OPS+ — all best in the league if he had had enough at-bats. His 12 homers in 78 games matched his career high for a full season.
The Browns nosed out the Tigers for the pennant on the final day. The next day Wakefield received his draft notice. Having walked away from an officer’s commission, he re-entered the Navy as an apprentice seaman and spent 1945 playing ball on service teams. Without him, and with the return of Hank Greenberg from the army, Detroit won the pennant and World Series.
Wakefield and Williams, a Marine pilot, wound up together in Hawaii at the end of the war. The brash young bucks made a series of bets about 1946 — $1,000 on who would have the higher batting average, another $1,000 for the most RBIs, five categories in all. When they arrived home, Wakefield couldn’t wait to brag about the wagers. Commissioner Happy Chandler ordered them to call it off.11 There’s no betting in baseball.
The Tigers signed Wakefield for star money, a salary reported to be $35,000 or $40,000. He opened the 1946 season batting fifth behind Greenberg. In the fourth game he drove in five runs with a single, double, and triple, but that was a rare highlight. A local paper printed a daily Wakefield vs. Williams comparison for a while until it became too embarrassing. Detroit fans let him know they were disappointed. “[H]e never moaned, never offered an alibi, and never asked that anyone show pity,” the Detroit Times’s Bob Murphy wrote.12
On May 4 Wakefield was hitting .228 when a fastball from the Yankees’ Joe Page broke his left wrist. He returned to the lineup a couple of weeks later, but his batting average stayed around .250. Then another interruption: On July 11 he crashed into the concrete wall that ran along the left-field line at Boston’s Fenway Park, breaking his left forearm. That knocked him out for more than two weeks.
It took a strong September to lift his average to .268 in 111 games, barely respectable and not acceptable. O’Neill thought he “tried to be another Ted Williams,” swinging for the fences.13 Wakefield did equal his 1944 total of 12 home runs, but Williams hit 38. Nobody compared them any more.
As soon as the season was over, Wakefield resumed his education at the University of Michigan. He attended classes for the next two offseasons and earned his degree.
The Tigers took back a chunk of that big salary in 1947. The club had sold the aging Greenberg and was counting on Wakefield to replace some of the lost power. It didn’t work out that way. Another injury, a sprained ankle, sat him down for most of June. In the second half he flirted with a .300 average, and O’Neill moved him up to third and fourth in the order. Playing 112 games, he finished at .283 with an .828 OPS, best on the team, but only 28 extra-base hits. His critics complained that he wasn’t hitting enough to offset his butchery in left field and careless attitude.
O’Neill was accused of coddling Wakefield, and it was no secret that the bonus boy was a favorite of owner Briggs. That didn’t stop O’Neill from benching him early in 1948 after he went 0-for-25. The team reportedly put him on waivers, a first step before sending him to the minors if no suitable trade materialized, but he remained on the roster and on the bench throughout May. The relentless pounding by the press sparked a backlash, with some fans writing letters to the editor defending him. Back in the lineup, he put up a decent second half to hit .276 with 11 homers in 110 games.
The drama was nearing the final curtain. Since the war, Lyall Smith wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “He didn’t hit. He didn’t hustle. His fielding was sloppy and his attitude indifferent.”14 At the winter meetings in December, general manager Billy Evans said, “Barring a sudden reversal, I believe Dick is just about through in Detroit.”15 He cut Wakefield’s salary for the third straight year, to $22,000.
The Tigers fired Steve O’Neill after a fifth-place finish. He had been Wakefield’s protector, making excuses for his failures and forever expressing confidence in his talent. The new manager, Red Rolfe, had played and coached for the stern Joe McCarthy on the dynastic Yankees. “I had to crack the whip,” Rolfe said. “…Putting it bluntly, I inherited a complacent ball club.”16 There would be no more pats on the back for the tarnished phenom.
Rolfe delivered the first kick in the pants during spring training in 1949. “He’ll have to play a lot better than he has so far,” the manager said. “He’ll have to hit at least .300 to play for me.”17 Rolfe assigned coach Dick Bartell, who had earned the nickname “Rowdy Richard,” to keep kicking. “He had to needle Dick Wakefield like a pin cushion,” second baseman Neil Berry remembered. “The picnic is over, Wakefield,” Bartell barked, hitting a fly ball in his direction. “Get your lard after this one and see if it hurts you to run.”18 Smiling under the lash, Wakefield told his tormentor, “Lay off me, or maybe I’ll have to buy up your contract and send you back to Kansas City.”19
Wakefield started 13 early-season games, hit .205, and Rolfe had seen enough. He did little besides pinch-hitting for the rest of the season. With the Tigers straining to hang in the pennant race, in a September game he batted for the pitcher with a runner on second and the club trailing the Yankees by two runs. After Wakefield looked at three called strikes to end the inning, Rolfe recorded in his journal, “Another fine exhibition.”20
The curtain came down in December when the Tigers traded him to the Yankees for Dick Kryhoski, a surplus first baseman. “The trade has to be the best thing for Wakefield,” Detroit Times sports editor Bob Murphy commented. “I’m sure he never would have made a comeback in Detroit.”21
Wakefield had the last words. In a public farewell to Detroit fans and sportswriters, his message was uncharacteristically humble: “[M]y mistakes have caused many of you to desert me. This I must blame upon myself.” And revealing: He said it had been a mistake to take the big bonus that made him a marked man. “Mistake or no mistake, I needed it.”22
The Yankees administered another dose of humility. The club sent him a contract for $17,000, a 25 percent pay cut, the maximum allowed. He held out until after spring training opened, then signed for a few additional dollars. Reporting to St. Petersburg, he acknowledged that he had reached a critical crossroads at 28. “I am not kidding myself and I am not kidding the Yankees either,” he said. “This definitely is the year that must decide whether I continue in baseball or try my hand at something else.”23
That spring he fell into conversation with several sportswriters. One of them remarked that baseball was a good life. “What’s good about it?” Wakefield asked. The writers were speechless. “Suppose a ballplayer did get a big salary?” he went on. “He had to practice in the morning and play a game in the afternoon and was bounced around by the schedule from town to town through the hot summer months. Meanwhile taxes are taking a big bite out of his pay and, furthermore, how long is the guy likely to last in the big leagues? … At 30 or so he must look for something else to do. Don’t tell me baseball is a good life.”24
He made the Opening Day roster but got only three pinch-hit appearances before New York swapped him to the Chicago White Sox for cash and a minor leaguer. More trouble: He refused to report unless the Sox restored his 25-percent pay cut. Chicago GM Frank Lane said the trade was void, but the Yankees didn’t want him back. Commissioner Chandler had to settle it, declaring Wakefield was still New York property.
The Yankees immediately dumped him to Oakland of the Pacific Coast League. Again, he refused to report and threatened a lawsuit. After some fatherly advice from the commissioner, he headed to California to play out the 1950 season. He asked for his release the next spring, but no other team would sign him. He thought he had been blacklisted.25
Good life or not, Wakefield was not ready to leave baseball. He prevailed on his former teammate Hank Greenberg, the Cleveland general manager, for an invitation to spring training in 1952, but left without a contract offer. He was back home in Detroit when Giants manager Leo Durocher called. Durocher was desperate; his left fielder, Monte Irvin, had broken an ankle, and center fielder Willie Mays was expecting a draft notice any day. Wakefield got three at-bats before he was cut again. “No one tried harder to make good than he did,” Durocher said.26 He accepted a demotion to Triple-A Minneapolis for the rest of the 1952 season, his last.
Wakefield made the rounds of training camps for the next two springs with his pride swallowed, scratching for a job. His final stop was the Triple-A Havana Sugar Kings. They had nothing for him. At 33, he was either a has-been or a never-was.
“What a waste of talent,” Red Rolfe said. “He should have been one of the best. But I guess that big bonus warped his mental attitude and he never lived up to his potentialities.”27 That was the conventional wisdom.
The record shows that Wakefield was a better hitter than his critics would admit. He put up a 131 OPS+ in his seven years with the Tigers. During that same period, only a dozen players did better, half of them Hall of Famers. While he had his best years against weak wartime competition, Wakefield’s OPS+ was the highest on the team in 1947 and second best in 1948. Of course, nobody was aware of this; on-base percentage and OPS+ were unknown at the time. Hitters were rated by their batting averages and home-run power, and Wakefield was better than average but far from great. He was judged by others’ expectations, not his performance.
The rest of his life was aimless. He tried to recapture the spotlight by running for Congress three times and for state legislature once. First he was a Republican supporter of the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, then a Democrat. He lost in both parties. He worked in public relations, as a financial adviser, and as a gofer and bodyguard for his friend, pop singer Eddie Fisher.
He never married. He hung out at pool halls, bowling alleys, and racetracks, places where sporting men knew his name. “He was playing hookey from life,” the Detroit News’s Joe Falls wrote, “but he knew it and you knew it, and so nothing was said about it.”28
According to his brother Howard, their mother had invested part of Dick’s bonus in an apartment building, and he lived off the income. But as he reached his 60s, he told a reporter, “I’m probably the poorest ex-ballplayer you could ever find. All I’ve got is a roof over my head and a few cats to take care of. … A few good times, a few girlfriends, some good living and all the money is gone.”29
Loyal pals stuck by him, including three Phi Gamma Delta brothers from the University of Michigan. When Wakefield became ill in 1985, they organized a testimonial dinner and gave him a new Ford Thunderbird. He died of congestive heart failure at 64 on August 26, 1985.
A wasted life? Sometimes Wakefield thought so. In the 1970s he told writer Donald Honig, “I think a man ought to try and contribute more than just an athletic career.”30
Photo credit: Bowman Gum Co. This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Jan Finkel, and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
1 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, December 20, 1949: 39.
2 H.G. Salsinger, “What’s With Wakefield?” Sport, September 1946: 84.
3 Daley, “Sports of the Times,” December 20, 1949.
4 Donald Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real in A Donald Honig Reader (Fireside/Simon & Schuster: 1975), 299.
5 Gayle Talbot, “The Wakefield Awakening,” Baseball Digest, January 1950: 78.
6 Associated Press, “Wakefield Called Another Williams by Steve O’Neill,” New York World-Telegram, July 28, 1942, in Wakefield’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, Cooperstown, New York.
7 Dan Daniel, “Yankees Hippity-Hop Back East in Top Spot,” The Sporting News, July 15, 1943: 4.
8 Stan Baumgartner, “Mack Dreams of a Wakefield to Wake Up A’s,” The Sporting News, July 22, 1934: 5.
9 Salsinger, “Dick’s Ding-Dong Bat Awakens Tigers,” The Sporting News, September 14, 1944: 5.
10 Ken Tingley, “The promise of Dick Wakefield went unfulfilled,” Oneonta (New York) Daily Star, September 30, 1985, in HOF file.
11 Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real, 303; Ted Williams with John Underwood, My Turn at Bat (repr. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1969), 105.
12 Bob Murphy, “Bob Tales,” Detroit Times, June 16, 1946: 24.
13 Watson Spoelstra, “Pasture for Aging King Hank, If He Returns to Tiger Picture,” The Sporting News, November 20, 1946: 9.
14 Lyall Smith, “Tigers Finally Waver on Wakefield,” Detroit Free Press, March 28, 1949: 30.
15 Smith, “Tigers Willing to Trade Wakefield Now,” Free Press, December 10, 1948: 36.
16 William M. Anderson, ed., The View from the Dugout: The Journals of Red Rolfe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 15.
17 Smith, “Tigers Finally Waver.”
18 Anderson, The View from the Dugout, 16, 23.
19 Shirley Povich, “Bartell Needles Wakefield and Outfielder Jabs Back,” The Sporting News, April 6, 1949: 18.
20 Anderson, The View from the Dugout, 103.
21 Murphy, “Switch May Be What He Has Needed,” Detroit Times, December 19, 1949: C-21.
22 “Dick Says Good-by,” Detroit Times, December 22, 1949: C-25.
23 John Drebinger, “Wakefield, in First Yankee Drill, Top Attraction in St. Petersburg,” New York Times, March 5, 1950: 149.
24 Frank Graham, “Dick’s a Nice Fellow, But…”, The Sporting News, May 10, 1950: 14.
25 Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real, 305.
26 “Durocher Sorry He Had to Drop Wakefield,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1952: 15.
27 Daley, “Sports of the Times,” March 14, 1952: 31.
28 Joe Falls, “Wakefield: a bonus baby dies at 64,” Detroit News, reprinted in New York Daily News, August 29, 1985: 88.
29 Maury Allen, “Dick Wakefield: early bonus baby,” New York Post, April 21, 1983: 74.
30 Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real, 307.