Rudy York, the Big Gun of August

This article was written by Tom Hufford

This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal


In 1937 most of baseball’s headlines went to slugging exploits of Joe Medwick in the National League and to Lou Gehrig, Joe DiNaggio, Jimmy Foxx, and Hank Greenberg in the American League.   Little attention was paid to a bench-riding rookie of the Tigers named Rudy York, not at least until he worked his way into the lineup in early August. Then the big Oklahoma Indian rewrote the slugging records right under the noses of his more publicized contemporaries.

In the course of one calendar month, August 1937, York hit 18 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth’s September 1927 record of 17. He also amassed an incredible 49 runs batted in, for one of the most productive months in baseball history. As remarkable as the totals appear now, the circumstances surrounding the Chief’s performance are an even more interesting story.

In the spring of 1937 there was no question that York should make the Tiger squad. He had been up briefly once before in the course of three productive minor league seasons. He had been the Most Valuable Player at Milwaukee in 1936, and while with Beaumont the year before he was the Texas League’s MVP. The only problem was that the Tigers didn’t have a place for him to play.

At his regular position, first base, York certainly wasn’t going to beat out Hank Greenberg, who was at the peak of his career.   He gave the outfield a brief trial, but that was quickly abandoned. At third base he was no

Pie Traynor, nor even a Marv Owen, who led the league in fielding at the hot corner. So, York found himself riding the bench at the beginning of the season, and it seemed as if the Bengals made every effort, conscious or not, to keep him there.

On May 25 in a game against the Yankees, catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane was seriously beaned by pitcher Bump Hadley. His playing career was ended and it was assumed that York would be given a shot at the backstop spot, another position he had studied in the minors. Instead, the job was split between Ray Hayworth and young Birdie Tebbetts.

After several weeks of rusting away on the bench, with only occasional fill-in action, York was shipped out to Toledo in order to get some work.   Before he had a chance to don a Mud Hen uniform, however, Tiger third-baseman Mary Owen suffered a broken hand, and York was recalled to take over.   A funny thing happened before Rudy made it back, though.   Utility man Flea Clifton had moved in at third, and Cliff Bolton had been purchased from Washington as insurance behind the plate. York found himself back in the dugout, as frustrated as ever.

Clifton did not prove to be the answer at third, so a week later, York also got a chance, but his fielding was spotty, and he was not used regularly by acting manager Del Baker.   When Cochrane returned to the team on July 27, he huddled with York regarding his inactivity. At that time the Tigers were in dire need of pitching help. Schoolboy Rowe was out with an arm injury, and Tommy Bridges was off his regular pace. Even the controversial and colorful “Boots” Poffenberger was taking a regular turn.   York, eager for action, volunteered to toe the mound in an effort to help. He actually warmed up during several contests, but did not make it into a game.

Finally, after the Tigers lost six straight games, Cochrane shook up the lineup on August 4 to provide more punch. After all, York had hit a dozen homers in spite of his infrequent use. York responded to the opportunity by rapping a home run off Harry Kelley of the A’s and he won himself a job.   The Tigers then went to Washington for a series and York collected three homers in spacious Griffith Stadium.   The following week he hit three in equally spacious Comiskey Park in Chicago.

The frustration York experienced during the first half of the season surfaced again in the midst of the August streak.   In the August 19 game at Chicago, York had already hit two home runs, one-of them a grand slam, and had driven in six runs when he came to bat in the 7th inning with the bases full. With Gee Walker on third, Gehringer on second, and Greenberg on first, York rapped a shot to deep centerfield, 440 feet away. It was described as a sure inside-the-park home run. However, Greenberg held up, thinking that the ball might be caught. When he saw the ball bounce off the wall, he could only manage to make third, York settling for “the longest double ever hit in Comiskey Park.”

The slugging catcher had visions of getting that home run, as it would have been his second slam of the game, and the 10 RBI’s would have put him only one short of the League record with two more innings to play. As it happened, however, the rains came in the bottom of the inning, and the score reverted back to the 6th inning, wiping out his long double and two RBI’s. As York grumbled after the game, “Some other day it won’t rain.”

Rudy continued his rampage with a pinch homer against the Browns on August 22, and then hitting three in a twinbill with the A’s on August 24. Two came off Harry Kelley, his favorite target. On August 30 he hit one off Lefty Gomez of the Yankees, the top pitcher in the league that season.   Then just as Ruth climaxed his great September 1927 splurge against the Senators, York closed out his record-setting month with two blasts off Pete Appleton of the Nats on August 31.

York tailed off somewhat in September, finishing with 35 home runs in only 375 at bats.   He also knocked in 103 runs in 104 games.   In spite of his heroic efforts, and those of Gehringer, who led the league in batting, and Greenberg, who knocked in 183 runs, the Tigers could not catch the front-running Yankees.

Yet, nothing can diminish the luster of that one month’s performance.   His full log was 30 games, 114 at bats, 27 runs, 4 doubles, 2 triples, 18 homers, 49 RBI’s, a .360 batting average, and .895 slugging average.   He not only exceeded Ruth’s home run record of 18, but his 49 RBI’s exceeded the best effort of Lou Gehrig with 48 in August 1935.   In fact, Lou gave him a merry chase with 44 RBI’s in that same month of August 1937.   Ruth knocked in 43 runs in September 1927 when he hit his 17 round-trippers.

Here is York’s home run log for August 1937:

 

No.

Date



On Base

Inn.

Site

Opposing Hurler

1

Aug.

4

 

2

5

Away

Harry Kelley, Phil.

               

2

Aug.

6

 

1

9

Away

Ed Linke, Wash.

               

3

Aug.

7

(1)

2

7

Away

Wes Ferrell, Wash.

               

4

Aug.

8

 

0

2

Away

Jim DeShong, Wash.

               

5

Aug.

14

(2)

1

1

Home

Bill Trotter, StL.

               

6

Aug.

17

 

0

4

Away

Johnny Rigney, Chi.

               

7

Aug.

19

 

0

3

Away

John Whitehead, Chi.

               

8

Aug.

19

 

3

6

Away

Merritt Cain, Chi.

               

9

Aug.

22

(1)

0

8

Away

Ed Baecht, StL.

               

10

Aug.

22

(2)

0

9

Away

Bill Trotter, StL.

               

11

Aug.

24

(1)

0

4

Home

Harry Kelley, Phil.

               

12

Aug.

24

(1)

0

8

Home

Harry Kelley, Phil.

               

13

Aug.

24

(2)

0

3

Home

Lynn Nelson, Phil.

               

14

Aug.

25

 

2

2

Home

George Caster, Phil.

               

15

Aug.

27

 

2

1

Home

Jack Wilson, Bos.

               

16

Aug.

30

 

0

1

Home

Lefty Gomez, N. Y.

               

17

Aug.

31

 

2

1

Home

Pete Appleton, Wash.

               

18

Aug.

31

 

2

6

Home

Pete Appleton, Wash.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved