So, I have this friend everyone calls “Ghost.” We call him that because he has this tendency to just sort of disappear. It’s strange. You will be talking to him, turn around for a second, and he’s gone. You will be working in the chair next to him, and you turn to ask him a question and he’s not there. Then, you turn again, and he’s sitting there. Odd.
Ghost will tell you he always had this elusive quality. Once when he went on a family vacation, he went to the rest room at a gas station and when he came out, his parents had gone. They did not come back for more than an hour. It was at least 30 minutes down the road before they realized he wasn’t sitting in the back seat.
“What did you do?” I asked him.
“I sat down on the curb and waited,” he said. “I knew they’d be back.”
Whatever this trait is — this ability to dissolve into the background — Charlie Gehringer had it in abundance. Gehringer hit .324/.404/.480 in his long career and was a brilliant defensive second baseman for some great teams. And yet, whenever anyone remembered him, they could not help but reflect on how easy it was to overlook him.
“You wind him up on Opening Day,” his teammate Doc Cramer said, “and forget him.”
“He’d say hello at the start of spring training and goodbye at the end of the season,” Ty Cobb said. “And the rest of the time he’d let his bat and glove do all the talking.”
They called him “The Mechanical Man” for his astonishing consistency. “He’s in a rut,” Lefty Gomez said about him, “he goes two-for-five on Opening Day and stays that way all season. But it’s likely his nickname stuck not only because of regularity but because of the unemotional way he played. He almost never spoke. He almost never smiled. He almost never showed anything resembling frustration or surprise or joy. Gehringer told a great story about his days when he played baseball at Michigan. Ray Fisher* was the coach then, and at one point he pulled Gehringer aside at practice and told him, “Don’t get too excited about this game.”
To which Gehringer replied: “Don’t worry. I won’t.”
*This is an aside but interesting: Ray Fisher is one of only a handful of players to be reinstated after being permanently banned from baseball. He was a pretty good pitcher during the final years of Deadball. He was banned in 1921. The story is a bit confusing. He had reluctantly signed a contract with the Reds (for $1,000 less than he made the year before). During the season, he was unhappy and he applied to be baseball coach at Michigan — he apparently wanted to spend more time at home with his family. He would always say Cincinnati manager Pat Moran gave him permission him to interview.
Fisher was offered the job, and the Reds tried to keep him by offering him the grand they’d cut from his salary to stay. He took the Michigan job anyway. The Reds apparently had the league him on the ineligible list based on a technicality — he gave them only seven days of notice. He was required to give them 10. When Moran was interviewed by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, he said he had not given Fisher permission. Landis confirmed the lifetime ban.
It didn’t matter too much because Fisher stayed as coach at Michigan for almost 40 years (he actually coached Gerald Ford while working with the football team). But Fisher was on the permanent ineligible list for 60 years before finally being taken off without fanfare in the 1980s.
Charlie Gehringer grew upon a farm just outside Fowlerville, Michigan, a small village in the wide area between Detroit and Lansing. He would say that his parents realized when he was young that Charlie was not cut out for the farm. So — and this is quite different from many of these great baseball stories where the son has to rebel against his parents — Gehringer’s parents actually encouraged him to go to college and explore the world.
Gehringer had been a pitcher in high school and he said that he did not even letter in baseball in college. But he did play recreationally a lot. He would say that — through a friend of a friend — he was able to get a tryout with the Tigers. Those were different days when a player could get an actual tryout with the big league club. Cobb managed the Tigers then and he saw something in Gehringer he liked. The Tigers signed him that day. He played a couple of minor league years in Canada and then as a 23-year-old he became the Tigers every day second baseman in 1926. He would be the Tigers second baseman for the next 16 years.
Bill James has made this excellent point: There might not be a player in baseball history who IMPROVED as steadily and as often as Charlie Gehringer.
As a rookie, Gehringer hit .277 with a .322 on-base percentage and a .399 slugging percentage. He was a shaky fielder without great range.
The next year, his batting average jumped 40 points and his walks almost doubled.
In Year 3, he hit .320/.395/.451 and finished eighth in the MVP voting.
In Year 4, he led the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples and stolen bases. In Year 5, he more or less repeated himself.
As a 30-year-old, he scored 100 runs, hit .325 and, by the numbers, emerged into not just a good defensive second baseman but a fantastic one. The jump of the defensive numbers for Gehringer after he turned 30 is quite jolting.
At 31, he hit a career-high .356, led the league with 134 runs scored, had a career-high 127 RBIs and continued his otherworldly defense. He led the Tigers to their first World Series since 1909. The next year, the Tigers won their first ever World Series. Gehringer hit .330/.409/.502 with 123 runs and 108 RBIs.
At 33, he hit 60 doubles and slugged a career-high .555.
And then — only then — did he have his MVP season when he hit .371, scored 133 runs and slugged .520.
Gehringer was a famously quiet man. Leo Durocher once wrote, after Gehringer supposedly missed a tag on Dizzy Dean in the World Series, that he “hadn’t missed a tag or said a word in 15 years.” Gehringer lived with his mother throughout his career — she was diabetic and he took care of her. He and his mother would go to mass together every morning. He was utterly devoted to family. On the day he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1949, he was in San Francisco instead preparing for his wedding.
Then, he would not have wanted to give that speech anyway. There are countless great stories about how muted Gehringer was. One of my favorites is that time he showed up at a banquet to speak. He reportedly stood up and said, “I’m known around baseball as saying very little. I’m not going to spoil my reputation. And he sat down.
Gehringer, though, would sometimes say his reputation was overstated.
“It’s not true,” he said. “If somebody asked me a question, I would answer them. If they said, ‘Pass the salt,’ I would pass the salt.