Tuesday, February 08, 2005

 

February 8th, 1940

Elden Auker Sold to St. Louis Browns

Many players whose careers are seemingly ordinary are often ignored in baseball history on the theory that there is nothing of note about them. Elden Auker was a pitcher in the 30s and 40s and is an example of this being plainly untrue. Almost every major leaguer (and most minor-leaguers, too I imagine) have some interesting story. Elden Auker's is a particularly vivid example of this.

Auker was born in 1910 but his story really starts in high school when he became a football and basketball star after deciding the life of his father--a mailman who made his deliveries on horseback--was not for him and hoped to use sports to find a better way of life. His mission succeeded. While scoring nine of his team's ten points in a basketball game (basketball was a bit different back then) he was noticed by the official who was an alumnus of Kansas A&M (it has since become Kansas State
). Auker went to Kansas A&M and matured into a three-sport star, earning All-American honors at basketball, football and baseball as a pitcher. He was inducted in the KSU Hall of Fame and called the "greatest all-athlete in Kansas State history" by the University's President. Auker's only real trouble at Kansas A&M was a separated shoulder, an injury he suffered in both in his sophomore and junior years while playing football, which forced him to drop his pitching arm to a sidearm style.

Auker graduated from A&M with a pre-medical degree, and dreams of being a doctor rather than a moundsman. However, Auker had no money to pay for medical school (he had a job cleaning a diner while at A&M that earned him a dollar a day) and in the depression could not find work to earn the funds. Auker originally looked into playing football, but ended up meeting with Tigers' owner Frank Navin and signing a contract for $450 per month. He was assigned to Class B (what we would now call "high A") Decatur
where his manager was Bob Coleman, a catcher in the teens, who would later replace Casey Stengel as manager of the Boston Braves. Coleman suggested that Auker drop from his sidearm to an even lower submarine style, inspired by Carl Mays. Auker won his first game with the new style, but went to lose six straight, suffering from control problems from his new angle.

The Triple-I league, of which
Decatur was a member, then folded (this being the depression and all), and the Tigers demoted Auker to Class D (what we would call "short season A") Moline, where he improved going 6-6 with a 2.94 ERA. In 1933 Auker went to Beaumont of the Texas League and went 16-10 with a 2.50 ERA, good enough to merit a call-up to the Tigers. Auker--who like many rookies in those days--saw his first Major League game when he arrived at Comiskey Park on August 10th--pitched in his first appearance in relief of Carl Fischer. Auker had asked his wife, Mildred to come to the game. She drove from Kansas to Chicago and sat in a box with a white-haired old man, whose concentration on the game was too intense to manage conversation. After the game Mr. Auker revealed to her wife just who she watched the game with. Auker's debut also put him into exclusive company, one of just a handful of pitchers to have thrown submarine style in the Major Leagues.

Auker had his best season for new manager (and catcher) Mickey Cochrane in 1934, going 15-7 with a 3.42 ERA in 43 games (18 starts, including 10 complete games) as the Tigers, who had gone 75-79 in 1933 went 101-53 and won the pennant. Their opponents in the Series were the St. Louis Cardinals, just as the Cards' ace had predicted. The Tigers won three of the first five games, including Auker pitching a complete game in Game 4. They lost Game 6 and Auker would start Game 7. He pitched a scoreless first two frames, but then loaded the bases in the third. Frankie Frisch came up and hit what Auker described as a "little clunker over [first baseman's Hank] Greenberg's head." Auker's memory was either off or the ball was perfectly placed as it emptied the bases and Frisch ended up at second base. He was pulled for Schoolboy Rowe who had pitched a complete game in a losing effort the day before. Rowe was ineffective and was replaced by Chief Hogsett after recording just one out. Hogsett was equally ineffective failing to record the inning's third out and it was not until Tommy Bridges (who had started Game 5) came in that the Tigers got out of the inning, down seven runs. They would go onto to lose the game 11-0.

The Tigers would recover to win 93 games and the pennant again in 1935, with Auker joining the starting rotation and going 18-7, 3.83 in thirty-six games (26 starts, including 13 complete games). Auker started Game 3 at Wrigley Field against the Cubs and pitched six innings, leaving down 3-1 in a game the Tigers would go on to win 6-5 in 11 innings. He was scheduled to once again start Game 7 but the Tigers won in six games.

The Tigers would slump to 83 wins in 1936, good enough for second place but miles behind the 102-win Yankees. Auker failed to hold his form of the year before, going 13-16 with a 4.89 ERA. The Tigers increased their win total to 89 games in 1937 but were still not in shouting distance of the Yankees who again 102 games. Auker rebounded going 17-9 with a team-leading 3.88 ERA. The next season however, he was limited to fewer than 30 games for the first time since his rookie year when he suffered a pair of injuries. He was hit on the foot by a Luke Appling line drive and after recovering from that, suffered a severed sciatic nerve after a line drive hit him in the calf. Probably trying to pitch through the injuries, Auker went just 11-10 with a 5.27 ERA.

The Tigers then traded Auker to the Red Sox where he suffered through another bad season, going 9-10 with a 5.36 ERA. Auker suffered more than just poor numbers however, he found Red Sox shortstop-manager Joe Cronin intolerable, especially Cronin's habit of constant mound visits and shouting instructions from his position. After the season Auker told Sox owner Tom Yawkey that would not play for the team again and was sold, on February 8th, to the St. Louis Browns. It's possible Yawkey (or Cronin or both) saw this as punishment; the Browns had been terrible losing an average of more than 100 games the previous four seasons, including 111 the season before. Auker was just happy to be rid of Cronin however, and managed his best season since 1937, going 16-11 with a 3.96 ERA as the Browns improved to 67-87 and leapfrogged two spots out of the basement. In 1940 the Browns improved further to 70-84, despite the backtracking of Auker who still managed to go 16-11 despite a career-worst 5.50 ERA.

Auker's pitched his last season in 1942. The Browns, with new manager Luke Sewell (brother of Joe), finished over .500 for the first time since 1925 good enough for third place. Auker went 14-13 with a 4.09 ERA. He finished his career 130-101 and a 4.42 ERA, having finished in the top ten in wins six times in his ten full seasons.

Auker had been working for an engineering company since the off season of 1938 and retired in order to concentrate fully on working on the
US war effort. He worked in a factory helping build guns for planes and ships. After the war he continued working for Bay State Abrasives and when he retired in 1975 was both President and CEO, and a millionaire. Auker is still with us at age ninety-four.

Elden Auker, would-be doctor, member of the KSU Hall of Fame, in rare company as a submariner, World Champion, factory worker during the war, millionaire businessman and finally retiree is quite literally living proof that one need not be Bob Feller or Derek Jeter to have a story worth telling.




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