On August 4, 1937, the Detroit Tigers were stuck in a five game losing streak and suffering from a shortage of healthy players. With all their regular catchers injured, manager Mickey Cochrane decided to try Rudy York, the rookie without a position, as the starting catcher. Little did anybody know that this would be the start of one of the most remarkable stretches for any player in the history of baseball. This article will cover the events leading up to that month and his performance during the month in detail.
Preston Rudolph York was born on August 17, 1913 in Ragland, Alabama. When he was very young, his family moved to a small mill town outside of Cartersville, Georgia. He left school in the third grade to support his family working at the American Textile Company (ATCO). He was playing for ATCO's baseball team by the age of 13 and more than held his own against much older players.
He signed to play professionally at the age of 17 with Knoxville of the Southern Association but saw very little action. In 1933, at the age of 19, he signed with the Tigers and they assigned him to Shreveport of the Dixie League. He advanced through their system playing almost every position on the field finally getting established as a first baseman in 1935. He had his major league debut with the Tigers in 1934 but lasted only six at bats before he returned to the minors for more seasoning. He was the league MVP in 1935 (Texas League) and 1936 (American Association). He returned to the Tigers in 1937.
He was part American Indian, and playing in an era adverse to cultural diversity, this was a challenge at times. He was very proud of his heritage though and he said this about his background: "They say in that record book that I'm Indian-Irish, but there is durn little Irish in me. I'm a Cherokee Indian, and I'm proud of it. Of course when I was in the big Leagues that didn't help me out much. Any time an Indian puts on a baseball uniform, he's twice an interesting character as the other fellow."
For the period in which he played, York was very big (6-1, 209 lbs.) and the Tigers were excited about his power potential. However, he was primarily a first baseman, a position held by future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. According to York, this left him as "a man without a position." Red Smith observed that, "No matter where York was stationed in the field, he always played the same position - at bat." He was actually quite adequate as a first baseman though and his main obstacle was Greenberg. He began the 1937 season at third base but, after struggling both offensively and defensively, was replaced by light hitting veteran Marv Owen. The Tigers sent York to Toledo in early June but he returned a little later in the month when Owen broke his hand. His hitting improved this time around but he lost his starting job once again when Owen became healthy. York was batting just .255 but had 12 home runs and 41 RBI in only 167 at bats through July.
Finally, his break came in August. After player manager Mickey Cochrane had gone down with a career ending injury early in the season, Birdie Tebbetts held down the catching position through much of the first half. However, with Tebbetts and backups Cliff Bolton and Ray Hayworth all injured, York became the starting catcher August 4 in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. York responded to the opportunity by going two for five with a three run home run and four RBI. His performance helped the Tigers to an 11-7 victory ending their five game losing streak.
He would start every game except one at catcher for the rest of the month. York continued to hit getting a single and a double on August 5 versus the Athletics and hitting his second home run of the month on August 6 in a 10-3 victory versus the Washington Senators. He solidified his status as starting catcher by playing both ends of a double header on August 7. The Tigers won the first game 3-2 on a three run blast by York in the 7th inning. His fourth home run of August came on the 8th day of the month in a 5-1 win over the Senators.
He was quiet for a few games but then hit his fifth homer of the month in the second game of a crazy doubleheader sweep over the St. Louis Browns on August 14. The Tigers pounded out 40 hits including 8 home runs in 16-1 and 20-7 routs of the Browns. Charlie Gehringer, Pete Fox and Gee Walker paced the Tiger attack with seven hits apiece. The headline in the next day's Washington Post said: "Tigers Hand the Browns 2 Wallopings".
On August 17, York celebrated his 24th birthday by going four for five with a triple, a homer and three RBI in an 11-7 slugfest win over the Chicago White Sox. He kept up his torrid pace going three for four with two home runs and six RBI on August 19 as the Tigers routed the White Sox 12-4. He now had eight home runs and 27 RBI for the month but the best was yet to come.
He added another home run in the first game of a doubleheader sweep of the Browns on the August 22. In the second game of the twin bill, he did not start for the first time in 20 games. York rested and Bolton started in his place. However, this did not prevent York from smashing his 10th home run of the month. His pinch hit blast in the 9th inning ignited a two run rally which tied the game. The Tigers went on to win it in the 10th inning.
There would be no more resting of York. He started both games of a doubleheader on August 24 against the Athletics. In game one, he went two for four with a pair of solo home runs in a 6-3 victory. It was the 10th game that month that York had hit at least one home run and the Tigers had won all 10 games. The Tigers lost the second game 9-8 but it was not York's fault. He had three more hits including a double and a homer and knocked in three runs.
He continued to punish Athletic pitching the next day going three for four with a home run and five RBI in a 10-4 romp. This gave him 6 homers and 12 RBI in five games. It also gave him 14 home runs and 39 RBI for the month. He was far from done though.
Home run number 15 was a three run shot in the first inning of an 8-5 loss to the Boston Red Sox on August 27. On August 30, his 16th homer helped to beat the New York Yankees 5-4. He was now one home run short of the all time record for a month set by Babe Ruth in September of 1927.
On the final day of the month, the Tigers faced the Senators. Washington Post writer Shirley Povich detailed the events of the day very eloquently: "The booming bat of 24 year old Rudy York, Detroit's late entry into the home run race, spoke in tones heard 'round the baseball world this afternoon as one of Babe Ruth's proudest and supposedly invincible records went crashing into discard."
Far, far over the left field fence into Cherry Street, big Rudy swatted one of Pete Appleton's pitches in the first inning to equal Ruth's record of 17 home runs. In a month which had stood up against every assault since 1927. But the 6-foot-1 inch 209-pound giant was not content, seemingly, with that feat."
"Because, a half hour later - in the sixth inning - York swung on another Appleton pitch to his liking, walloped the ball even harder over the left center field scoreboard and collected his second home run of the afternoon. That blow topped Ruth's record of 17 homers achieved during that productive September of ten years ago."
Along with his 18 homers, big Rudy batted .360 with 49 RBI (also a record at the time) for the month of August. He added 5 more home runs in September and finished the season with 35 home runs, 103 RBI, a .307 batting average and a lofty .651 slugging percentage.
York wound up playing 13 Major League seasons between 1934-1948, most of them with the Detroit Tigers. He batted .275, had an on base percentage of .362 and hit 277 home runs in 1,603 games. He hit 20 or more home runs 8 times, drove in 100 or more runs 6 times and played in seven all-star games. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1946 and later spent time with the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Athletics.
Some 68 years after his big month of August, York still holds the American League record for home runs in one month. The major league record was broken over 60 years later by Sammy Sosa who hit 20 home runs in June of 1998. Joe DiMaggio drove in 53 runs in August of 1939 to break the record for RBI in one month.
Besides the fact that the record has stood for 68 years, there are a few factors making York's feat even more remarkable. First, he played in an era not dominated by the long ball as it is today. Add to that the idea that he was a rookie without a regular job prior to the month and did not start the first three games of the month. He was also an inexperienced catcher forced to play the demanding position 28 games in 28 days including four doubleheaders. It was truly one of the most unbelievable months in the history of the game, a month that should receive more recognition as a significant part of the rich history of the Detroit Tigers.