A star athlete in small-town Kansas in the late 1920s, a college All-American in baseball, basketball, and football, a successful businessman for three decades, an avid golfer who has scored three holes in one, and one of the last living hurlers to pitch to Base Ruth, Elden LeRoy Auker-happily married for almost seventy years - consistently is a classy example of the men who made baseball into the national pastime before World War II.
Despite great success in collegiate athletics, when Auker
graduated in June 1932 with a degree in Pre-Medical, he aspired to be a medical doctor. But in the third year of the Great Depression, he had no funds for medical school. Auker
had no choice but to earn a living. After thinking over opportunities to play professional football and baseball, he signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers.
The sidearming right-hander, who lost only two ball games in three seasons of hurling for Kansas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Kansas State University), first gave up a $6,000 offer to play for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League.
made the best choice: after ten years in the big leagues, he retired a winner in many ways, including a lifetime record of 130-101 with an ERA of 4.42.
Despite never being selected for the All-Star game, Elden
won one game for Detroit in the 1934 World Series
against the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1935 fall classic against the Chicago Cubs, he pitched the first six innings of game three, before giving way to a pinch-hitter. Detroit won that game in the eleventh, 6-5.
The Tigers lost the 1934 World Series
in seven games, but a poor umpire's call in game six proved to be the turning point. In 1935, however, Detroit won the championship in six games, earning Elden
and his teammates the coveted World Series rings.
was an important part of both Tiger ball clubs. In 1934, his second big league season, he finished with a ledger of 15-7 and a 3.42 ERA. Topping that performance in 1935, he led the American League in winning percentage with an 18-7 record and a 3.83 ERA.
By then he had given up his dream of being a doctor. But baseball was never his life. Instead, he saw it as a way to use his talent and earn a good living.
"I went to the Tigers in 1933, and we won the pennant in '34 and another in '35," Elden
recalled. "I was making money, and I was tied up in baseball, and the season ran up to the World Series in October. So I didn't get back to med school, which was probably a good thing. I probably would have lost all my patients!"
Born on September 21, 1910, the rangy, talented, ambitious youth grew up in Norcatur, a town of 250 people in northwestern Kansas. Whenever possible, he played baseball with his buddies. Later, after occasionally subbing for his father, who delivered the rural mail on horseback, Elden
figured athletics offered his ticket to a better life. In high school he became a star in the only two sports offered, football and basketball.
Thanks to scoring nine of his team's 10 points in a basketball tournament officiated by a Kansas A&M alumnus, Auker
was persuaded to attend what is now Kansas State. But there were no scholarships in those days.
"They said, 'If you'll come down and play basketball, we'll get you a job.'" Elden
explained. "They got me a job working in a drugstore. I had to sweep the drugstore out, and mop it every morning, and clean out the soda fountain. I earned a dollar a day.
"I got up at five o'clock every morning for four years to do that. The first year I worked, I received a dollar a day, and the last year I worked I received a dollar a day!
"But that put me through school. I could eat breakfast in those days for 15 cents, and buy lunch for 20-25 cents. A big dinner cost 35-40 cents.
"Then I joined Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity. Later, I became president, and the president got free room and board. They gave that as an honor for being president."
Auker, bright, witty, and hard-working, graduated with good grades and a degree in Pre-Medical (or Physical Education). He also developed into an outstanding all-around athlete, earning All-Big Six honors as a football quarterback, a basketball guard, and a baseball pitcher.
In 1969 former KSU President James McCain called Auker
"the greatest athlete in Kansas State history."
magazine named him All-American in all three sports. Also, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice selected Auker as a football All-American.
At first Elden
figured football would offer the best opportunity. But when he went to Detroit and met with Tiger owner Frank Navin, he was told to make a choice. The Tigers would spend no money if the college grad believed he could play for the Chicago Bears at $500 per game. Given a few minutes by himself to decide, Auker
decided that Detroit was building a young club, and he had a good chance to play ball.
After signing a contract for $450 a month, he was sent to Decatur in the class B Three-Eye League. At that time Auker
was throwing sidearm. He had suffered two football injuries, separating his shoulder as a sophomore and again as a junior.
was the manager down there," he recollected. " Bob
said to me, 'Did you ever try to throw underhand? If you're going to be a major league pitcher, you're going to have trouble throwing sidearm. That plate's only 17 inches wide, and you're trying to hit it from sixty feet and six inches. Not too many pitchers can get it over from there, not consistently.'"
to give underhand pitching a shot.
"So I worked on it for about five or six days in batting practice, throwing underhanded. I would bend at the waist and deliver the ball from underneath. My fastball was a natural sinker, and my curve broke up and away from a right-handed batter.
"Quincy was leading the league. They came to town, and Coleman
said, 'Elden, I'm going to start you against Quincy, and you're going to pitch nine innings. I don't give a damn if you walk everybody in the ballpark, or how many hits they get off of you. But I want you to throw no way except directly underhand, just like you have been throwing.'
"I did, and they got one hit off me. I struck out twelve or fourteen, and we beat them, 1-0. And I never threw a ball another way. I threw that way for the next ten years."
quipped, "I found an underhand way to make a living!"
Big and strong at 6'2" and 200 pounds, the smooth-throwing Auker
developed the motion used by former pitcher Carl Mays. Coleman
had caught Mays, whose unorthodox delivery helped him win 208 games from 1915 through the Roaring Twenties.
knuckles used to graze the ground when he delivered the ball," recalled fireballer Virgil Trucks.
After his first win, Auker's
control was often erratic. He lost six games in a row. On July 14, in the midst of the Depression, the Three-I League went bankrupt. The Tigers shifted Elden
and teammate Claude Passeau
to class D Moline of the Mississippi Valley League. Auker
compiled a 6-6 record and a 2.94 ERA, good figures for a "recruit," as rookies used to be called.
In 1933 the Tigers promoted the submariner to Beaumont in the Texas League. Toiling in the humid heat of south Texas, Elden
went 16-10 and 2.50 in 31 games for the Exporters. By mid-July, when Detroit needed more pitching, Auker
got the call.
On August 10 the rookie pitched in the first big league game he ever saw - but Detroit lost at Chicago, 6-3. Auker
relieved Carl Fischer
in the fifth with the White Sox ahead, 4-2, and he finished the game. Elden
didn't get a decision, but he singled in his only at-bat.
Elden, who was married in 1933, asked his wife Mildred to drive from Kansas to Comiskey Park to see the ball game. Mildred recalled packing all their possessions into the car, making the drive, picking up the ballpark passes, finding her way to the box seat behind first base, and watching the game while sitting next to an older gentleman. She tried to chat with him, but the white-haired man was watching the game too intently for conversation.
After the game, Elden
told his wife, "That was Judge Landis, the baseball commissioner, who sat in that box with you!"
Altogether in 1933, Auker
compiled a 3-3 record and a 5.24 ERA. Working in 15 games, he started six times and completed two.
Beginning the following year, Auker
produced nine solid seasons, winning 127 more games, losing 98, and completing 124. His lifetime complete-game figure of 126 is both a mark of his excellence on the mound and a reflection of the game as it used to be played, before relief pitching became a specialty in the 1950s.
second season, future Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane
became Detroit's playing manager. He was a fiery field general who led the Tigers to two straight pennants.
Asked what difference Cochrane
made in the Tigers, Auker
said, "He made all the difference in the world." The right-hander explained that Mickey
was a great catcher, and he also knew how to handle his men.
"He let you call your own game. If you didn't like a call he wanted you to shake it off. Mickey
said to throw the pitch you wanted to throw.
"He had a young pitching staff, Schoolboy Rowe, and Tommy Bridges, and myself. Mickey
was instrumental in handling us the right way. He inspired the team. He was the best catcher in baseball at that time."
told us we could win the pennant in the spring, and we didn't know any different, because none of us had ever been in a pennant race and a World Series."
Detroit fashioned a 101-53 record and finished seven games ahead of the New York Yankees. But in October against the St. Louis Cardinals of "Gashouse Gang" fame, the Tigers lost in seven games, after winning three of the first five. Paul Dean
outdueled Schoolboy Rowe
in the sixth game, and the Cards won, 4-3.
Asked about that controversial afternoon, Auker
said: "We shouldn't have gone to the seventh game. There's a picture from that game taken in about the seventh inning. The picture shows Mickey Cochrane
sliding in to third base, and 'Pepper' Martin's
got his arms outstretched to catch the ball, and the ball is about three feet away.
"Brick Owen, the umpire, had his hand up in the air, calling Cochrane
out. That would have been the winning run."
said, "But it went to the seventh game against Dizzy Dean. We played the game in Detroit, and I started the ball game. I went to about the third inning. I got the bases loaded, and Frankie Frisch
was at bat with had two men out. Frankie
fouled off four or five pitches. Finally, he hit a little clunker over Greenberg's
touched the ball, but he didn't quite catch it.
"A run scored, and they ended up scoring seven runs in that inning, after two men were out. The ball game just broke wide open. And Diz
shut us out, 11-0.
"That's when they had the fight at third base, and the fans threw the fruit and stuff in the outfield. That one inning lasted something like an hour and fifteen minutes."
But in the 1935 World Series, the pennant-winning Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs.
"I didn't win in the Series with Chicago," he reminisced. "I was due to pitch the seventh game, but we ended it in six.
"We won the [third] game that I pitched in Chicago. Bill Lee
started for Chicago. I was taken out for a pinch-hitter in the sixth or seventh inning.
"We had the bases loaded, and pinch-hitter Gerald Walker
was at bat with one out. Walker hit into a double play. He had pinch-hit many times all year and hadn't hit into a double play. But he hit into a double play that particular time.
"Still, we won the ball game in the eleventh inning."
With the franchise's first World Series victory under their belts, the Tigers expected to win their third straight pennant in 1936. Instead, fate intervened. Slugging first baseman Hank Greenberg, who hit .328 with 36 home runs and 170 RBI in 1935, broke his wrist sliding into home in the season's twelfth game. Hank
was hitting .348 at the time. Detroit never found a first-class replacement.
Equally important, Mickey Cochrane, the heart of the club during Detroit's two first-place seasons, suffered a nervous breakdown due to the twin pressures of playing and managing. He spent the middle of the season recovering at a ranch in Wyoming. Mickey
returned in September and fired up his club. But Detroit, after nudging out Chicago and Washington to finish in second place, remained nineteen and a half games behind the powerful Yankees.
The Bengals hit .300 as a team. Splendid second sacker Charley Gehringer
led the club with a .354 mark. But without Cochrane
behind the plate, the staff ERA ballooned to 5.00.
Two pitchers stood out: Tommy Bridges
topped Detroit with a record of 23-11 and an ERA of 3.60. But no other hurler's ERA was below 4.00. Schoolboy Rowe
went 19-10 and 4.52, but he suffered arm problems for much of the season.
endured an off-year. After winning 33 games and losing only 14 in two seasons, he slipped to 13-16 with an ERA of 4.90. But he enjoyed a good year the bat, hitting .308 (24-for-78), despite the fact that he was a career .187 hitter.
The rubber-armed Kansas great contributed two more good seasons to the Tigers. He went 17-9 in 1937, while slugging three of his six career home runs, and he was 11-10 in 1938.
But Cochrane, struck in the head by a pitched ball during a Yankee game, almost died in 1937. Mickey
never caught another game. Also, Rowe
suffered arm problems and went home with a 1-4 mark. Bridges
remained the workhorses. Again, after Cochrane
returned as pilot in September, Detroit climbed to second behind New York.
was tough to hit because of his delivery, remembered Russ Peters, an infielder for the Athletics and the Indians. "Auker
would come down, and he come from way down under there, and that ball would dive. He'd throw a curve, and it would rise."
Nineteen thirty-eight was highlighted for Detroit fans by Hank Greenberg's
pursuit of Babe Ruth's
60-homer record. Big Henry
fell short, hammering 58 round-trippers. Still, the Tigers struggled and ended up in fourth, after Cochrane
(47-51) was fired and replaced by former interim manager and coach Del Baker
monster season, which included a .315 average and 175 RBI, obscured Detroit's decline in hitting. The Tigers averaged .272 as a club, ranking seventh in the league.
starts declined to 12 because he suffered two injuries. After Luke Appling
hit him in the foot with a line drive, Elden
missed six weeks. Later, another liner hit him in the calf and severed a sciatic nerve.
Detroit paced the league in defense for the fifth straight year, but the up-and-down Tiger season is suggested by Bridges'
led the pitching staff with a 13-9 record, but his ERA was 4.59, not much better than the team's 4.79 mark.
In 1939 Detroit made a major trade. Marv Owen
had retired. Needing a third baseman, the Tigers swapped Auker
pitcher Jake Wade, and outfielder Chet Morgan
to the Boston Red Sox, who believed they needed one good pitcher to win the pennant. Detroit received third sacker Pinky Higgins
and pitcher Archie McKain.
didn't enjoy playing ball in Beantown like he did in Detroit. His record slipped to 9-10.
was the manager. He was a playing manager and a nervous fellow. Joe played shortstop. I'd been in the league for six years. Every time I walked on the pitcher's mound to pitch a ball game, he spent most of his time out on the mound telling me how to pitch. He'd say, 'Don't give him anything good to hit, but don't walk him.'
"Personally, I liked Joe, but I just couldn't pitch for him. Then I learned he was signaling the pitches to the catcher from shortstop. I just had to pitch my own game.
"One day we were playing the Yankees. I'd pitched eight or ten games. Joe
was out there, and he kept me upset and distracted by running back and forth between the shortstop and pitcher's mound.
"Finally, about the third inning, I was working against Lefty Gomez, and Joe
came running out. He'd been on the mound about fifteen times in the first three innings.
"This time I walked off the mound. I took the ball and said, 'Here, Joe. You pitch the game and I'll play shortstop. How about that?'
"I didn't pitch again for 27 days!"
made lasting friends with many of his new teammates, including Jimmy Foxx
(his roommate), Bobby Doerr, and star rookie Ted Williams.
had a lot of fun in those days. He liked to play jokes on his teammates. He was always happy. But Ted
studied the game. He studied pitchers to see what pitches they would throw in a given situation. In the outfield, Ted
studied hitters, and he had an instinct for where to play the batter.
and I are still good friends."
After the season, Auker, always forthright, told Bosox owner Tom Yawkey that if the Sox didn't trade him, he would retire from the game. Several weeks later Elden
got a call from manager Fred Haney of the St. Louis Browns. Haney asked if Auker
would pitch for the Browns. He agreed. On February 8, 1940, Boston sold his contract to St. Louis.
reminisced, "I think they paid $30,000 and a couple of old baseballs for me!
"I spent three very enjoyable years with the Browns. That was a great place to play. Fred Haney
was a great manager and a great guy to play for. Don Barnes was the owner. He and Fred
were just the greatest guys in the world to play for.
"I stayed there until after the war started. At the end of the 1942 season, I told Don Barnes I was quitting. By then I was spending a lot of time working in the war effort."
In fact, Auker
led the Brownie staff in wins for the first two of his three years in St. Louis. He finished with records of 16-11 in 1940, 14-15 in '41, and 14-13 in '42.
Sixth place finishers in 1940 and 1941, the Browns climbed to third place in Auker's
final season. Johnny Niggeling, who enjoyed his best year, led the moundsmen with marks of 15-11 and 2.66.
Years later, Auker
was inducted into the Browns' Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame and the KSU Hall of Fame.
In the 1938 offseason, Elden
started working for Mid-West Abrasives in Detroit. He learned engineering and sales. In the winter of 1940, he worked on the stones used to hone the insides of barrels of 20 millimeter cannons for American planes and 40 millimeter anti-aircraft cannons for American ships.
Retiring from baseball after the '42 season, he spent the war years working on airplane and naval guns for 27 arsenals. In 1946 he joined Bay State Abrasives. In 1953 the company sent him to Massachusetts to become general sales manager. He was named chief executive officer in 1969. By the time he retired in 1975, he was president of the company. During those years he was active in a numerous business and civic organizations.
Amid his traveling, golfing (he's proud of his three career holes-in-one), and family activities, Elden
finds time to talk about old-time baseball (he was interviewed by National Public Radio in November 2000) and signing autographs. Despite becoming a millionaire businessman, he's proud of his big league pitching career. Among other feats, he led the AL in winning percentage in 1935 and he won a World Series ring that fall.
But more than accomplishments, the Kansas State All-American enjoyed the camaraderie of teammates such as Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Tommy Bridges
(his roommate in Detroit), Ray Hayworth, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams, Johnny Allen, and Rick Ferrell, to name a few. Elden
made friendships that lasted for decades — long after he threw his last strike.
In fact, on dirt and grass diamonds of six decades ago, when they used to play the game in the afternoon, Elden Auker
- who once dreamed of being a doctor — instead lived another boyhood dream. He became one of the best pitchers in the American League.