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100 greatest Tigers #44: Rudy York

Rudy York enjoyed a solid Tiger career.

One sportswriter cracked that Rudy York was “part Indian and part first baseman.” York was 1/8th Cherokee and had difficulties in the field. In response to his difficulties, the Tigers moved York to first base. Detroit had to find a place for him since the catcher-turned-infielder was a feared slugger. His bat led to a decade long Detroit tenure that culminated in a great Tiger career, two pennants, and one amazing month.

The Tigers discovered York in 1933 and he joined the big club for three games in 1934. Detroit kept York active for the World Series, but he did not play. He spent the next two seasons in the minors where he excelled. York won the MVP award for 1935 Texas League and the 1936 American Association. Detroit decided the young man was ready for the major leagues in 1937.

Detroit struggled to find a spot for York’s bat. Hank Greenberg manned first, so they tried the rookie at third and in the outfield. Eventually, he was benched because of his lack of defensive prowess. York returned to third when Marv Owen injured his wrist. Owen returned from the injury relegating York to the bench. In early August, manager Mickey Cochrane decided to try York at catcher. Cochrane had been the starting catcher, but his playing career ended with a bean ball. The incumbent, Birdie Tebbetts, was struggling with his bat.

The rookie demonstrated amazing power in August 1937. York hit 18 home runs and knocked in 49 to break records held by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Ruth hit 17 home runs in September 1927 while Gehrig had once drove in 48 runs in a month. Overall, York hit .307 with 35 home runs, 103 RBI, and 1.026 OPS in 1937. There was no Rookie of the Year Award that season, but York would have won if it existed.

York won the starting job for 1938. He hit .298, 33 home runs, 127 RBI, and .995 OPS. Despite the success at bat, York struggled in the field. As a result, he shared catching duties with Birdie Tebbetts in 1939. In 102 games, he hit .307 with 20 home runs, 68 RBI, and .931 OPS. Detroit needed to figure out how to get his bat in the lineup full time while negating York’s stone glove.

Tiger manager Del Baker decided to play with his lineup. Tebbetts was a superior catcher, but did not have York’s bat. Baker approached Hank Greenberg about moving to left field. Greenberg agreed for the good of the team. York moved to first and Tebbetts won the starting job behind the plate. Greenberg won the AL MVP, York finished 8th, and the Tigers won the Pennant. Once again, York had an amazing season. He hit .316 with 33 home runs, 134 RBI, scored 105 runs, and posted a .993 OPS. However, he slumped to .231 in the Tigers’ World Series defeat to the Reds. Detroit did not return to the Fall Classic until 1945. World War II left York the only major offensive threat in the Tiger lineup. Between 1941 and 1944, his average dipped to .259, .260, .271, and .276. He led the league in home runs (34) and RBI (118) in 1943, but his power slumped to 18 long balls in 1944 and 1945.

The Tigers won the World Series in 1945. York hit .264 with a .745 OPS. His statistics cratered in the postseason to .179. Detroit recognized York’s decline. The first baseman finished third in the 1943 MVP vote. His average dropped from .271 to .264, home runs dipped from 34 to 18, RBI declined from 118 to 87, and his OPS fell from .893 to .745 over three campaigns. Management shipped York to Boston for Eddie Lake. It was a poor trade for the Tigers. York led the Red Sox to the World Series with dramatic hits, veteran leadership, and a career resurgence. He made two All Star teams with the Sox before being moved to the White Sox and A’s and retiring.

Rudy York was an all-time great Tiger. He appeared in five All Star games for Detroit, led the league in home runs, RBI, slugging, and was a member of the 1945 world champions. He is seventh on the Detroit all-time home run list and fourth in slugging. Overall, the slugger hit .282 with 239 home runs, 936 RBI, .873 OPS, and .503 slugging for Detroit. York hit .300 on three occasions, knocked in 100 or more runs in five seasons, and slammed 30 or more home runs four times in ten Tiger seasons.

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