Dick Wakefield holds a special place in baseball history. He was the game’s first bonus baby when the Tigers signed him in 1941. He enjoyed two successful seasons before World War II stole him twice. When he returned, Wakefield struggled to regain his old form. He remained a Tiger until 1949 and retired a Giant in 1952.
Howard Wakefield played major league baseball for three seasons ending in 1907. Decades later, his son, Dick, caught the eyes of scouts while playing at the University of Michigan. Several teams vied for the college prodigy including the Tigers. Eventually, Walter Briggs offered Wakefield a $52,000 signing bonus and new car to sign with Detroit. Briggs had created the first bonus baby in major league history and set in motion events that eventually led to today's multimillion dollar athletes.
The money brought press attention. Wakefield might have been the first high priced unproven athlete to receive public ire. The 20-year-old developed a reputation as a big spending lazy player. He played seven big league games in 1941 before being shipped to the minors. Wakefield went only 1-for-7 in the stint.
The rookie returned in 1943 with a vengeance. The 22-year-old matured in the minors and developed into an all-star. In fact, he started the All-Star game in left field for the American League and had two hits. In 1943, Wakefield led the league in games (155), at bats (633), hits (200), and doubles (38). He also hit .316 with a .377 OBP and .811 OPS. Then, the navy snatched the bonus baby for much of 1944.
The military released Wakefield in July and the sophomore went on a tear. He hit .355 with 12 home runs and 53 RBI in just 78 games. On top of this, he slugged .564, had a .464 OBP, and an amazing 1.040 OPS. The Tigers just missed the pennant in 1944. If Wakefield had not missed several months to the military, perhaps they would have faced the Cardinals in the World Series.
Detroit managed to win the 1945 World Series without Wakefield. The navy recalled the Tiger to service for the 1945 season. As a result, he missed the seven game victory over the Cubs and championship celebration. Wakefield returned in 1946 a different player. He mysteriously lost his stroke. Perhaps his slump had to do with the influx of major leaguers returning from the war. He also played in fewer games, which might have hurt his career. Whatever the cause, he never hit .300 again. From 1946-48, he appeared in only 111,112, and 110 games and hit just .268, .283, and .276. He became the most unpopular man in Detroit.
Tiger management, fans, and players despised Wakefield. Mrs. Briggs loved him and occasionally brought him to the park in a limousine. As a result of this relationship, players resented Wakefield. In the end, Tiger fans booed him mercilessly. Mrs. Briggs could protect Wakefield from everyone except the city of Detroit. When his average dipped to .206 in 1949, the Tigers dealt the former bonus baby to the Yankees. He played in only six more major league games in 1950 and 1952.
Dick Wakefield’s rise and fall is amazing. He was baseball’s first bonus baby, had amazing rookie and sophomore campaigns, and then became, at best, average. His relationship with ownership and flaunting of wealth angered his teammates and alienated Wakefield from fans. When he fell from grace, he was banished from Detroit and retired six games later.