Detroit Tigers owner Walter Briggs already had a reputation as a liberal spender. If anybody needed further proof, they got it on June 21, 1942. That day, the Tigers signed a 20-year old University of Michigan student, offering him a $52,000 bonus in the process. The youngster quickly went out and bought a brand-new Lincoln Zephyr, even though he didn’t know how to drive. Thus begins the story of Dick Wakefield, baseball’s first “bonus baby.”
Wakefield was from Chicago. His father, Howard Wakefield, had played in the major leagues for Cleveland and Washington from 1905 to 1907. Under the tutelage of their father, Dick and his three brothers all grew up playing baseball in the backyard of their modest frame home in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. As the boys grew bigger and outgrew the yard, Howard Wakefield decided to cut down a large tree and tear down a garage, in order to make more room. “That’s where Dick got his start,” his mother pointed out later. “Dick’s father always insisted that anything connected with baseball would be done the way he wanted it, and any fancy ideas the high school coach might have were ruled out immediately.”
While playing baseball at Michigan, Dick wanted to be a catcher, just like his dad. But Ray Fisher, his coach, switched him to the outfield. In his sophomore season as a Wolverine, Wakefield hit .382 and drove in 25 runs in 12 games, to lead his team to the Western Conference title. During the Big 10 season, Tiger scout Aloysius J. “Wish” Egan had been sniffing around Ann Arbor. However, it wasn’t until the death of Howard Wakefield early in the spring, which prompted Dick to withdraw from the university, that the Tigers decided to approach the youngster.
Detroit wasn’t the only team interested in Wakefield. He participated in practice sessions with the Tigers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, and Washington Senators. “I had eleven ball clubs on my neck,” Dick’s mother claimed. The Dodgers reportedly offered him a bonus of $40,000. Back home in Chicago, Dick mulled over the offers with his mother, who was acting as his agent. They decided to sign with Detroit.
Wakefield’s bonus was no chump change. $52,000 in 1942 would be roughly equivalent to $753,000 in 2014. This may not seem like much when we consider that today’s athletes fresh out of college are offered multi-million dollar bonuses and long-term contracts before they even play a game in the pros. But the business of baseball was on a much smaller scale in 1942. While the Tigers were indeed one of the richer teams, and Briggs himself never missed a meal, these were the days before the influx of television dollars would forever alter the financial landscape of the game. Keep in mind that the highest-paid player in baseball in 1942 was Joe DiMaggio, at $43,750. While records are incomplete and possibly inaccurate, it is likely the highest-paid Tiger was pitcher Al Benton, who raked in a cool $11,100.
“He’s not afraid of work,” Mrs. Wakefield said of her son. “He’ll do a lot of hard sweating for the Tigers.”
H.G. Salsinger of the Detroit News observed, “He’s a swell boy to meet. He’s a big, brawny kid (6”4’, 210 pounds), an outfielder who bats lefthanded and who smacks the ball a mile beyond nowhere. Green? Yes, but what a prospect! The boy has the eye, the range, the rhythm and the punch.”
Upon signing, Wakefield immediately hopped on a New York-bound train to meet up with the Tigers at Yankee Stadium. Detroit manager Del Baker didn’t insert his new prized prospect until a few days later, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. He pinch-hit against Athletics pitcher Phil Marchildon. On the first pitch he grounded out to first baseman Dick Siebert.
After that, Wakefield sat on the bench. The Tigers, acknowledging that he needed to be playing every day, sent him down to the Winston-Salem Twins of the Class B Piedmont League. He struggled at first, but despite his quiet, unassuming nature, he never lacked for confidence. A curious reporter asked him what his biggest ambition was. He replied, “I want to get up there and lead the American League in hitting.” In 55 games for the Twins, Wakefield hit an even .300 with four home runs, earning a return trip to Detroit in mid-July. He played sparingly the remainder of the way, and did not get his first big league hit until the final game of the season. It was a single off Dutch Leonard in Washington.
He spent the entire 1942 campaign with the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League, where he teamed with future Tiger Hoot Evers. Wakefield led the circuit with a .345 average, adding 44 doubles and nine home runs, while Evers checked in at .322 and led the club with 10 bombs.
Back on the big club for 1943, Wakefield proceeded to have one of the best rookie campaigns in baseball history. He led the American League in games played (155), at-bats (633), hits (200), and doubles (38). Batting in the third slot the entire year, he scored 91 runs and drove in 79. He nearly accomplished his ambition of winning a batting title: his .316 mark was second only to Luke Appling’s .328. He was the starting left fielder for the American League in the All-Star game, in which he singled and doubled in four at-bats, with an RBI. He fashioned hitting streaks of 22 and 19 games. To top it all off, he finished sixth in the league’s MVP voting. This, despite being a target of bench jockeys early in the season, who were relentless in their attempts to rattle the highly-touted 22-year-old.
But Wakefield took it all in stride. The Tigers, in fact, tried to discourage him from fraternizing with opposing players, a practice that was frowned upon in those days. His confidence sometimes bordered on cockiness. “Can I hit? Well, watch me. Can I field? Well watch me.” (The truth was, however, that he was a below-average outfielder, at best.)
Wakefield’s 1944 season was delayed while he completed pre-flight training courses as a Naval Cadet at Iowa City, Iowa. Due to the Navy’s decreased need for flyers, however, only half of the graduating class was designated for air service. Wakefield was not retained, and opted to take an honorable discharge, with restoration to civilian status, which he believed would be only temporary.
“I’ll probably go back into the service,” he said. “I’ve already reported back to my draft board, and I’ve applied for a commission in the Navy.”
He rejoined the Tigers on July 13, 1944 in Chicago, where he went 2-4 at Comiskey Park. Sophomore jinx? Forget about it. Although he only played half a season, he shined even brighter than he had the year before. In 78 games, he batted .355 with 53 RBIs. His power numbers improved considerably, as he parked 12 home runs, with a slugging average of .576. He placed fifth in the MVP vote. Wakefield missed the chance to play baseball in the spotlight however, as the Tigers were edged out for the pennant on the final day of the season by the surprising St. Louis Browns.
Returning to the armed services in 1945, Wakefield spent time in Hawaii, as well as at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland. He missed all of Detroit’s World Series-winning season, and didn’t play for the Tigers again until opening day, 1946.
Not much went right for Wakefield that summer, as his effectiveness was limited by a broken wrist and arm. In 111 games, he hit only .268. Still only 25, it was the beginning of the end for Wakefield. Despite his dynamite rookie and sophomore campaigns, he would never come close to fulfilling his promise. The next three years were frustrating ones, as Wakefield’s relationship with management, the press, and the fans grew increasingly caustic. His mediocre play, coupled with the expectations that went along with being a high-priced bonus player, made him an easy target for the Briggs Stadium boo-birds. His perceived nonchalant attitude didn’t help matters.
Baseball’s owners, including Walter Briggs, began to view Wakefield as something of a radical. This was due to Wakefield’s involvement in the creation of a players’ pension fund. By 1949, his career had sunk like a stone: A .206 average with only 19 RBIs in 59 games. He was traded to the New York Yankees following the season.
After three games with New York, Wakefield was back in the minor leagues, playing for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. The New York Giants picked him up, but he couldn’t stick with them, and he wound up his playing career with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.
Baseball historian Donald Honig interviewed Wakefield in 1977 for his classic oral history, Baseball Between the Lines. Wakefield told him, “When people talk today about the astronomical salaries in baseball they sometimes point back to me as the cause of it all. I was the original bonus baby. But that was an economic development which had to come sooner or later, and I happened to be there at the time. As always in human nature, there was a certain amount of envy, which is I guess a natural thing. And I had to overcome that.”
A lifelong bachelor, Wakefield twice ran for the United States Congress after his playing career ended, without success. He worked in a variety of jobs, including public relations for a food manufacturer and as a probate appraiser. “I find now that at this stage of the game that if I had my life to live over again, I’m inclined to think that I’d have to try and do something that’s more fundamental for humanity than a professional athletic career. I don’t say I feel I’ve wasted my life, because I’ve had a wonderful time of it. But I think a man ought to try and contribute more than just an athletic career.”
Wakefield died on August 26, 1985, in Redford, Michigan, at age 64.