He was the shortstop on the Tigers’ first world championship team in 1935.
He was involved in one of the most bizarre plays in World Series history.
He was nicknamed “The Fire Chief” because of his competitive (some would say combative) style of play.
After retiring as a player, he was elected to the Detroit City Council in 1941 and served for 38 years.
At age 96, and wheelchair bound, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Frontier League game on July 24, 2001, in the last organized baseball contest ever played at Tiger Stadium.
And he got his start as a milkman in Illinois.
You may ask yourself: “Who is this man you speak of?”
It is none other than Billy Rogell, the Tigers’ shortstop from 1930 to 1938.
Rogell was born in Springfield, Illinois on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1904. Soon, his family moved to Chicago, where young Billy spent his childhood. He loved baseball from an early age, and played it all summer long in the sandlots of the Rosedale section of the city where he lived. He was so good, he became a semi-pro player in his middle-teenage years.
Around that time, he got a job driving a milk wagon in his neighborhood. The job was a good one, not just because it paid decently, but because Rogell figured it would strengthen his muscles, carrying all those bottles around all day. He could get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Not to mention he could drink all the milk he wanted.
One of Rogell’s stops on his route was the home of Oscar Melillo (also known as Ski, but his friends all called him Spinach). Melillo, a few years older than Rogell, had heard of him because by that time Billy had acquired quite a reputation as a semi-pro player. Melillo was also impressed with Rogell’s boundless energy as a milkman. When Melillo heard later that Rogell had signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox, he knew Billy would make good. Turns out he was right. Melillo made good, as well, starring for the St. Louis Browns as a second baseman for many years.
Rogell played a few seasons in Beantown before the Tigers acquired him in September of 1929. He didn’t become a full-time player until 1932. Rogell and Charlie Gehringer were a great double-play combination in the Motor City for many years. They were part of one of the best hitting infields in history in 1934. Rogell, Gehringer, first baseman Hank Greenberg, and third baseman Marv Owen combined for a whopping 463 runs batted in. Not coincidentally, the Tigers also won the pennant that year. And Rogell was at the center of a commotion that will forever go down in World Series annals under “Wacky.”
It was Game Four, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, bottom of the fourth inning. The Tigers and pitcher Elden Auker were leading the Cardinals and Dazzy Vance, 4-to-3. St. Louis had runners on first and third with nobody out.
According to one account, Cardinals’ manager Frankie Frisch wanted to send in a pinch-runner for the lumbering Spud Davis on first. Frisch scanned the dugout, and was shocked to see Dizzy Dean suddenly leap up from the bench, race out to first, and tell Davis to beat it back to the dugout, that he was going to run for him.
Dean, of course, was a pitcher, and a very good one, having won 30 games in 1934. He could also be a bit flamboyant. Frisch wanted to yell out to Dean what the hell he thought he was doing. But Pepper Martin, the next Cardinal batter, was already digging in against Tiger pitcher Auker.
That’s when things got crazy. Martin hit a perfect double-play grounder to Gehringer at second, who scooped it up and flipped it to Rogell covering the bag. But his relay to first never made it; instead, the ball bopped an onrushing Dean right in the forehead. The ball caromed into the outfield, and the star pitcher went down like he’d been shot.
Dean lay unconscious on the ground, as all of St. Louis held its collective breath. He had to be carried off the field on a stretcher, and rushed to a nearby hospital. The Tigers wound up winning the game, 10-to-4, to even the Series at two games apiece. But most people in the crowd were wondering about the fate of Dean, who was scheduled to pitch the following afternoon.
Dean turned out to be ok, and, in a possibly apocryphal tale, a newspaper headline the next day read: “X-Rays of Dean’s Head Reveal Nothing.” He didn’t miss a beat, giving up only two earned runs in eight innings in the Tigers 3-to-1 win.
Years later, Rogell, who threw the ball that plunked Dean in the head, recalled it this way: “It really bothered me. That poor sight being carried off the field. Of course, it was Dizzy’s fault. He threw up his head in the way intentionally. Even said so. He wanted to break up the double play. And to tell you the truth, I never saw the play because I was coming to the bag at an angle. I caught the ball and threw. Actually, if I’d have known his head was there, I would have thrown the ball harder.”
In case you missed it, Detroit lost the Series, four games to three. And Rogell continued to carry his milkman union card in his wallet for the rest of his playing days. Just in case.