For Charlie Gehringer, Every Day Was Mother’s Day

Charlie Gehringer is greeted by his mother before a ballgame at Briggs Stadium in Detroit.

Detroit All-Star second baseman Charlie Gehringer is greeted by his mother before a ballgame in Detroit.

Charlie Gehringer was a momma’s boy — but in a good way.

During his long career with the Detroit Tigers, 1924 to 1942, the popular second baseman and bachelor was considered a prize catch by female fans, in part because of his well-publicized devotion to his mother. During the 1930s, Theresa Gehringer, a stout farm woman and German immigrant who outlived two husbands, was a common sight at the ballpark and in the sports pages. She was Charlie’s biggest fan, even if she didn’t truly understand all that was going on at Navin Field. It was enough that her boy was happy and that the crowds cheered Charlie.

It wasn’t always that way. Charlie grew up on a farm outside Fowlerville, and he was indifferent about farm work. He found it tedious and unrewarding. He much preferred whacking a ball around a makeshift diamond, using a pump handle and a barrel as bases.

Charlie’s mom viewed her son’s pastime as a big waste of time and energy. He was missing too many meals and skipping too many chores. “He was always playing ball,” she remembered. “I used to get so mad I could spank him.”

Luckily for Charlie, he caught the eye of Tigers outfielder Bobby Veach, who came across the taciturn farmboy playing for the local town team. A tryout was arranged, and manager Ty Cobb was impressed enough to suggest owner Frank Navin sign the kid to a $3,600 contract for the 1924 season. Charlie was only able to get his mother’s permission by having the Tigers promise that any minor-league seasoning would be with a club close to Fowlerville. Charlie wound up playing in London, Ontario in 1924 and in Toronto in 1925 (and was called up to the Tigers at the end of each season) before becoming the Tigers’ permanent second baseman in 1926.

Charlie’s father died during his first season as a pro. He left London for the funeral in Fowlerville. When he returned, he discovered the club had docked him three days’ pay.

By 1929, Charlie was established as one of the major leagues’ brightest stars. That summer he batted .339 and led the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples, and stolen bases. Detroit fans celebrated with a Charlie Gehringer Day, and the stands were packed. Charlie always considered it his greatest thrill. With family and friends from Fowlerville looking on, he had a big day at the plate as the Tigers thrashed Babe Ruth’s Yankees. In a home-plate ceremony, he was presented with a set of golf clubs. “They were beautiful,” he remembered. “Matched Spalding irons and woods with a beautiful leather bag. They also were right-handed, and of course I’m left-handed. But I learned how to play the game right-handed, those clubs were so nice.”

In 1934, the year the Tigers lost to St. Louis’s “Gas House Gang” in a riotous World Series, Charlie bought a brand new house off Grand River, near Rosedale Park.

“After my father died my mother was up on the farm pretty much by herself,” he explained, “so I moved her in. She was a diabetic and needed someone to look after her. I might’ve married sooner than I did, but I couldn’t see bringing a wife into that kind of situation. But she was a great fan. She’d come out to the park or listen to the games out on the porch.”

Detroit Times sports editor Eddie Hayes recalled with a chuckle that Mrs. Gehringer could be critical. “Charlie would come home after a loss,” Hayes said, “and she’d say, ‘What’s the matter, aren’t you trying?’”

Charlie wrapped up his brilliant 19-year career in 1942. Theresa Gehringer died in 1946. While Charlie mourned his mother’s passing, he was now free to marry. A few years later, Charlie missed his own Hall of Fame induction ceremony to travel to California to tie the knot with Josephine Stillen — the new Mrs. Gehringer.