Earl Averill’s name is not on the brick wall in deep center field at Comerica Park. You’ll see the name of Ty Cobb, and Al Kaline, of course. As well as “Wahoo Sam” Crawford and even Heinie Manush, who toiled in the shadow of Cobb in the 1920s, but was also a fine hitter.
All those fellas are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But there’s at least one other former Tiger outfielder who is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but doesn’t have his name on the iconic wall at Detroit’s ballpark. His name is Earl Averill, who played parts of two seasons in Detroit, including one very important stretch.
In 1940, the 38-year old veteran Averill spent the entire season as a sort of “Slugger Emeritus,” providing some key hits to help the Tigers battle their way to the pennant. While was mostly a pinch-hitter after June, earlier in the season, Earl provided the pop in a few key victories for Detroit.
Unknown star on the west coast
Had there been a farm system in place during his era, Earl Averill would have been in the major leagues four or five years earlier. As it was, he spent several years as a semi-pro player in Washington before three successful seasons in the Pacific Coast League.
When Cleveland purchased his contract for $50,000 during spring training in 1929, Averill was nearly 27 years old. He homered in his first major league at-bat, on Opening Day off Earl Whitehill of the Tigers. Averill homered the next day too, off George Uhle, and his batting average never went below .300 in his rookie season. It’s possible that great first impression caused the Tigers to keep their eyes on Earl.
Averill was an unusual athlete: he was average in height at 5’9, but he had thick arms and a barrel chest. But from the waist down he was slim, with knobby knees and tiny size 6 ½ feet. One observer noted that when Earl ran the bases, it looked like “a piano being rolled around on skinny legs.” But he made his way around the bases a lot, and he helped his teammates do the same.
In his rookie season, Averill hit 18 homers to go along with 43 doubles and 13 triples. He had 198 hits, scored 110 runs, and drove in 96 to along with a .332 batting average. It was a tremendous rookie campaign, but it was no fluke. In his first ten seasons, Earl batted .323 and averaged 37 doubles, 12 triples, 22 homers, 108 RBI, and 115 runs scored. He was named to the first five American League All-Star teams, and three times he finished in the top five in Most Valuable Player voting.
But while Averill was lauded for his performances with the bat, he was never beloved in Cleveland because well, frankly, he could be a jerk.
Earl was a bit of a prima donna, and especially during the Depression Era, his attitude caused him grief with some teammates, the front office, and fans.
“Always a competent workman, Averill nevertheless has shown a lack of aggressiveness in past campaigns that caused him to be marked as a somewhat colorless performer,” The Sporting News wrote in 1938. “His old, lethargic attitude is gone,” TSN continued, noting that Averill “has become a No. 1 hustler.”
Famous for injuring Dizzy Dean
In the 1937 All-Star Game, Averill, at that time the star center fielder of the Indians, smacked a shot off the foot of Dizzy Dean which broke the famous pitcher’s toe. Dean subsequently pitched on the broken “piggie” and messed up his arm. Or so the story goes. Ironically, about a week before that All-Star Game, Averill hit a line drive up the middle that knocked pitcher Bobo Newsom on his ass.
There was something about Averill and line shots up the middle of the diamond.
The many nicknames of Earl Averill
Let’s go through all the nicknames Averill acquired, he had several. He was “The Earl of Snohomish.” because he hailed from Snohomish, Washington. They called him “Popeye” after the comic strip character that became popular in 1929, the same year Averill debuted with the Indians. Averill was 5’9 (about average for an American male in the 1930s) but (like Popeye) he had prominent forearms and he was very strong. He was opinionated and stubborn, which is why teammates dubbed him “Rockhead” or simply “Rock.” When Cleveland purchased his contract from the San Francisco Seals, Averill insisted that he get a portion of the money. He battled the Indians over his salary almost every year of his career. “The way I look at it,” Averill once said, “a player ought to get all the money he can.” Roommate Lew Fonseca noted that Averill never made his bed and often wore wrinkled suits on road trips, prompting the nickname “Sloppy.” Find a photo of Earl Averill and you’ll see why his teammates playfully called him “Elephant Ears.”
Tiger years and the 1940 World Series
Detroit acquired Averill in 1939 as outfield insurance. The team, led by CHarlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg, was getting a little long in the tooth. Averill was one more older player for the roster, but he did a good job, batting .262 with 20 doubles, 10 homers, and 58 RBI in about half a season in the Old English D.
Averill started the 1940 season as a fourth outfielder in manager Steve O’Neill’s plans. He proved formidable early on, hitting well over .350 in the first two months of the season. In a week-long stretch in early May, “Rock” went 14-for-30 with ten runs batted in. But he gradually receded and became a pinch-hitting option the balance of the season.
The Tigers snuck past the Indians to win the 1940 pennant, earning the right to square off against the Reds in the World Series. Early made his final appearances for Detroit in the Fall Classic, going 0-for-3 in three pinch-hit appearances. The next spring he signed with the Braves where he recorded the last two hits of his career. His final ledger showed 2,019 hits, 401 doubles, 128 triples, 238 homers (top ten in AL history as of that time), and 1,164 RBI in 1,669 games.
Grouchy about the Hall of Fame
Averill was still a stubborn fella after his playing days, and as the years passed and he was not included on the rolls of the Hall of Fame, he let it be known how unhappy he was. “I’ve given instructions that if I should be elected after I die, that my family will not accept,” Averill said in 1971 when he was 68 years old. It rankled Averill that “lesser” players were welcomed into the Hall of Fame before he was. Finally, in 1975 the veterans committee selected Averill, who was still very much alive in rural Washington. “Better late than never,” he said.