Charlie Gehringer was one of my faves, and not because I was lucky enough to see the Tigers’ Hall of Fame second sacker play.
No, by the time I checked into this world, Charlie had been retired for many years. I never got to see him pick off a smokin’ one-hopper off the bat of Lou Gehrig as casually as one of us might grab a box of Cheerios off the store shelf. I never saw him drive a Lefty Grove fastball deep into the gap for a three-bagger at old Navin Field. But I did once get involved in a minor conspiracy with Charlie, and therein hangs a tale.
When I first started fooling around with writing, tapping out articles on my sister’s borrowed manual typewriter (remember those, kids?), I had in mind that I would someday put together a book of reminiscences of old-timey ballplayers—you know, just like Larry Ritter and about 4,000 other imitators of Ritter’s 1966 classic, The Glory of Their Times. The planned book would be more provincial in scope, focusing on the reminiscences of Detroit Tigers from the 1920-50 period. I was doing it as a hobby, not as a moneymaking enterprise – and sure enough, I never came close to recouping my expenses in completing the project. But I did have the satisfaction of experiencing something unique: face time with more than a score of players from an irretrievable era in local sports history. All except one of those gentlemen are now gone.
Unlike most of the other Glory wannabees, I was fortunate in that the recollections that I recorded in sessions all over the country, and then painstakingly transcribed and edited, actually made it into print. The book was/is called Cobb Would Have Caught It, and I shudder when I think about how long ago the thing was published. It was 1991, but the interviews themselves were conducted in the 1980s, a distant time when the world was nothing but molten lava (or so my grandkids would have me believe).
In one important way, it really was a distant time. All of the old ballplayers I interviewed, most of whom had played in the 1920s and 1930s, were very approachable. The memorabilia craze was just starting to take off, but they remained unaffected by it all. They didn’t charge for interviews or autographs; in fact, the idea of doing so was either repugnant or ludicrous to them. They were still listed in the phone book, still agreeable to inviting a perfect stranger into their living room and spending several hours talking about their personal and professional lives. They were happy that they were still remembered, especially the obscure players, even if the fellow sitting in the chair across from them was young enough to be their grandson. I brought no balls or photos or scorebooks for them to sign. I didn’t ask if they might like to part with that old Louisville Slugger or glove they had in the garage, next to the box of dusty Christmas decorations. I didn’t want anything from them except their memories. Oh, and if they were willing to trust me, a photograph or two for the book that I could copy and then return.
Gehringer, being who he was – that is, arguably the greatest all-around second baseman in baseball history – was on my so-called hit list of interviewees. At the time he lived in a tidy white-frame house in Birmingham with his wife. Charlie didn’t marry until his aging mother, who he lived with during his playing days, passed away. He and the missus never had any children of their own, but I suppose you could say they had a surrogate family in the army of fans who grew up in the 1930s adoring the quiet, mild-mannered Charlie.
I wrote Charlie a letter asking for an interview, and he wrote promptly back, saying yes. I showed up on a Sunday afternoon. Charlie, just back from mass, was impeccably dressed in a shirt and tie. For the next three hours he told story after story, and it was all great stuff. How he worked offseason at downtown Hudson’s. How he’d take the streetcar to and from the ballpark. “If you had a bad day, though, you had to put some plugs in your ears,” he said. “The fans were getting on the same car and you’d hear about it.” He talked about Dizzy, Schoolie, and, of course, the Babe. His flat delivery and expressionless face disguised a wry sense of humor.
One lasting memory of the session was Charlie’s rumbling stomach. Being a strict Catholic, he’d probably eaten nothing before attending mass. Now here I was keeping him from dinner. I felt bad and wrapped things up.
As I was taking my leave, I asked Charlie if he might have a photo or two that I could borrow for the book. He went to a large secretary desk and opened a couple drawers. They were jammed with all sorts of baseball pictures. Suddenly, he heard Mrs. Gehringer entering the room. She evidently was dead set against seeing anything associated with Charlie’s career leaving the house.
“Here,” he said, grabbing a handful of pictures. “Don’t let her see them.” I said my goodbyes to Charlie and hello to his wife, all the while hoping that the photos hastily jammed under my shirt wouldn’t tumble to the floor on my way out the door.
A few weeks later I visited Charlie to return the smuggled photos, this time placed in a manila envelope. I found him outside, spraying some shrubs. He seemed slightly embarrassed by the white mask covering his mouth and nose. “I look like a Japanese aviator,” he said.
Charlie died before the book was published, so he never got to read the chapter about himself and the golden age of baseball in this town. Not that he missed anything. Unlike the writer he had welcomed into his home, he’d actually been there.