When you see highlights of a baseball game today you’ll get a lot of clips of home runs. Thanks to ESPN, the longball is at the center of how the game is viewed. Increasingly. it’s the home run that scores a bulk of the runs in professional baseball.
But there was a time when a home run was unusual. When a ball being hit out of the playing field and into the paying fans was rare enough that it was celebrated like a special event. That’s how it was in 1937 when a hulking Tigers hitter set a record with an amazing string of home run swatting in late summer, while Detroit was experiencing one of the hottest stretches of weather in memory.
Who Was Rudy York?
York was probably 200 pounds when he was 17 years old. Reportedly he was more than ten pounds when he was born in rural Alabama on August 17, 1913. Preston Rudolph York was always a man-child. That’s why it’s incredible that he was a second baseman in his first professional season at Shreveport in the Detroit organization.
He was a behemoth: six-foot-one-inches tall with broad shoulders, big arms, and thick chest. York was a native American, his maternal grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. The Tigers moved him to the outfield and later he was trained as a catcher, though he never got very good at it.
One teammate observed that York was “loud and boisterous, and [he] spoke poor English, due no doubt to his poor education…. But Rudy York had a heart of gold. He was kind and considerate and he had an outgoing, warm personality. On the ball diamond he was talking all the time, giving encouragement to his fellow players, and keeping morale high.”
Rudy was mature enough as a hitter to be in someone’s regular lineup when he was 21, but the Tigers had two Hall of Famers blocking his path: catcher Mickey Cochrane and first baseman Hank Greenberg. In 1937, York made the team out of spring training and the Tigers played him at third base, a position he’d never played before as a pro. He was terrible at the hot corner, and after Cochrane was beaned (and nearly died) the team tried Birdie Tebbetts, before realizing he was going to hit about two line drives a month.
Breaking Babe Ruth’s Record
August of 1937 was a terribly hot month in Michigan. The country was in the midst of an economic catastrophe that had one in every four men in the state unemployed. The city of Detroit was churning out automobiles still, but at a slower pace than in the Roaring Twenties when Ford Motor Company set the standard for an industry that was transforming the nation. Factories no longer had three shifts, Detroit was crawling instead of running.
The Tigers were one of the most exciting teams in baseball during the Great Depression, with stars on the roster, a good ballpark, and low prices for tickets in the bleachers at Navin Field. But they weren’t going to get past the Yankees in the pennant race, so the focus was more on individual efforts.
In August, with Cochrane still out of the lineup, the catching job was handed to York, who quickly started to measure his swing against big league pitching. That month, with the temperatures near 100 degrees regularly, the big right-handed slugger went on a tear.
By the end of the month, York had swatted 18 homers, breaking a previous record held by Babe Ruth. The outburst vaulted York’s name into the superstar category, and created a middle of the order that made Detroit practically the equal to the Yankees for offensive output.
York hit 35 home runs in 1937, followed by 33 the next season. He hit 203 homers in his first seven years, a total previously surpassed by just three batters. He drove in at least 100 runs six times, and he also showed his durability, playing in every game on the schedule six times, and only missing ten games in an eight-year stretch from 1940 to 1947.
A few years after his home run barrage in the Hot Summer of ’37, York pushed Hank Greenberg to left field and took over at first base. You have to be a damned good hitter to take Hank Greenberg’s job. He was: York’s 256 home runs from 1937 to 1946 ranked first in baseball. The Tigers, suffering from pennant fever in 1940, entertained the notion of trading York to the Browns for third baseman Harlond Clift. The deal was never consummated, and it’s a good thing, because Clift hit only 35 home runs the rest of his career, and Rudy was an All-Star five times in the ensuing years.
Some sources claim York drank himself out of the big leagues, exiting at the age of 34. But while he did have an alcohol problem, that wasn’t why Rudy lost his job in the majors. It was his slowing bat, and even when he played five more seasons in the minors trying to find his power, it never came back.
He will always be remembered for going on a home run binge in 1937, setting a record that has still never been surpassed in American League history.