Schaefer and O’Leary Were Tigers First Solid Double Play Combo

Detroit Tigers fans will long remember the duo of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, who spent 19 seasons together in the middle of the infield for the club, setting a record for games played as teammates. But how many fans remember the first set of infielders to team in the middle of the Detroit infield, more than 100 years ago? This is the story of that pair, an odd couple: one a master showman dubbed “The Prince” and the other a master with his fists.

Born just four months apart in Chicago’s southside, both Herman “Germany” Schaefer and Charley O’Leary grew up in the tough streets of that city. Schaefer advanced to the big leagues first, with Chicago in 1901, and in 1905 the Tigers acquired him to play second base next to O’Leary, who had debuted as a rookie the year before. Schaefer was an oddball, what they called a “flake” in that era. He liked to orate to the crowd during games, often delivering spellbinding monologues between innings and predicting his exploits. In a game against the White Sox in 1906, entering as a pinch-hitter, he declared to the Detroit crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at Herman Schaefer, better known as ‘Herman the Great,’ acknowledged by one and all to be the greatest pinch-hitter in the world. I am now going to hit the ball into the left field bleachers. Thank you.” He proceeded to belt the first pitch into the left field stands to win the contest. Schaefer had more in store for the fans: he slid into every base as he made his way around for his home run.

Shortstop O’Leary was far less flashy than Schaefer but he made a strong impression with his drinking and fighting ability. The short, squat, stocky, barrel-chested Irishman was renowned for his marathon sessions in saloons, where he’d beat everyone in pool and cards, drink every man under the table, and gladly break a jaw if anyone looked at him sideways. In one legendary pugilistic battle, O’Leary took on three patrons simultaneously at his local watering hole, pummeling them until they were flat on their backs. But Ol’ Charley held no hard feelings: he led the defeated trio back to the bar and bought them each a shot of whiskey. A tough man, O’Leary was quick to forgive and forget. The drinking and fighting apparently didn’t affect his playing that much, as O’Leary established himself as a shortstop with excellent range. Though he hit just .221 in his four seasons as the Tiger starting shortstop, he was a good bunter and a team leader.

Second baseman Schaefer was the better ballplayer and he could drive the ball much farther than O’Leary. He also helped establish the Tigers as a ferocious offensive team, running the bases aggressively and stealing bases with abandon. He passed that skill on to younger players, including a teenage outfielder who joined the club in 1905 named Ty Cobb.

In 1907 the double play duo helped the team to the first pennant in Tiger history. They repeated in 1908, though by that time O’Leary was being used as a utility infielder. Schaefer was dealt away in August of 1909 as the team was one their way to a third consecutive pennant. The flashy Schaefer was on his way out of Detroit but as he left he expressed his biggest regret on leaving.

“I’ll miss Ol’ Charley the most,” Schaefer said. “We’re thick as blood and he’s my best friend in the game.”

O’Leary played three more seasons with the Tigers, in a diminishing role, before retiring from the game in 1913. In 1934, serving as a coach for the Browns, the 58-year old was sent into a game as a pinch-hitter in an unimportant late season game. The feisty O’Leary singled and scored a run. His Detroit double play partner and good friend Germany Schaefer had died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage while traveling on a train in upstate New York 15 years earlier.

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