Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adding to Rudy York's card legacy, Part 2

Yesterday I presented my 1940 Play Ball-style Rudy York custom card creation. Today I'm debuting my 1941-style "card that never was."

The background of these cards was in yesterday's presentation. I also expressed my dismay that a slugging star of York's status was largely ignored by the baseball card powers-that-be during his career.

Recently while reading microfilm of back issues of The Sporting News from 1946, I found that York was apparently little appreciated in Detroit in the years he played for the Tigers (1934, 1937-45).

Detroit News baseball writer H.G. Salsigner in the World Series wrap-up issue of Oct. 16, 1946, wrote of the trade that brought York to the Red Sox in January, 1946.

At the 1945 World Series, in which York's Tigers beat the Cubs, Boston manager Joe Cronin had asked the writer how he thought York would work out as the Red Sox first baseman. “I told him I thought York would do very well in Boston,” Salsinger recalled. “In fact Rudy would do better in Boston than anywhere else.”

A year after the deal was made, sending shortstop Eddie Lake to the Tigers for York, Salsigner wrote glowingly of York.

              Rudy, with an even break, would be one of the best first basemen in the game, but he was not getting an even break in Detroit. He had been denied one for more than two years. The crowds in Detroit would not let York play his game.
            For one reason or another, the crowds in Detroit took a dislike to Rudy. We have never been able to understand how or why this dislike developed. We have known York ever since he came to the big leagues in 1934. We found him one of the most likable men we ever met in sport. He has most of the human virtues. We never heard him speak ill of anyone. He is generous and decent in his dealings with his fellow men and popular with other players.
            If the man were surly, mean or vicious, or had failed to deliver, the crowd attitude toward him would have been explainable.
            York, despite his size, is one of the nimblest fielding first basemen in the game. No other first baseman ever equaled him for glove-hand execution of plays. No contemporary was more expert in handling bad throws. He has all-round excellence as a fielder and he is one of the longest hitters in baseball, a batter with a rhythmic swing. We never saw another batter hit a ball with so little apparent effort.
Received Merciless Razzing
            Regardless of his ability, the crowds at Briggs Stadium disliked York and he received the most merciless booing that we ever heard a ball player get. The booing, jeering and cat-calling was not occasional, but continuous. Rudy was booed from the time he left the dugout. When the lineup was announced over the loudspeaker the name of York was the signal for an outburst of boos and jeers. There were outbursts every time he stepped to the plate, every time a strike was called on him, every time he swung and missed, every time he was retired.
            No player in history could have stood up under the barrage and York succumbed. His value to the Detroit club declined steadily, not because he had lost any part of his mechanical skill, but on account of the continuous booing and heckling.
            I told Cronin that York, playing at Fenway Park, before crowds that would give him an even break, would be transformed. Remaining with Detroit, he was doomed. There was no chance for a change of attitude of the crowds.
            Cronin needed a first baseman and he wanted one who could hit a long ball. Fenway Park, with its short left field, was ideally suited for York’s right-handed batting. 

Salsinger's assessment of York's defensive prowess as a first baseman is borne out by the stats. York often led American League first basemen in various defensive stats and was among the top five in the league in fielding percentage among first basemen four times, leading the league in 1947.

While York was first or second in errors committed by a first baseman for five consecutive years, 1941-45, he was also frequently first or second in putouts, assists and double plays turned at first base.

There may have been racial overtones in the Detroit fan base's riding of York. You'll notice that on the back of my 1940-style card I used the phrase, "the big Indian." No longer politically correct, the term would not have been out of place on the back of a baseball card in the pre-war years. 

It turns out, however, that the sporting press' constant references to Native American heritage and attempts to make the nickname "Chief" stick were misguided. While to many observers York looked like an Indian and his maternal great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, he downplayed any such characterization.

It's true that York was too fond of liquor, which was likely a significant factor in his rapid decline as a ballplayer after the age of 30, however that hardly made him unique among professional ballplayers in the 1940s. On at least two occasions overindulgence was cited (at least between the lines) was being responsible for two potentially fatal hotel fires caused when York fell asleep/passed out in bed with a lit cigarette.

If he was under-appreciated by Tigers fans, he gave Red Sox rooters plenty of cause to embrace him as a hero in their losing battle with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1946 World Series.

In Game 1 he hit a game-winning home run with two out in the top of the 10th inning. With the Series tied and Game 3 in Boston, he hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning to give the Red Sox all they needed in shutting out the Cardinals. York's .261 average was the highest among Boston players who appeared in all seven games.

Rudy York may have been unpopular with Tigers fans, snubbed by baseball card companies and a trial for managers, but he was my dad's favorite ballplayer and that was all the impetus I needed to create these Play Ball-style custom cards.

I have one more Rudy York custom card in the works, but I don't know when I'll actually complete the project. As always, you'll see it here first.

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