From the Editor's Vault...: June 26, 2008
Richard Lally Spends Five Minutes With...Elden Auker, Part 2
Righthander Elden Auker (1910-2006) was a submarine pitcher who played for the Detroit Tigers (1933 to 1938), the Boston Red Sox (1939), and the St. Louis Browns (1940 to 1942). He compiled a career 130-101 record with a 4.22 e.r.a. In 1935 his 18-7 (.720) mark led the league in winning Auker lost Game Seven of the 1934 World Series to Dizzy Dean after winning Game Four, 10-4. In 2001, he sat down with Richard Lally, our editor-in-chief, and discussed "three of the greatest hitters I or any other pitcher ever faced: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio." Here is the second part of that interview:
Richard Lally: How did Gehrig's approach at the plate compare to Ruth's?
Elden Auker: Babe had that slight uppercut on the ball, which is why he got so much loft on it. He'd hit majestic, towering home runs. Gehrig would hit through the ball more, so he'd hit hard, hard line drives that would take your head off if you didn't get your glove on one.
I told you how Ruth got his power from his eyes and those quick wrists, but he really wasn't that powerful. Strong, yes, but not that much stronger than the average player. Gehrig, he could outmuscle a ball, just like Hank Greenberg or Jimmie Foxx, only stronger than either of them. Fool him on a pitch, and he still might hit a double even if he hardly got any wood on the ball. People know about the home runs he hit, but he also hit a lot of triples. He was fast for a guy his size, but a lot of those triple came because he hit so hard. He would smack the ball past the outfielders the way other players hit them past infielders. Just bullets.
Richard Lally: You had great success against Ruth because of your submarine motion. He had trouble picking up the pitch...
Elden Auker: Yes, but it didn't fool Lou. Gehrig wore me out. Lou was a low-ball hitter and I was a submariner, threw practically underhand. My strength was low.
Richard Lally: So we had the classic baseball dilemma. What does a pitcher do when his strength is something the hitter likes?
Elden Auker: You go with your strength, only more so. The only thing I could do against Lou was to go even lower than usual, And that didn't work very often. I tried everything against him. Back then, it wasn't like today, where if you throw anywhere near a hitter, the umpire puts you in jail. If a guy hit you pretty good, you would say, "Well, let's see if he can it lying down." So I used to throw at Lou's feet a lot, you know, just to keep him loose. Back him off the plate. One day I let go of one that fractures his big toe.
Of course, at the time he was working on that record for consecutive games played. Well, when I hit him it looked like the streak was over. He could barely walk off the field. That was upsetting. Lou was a friend of mine, and the idea was to move him back from the plate, not put him out of the lineup. I didn't feel very good afterwards, thinking about all those games he had played and how it was ending. But, by the next game, Lou had his shoe cut open and he played with his toe in a splint. He could barely walk , but for a week or two, he'd play part of the game, then sit to keep the streak going. He was tough, all right. Nothing could keep him down.
Richard Lally: Until he became ill. When did you notice that he wasn't himself. He was hitting weak grounders in spring training that last season (1939) and he wasn't running well...
Elden Auker: You didn't pay much attention to that about a player as great as Gehrig. If he looked a little slow, you just figured it was taking longer for him than usual to get ready for the season. That happens sometimes. I certainly had no idea what was ailing him, and we were close friends. We'd pal around during the off-season, used to wrestle with each other for fun. I was with the Red Sox in '39. After running in the outfield before a game, I'd go to the clubhouse to change sweatshirts. This one afternoon, I came out to find Lou with his back towards me, standing at the end of the tunnel smoking a cigarette.
I snuck up an grabbed him around the neck in a half-nelson. We used to do that to each other all the time. I was six-two, two hundred pounds back then. But Lou was so strong, he'd normally just shrug his shoulder muscles and lift me off the ground. Not this time. I no sooner got my grip on him than he crumpled to the ground and yelled, "Oh my God, don't do that." I was shocked and scared. When I helped him up, I said, "What the hell is wrong with you."
You could see he was upset. He said, "I just don't know, Elden, but all my strength is gone. I can't hit the ball out of the infield. I'm so tired, I can barely get out on the field. I don't know what it is." That's when we found out he was sick. A few weeks later, he was at the Mayo Clinic--the streak had ended by then--where they diagnosed him with what they now call Lou Gehrig's Disease. Terrible thing. It eats away at your nervous system until you can't do anything for yourself. He was through as a player, and not much later he was dead. Lou was such a great guy. Everyone loved him. When that disease took him, it broke my heart.
Richard Lally: DiMaggio came up to the Yankees in 1936...
Elden Auker: It almost wasn't fair the way they kept bringing up one Hall of Famer after another. Ruth, then Gehrig, DiMaggio, then Mantle and they had all these other great, great players to help them. I think the thing most people don't realize about Joe was how fast he was. I remember the time he impressed Billy Rogell, our shortstop when I was with Detroit. Rogell had an amazing sense of timing when the runner was going to first. We called him "One-Step," because it never mattered who was running, the fastest guy in the league or the slowest, Billy would always gun him out by step.
Well, DiMaggio is facing us for the first time, it's his rookie year (1936) so we really don't know him. He hits a grounder to Rogell. Not a difficult chance. As usual Rogell times his throw. DiMaggio beats it out for a base hit. Well, you really didn't see that happen to often with Rogell. When Billy got back to the our dugout at the end of the inning, he said, "Goddamn, that guy can really run." DiMaggio would run out of the batter's box like a rabbit, but what threw Billy was the way he suddenly accelerated, just turned it on a little bit more as he got near the bag. Tha was something few players could do."
Richard Lally: You faced him in 1941, the year DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games...
Elden Auker: Yes. I faced DiMaggio during his streak while I was pitching with the St. Louis Browns. He'd hit in 37 straight to that point. Joe was hard to strike out for a guy with so much power. The reason for that was his stance. He stood flat-footed with his feet spread wide apart in the batter's box. Another guy with quick wrists. He could generate so much power with them, he didn't have to get his entire body into the swing, which means you rarely saw him lunging at pitch.
And while he looked almost slender in a uniform or in street clothes, Joe was as strong as could be. Very much like (Jimmie) Foxx, who we used to call "The Beast" because of his brute strength. You know what player reminds me of Joe? Mike Piazza. You almost never see Piazza take a big stride, there's no wasted motion, and his wrists whip the bat through the strike zone so fast it whistles. That's why he hits the ball so hard almost every time up. Just like Joe.
He could be tough on any pitcher, but that afternoon in Yankee Stadium, i was having good luck against him. Struck him out the first two times at bat, which was headline news in itself (DiMaggio would strike out only 13 times all season), then popped him up on his third trip. All the time I'm pitching, I'm just trying to get him out. The streak meant absolutely nothing to me, but a base hit did. When we went into the eighth inning, I was losing, 4-2, and couldn't afford to give up any more runs. Joe was scheduled to hit fourth that inning and we're in Yankee Stadium. If I retire the side 1-2-3 and the Yankees keep the lead in the top of the ninth, he doesn't get up again. Streak over.
I get (Yankees first baseman) Johnny Sturm on a pop-up to open the eighth. Then Red Rolfe gets a base hit. And then Tommie Henrich did something strange. He bunts Rolfe over to second with one out. I found out later that he had done it on his own, his way of making sure he didn't hit into a double play to end the inning because he wanted to get Joe that at-bat. I didn't know it then. I'm not giving what Tommy did too much through at the time because I didn't connect it to the streak. But it was odd for him to bunt in that situation. It's something that he told you he was afraid of hitting into a double play because Tommy just plain wore me out. He was the toughest hitter on the Yankees for me.
Richard Lally: So why didn't you just walk DiMaggio, since he was so hot? Respect for the streak or the next hitter, or did you simply want to avoid digging a deeper hole for yourself?
Elden Auker: Nothing like that. As I said, Henrich killed me. Joe, on the other hand, didn't like my style of pitching at all. Just like Babe. He told me he couldn't pick up the ball and almost every pitch I threw him came in low. Joe could hit pretty much anything, but he preferred the ball high like most right-handed hitters. So when DiMaggio came to the plate with Rolfe on second, I didn't think about putting him on the open base. Again, the streak wasn't on my mind for even a second. I'm not sure who was in the on-deck circle behind him. Charlie Keller or Bill Dickey, maybe Joe Gordon, but it didn't matter. Joe rarely hit me well, and I'd handled him all day. There were two men out, so I was coming right at him.
My first pitch was a fastball that tailed away a bit. Give Joe credit. He jumped on it Hit a sharp grounder down to our third baseman, Harlond Clift. It skipped up, skimmed off Harlond's shoulder, and went into left field for a double. Harlond was a great-fielding third baseman, he would have been a Gold Glove winner if they had such a thing back them. If the couldn't come up with that ball, I don't know who could. Clean hit all the way.
That's how the streak stayed alive. But you remember what I said earlier about breaking Gehrig's toe? Well, looking back on that day against DiMaggio, you can see how close I came to being the man who ended the two most famous streaks in baseball history. Isn't that something?