The smallest player to ever play for the Detroit Tigers was little second baseman Ralph Young, who made the mistake of hitting .299 one season, which prompted Ty Cobb to let him go.
Young became a professional baseball player in the same year that Henry Ford sold his first 10,000 automobiles – 1910. But even in that era, when players were far less imposing than they are today, Ralph was a little fella. At 5 foot, 5 inches tall and only 155 pounds or so, Young looked more like a jockey than a ballplayer. But he was a gifted athlete and also possessed the one thing that doesn’t come in small, medium, large, or extra-large: toughness.
Second base is one of the most physically dangerous positions on the diamond. Runners are barreling into the base on stolen base attempts and double plays, challenging the courage of the man at the “keystone” position. Young didn’t back down, which won him respect from a Detroit team that featured several rough-and-tumble characters. Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Bobby Veach, and Oscar Stanage among them.
When Young arrived to the Tigers in 1915, the club improved their record by 20 games. Several of the veterans recognized that Young was partially responsible for that surge. His defense on the right side of the infield was tremendous, due to his great range and ability to turn double plays. That Detroit team won 100 games, but unfortunately they finished second to the Red Sox, who won one more.
In 1918, when baseball shortened the season due to the First World War, Young played a role in a largely forgotten ritual. All season, the Tigers showed their support of the troops in Europe by frequently www “drills” on the baseball field. Members of the team would tote bats and march in formation as patriotic music was played or a poem was recited (Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a favorite). Most of the time, little Ralph Young served as the sergeant for those formations, leading his teammates in marching on the diamond grass.
As a hitter, “Pep” (as his teammates called him), was not intimidating like Cobb or Crawford, but he did have a special weapon at his disposal due to his teeny size: his strike zone was pretty small. Three times, Young finished in the top five in drawing walks, and he often posted respectable on-base averages despite low batting averages. When the ball “livened up” after the First World War, Young hit .291 in 1920 when he set career highs in nearly every offensive category. That season, the switch-hitter banged out 146 singles, a record that still stands for Detroit switch-hitters.
The following season, the Tigers had a new manager as Cobb took over the reins. Not coincidentally, the team’s offense exploded to record levels. The ’21 Tigers batted .316 as a team, with batting champ Harry Heilmann leading the way at .394, Cobb following at .389, and five more Tigers batting at least .300 for the campaign. The only regulars who failed to hit .300 were shortstop Donie Bush (who hit .281 and was traded in mid-season) and Young, who fell one hit shy at .299.
Apparently that was unacceptable, because three months after the conclusion of the season, the Tigers snatched George Cutshaw, a veteran second baseman, off waivers from the Pittsburgh Pirates. At 35, Cutshaw was two years older than Young, and not as good with the glove, but Cobb wanted a .300 hitter at second base, and Cutshaw had hit .340 for the Bucs in ’21. As a result, little Pep Young was let go before spring training in ’22.
But Young didn’t stay unemployed for long, and he eventually went to work for his fourth future Hall of Famer. Connie Mack, the tall, lanky master of the Athletics, brought Ralph in to man second base for him in 1922. Previously, Young had played under Frank Chance (briefly with New York), and Hughey Jennings and Ty Cobb in Detroit. All would one day have a plaque in Cooperstown.
Young may have been small, but his place in Tiger history isn’t. Only three other men ever played more games at second base for the Tigers: Sweet Lou Whitaker, Charlie Gehringer, and Dick McAuliffe.
Young’s greatest day in the game fittingly came with the leather, when Young was involved in one of the rarest and most unusual plays in baseball history.
On May 18, 1921, in a game against the Red Sox at Navin Field in Detroit, Young participated in a triple play. With runners at first and second for Boston, the Red Sox batter smacked a drive to the left of Young. The Tiger second baseman took a few steps and dove, snaring the drive on one hop. Amazingly, both runners thought he had caught the ball, and tried to return to their bases. Young went with his momentum carrying him toward first and tagged the bag to put out the hitter. He then chased down the runner between first and second and tagged him for the second out. Finally, as the lead runner was still confused, Young fired the ball to shortstop Bush, who slapped a tag on the bewildered Red Sox player for out #3. It was a 4-4-6 triple play with a putout at first base. It’s one of only three such plays in baseball history, and given the odd circumstances, it seems highly unlikely to occur again.