Thirty-five years ago, the Detroit Tigers had quite possibly the strongest arm in baseball in uniform, but he wasn’t even a pitcher.
In 1976, Tiger third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez ended Brooks Robinson’s string of 16 consecutive Gold Gloves at the hot corner. It was an award Rodriguez probably could have won a few years earlier. Robinson’s reputation earned him a few of the awards late in his career. Rodriguez was brilliant at the hot corner: quick with his feet, excellent range to his left, and accurate with his throws.
“[He] has the strongest throwing arm I’ve ever seen for an infielder,” Billy Martin said of Rodriguez during his time at the helm of the Tigers. Other Detroit skippers were similarly impressed.
“Show me another player who can throw it [like] him,” marveled Ralph Houk.
“[I had a] guy in Cincinnati who could throw, Concepcion,” Sparky Anderson said when he arrived in Detroit in 1979. “[But] this guy has a rocket.”
That rocket earned a lot of attention for Rodriguez, a native of Mexico who debuted with the Angels as a 19-year old in 1967 based largely on his defensive skills. The Tigers snatched him from the Senators after the 1970 season in a blockbuster trade that also netted the Tigers Ed Brinkman and Joe Coleman, and sent troubled Denny McLain to Washington.
Rodriguez stepped right in to the third base job and though he was inconsistent with the bat at times, his defensive play and that Howitzer attached to his right shoulder kept him in the lineup. In 1978, the 30-year old Rodriguez went into the season as part of a platoon arrangement for Houk. He shared time with young Phil Mankowski, who was seen as the heir apparent at third base. But Rodriguez, who was affectionately called “Chi Chi” by teammates, had other ideas. Under the tutelage of batting coach Gates Brown, Rodriguez had the best stretch of his career at the plate, and as late as May 28 he was leading the league in batting.
But it was his arm that made Rodriguez famous. Perhaps no other player in his era was known for one part of his body than Rodriguez. His famous throws across the diamond caught the attention of teammates and opponents. Later, when Martin was back in New York working for George Steinbrenner he urged The Boss to acquire Chi Chi. Rodriguez served as an able backup to Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles for two seasons.
Rodriguez had a simple explanation for his great throwing arm. “God gave it to me, and I just try to do what I can with it,” Rodriguez said. For 17 seasons and more than 2,000 games, Rodriguez – a .237 hitter with average power – did everything he could with his right arm. And it was quite a lot.