As one walks along the second floor of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, there are plenty of exhibits that can catch the eye. Just stop at the end of the long second floor hallway, and you’ll see a confluence of worthwhile subjects. Look to your left and you can locate Lou Gehrig’s locker from the original Yankee Stadium. Making your way clockwise, you’ll then spot the popular “Diamond Dreams” exhibit, which details the history of women in baseball. Continuing to turn to your right, you will then spot the colorful “Viva Baseball” exhibit, with its floor made to look like a map of the Caribbean, about the influence of Latinos on the game. And then as you complete your turn to the right, the San Diego Chicken mascot greets you, beckoning you to enter the Hall’s newest exhibit, “Whole New Ballgame.”
Given all of these attractions and distractions, it’s easy to overlook a small part of another exhibit, which encompasses the timeline of 20th century baseball history. It’s the part that highlights the great Detroit Tigers teams of the 1930s. Encased in a side wall, just before you arrive at the Gehrig locker, is a small display of artifacts that once belonged to the greatest Tiger second baseman in history, Charlie Gehringer. (Sorry about that, Lou Whitaker.) They are not artifacts that we would normally associate with the National Pastime: a belt buckle, a tie clip, a commemorative ring, and a pocket watch. But they are all items that help tell the story of just how great a player Gehringer was.
He played so long ago, and seemingly played without so much fanfare, that it’s easy to overlook the impact of this Hall of Fame middle infielder. Gehringer was born in the small town of Fowlerville, MI, where he starred at Fowlerville High School. Remaining in state, he attended college at the University of Michigan, where it was inevitable that he would draw the attention of the local big league club.
The Tigers signed him in 1924 and sent him out to London of the old Michigan-Ontario League. That September, the Tigers called him up and watched him hit .462 in 13 plate appearances. Resisting the temptation to rush him to the big leagues fulltime, the Tigers sent him back for additional seasoning in 1925. After dominating the competition in the International League, Gehringer again received the reward of a September call-up, but he struggled this time, hitting only .167 in eight games.
That late-season performance mattered little to the Tigers. In 1926, Gehringer became the regular second baseman and played solidly as a rookie. The following year, he raised his batting average to .317 and emerged as a star. Then came the power; in 1929 and ’30, he combined to hit a total of 29 home runs, making him a more complete offensive player. That began a stretch of 12 seasons in which he reached double figures in home runs 11 times. In 1936, he rapped out a total of 60 doubles, a simply remarkable number. All the while, he played reliably at second base, showing sure hands and good range.
As well as Gehringer played, he said little, either to teammates or the media. He just quietly played the game, establishing a level of production not seen in most second basemen of the day. The media began to refer to him as “The Mechanical Man,” out of respect to the highly efficient, and almost robotic way that he played the game. “You wind him up in the spring, turn him loose, he hits .330 or .340, and you shut him off at the end of the season,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez. Gehringer played so consistently that it was almost sickening—unless of course, you happened to be a fan of the Tigers.
That consistency would receive its just reward thanks to a new creation in the 1930s. In 1933, the major leagues, acting upon the recommendation of Chicago sportswriter Arch Ward, introduced the first ever All-Star Game. Gehringer earned selection to the inaugural game as the American League’s starting second baseman. He would become a mainstay of the game, playing in the first six editions of the new Midsummer Classic. In those days, starters didn’t merely play for a few innings of the All-Star Game. No, Gehringer played every inning of all six exhibition games, hitting a cool .500 in the process.
In the early days of the All-Star Game, player received gifts as a reward for being selected to the team. In 1935, Gehringer was given an elaborate belt buckle. In 1936, he earned a tie clip. And then, after his playing days, Gehringer was given a pocket watch, the result of being named to the all-time Tigers team by a fan poll in 1951.
Gehringer donated all of these items to the Hall of Fame, where they became part of the permanent collection of more than 40,000 artifacts. Those artifacts have been on display for several decades now, part of what is known as the “Timeline of Baseball History” on the museum’s second floor.
Those are not the only Gehringer artifacts contained within the Hall of Fame’s collection. Housed in the Museum’s basement storage facility, where it is only seen on rare occasions, is a U.S. Navy cap worn by Gehringer during World War II. After the 1942 season, Gehringer enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he was appointed the head baseball coach at St. Mary’s Naval Pre-Flight School team in California.
Shortly after arriving at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in 1944, Gehringer told his Commanding Officer that he wanted to coach the baseball team, but did not want to play. That did not go over well; he was promptly told that he would play; if not, he would receive an undesired military transfer to a remote location. Gehringer quickly changed his mind and served as player/manager for the Jacksonville NAS Fliers. He would remain in that post until 1945, when his military term of duty came to an end.
When Gehringer had originally entered military service in 1942, his career in the major leagues appeared to be over. He was 39 years old and finding it difficult to remain in top condition. But when he came out of the service in November 1945, he had improved his conditioning so much that he came to regret not having played at least one or two additional seasons with the Tigers.
After his playing days, Gehringer went into business selling fabrics to automobile manufacturers. Yet, he was not done with baseball. Known for his general intelligence and high baseball IQ, he would return to the Tigers as their general manager, serving in that capacity from 1951 to 1953. After his GM tenure ended, he remained in the Tigers’ front office as a vice president.
In 1949, Gehringer earned election to the Hall of Fame, voted in by the Baseball Writers Association of America through a runoff vote. In later years, he would lend his services to the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, where he and others would debate the Hall of Fame merits of long retired players, managers, and executives. Serving in that role from 1953 until 1990, Gehringer became one of the most respected members of the committee. Oftentimes, a “yeah” or a “nay” vote from Gehringer would sway other members of the committee, as Gehringer proved highly influential in determining who would make it to the Hall of Fame through the Veterans Committee.
Of course, when Gehringer’s name came under consideration by the Baseball Writers, there was little debate as to his Hall of Fame worthiness. He remains one of the all-time legends at second base, along with the likes of Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Morgan. And just like his plaque, his personal artifacts—the belt buckle, the tie pin, the ring, and the pocket watch—all have permanent homes in Cooperstown, symbols of the greatness of the player known as the Mechanical Man.