Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms: A Lifetime of Memories from Striking Out the Babe to Teeing It up with the Presidentby Elden Auker, Tom Keegan
Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms brings baseball legends to life through the eyes of Elden Auker, a submarinestyle pitcher in the American League from 1933 through 1942. Auker, one of the last living pitchers to
Kick back and take a trip back in time to meet some of baseball's alltime great personalities, with one of them as your own personal guide.
Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms brings baseball legends to life through the eyes of Elden Auker, a submarinestyle pitcher in the American League from 1933 through 1942. Auker, one of the last living pitchers to have faced Babe Ruth, teamed with baseball greats Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, and Mickey Cochrane, played against the likes of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller, and struck up offthefield friendships with many of them. He takes readers behind the scenes and into the clubhouse for stories like the time Babe Ruth pummeled a stickyfingered roommate who later went on to have a Hall of Fame career of his own.
But the baseball anecdotes are only part of what make this lively memoir fascinating reading. Auker went on to a life and career after baseball that saw him forge friendships with politicians, business leaders, entertainers, and other personalities. From fishing with Joseph P. Kennedy to golfing with President Ford, Auker tells the story of his life with humor, grace, and refreshing candor.
"Elden Auker just notched career victory #131. This book's a winner!" Bob Costas
"As a rule, nothing is more boring than listening to someone talk about himself when I want to talk about myself. Elden Auker is a rare exception to that rule." Tommy Lasorda
Tom Keegan is a baseball columnist for the New York Post and has covered major league baseball for newspapers in Orange County, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York.
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Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms
A Lifetime of Memories from Striking Out the Babe to Teeing It Up With the President
By Elden Auker, Tom Keegan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2001 Elden Auker and Tom Keegan
All rights reserved.
An Underhanded Living
I didn't much care what was going on in major league baseball when I was a child, hunting squirrels with my cousin in Norcatur, Kansas. Sure, it was fun to play baseball, but why would I care what players were doing thousands of miles away when I was never going to see them anyway? I guess Babe Ruth was probably the only ballplayer whose name I would have recognized. Everybody was familiar with Babe Ruth.
Little did I know that the day would come when I would face Babe Ruth from only 60 feet and 6 inches away. I was a rookie pitching for the Tigers in 1933 and the Bambino was near the end of his career with the Yankees.
I was called in from the bullpen in the third inning. I had never been to Yankee Stadium and the walk in from the bullpen seemed as if it spanned four miles. Ruth watched from the on-deck circle as I took my warm-up tosses, underhand, as always.
I wasn't thinking about the fact that the biggest name in baseball's history was standing in front of me. I wasn't thinking about how he dominated the game in a way no man had ever before dominated a sport. I also wasn't thinking about the 60 home runs he hit in 1927, or the fact that in 1920 — the year he brought back the game from the depths of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 — he hit more home runs (54) than any other entire American League team. I viewed him the way I viewed any hitter, as a man I needed to get out. I struck him out on four pitches.
Next inning, as I was warming up, Art Fletcher, the Yankees' third -base coach who had a tough, lantern-jawed look about him, let me have it.
"Hey, bush, over here," he hollered. "Bush, bush, over here. Right here, bush. Look over here."
Finally, I snuck a glance in his direction and he was all over me.
"You got the Bam real upset," Fletcher hollered. "He's mad, all right. The Bam says he's been struck out plenty of times, but that's the first time he's ever been struck out by a damn girl!"
After the game I was sitting down in the locker room next to Tommy Bridges, my roommate. I told Tommy I was so mad at Fletcher that I wanted to grab a bat, storm into their locker room, and pretend he was a baseball.
Years later I mentioned the incident to the Babe when we were golfing at Bobby Jones Country Club in Sarasota. All the guys laughed when I told them what Fletcher had said to me. The Babe assured me that that was just Fletcher making up a story to get under the rookie's skin.
Of course I realized later that Fletcher was just doing his job. That's the way it was. Old-timers treated youngsters who came up unmercifully to try to rattle them. I became friends with Fletcher later in my career and told him I wanted to kill him that day. He turned out to be a pretty nice guy.
I didn't like being called a girl, but I wasn't about to change the way I pitched, either. It worked well enough for me to get to the big leagues at the age of 22.
I played football, basketball, and baseball at Kansas State, which at the time was known as Kansas Agricultural and Mechanical College. In my first football game (as a sophomore against Purdue) I injured my shoulder in a way that is now referred to as a separation. That meant my days of throwing overhand were over; so, I learned to throw sidearm and did so throughout my college career.
After turning down a $6,000 offer from the Chicago Bears in order to sign with the Tigers for $450, I was convinced to drop my throwing motion down even further by Bob Coleman, my manager in Decatur when I was playing for the Class B Three-I League. Bob told me about Carl Mays, a submarine-style pitcher who won 208 games for the Red Sox, Yankees, Reds, and Giants from 1915 to 1929. Coleman said he caught him in the minor leagues and was impressed with how he was able to control his pitches compared to sidearm throwers.
"That plate is only 17 inches wide and you're trying to hit it from 60 feet, 6 inches," Coleman said. "Not too many pitchers can get it over consistently throwing sidearm. That target gets pretty small and you've got to get the ball over the plate if you're going to be a major-league pitcher. You're cutting your angle down when you're throwing sidearm. That's why the overhand pitchers are more effective. I'd like to see you try throwing directly underhand. I'd like to see you line up with the plate, turn your rear to the hitter, and get your arm underneath. Then you have your control and all you have to work on is how high you're going to throw it because you're lined up."
I pitched batting practice for about five days throwing underhand and all the guys were moaning and complaining. Based on that, it seemed to be a pretty effective way to frustrate hitters.
Quincy, Illinois, which was leading the Three-I League (so named because the teams were all in Illinois, Indiana, or Iowa), was coming to town and Coleman told me he was going to start me in that game.
"I want you to throw underhand and I never want you to throw a ball any other way but underhand the whole game," he said. "I don't care how many hits you give up or how many you walk. I'm going to leave you in the whole game and I want you to throw every pitch underhand."
I tried it, beat them 1 — 0, and struck out 15 batters. I never again threw a pitch any other way. If not for Bob Coleman teaching me to come from down under, I probably never would have made it to the majors, and I wouldn't have been able to count some of the greatest men ever to play the game as such good friends.
I never felt compelled to apologize for making an "underhanded" living. But my style of pitching did lead to extra taunting, never more pointed than when delivered by Fletcher. It also led to opportunities that otherwise might not have come my way.
The unusual pitching motion landed me my first endorsement: "Submarine pitcher Elden Auker smokes Camels." They paid me $500 a year and sent me 12 free cartons of Camel cigarettes for lending my name to the product. They were so strong that they burned my throat up; I couldn't smoke them. I'd go to the grocery store near where we lived and the man who ran the store let me trade those Camels for my preferred brand, Lucky Strikes.
I quit smoking during the winter of 1942, not long after I quit playing baseball. I was working on the manufacturing of antiaircraft guns for the war effort and I was calling on buyers, master mechanics, and plant superintendents. The first thing I would do to start the conversation was pull out a cigarette, offer one, and smoke one myself. I was calling on so many plants that before I knew it I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and at night I was exhausted, felt lousy, and had a headache from smoking.
One of our salesmen, Mac McClure, died of a heart attack. I went to the funeral to say good-bye to Mac, and right in the middle of the service I had a terrible craving for a cigarette. I worked myself into a frenzy. I said to myself, "What the hell's the matter with me? These things have such a hold on me I can't concentrate. I can't even pay respects to my friend here without thinking I have to have a cigarette." Later, when we were walking out of the cemetery, I had a pack of Phillip Morris cigarettes with one left in it. I handed it to Louie Getshaw, our treasurer, and told him to take them because I was never going to smoke another cigarette for as long as I lived. I haven't had a cigarette in my mouth since that day.
I'm sure I would have been gone long ago if I hadn't made that decision. Now, looking back on my deal with Camels, I guess maybe I do owe an apology for making an "underhanded" living, but only for the $500 I received from the makers of Camels, not for the money I was paid for pitching for the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Browns over the course of a 10-year career in the big leagues.
Throwing underhand might have made Elden Auker rare among major-league pitchers, but he certainly wasn't unique.
"Iron Man" Joe McGinnity rode his submarine-style delivery all the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His underhand pitch was nicknamed "Old Sal." He won 20 games or more in each of the first eight seasons of a career spent mostly with the New York Giants, a career that started in 1899 and ended in 1908. He twice topped 30 wins in a season.
Carl Mays, who pitched for the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Reds from 1915 to 1929, also came from down under. He won 207 games, yet is best known in baseball history as the only man to throw a pitch that killed a hitter, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, in 1920.CHAPTER 2
Babe and Lou
Whenever someone finds out what I did for a living when I was in my twenties, they inevitably get around to asking about Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. And every time I'm asked about them, I think about what a shame it was that such nice guys came to such tragic endings.
I remember Opening Day, 1939: my first game playing for the Boston Red Sox after spending six seasons with the Detroit Tigers. The Yankees were in town.
With his back to me, Lou Gehrig had one foot up on the top step at the end of the tunnel that led to both clubhouses in Boston. He was smoking a cigarette, looking out onto the field. The guys who had been talking with him had just gone onto the field and he was about to do the same.
Gehrig, strong as an ox, was forever sneaking up behind people and hoisting them straight up into the air. This was my perfect chance to get him back, the way I'd been getting him back for the past six years. I snuck up behind him and slapped a bear hug on him. He instantly fell to the ground, offering no resistance whatsoever.
"Oh Elden, don't do that," he said, obviously in pain.
Right then I knew something was seriously wrong. Gehrig was a pillar of strength and a great, good-natured guy who enjoyed little pranks like that. This wasn't the Lou Gehrig I knew.
"What the hell's the matter with you, Lou?" I asked after helping him back onto his feet.
"I don't know," he said. "There's something the matter with me. I'm so weak. I had a lousy winter and I couldn't hit the ball out of the infield all spring. I don't know what the devil it is, but something's not right."
Even as weak as he was, he was still in the lineup. He was determined to keep that streak going. We didn't know it then, but the streak was about to end at 2,130 games.
Later, in their season-opening road trip, the Yankees went to Detroit; from there Gehrig took a side trip to the Mayo Clinic near Minneapolis. It was there that he was diagnosed with amyo-trophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that relentlessly attacks the nervous system. After his death on June 2, 1941, the disease became known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Gehrig played only eight games in 1939, and that day I snuck up behind him was the last day I ever spoke with him.
I also remember seeing the Babe 14 months before he died of throat cancer. His voice was so husky you could hardly hear what he was saying.
He came to Detroit on June 21, 1947. The Ford Motor Com-pany was sponsoring American Legion Baseball in those days, and Henry Ford made Babe Ruth the honorary chairman for American Legion Baseball, paying him $50,000 a year to make appearances. Babe visited various Ford dealerships, did advertising for them, and visited American Legion teams all over the country.
Old Mr. Ford was way ahead of his time in so many ways. He didn't allow any smoking in the plant. Workers had to step outside to smoke, just like they do today. Even the great Babe Ruth had to step outside to smoke his cigar.
I reminded Babe about the day I first faced him, about how I struck him out and how hard Fletcher rode me for it. He said he remembered me telling him that story years earlier.
"That Fletcher, he was a real jockey, wasn't he?" the Babe said.
I had brought a picture I had of Babe for him to sign, and he was so taken with it that he wanted a copy for himself. We called up a reporter from the Detroit Free Press and he arranged for us to go down to the newspaper, where they made six duplicates of it for the Babe.
It was painful to hear him talking the way he did because he so loved to talk during his playing days.
Gehrig and Ruth's personalities were as different from each other as were their body types. As far as their personal relationship, I don't know anything about it except what I read in the newspapers, just like anyone else. They sure got along on the field during games though, I can tell you that.
Ruth was a very gregarious guy who loved life. He also loved to play golf. I played a lot of golf with him in Florida during the off -season. His wife, Claire, would drop him off at the golf course and pick him up after we finished our round. We played with Paul Waner, Wes Ferrell, Jack Russell, and Mickey Cochrane. We had a winter golf league for about three years.
Ruth was one of the most spontaneous, enthusiastic men you ever saw on a golf course. He had a great time out there. And he was the same way at the ballpark, always laughing and joking around. He called everybody "kid," except he pronounced it "keed." It was always, "Hey, keed." That way he didn't have to worry about remembering anybody's name. He knew everybody, even if he didn't bother to learn people's names, and everybody knew him.
Baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, made a rule that prohibited fraternization with fans. We weren't supposed to be talking to people in the stands. That was taboo. We were the actors, they were the audience, and there was to be no interaction between the two groups. That's the way Judge Landis wanted it. But Ruth paid no more attention to that rule than he did to the man on the moon. He was always waving to fans and walking over to the stands to start conversations with them.
While the Babe was flamboyant, Gehrig was a very quiet, reserved person. He lived with his mother for many, many years and took care of her until she passed away. He always had a smile on his face, a beautiful smile, but it wasn't nearly as loud a smile as Ruth's.
Ruth loved to drink and eat and he was always eating hot dogs before games. He liked to belch and pass gas and laugh about it. He was a big kid who loved life, a truly colorful character.
Claire traveled with Babe during his later years with the Yankees just to keep him in line. But nobody ever had to keep Gehrig in line. He was born in line and never stepped out of it. He was also an introvert, but if you knew him he was a friendly guy.
They both batted from the left side, but other than that they weren't much alike as hitters either. Gehrig was a solid contact hitter who had power. Ruth was more of a swinger than a pure hitter. He had remarkable power and you could strike him out more easily than you could strike out Gehrig.
Ruth had well-toned legs and was big from the waist up. He had broad shoulders, a thick chest, and a belly that hung over his belt. Ruth had a stronger upper body while Gehrig had a more powerful lower body. Gehrig, a couple of inches shorter than Ruth, had a big foundation with strong, powerful legs. His calves looked like little barrels. He had a small waist, no belly, and was all muscle.
Certain hitters you wouldn't dare throw at because to do so would be to wake them up. Ruth was one of those hitters. Other hitters you had to throw at to keep them from digging in at the plate. It was either throw at them or let them wear you out. That was your choice. Gehrig was one of those hitters.
I routinely threw at Gehrig's feet because that's where he dug in at the plate, with that big foot of his. Until I started throwing at his feet he wore me out.
He would holler at me, "Damn you, you're throwing at my feet, aren't you?"
I'd holler back, "What do you mean I'm throwing at your feet? If I want to hit you, I'll hit you in the head, where it won't hurt."
He got it in his head that I was throwing at his feet, which was exactly where I wanted to get — in his head, by way of his feet.
He was a lowball hitter and I was a sinkerball pitcher. I was pitting my strength against his and that was dangerous for me. It was hard for me to pitch him high. I couldn't keep it up and away from him. An overhand pitcher could pitch it high and keep it away from him. It was tough for me to do that because I was coming from down below.
Once I started throwing at his feet, I did much better. I'd get him to jump, get him to skip rope at the plate.
In those days there was no penalty for throwing at hitters. You could throw at anybody you wanted to throw at. On one particular afternoon I was throwing at Gehrig's feet while Bill McGowan was the home-plate umpire.
"Bill, he's throwing at my feet," Gehrig hollered to McGowan.
I hit Gehrig's toe with my next pitch and there he was: on his seat, rubbing his foot, cursing me, and saying I told you so to an umpire who didn't have an ounce of sympathy for him.
"Damn it Bill, I told you he was throwing at my feet," Gehrig said to McGowan. "He broke my toe." And I did break his toe, too.
Excerpted from Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms by Elden Auker, Tom Keegan. Copyright © 2001 Elden Auker and Tom Keegan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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