“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Early in his career on the baseball diamond he was a man without a position. Luckily for him, the power emanating from his bat allowed him to hang around the major leagues long enough to settle into the only position he could play reasonably well. In August 1937 he broke a home run record set by the immortal Babe Ruth. He had a habit of falling asleep with burning cigarettes in his hand, setting many a hotel room on fire. Finally, he had a fondness for alcohol that contributed to an early departure from the major league scene. That summarizes what most fans and historians of the game know about Rudy York.
The fact is, however, Rudy York had a solid major league career. From 1937 through 1947, no one in the major leagues had more home runs, runs batted in or total bases than Rudy York, albeit because Rudy was one of the few stars who managed to avoid military service during the war. He had little formal education and grew up in the small mill towns of rural northwest Georgia where so many young people were naturally drawn into the same blue-collar existence as their parents, working in the mills for meager wages. Rudy’s baseball skills allowed him to rise above the mill and enjoy, at least for a few years, widespread public recognition and financial comfort. The recognition and financial comfort diminished considerably after Rudy’s baseball career was over. A close observer of his career can’t help but come to conclusion that, while he had a fine stay in “the show,” he could have accomplished more.
Preston Rudolph York was born in Ragland, Alabama on August 17, 1913. He was the third of five surviving children of Arthur and Beulah (Locklear) York. According to family history, Beulah’s grandmother on her mother’s side, Elizabeth (Meddows) Barrett, was a full-blooded Cherokee. Although he was born in Alabama, Rudy’s parents and their respective families had roots in the rural communities of northwest Georgia.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Rudy developed a liking for baseball at a young age. In 1903, the American Textile Company built a factory on the western outskirts of Cartersville, Georgia. In order to attract a stable base of employees, the company also established a village around the factory. The village, known as Atco, was owned and operated by the company and eventually included several hundred modest houses which were rented to the employees, as well as a grocery store, a church, a schoolhouse, a laundry, a community center and swimming pool, and its own power plant. The factory processed cotton into thread and other products for a number of different textile applications.
Beulah York moved her family to the Atco community in the late 1920s. Census records from 1930 indicate the family was living in the village by that time; Rudy and some of his siblings worked in the factory while Beulah helped make ends meet by taking in several boarders. Atco, like most other mill villages of the time, had its own baseball club that played against mill teams in other nearby towns. Rudy’s road to professional baseball began in Atco. The Goodyear Rubber Company purchased the Atco plant in June of 1929, and the baseball team played a schedule of “league” games against other Goodyear plants in nearby towns in addition to its non-league schedule against other traditional rivals in the area. By 1930 Rudy was a blossoming star amongst the other players.
In 1931, Atco, along with many of its traditional rivals, including the Goodyear teams from Cedartown and Rockmart, created the Northwest Georgia Textile League. Rudy continued to prove his superior skills against older players. Out of forty-eight times at bat, he hit six singles, eleven doubles, two triples and six home runs. His average was .520. He finished the season as the league’s home run champion.
In 1932, Rudy moved to center field and continued to showcase his talents. He was inexplicably absent from the Atco lineup for several games that summer. Rudy led the Supertwisters to an outstanding second-half record, and they defeated the Goodyear team from Cedartown in the playoffs for that season’s championship.
For Rudy, 1933 was a watershed year. He moved to third base for the Atco nine. After two weekends of play, Rudy’s name disappeared from the Atco box scores and the Tribune-News announced he had received a tryout with the Knoxville Smokies of the Southern Association. The Knoxville club got off to a horrendous start in 1933. Having suffered through a 1-7 home stand at the end of April and with an overall record of 4-13, Smokies owner Bob Allen began making wholesale roster changes.
Rudy made his debut in Organized Baseball that day in Memphis, playing left field and going 1 for 4 with a single in an 11-1 loss to the Chicks. He played his last game for the Smokies later as Knoxville dropped all three games of the series to the Chicks while Rudy went just 1 for 10 in the three games. Rudy was released and he returned to Atco’s lineup in mid-May, playing first base upon his return. By late May he disappeared again, having joined the LaGrange Troopers of the Georgia State League, an independent league unaffiliated with Organized Baseball. A few short days after he joined the team, the franchise was shifted to Albany, Georgia and re-dubbed the “Indians.” Rudy became the regular third baseman after an injury to another player. He played with Albany for three weeks; Rudy and two other teammates abruptly left the team on June 24 while in Macon. It is not clear why Rudy and the others abandoned the Indians. It is possible there were financial issues; the Indians were taken over by the league in July when the owners could no longer shoulder the financial burden of operating the team. There was some conjecture that Rudy and his teammates intended to sign with another team in the league, but the league president quickly forbid that possibility.
Detroit scout Eddie Goosetree had shown up in Atco in May to sign Rudy for the Detroit Tigers only to discover Rudy was already in Knoxville. Whatever the chain of events, Goosetree got his man the first week of July. Rudy was signed and sent to the Shreveport Sports of the Class C Dixie League. Rudy played twelve games at second base for the Shreveport Sports before being removed from the roster on July 27 because of defensive weaknesses. Upon leaving Shreveport, Rudy reported to the Beaumont Exporters of the Class A Texas League. On July 31 Rudy was inserted at catcher with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning when Beaumont’s regular catcher, George Susce, suffered a broken collarbone in a collision at home plate. Rudy received little playing time at Beaumont; he made a few appearances at third base and in the outfield and batted just .189 in 37 official at-bats.
In early May of 1934 Beaumont sent Rudy to the Fort Worth Panthers – another Texas League team – “on loan” with the understanding that Beaumont would not recall him before the end of the season unless Fort Worth was willing to return Rudy to Beaumont earlier. On August 10, with Fort Worth out of contention and Beaumont fighting to qualify for the playoffs, the Cats agreed to return Rudy to the Exporters for the remainder of the season. That decision created a firestorm in the Texas League and paved the way for Rudy’s major league debut.
To his great surprise and delight, on August 16th, Rudy received word to report to the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers, fighting for a pennant of their own, decided to bring Rudy up to the major leagues with the hope that he might provide some power off the bench. Rudy spent his twenty-first birthday riding the train to Detroit, where he briefly met with the press at Navin Field before traveling on to join the team in Boston.
Detroit fans were told scouts and others familiar with Rudy’s performance in the Texas League were very high on him. Rudy made his major league debut as a pinch-hitter on August 22, striking out against Earl Whitehill of the Senators. Rudy was on the Tiger roster for the 1934 World Series but did not make an appearance in the fall classic. At the end of the season, Rudy was reassigned to the Beaumont roster.
Rudy began the season as the Exporters’ main catcher, with manager Dutch Lorbeer providing occasional relief. On May 30, Lorbeer moved Rudy to first base to replace George Archie and installed himself as the Exporters’ primary catcher. Rudy began a hitting barrage after his switch to first base that moved him to the front of the home run race, while his average slowly began moving towards the .300 mark. In the championship series, Oklahoma City reinforced its standing as the best team in the league by defeating Beaumont four games to one. For the season, Rudy hit .301 and led the league in home runs (32), runs batted in (117) and total bases (198) and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player for his efforts.
Although Rudy was destined to ply his trade for the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association in 1936, his assignment to the Brewers did not come without some spring training intrigue. Rudy’s MVP season in Beaumont earned him an invitation to train with the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida that spring. His conversion to first base served the Tigers’ immediate needs as well. The start of spring training found first baseman Hank Greenberg in a contract squabble with the Tigers’ front office. Greenberg had led the Tigers to the 1935 AL pennant and was voted the league’s MVP. He was fully recovered from the broken wrist he suffered in Game 2 of the 1935 World Series and expected to be rewarded appropriately for his fine 1935 season. While Hank whiled away his time in New York waiting for the Tigers to improve their offer, Rudy put on powerful performances early in camp while playing first base in Greenberg’s stead, and the Tigers made sure the press knew how happy they were with Rudy’s play throughout the spring schedule.
The public relations campaign was effective, if unnecessary. The next day it was announced Hank had decided to travel to Florida to work out his contract with the Tigers. Rudy was optioned to Milwaukee the first week of April. By the end of May, the Brewers had moved into the league lead by one-half games over Kansas City. Rudy led the Brewer regulars with a .341 average and was tied with Chet Laabs for the team lead with 42 runs driven in. The Brewers led the league at the halfway point in the season, which entitled them to host the American Association All-Star game.
Rudy finished the regular season with a team-leading .334 average (including 207 hits), and he was second on the team in homers (37) and runs batted in (148)
Rudy’s performance in Milwaukee virtually assured him of a place on Detroit’s roster in 1937. He had nothing left to prove as a minor leaguer, and Mickey Cochrane was anxious to add Rudy’s bat to the Tiger lineup in 1937. The only problem was where Rudy would play in the field. Hank Greenberg was well established at first base, and although Mickey Cochrane suggested that Greenberg might be moved to the outfield to make way for Rudy at first, Hank was having no part of it. For his part, Rudy much preferred to play first base, but he knew he had no better chance of displacing Greenberg in 1937 than he’d had in 1936.
Rudy hit his first major league home run on April 29 against the White Sox’ Earl Whitehill, but by early May his defensive liabilities were too obvious to overlook. Although his fielding continued to be a problem, Rudy’s offensive output improved considerably with his return to the lineup.
Rudy’s late home run surge and his race with Hank Greenberg for the club home run title, along with Charley Gehringer’s run at a batting crown and eventual MVP title, kept the turnstiles humming at Navin Field in 1937; the Tigers finished first in the league in attendance, drawing just over 1 million fans. The Sporting News named Rudy to its All-Rookie Team for 1937. His hitting also bought him his first taste of widespread national exposure among the general public when he made the cover of Newsweek magazine with the caption “Rudy York: Greatest slugger since Babe Ruth?”
Rudy was named to the AL All-Star team and struck out in a pinch-hitting role. For the season, Rudy hit .298 with 33 home runs, including a record-tying 4 grand slams,83 and 127 runs batted in.
The Tigers were never in pennant contention in 1939; they finished in fifth place with an 81-73 record. Rudy, his playing time significantly reduced (he had just 329 official at-bats) hit .307 with 20 home runs and 68 runs batted in.
Having finally shifted Greenberg to left field and installed Rudy at first, the Tigers fielded a very competitive team in 1940. In addition to helping Detroit to pennants in 1940 and 1945, after taking over at first base he was in the lineup almost every day during his last for 6 years with the Tigers. In fact, from May 24, 1942 through July 30, 1942, Rudy held the active “iron man” title in the major leagues; his consecutive games played streak would reach 422 before ending on July 31. Rudy played in at least 150 games each year from 1940 through 1947. He was never drafted into military service (he was rejected in April 1944 because of a “loose knee”) and was one of only 13 players in all of the majors to start each opening day game between 1941 and 1946.
The looming crisis associated with the United States’ eventual entry into World War II would have a tremendous effect on major league baseball. Every team would be decimated by the loss of most of their top stars to military service. The Tigers lost Hank Greenberg to military service early in the 1941 season before the United States even got into the war; Charlie Gehringer slumped badly at the plate while Bobo Newsom and Schoolboy Rowe both regressed on the mound as the Tigers stumbled to a fifth-place finish. Rudy played in all 155 games in 1941.
Heading into the 1942 season, Rudy had his first major contract squabble with the Tigers. Despite starting at first base in the All-Star game for the second straight year and hitting what would be the game winning, two-run home run in the first inning off of Mort Cooper in the Polo Grounds, Rudy fell short of his bonus goal; he finished with a .260 batting average, 21 home runs and 90 runs batted in for the season.
In 1943, the Tigers again finished fifth in the standings. Rudy finished third in the MVP voting. His 34 homers represented 48.5% of the 70 home runs hit by the Tigers that year. Things began to look up for the Tigers in 1944. The Tigers went into the last game of the season tied for the league lead with the surprising St. Louis Browns. The Tigers and Dizzy Trout lost their final game at Washington, while the Browns, powered by Chet Laabs’ 2 home runs, defeated the Yankees to clinch their first and only AL pennant. Rudy made the All-Star team for the fifth time and finished with a .276 average, 18 homers and 98 runs batted in.
Rudy got off to another slow start in 1945. He didn’t hit his first home run of the season until the first game of a doubleheader on May 27. Buoyed by Hank Greenberg’s return to action on July 1, the Tigers clinched the pennant on the last day of the season when Greenberg hit a grand slam in the top of the 9th inning to beat St. Louis 6-3 in the first game of a scheduled doubleheader. For the season, Rudy hit .264 with 18 home runs and 87 runs batted in; his18 home runs were good for a tie for 2nd place. Detroit won the 1945 Series in seven games over the Cubs. Rudy had just 5 hits in the Series.
Looking ahead, the Tigers were faced with a problem for the 1946 season. It was obvious Greenberg’s legs would no longer allow him to play the outfield. The Tigers also had a glut of other outfielders returning to the team after their service in the war. A move back to first base was inevitable for Greenberg, but that left the club with a decision on what to do about York. Rudy, it appeared to many, seemed to be slowing down. The Tigers went to the winter meeting in December 1945 with the hope of trading him, but came away empty handed. The Tigers finally traded Rudy to the Red Sox for shortstop Eddie Lake in January 1946.
Rudy performed poorly at the Red Sox’ spring training camp in 1946, and there was much consternation among the press that the trade with the Tigers was a bust. When the regular season started, Rudy proved them all wrong and helped Boston get off to a 41-9 start, an all-time record for the best start to the season after 50 games. More importantly, the Red Sox had a 10-game lead on the Yankees by that point in the season and were never really threatened the rest of the way. Shortly after being named to his sixth All-Star game, Rudy enjoyed the best single day of his career on July 27 in St. Louis when he hit two grand slams and drove in 10 runs against the Browns. Boston reached the one million mark in attendance for the first time in its history on August 16 and clinched the AL pennant on September 13 in Cleveland. After clinching the pennant, manager Joe Cronin sent many of his regulars back to Boston to get some rest for the postseason. Rudy declined the opportunity to rest. “I’m a 154-game man” he said. Rudy finished the season with a .276 average, 17 home runs and 119 runs batted in. Rudy acquitted himself well at the plate in the 1946 World Series; his tenth-inning home run won Game 1 for the Sox while his 3-run home run in the first inning of Game 3 gave the Red Sox an early lead that they would never surrender. The Red Sox lost Game 7, and the Series, on Enos Slaughter’s “mad dash” scoring play from first in the eighth inning. Rudy finished the Series with a .261 average, 2 home runs and 5 runs batted in. Back home in Cartersville after the Series, a banquet was held in Rudy’s honor.
Rudy did get mad at Williams at least once in 1946. Williams had shown a lack of hustle in the outfield one day, and Rudy confronted him in the dugout. “You’re going to stop that,” he said to the temperamental left fielder; “This means something to the rest of us. You’re not going to do that anymore.”
Former teammate Don Gutteridge said years later, “Rudy was a good person to have in the clubhouse. He was older, more experienced, a stabilizer. He would talk to Williams, try to help Ted focus and get the most out of his talents, not just at the plate. Rudy wasn’t part of the Boston clique. He wasn’t with the team when Doerr, Pesky, DiMaggio and Williams were coming up together. He was an outsider and that made it easier for him to scold Ted….Rudy didn’t get the credit he deserved for helping the Red Sox get the pennant. The others got all of the attention. But Rudy loved to hit at Fenway.”
In 1947, Rudy got off to the terribly slow start that everyone had feared in 1946. Furthermore, his fondness for alcohol may have begun to get the better of him. He was pulled out of his burning room at the Miles Standish Hotel late on the evening of April 25th; Rudy had “fallen asleep” with a lit cigarette in his hand and witnesses indicated the room was strewn with liquor bottles. Some of his teammates took him away before too many people had a chance to witness his condition. Rudy’s penchant for burning up hotel rooms this way was a source of frequent comment from teammates and the press over the years.
Rudy played his last game for the Red Sox on June 13 against Chicago; batting just .212 at the time, he was traded to the White Sox for first baseman Jake Jones after the game.
When asked about Rudy’s drinking, Don Gutteridge acknowledged that Rudy enjoyed bending his elbow, but “…he never caused trouble intentionally. Rudy would drink alone a lot of times in his room. We had a lot of spare time, particularly on the road. Rudy would drink and smoke and fall asleep, drop a cigarette and next thing you knew, you had a fire.” Gutteridge indicated Rudy’s skills seemed to be deteriorating in 1947, possibly from the drinking, and, in his opinion, that probably led to the trade.
Rudy hit a little better after joining the White Sox; he was named to his seventh, and last, All-Star team in July. He hit what turned out to be his last major league home run on September 18 against Spec Shea in a 3-1 loss at Yankee Stadium. The White Sox finished sixth that year with a record of 70-84. Rudy finished the season with an average of .243, 21 home runs and 91 runs batted in. He was released by the White Sox in January 1948.
Connie Mack signed Rudy for the 1948 season as an insurance policy for Ferris Fain, the Athletics’ incumbent first baseman who was suffering from knee problems. He made just two plate appearances after July 31, both as a pinch-hitter. Again, there were hushed rumors that Rudy was not taking care of himself. Rudy was released at the end of the season, his major league career over at the age of 35. What extent alcohol played a role in his early exit from the major leagues is unclear.
Rudy estimated that he had earned over a quarter of a million dollars playing baseball, and he had spent every dime he made. He grew up poor, and when he had money he wanted to give himself and his family everything they wanted. In the end, all he had to show for his career was the house they were living in.
In 1949, Rudy made a few appearances in the Northwest Georgia Textile League before he was hired in June to take over as player-manager for the Griffin (Georgia) Tigers of the Georgia-Alabama League. Rudy was out of baseball completely in 1950. Rudy joined the Youngstown Athletics of the Mid-Atlantic League as a player-coach in early May. Closing out with a 13-game losing streak, Rudy’s overall managerial record with Youngstown/Oil City was 19-64. Rudy, however, had been having a tremendous year at the plate. By the time Oil City folded, Rudy was approaching the league’s single-season record for home runs. He was signed by the New Castle club on August 13 but fell short of setting a new record, although he did lead the league in homers. Official statistics show Rudy batted .291 with 34 home runs and 107 runs batted in for the season. In 1952, Rudy played with the Benson-DeGraff Irish Chiefs, a semi-pro team in the West Central League, which was part of an extensive network of amateur and semi-pro teams in Minnesota.
Rudy was out of baseball again in 1953, when he took a job in the Cartersville office of the Georgia Forestry Commission. By 1956, Rudy was working for the New York Yankees as an advance scout. During his time in the majors, Rudy acquired a much-deserved reputation as a student of opposing pitchers.
Rudy rejoined the Red Sox organization in 1958 as a hitting instructor for the Memphis Chicks. The following year, he was hired by Boston to serve as first-base coach under manager Pinky Higgins. When Higgins was fired by the Sox in 1959 after a July 2 loss to the Senators, Rudy acted as manager for the July 3rd game in Baltimore, won by the Orioles by a 6-1 score.
Of course, the promotion was extremely short-lived. Billy Jurges took over as permanent manager the next day. Rudy stayed with the Red Sox through the 1962 season; he was fired when Johnny Pesky was hired to manage the team in ’63. Rudy served as a coach for the Eastern League’s Reading Red Sox in 1963 under manager Eddie Popowski.
In 1964 Rudy was a coach for the Statesville, North Carolina, Colts in the Western Carolina League and took over as manager in June when Dave Philley was sent to the Florida Instructional League to work with the Colt .45s’ minor league rookies.129 Statesville finished the season in seventh place, 18 games out. It was Rudy’s last job in professional baseball.
Rudy lived the rest of his life in Cartersville, working as a self-employed house painter. He received 1 vote in the 1962 Hall of Fame election, and 10 votes in 1964. Lung cancer led to the removal of part of a lung in November 1969. After an initial recovery, Rudy developed pneumonia and died in the hospital in Rome, Georgia on February 5, 1970.
He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1972, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1979. The baseball field in the Atco community of Cartersville is named in his honor; a monument with a commemorative plaque stands next to the ball field.