Aukward memories

March 16, 2021

Just a quick note—I know I said I’d avoid doing any more tracers, but this is just too good.

I should join a 12-step program for tracer-junkies, I know. Kinder, gentler tracer-junkies than I am, like Rob Neyer, my inspiration in doing these things, are mostly amused when the telling varies wildly from the discernable facts, expressing great tolerance for the tellers and mis-tellers of baseball history, but I usually see something malevolent, even twisted, in human nature that prevents these guys from relating the facts as they occurred, or at least from telling the microphones thrust in front of them, "Gosh it was so long ago—I really can’t help you out. I barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday."

I’m a big sucker for oral histories, where the guys who played the game remember what happened on the field way back when, but of course mostly they mis-remember what actually happened. Usually, we just plow on in the text, assuming they got the facts, or a few facts, or a few important facts right, and don’t go running to baseball-reference.com to check them out.  What I’ve found over the years is that whenever my Spidey-sense twitches, and I do go running to the record books, I’ve never NOT been able to find a flaw, often a serious flaw, in the telling—and that serious flaw is nearly always to the credit of the teller of the tale, never to his disparagement (unless the story’s point is to prove what a fool the teller was, in which case the exaggeration is always to his disparagement).  

So I’m reading Bombers: an oral history of the New York Yankees by Richard Lally, a series of transcribed recordings of the Yankees’ dynasty, which I happen to own because I took it out from the library a decade ago and then couldn’t find it for several years, by which time I’d paid the library for it as a lost book, so I re-read it now and then to get my money’s worth. Anyway, I came across this passage from Elden Auker, a 1930s pitcher with an unusual underhanded motion that supposedly baffled Babe Ruth. Auker explains it as follows.

The first time I faced Ruth was 1933. I’m a rookie with the Tigers, and he was near the end of the line, but he was still dangerous. I was in the bullpen and Bucky [Harris] called me in to relieve Carl Fischer. Who walks up to the plate but Ruth. First time in Yankee Stadium and I’m facing the Babe. Struck him out on four pitches. Then I got Gehrig out to end the inning."

 

Sentence by sentence:

The first time I faced Ruth was 1933.

Auker pitched twice in his rookie season against the Yankees, once at home, once in the Bronx. In the Bronx game, which is where this humiliation of the Babe took place ("First time in Yankee Stadium"), Auker didn’t strike Ruth out upon entering the game, mainly because Ruth was not available to be struck out. He never got into that game, so, no, first shot out of the box, Auker’s entire story is fatally flawed.  (Box score and play by play of game: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA193309120.shtml ). The first batter Auker faced in Yankee Stadium was Joe Sewell, not Babe Ruth.

But wait! There’s more, much more:

Kinder, gentler souls than mine would sometimes be inclined to say, OK, maybe Auker screwed his story up by remembering the away game instead of the home game against the Yankees in 1933—no capital crime there, anyone could mistake Detroit and his own wife’s cooking for New York City and room service, so let’s see if this might have happened in Navin Field instead: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/DET/DET193308272.shtml.

Uh, no. No Babe Ruth that day, either. Ruth got into 137 games in 1933, but skipped both games where Auker pitched.

OK, coulda happened to anybody. Maybe Auker got the year wrong. If it wasn’t 1933, it had to be 1934, though, because that was the only other year both Ruth and Auker played in the AL.

Here we have five Tigers-Yankees matchups that Auker played in, so this strikeout must have occurred in 1934, right?

Second sentence:

I’m a rookie with the Tigers, and he was near the end of the line, but he was still dangerous.

Well, not so dangerous if he wasn’t in the lineup, so we move on to the third sentence:

I was in the bullpen and Bucky [Harris] called me in to relieve Carl Fischer.

Problem here is that Harris was fired as the Tigers’ manager at the end of the 1933 season (Del Baker took over for the Tigers’ last two games.) By 1934, Mickey Cochrane had been hired to manage the team.

Just as an aside, there is a Babe Ruth connection here, though it has nothing to do with Elden Auker.  According to Jane Leavy’s biography of Ruth, he was hungry for a big-league managerial job at this late point in his career, and was offered the Tiger job after the 1933 season was over. But the offer came while he was on one of his barnstorming tours, and he wired the Tigers’ owner that he would negotiate terms for the job when he got home (I think he was in Hawaii at the time). By the time Ruth returned to the mainland, Cochrane had the job, and Ruth never got another managerial offer again, to his enormous frustration.

So the Babe was in the lineup in two games at Yankee Stadium in 1934, facing Cochrane’s Tigers, in which Auker got to pitch.  The first game, on May 5, 1934 is probably the one that Auker is relating in Bombers, as he did relieve starter Carl Fischer in the second inning, and did retire the first two batters, who were Ruth and Gehrig. https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA193405050.shtml

He didn’t strike Ruth out, much less do so on four pitches. Ruth hit a groundball that scored a runner from third base.

Maybe Auker mixed up this game with the other one in Yankee Stadium, in addition to mixing up 1933 with 1934 and Bucky Harris with Mickey Cochrane?

No, he didn’t strike out Ruth in that game either: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA193406160.shtml. Ruth hit a single against Auker, who came in in relief of Tommy Bridges, driving in two runs, at which point Ruth came out of the game. 

Well, maybe Auker just confused Yankee Stadium with Navin Field, which is—oh, the hell with it. I will flip over all the cards and reveal Auker’s lifetime record (all in 1934) against Babe Ruth, home and away:

 

PA

AB

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

8

7

5

0

0

2

9

1

0

.714

.750

1.571

2.321

 

I call your attention to the ninth column (SO = 0), but note that the overall performance is none too shabby, especially for a fat guy on the verge of retirement. The batting average matches Ruth’s lifetime HR tally, which ain’t bad, and the OPS looks plenty healthy too.

So where did Auker’s final four sentences

Who walks up to the plate but Ruth. First time in Yankee Stadium and I’m facing the Babe. Struck him out on four pitches. Then I got Gehrig out to end the inning.

come from?  Only his proctologist knows for sure, and Auker’s medical records may never be unsealed. But of special interest to me are the layers of detail in this short anecdote, layers that imply far more certainty than if Auker had merely noted, "I got Ruth out the first time I faced him, and Gehrig, too." You read something like that and you go "Huh, doesn’t seem as if Auker remembers that game very clearly. There are no details about how he got Ruth out—a flyball? A grounder?—and there are no details about where the game took place, what inning it was, whether he started or relieved. Sounds kind of fake to me."

It’s the details that lend authenticity to Auker’s capacious memory. I especially enjoyed the detail of striking him out on four pitches, and would have enjoyed  a few further details about that fourth pitch. Did Ruth hit a long, scary foul ball? Or did Auker miss the plate on a close one that he felt should have been called a strike? My point is that recalling that he struck Ruth out on three straight pitches might have seemed fantastical—it’s that fourth pitch that fleshes out the incident convincingly.

Somewhat improbably, Auker goes on to draw a conclusion from this one strikeout that the facts, particularly that eye-bulging 2.321 OPS, bely: that he was a source of vexation to Babe Ruth, a maddeningly effective pitcher against the great hitter. "Babe didn’t hit too many balls hard against me because he couldn’t pick up the ball. His eyes didn’t help him. It’s like I was pitching to his blind spot, taking away his advantage."

Auker also quotes a Yankees coach, Art Fletcher, confiding in him that Ruth had complained about his unmanly pitching style: "You got the Bam [Ruth] all upset. He said he’s been struck out before, but it’s the first time he’d ever been struck out by a goddamned woman."

More improbably, Auker then tells of conversations he had personally with an upset and frustrated  Babe Ruth:

Fletcher said that because I threw underhand, submarine style. Ruth didn’t like that delivery. Several times he told me, "Elden, I just can’t pick up your ball. After you release it, I have trouble following it."

These recollected conversations, with direct quotations, now take us from the realm of self-serving false memories into conscious fictionalizing. It’s one thing to misremember details from one’s youth, but when you start recounting conversations that not only did not take place, but which couldn’t have taken place, you raise the possibility that you’re perfectly aware of what really happened and are taking deliberate advantage of the opportunity to exaggerate and aggrandize your accomplishments.

If Ruth had knocked in 9 runs off me in only 7 at bats, I might have taken a swing at him if he teased me by claiming he just couldn’t follow my pitches. No, it seems to me far more likely than this conversation ever taking place is that Auker took his chance to get into Richard Lally’s book a story of what he wished had happened in his encounters with the Yankee star. And the funny thing is that I wouldn’t be surprised if this passage were to get quoted, and re-quoted, until it became a part of the received knowledge, and Auker were ultimately to succeed in his aim of being known by future generations as the man whom Babe Ruth couldn’t touch.

 

Don’t believe everything you read, and don’t mistake a profusion of details for the truth.

 
 
 

COMMENTS (23 Comments, most recent shown first)

benhurwitz
In the Auker-DiMaggio story, what has been said here is accurate. I looked up the NY Times account from the following day. "DiMaggio was the fourth hitter in the eighth. Sturm popped up, but there was a roar of expectancy when Red Rolfe walked. Joe McCarthy was taking no chance on Henrich slapping into a double play. In a nice gesture, he ordered Tommy to sacrifice, and this was done perfectly." No mention of the possibility of intentionally walking Joe D. There was a lot of attention on "the streak" at this point, as the 38 games put him only 3 behind the AL record then held by George Sisler.​
9:16 AM Mar 22nd
 
Steven Goldleaf
From Stiles' SABR-bio:

....former major league pitcher Elden Auker died at the age of 95. The newspapers printed Auker’s obituary describing the former Detroit Tigers player as “the only pitcher alive that faced Babe Ruth in a major league game.” Prior to his death, newspapers interviewed Auker in 2004, who explaining this distinction. Apparently, he had forgotten about Brownie pitcher Rollie Stiles – who was alive and well in a retirement community in Missouri. A baseball box score dated June 5, 1931, proved Auker’s claim erroneous..

Rollie Stiles was the last living pitcher who could accurately claim a pitching appearance (and a strikeout) against the late great Babe Ruth.


Typo there: "explaining" should be "explained."

I like the fine distinction between just-plain "claim" and "accurately claim." Anyone can take a reservation, as Seinfeld famously explained, it's the KEEPING of the reservation that's the important part.

Stiles also opines on the managerial skills of Rogers Hornsby in the article, hom he tried to play for in 1933. It didn't go well.
5:35 AM Mar 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
Wow. That's great, MWeddell! A further tracer within a tracer.

Now I wonder if any part of Auker's obit is accurate. I recall the old central axiom of journalism: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
5:43 PM Mar 20th
 
MWeddell
Steven Goldleaf
I wonder if Auker was the last pitcher living who'd faced Ruth.

Auker was the penultimate pitcher who faced Babe Ruth to die.

Rollie Stiles, an AL pitcher during 1930-33 lived to be 100, dying in 2007, one year after Auker passed away.

Stiles had a career ERA of 5.92, but he legitimately could brag that he could get Ruth out. Ruth versus Stiles: 2 for 14 (both singles) + 4 bases on balls.
3:05 PM Mar 20th
 
tickeno
Love your fact check articles. Keep it up
2:18 AM Mar 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm writing a whole other article to cover the Auker-DiMaggio at-bat, and other related issues. See you over there.
12:52 PM Mar 19th
 
Marc Schneider
"I might have walked Dimaggio and pitched to Keller instead, or at the very least given DiMaggio nothing close to the strike zone to hit."

The Browns were a bad team with nothing to play for. The Yankees won the pennant by 17 games. In those days, I imagine it would have been considered gutless to end DiMaggio's streak with an IBB. We think differently about those kinds of things today. If it had been an important game, they probably would have walked him. On the other hand, given how sabermetric analysis frowns on IBB's, maybe it was actually the correct decision. It's not like Keller was an easy out.
10:51 AM Mar 19th
 
Steven Goldleaf
This is the DiMaggio-Auker meeting in question: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA194106260.shtml

It does seem almost a mandatory IBB situation, don't it? NY was leading 3-1 in the bottom of the 8th, playing at home, so the Browns had only one more time at bat coming to them. Strategically, you'd think it was important that the Browns protect a 2-run lead if possible, and it wouldn't matter at that point if they were down by 3 runs or 12 runs. They were facing the Yankees' best pitcher in the bottom of the 9th who was working on a one-hitter. Having to score "only" twice in the 9th seems a priority to me, especially with the Yankees' best, hottest hitter at the plate with a man on second and two out. I might have walked Dimaggio and pitched to Keller instead, or at the very least given DiMaggio nothing close to the strike zone to hit. Given his record for overstatement, though, I'd check out the newspaper accounts and interviews before I'd rely on Auker's version.​
4:22 AM Mar 19th
 
DJ_Man
By the way, I checked the DiMaggio story, and it seems accurate.
12:41 AM Mar 19th
 
DJ_Man
Elden Auker used to attend meetings of our SABR chapter for Central Florida (the chapter was eventually named for him and Andy Seminick, another frequent) attendee.

We spent a lot of time asking him questions and listening to his stories. As mentioned here, he did put in a lot of detail. I don't remember the Ruth-on-4-pitches story, but he did say that Babe was a friend and that they played golf together.

He did tell how he could have stopped Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak at 38 or something with an intentional walk, but instead pitched to him, and Joe got a late hit.

I figured that he had a sharp memory for a 90-year old, but maybe not!

12:26 AM Mar 19th
 
bjames
Steven Goldleaf
I wonder if Auker was the last pitcher living who'd faced Ruth


I faced Babe Ruth several times in my rookie season. After I struck him out a few times he just tried to bunt against me, but I could still mostly get him.
3:47 PM Mar 18th
 
benhurwitz
Speaking of Jim Carothers, there was an episode of the Love Boat from that lucky year 1978 featuring Scatman Crothers, in which Scatman plays an old Negro Leagues star pitcher who tells about a dramatic exhibition game against the Yankees in which he struck out Babe Ruth in the ninth inning. "You beat the Yankees," concludes Julie. "Nope, then Lou Gehrig came up and hit a home run," says Scatman, finishing with a big laugh.
3:44 PM Mar 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I wonder if Auker was the last pitcher living who'd faced Ruth. Probably was--he was a young guy in Ruth's last year (but one) and he lived into his 90s so it's a plausible case, but I wonder if anyone has checked that out, or just relied on Auker's version. We should also reserve some skepticism about relying too much on BB-ref.com. It's not the inerrant word of God, either, though they are good at changing stats when they're shown to be incorrect.​
6:07 PM Mar 17th
 
ajmilner
As longtime magazine editor Michael Kinsley has noted, magazine fact-checkers' primary sources for documenting quotes and facts have always been newspapers -- and, unfortunately, newspapers themselves have no fact-checkers. A misquote gets published in a newspaper and a magazine cites that newspaper, that misquote becomes preserved in amber.
5:57 PM Mar 17th
 
bhalbleib
I might note the Wikipedia article compounds his "error" by suggesting Babe Ruth was the first batter he ever faced, which as Steven pointed out, he didn't even face Ruth in his first season. Furthermore, the first team he faced was the ChiSox, not the Bombers, and his first four batters faced went walk, single, single, double. (I would note his first batter faced WAS a HOFer, but my guess is that telling people you walked Luke Appling the first batter you ever faced doesn't sound as good as striking out Babe Ruth)
2:12 PM Mar 17th
 
gendlerj
I love these tracers, and I hope would be happy to see even more of them.
2:11 PM Mar 17th
 
bhalbleib
Stephen: I've never care enough to figure out how to edit Wikipedia, but if you went to Auker's Wikipedia page, this sentence would stand out:

"During his ten-year Major League career, Auker played with the Tigers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns. The first batter Auker faced was Babe Ruth, whom he struck out on four pitches. Auker was the last living pitcher to have faced Ruth.[2"

It appears that the citation is to a Washington Post article, so as a former President might say, the Post needs to check its fake news.
2:04 PM Mar 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
As an aside to my aside, it's sort of fascinating to think how much baseball history might have been changed if Ruth had just accepted the offer to manage the Tigers, just wired "YES!! I want the job! Please mail contract to Christy Walsh's office asap!! Glad to join your team!" The Tigers were a great team, won the 1934 pennant, and they might have done as well with Ruth managing them as Cochrane. Or maybe not? Would Ruth have played for them, too, as he did playing for the Braves? Played better? Worse? Longer? Would the Yankees have demanded a player in return for Ruth going to an AL rival? A good player? Would Ruth have been a good manager? Or a disaster? We'll never know, but so much hinged on Ruth's decision to tell the Tigers' owner to cool his jets for a few weeks.
12:00 PM Mar 17th
 
MWeddell
I enjoyed in these comments that Bill James does a tracer on his own comment!

This story is repeated in Auker's book, Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms. The book was published in 2006, long after Retrosheet had made it possible to fact-check this stuff, but Auker doubled-down on the story then. Auker turned 95 and died later in 2006, but a co-author and an editor apparently let the story continue to slide by.


10:34 AM Mar 17th
 
evanecurb
Perhaps Steven Goldleaf and Rob Neyer are unfamiliar with the term “alternate facts.”
9:09 AM Mar 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
One minor tip-off that this is a fishy story is Ruth addressing him as "Elden." Ruth was notorious for calling everyone "Kid" because he could never remember anyone's name. Of course, with that track record, he may have paid special attention to Auker in the hope of keeping him around as his personal BP pitcher.
5:20 AM Mar 17th
 
bjames
I checked with Jim on the details of the story below. (a) it was more like 40 years ago rather than 25, and (b) it was a "blistering letter" from Auker, rather than a phone call. What happened was, a student was doing a paper on Kansans in the major leagues, and he talked to Jim about Auker. Jim talked to him about the 1934 World Series and mixed up Auker and Schoolboy Rowe's "How'm I doin', Edna?". Somehow the student paper got quoted in the Kansas City Star, the major newspaper, and somebody showed a copy of it to Auker, who got very upset about the mistake and wrote a "blistering letter" to Dr. Carothers.

Funny thing. . .that would apparently have happened in 1977 or 1978, which would have been 43 or 44 years after the original events, the 1934 World Series. And--think about it--that mixup would now have been 43 or 44 years ago. Karma catches up with Eldon Auker.
4:35 AM Mar 17th
 
bjames
One time 25 years ago, my friend Jim Carothers published a story somewhere about the Tigers of 1934, but he made a mistake and mixed up Eldon Auker with Schoolboy Rowe. Eldon Auker somehow got Jim's phone number, called him on the phone and gave him hell about it. So I'll relay your message to Jim.
5:59 PM Mar 16th
 
 
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