Here in the U.S., we love our superstars. We love to deify them and, just as often, tear them down. Either way, the names we glorify last for generations. Even twenty year olds have heard of Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart, regardless of whether they’ve seen a movie made in the 20th century. Elvis Presley is still a recognized reference, albeit less so these days than Madonna or Michael Jackson.
Likewise in sports, people know who we mean when we are talking about Michael Jordan or Brett Favre. In baseball, we’ve had our Legends: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. But while these giants live on for decades, we forget the other people that played – the stars that weren’t quite superstars. Looking back at statistics, championship results and stories, we can spot the brilliance of some of those who flew under the radar during their own time, and who still don’t get the recognition they deserve.
A prime example is Charlie Gehringer, who played second base for the Detroit Tigers from 1924-1942. He was a very quiet, personal man who rarely had a word for the media. Having grown up on a farm in rural Michigan, the brashness of the city boys and big market teams held no appeal for him. During an era of larger-than-life heroes, he was drowned out by the huge bats of contemporaries like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
Still, he was a beloved star in Detroit, and is likely still a known name in that city. But to the average baseball fan, his name is all but forgotten. Most of the time, when modern fans think of great second basemen, they rattle off names like Chase Utley, Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, Robinson, Carew and Morgan. Going back further, they sometimes recall Eddie Collins and Napoleon Lajoie, memorable names from the early days of baseball. And of course there was Rogers Hornsby, easily the best hitting second baseman of all time. Lesser players like Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon, perennial World Series participants on famous Yankees teams, are often remembered before Gehringer.
Even on the Detroit Tigers, Gehringer sometimes played in the shadow of teammates. In 1934 and ’35, the Tigers won back to back pennants, winning the World Series in ’35. While Gehringer was a huge part of this success, he nonetheless was outshown by two teammates. Michey Cochran, the Tigers’ catcher, won the MVP in 1934 – Gehringer finished second – and the famous Tiger Hank Greenberg won it in ’35.
Gehringer didn’t steal bases like the former Tigers superstar Ty Cobb or hit lots of homers like his teammate Greenberg. What he did do was get on base, hit lots of doubles and triples, and play an outstanding second base.
Twice, Gehringer completed a season with an OBP of over .450, and seven other times he ended over .400. His career OBP was .404, and he is one of only six second basemen in the modern era (1920-present) to finish with a career percentage over .400. He is currently 7th among second basemen in SLG at .480. For those who are more inclined towards the deeper SABRmetrics, Gehringer ranks 8th among second basemen in career wRC+ (124).
Looking at the classic stats, Gehringer has the 4th highest batting average of modern second basemen (.320) and had over 200 hits seven different times. Perhaps most remarkable were his 60 doubles in 1936 and 19 triples in 1929.
During his peak five years (1933-37), Gehringer was easily the best fielding second baseman in the American League. In that stretch his 55 Total Zone score lead all AL second basemen, and he was just one short of the MLB lead. Over the course of his career, he lead the AL in fielding percentage five times, and finished in the top three four other times. Speaking to his longevity, among second basemen in the modern era, Gehringer ranks fourth in Putouts (5369) and second in Assists (7068) .
He was part of three AL pennant winning teams, and in 90 World Series plate appearances, only struck out once, with an OBP of .375. In 1937, when he hit .371, he won the AL MVP, and was on the All-Star team six times.
For these reasons, Gehringer should be considered one of the top three or four ballplayers at his position. (Hornsby, Morgan and Gehringer wouldn’t be a bad start to a “greatest” list for second basemen.) Gehringer wasn’t showy, and he didn’t play in a big city like Philadelphia or New York. But it’s amazing what looking past the spotlight can sometimes reveal.