Depression-Era Submarine Pitcher Elden Auker
Sunday, August 6, 2006
In his debut as a big-league pitcher in 1933, Elden Auker strode to the mound at Yankee Stadium and looked in at the first batter he would face: Babe Ruth. Mr. Auker struck him out on four pitches. He got the next batter, Yankee immortal Lou Gehrig, out with a weak pop fly.
As the last living pitcher to have faced Ruth, Mr. Auker -- who died of congestive heart failure Aug. 4 in Vero Beach, Fla., at age 95 -- had a remarkable second career as one of the last links to a storied age of baseball history.
He was 90 when he wrote a book about Depression-era baseball, "Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms," and he freely offered pointed comments on how the game had changed. When Barry Bonds surpassed Ruth's record of 714 home runs in May, Mr. Auker did not hide his contempt.
"Barry Bonds in my opinion shouldn't even be in baseball," he said. Citing rumors of Bonds's use of illegal steroids, Mr. Auker added, "If baseball had a real commissioner, Bonds wouldn't still be in the game. He's bad for baseball."
By comparison, he said, Ruth's accomplishments on the field looked even more impressive.
"Everybody loved the Babe -- teammates, fans, even opponents," he said. "The more time passes, the bigger Ruth grows."
During his 10-year career with the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns, Mr. Auker was a solid, if unspectacular, right-handed pitcher who compiled a record of 130-101, with an ERA of 4.42. He pitched in the World Series with the Tigers in 1934 and 1935, losing the seventh game of the '34 series to Dizzy Dean and the St. Louis Cardinals.
His submarine pitching motion was so extreme that Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller told the Associated Press, "He threw it from about as low as you could go without untying your shoes."
Mr. Auker had an easygoing nature that led to friendships with seemingly every great player of his time. He played golf with Ruth, knew Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio well and was a lifelong friend of Ted Williams's, whom he called "the best pure hitter I ever saw."
No fewer than nine of Mr. Auker's teammates later entered the Baseball Hall of Fame: Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove, Joe Cronin, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin and Bobby Doerr.
His catcher on the 1939 Red Sox was the enigmatic and multilingual Moe Berg, who worked as a spy for the U.S. government while visiting Japan on baseball tours. He was, Mr. Auker said, "the most mysterious guy I ever saw."
Following the hard-nosed code of the time, he never let his friendships with other players interfere with his competitive spirit: "If a guy was wearing you out, you said, 'Let's see how he hits lying down.' "
Elden Le Roy Auker was born in Norcatur, Kan., and won nine letters in baseball, basketball and football at Kansas State University, where he was called "the greatest all-around athlete in Kansas State history."
He adopted his underhand delivery after injuring his shoulder playing football. He was a second-team all-American in football but turned down a contract with the Chicago Bears to pursue a career in baseball.
In 1935, when Mr. Auker's Tigers defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, he was interviewed by a young Cubs broadcaster, Ronald Reagan. When they met after Reagan had been elected governor of California, Reagan told him, "You probably won't remember me, but I'll remember you as long as I live." The radio interview, Reagan said, "was my first big break."
Mr. Auker retired from baseball in 1942 and joined a company that made armaments and abrasive materials. He eventually became company president, then retired to Florida in 1974. Two years ago, he lost some of his baseball memorabilia when Hurricane Ivan tore the roof off his home.
His memory and storytelling skills remained intact until the end, and he often spoke about the humbling moments of life. After his first season in the big leagues, he returned to his Kansas home town and was greeted by an old friend.
"Where have you been?" the friend asked. "I haven't seen you all summer."
Survivors include his wife of 73 years, Mildred Auker of Vero Beach; and a son.