“Baseball cannot be played entirely by the book. Players are not robots who respond automatically to push buttons. They are personalities who require individual treatment.” - Robert “Red” Rolfe
Did Red Rolfe, known for his analytical side and deserved or not, his reputation for playing the percentages, platoon his young left-handed hitting slugging outfielder, Vic Wertz, during his years managing the Detroit Tigers? If so, to what extent was Wertz platooned? What were the circumstances behind Rolfe’s decision to platoon Wertz and what were the results? Here, we’ll try to fill in the gaps.
Robert Abial “Red” Rolfe was a former major league third baseman. He played for the New York Yankees in the years 1934 thru 1942. He was an American League All-Star in the years 1937 thru 1940. During his career Rolfe played on five World Series Championship teams and six AL Pennant winners. Suffice it to say, Rolfe was accustomed to winning.
As a player Rolfe was an above average fielder with a very strong arm. As a hitter Rolfe could, “pull the ball behind the runner, punch it to the opposite field and bunt deftly. He could swing for the seats when the situation called for it. He ran the bases skillfully. He was a competitor…He stood out as a hustler and possessed the brain of a natural-born big leaguer…. He always managed to produce that extra something when the chips were piled in front of him (1).” In ’52 Rolfe had been named the greatest third baseman in New York Yankee history.
In 1942 Rolfe was limited to just 69 games thanks in large part to a condition known as ulcerative colitis, an ailment that forced Rolfe to retire at the end of the season, just shy of his 34th birthday. The condition ultimately cut Rolfe’s life short. In 1969 Rolfe died at the age of 60.
Soon after retiring from baseball Rolfe was hired by Yale University to coach both baseball and basketball. At the end of the 1945 college basketball season, Rolfe left Yale to rejoin the Yankees as a coach. Rolfe was hired by legendary Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy. Speculation was that McCarthy was grooming Rolfe as his successor once McCarthy decided to retire (2). However, that plan went awry when McCarthy was fired by the Yankees early into the 1946 season. McCarthy’s eventual successor, Bucky Harris, brought in his own coaching staff for the 1947 season. As a result, Rolfe was not retained.
In the winter of 1946-‘47, Rolfe coached pro basketball in the Basketball Association of America. In August of 1947, Rolfe was hired by the Detroit Tigers as their Farm System Director. Approximately one year later, in November of 1948, Rolfe was asked to replace fired veteran Tiger manager Steve O’Neill. O’Neill had managed the Tigers since ’43 and had led the Tigers to a World Series title in ’45. However, a fifth place finish by the Tigers in 1948 caused by a “perceived lack of competitiveness and fire (2),” led to O’Neill’s dismissal.
O’Neill was considered to be a “player’s manager” who “liked to father his athletes (3).” He was not a disciplinarian, quite the contrary. It was ownership’s view that O’Neill’s easy going nature was a major factor in the Tigers becoming a complacent and underperforming team. After the likes of Bucky Harris, who had been canned by the Yankees after just two seasons and Tigers’ affiliate Buffalo farm-team manager Paul Richards, both former Detroit Tiger players, were rumored to be O’Neill’s successor, the Tigers surprised many by hiring the inexperienced Rolfe to be the team’s next manager.
In announcing the hiring of Rolfe, Tigers general manager Billy Evans stated that Rolfe “had all the qualifications we want for the job. He has a sound baseball background. He has intelligence, personality and the know-how to instruct young players….I’m sure he will give us the aggressive leadership we need (4).” After his introduction to the media, Rolfe declared that his main goal was to “put an emphasis on youth and hustle (5).” “I am determined to put the accent on youth…more than anything else; we need new fight and drive. We are going to have a hustling ball club (6).” Interestingly the St. Louis Globe Democrat added that Rolfe, known for his analytical mind, had also planned to “direct his ball club along strict mathematical lines (7).”
In terms of youth Rolfe and the Tigers had some young players to work with such as the 20 year-old right-handed starter Art Houtteman who made his major league debut at the age of 17 and the 21 year-old centerfield super-prospect Johnny Groth. Rolfe also had a 23 year-old Vic Wertz on the roster who had already achieved some success in the majors.
Wertz’s MLB career began in 1947 at the age of 22. That year under Steve O’Neill, Wertz played in 102 games and had 383 plate appearances, only 34 of which were versus left-handed pitching. Initially O’Neill did not start Wertz against left-handers. However with Wertz swinging a hot bat, O’Neill decided to give the outfielder his first start versus a left-handed starting pitcher on August 17 of ‘47 at Chicago against Ed Lopat. O’Neill would go on to start Wertz in seven of the team’s remaining nine games versus left-handers.
At the time O’Neill still thought Wertz had room to improve but was generally high on his young outfielder. O’Neill said that Wertz was “still fooled by the curve ball but he’s learning every day. One of these afternoons, he’s going to step into a curve ball and knock it so far over that right-field fence that he’ll break a window in the Statler Hotel (8).”
After being granted the opportunity to start against lefties, Wertz crushed left-handed pitching that season by hitting .345 and slugging .586 versus southpaws. Overall Wertz hit .288 and slugged .432. His OPS+ was 121.
In ’48 though, Wertz regressed. Wertz’s overall batting average and slugging average fell to .248 and .396 respectively. As a result, his OPS+ dropped to 92. Wertz’s total plate appearances increased from 383 to 449. The increase was mainly due to his 62 more plate appearances versus left-handed pitching in 1948 as opposed to 1947. O’Neill had used Wertz in a semi-platoon role as the young outfielder started in 19 of the 38 Detroit games versus left-handed starters. O’Neill had to somehow work four other regular outfielders into the line-up. However despite the increase in plate appearances versus lefties, Wertz’s numbers had cratered. He hit a measly .214 and slugged only .357 versus left-handed pitching. Wertz was unhappy with not being in the line-up every day as well as occasionally being lifted for a pinch-hitter, so much so that he demanded Tigers’ GM Billy Evans to trade him. Evans declined Wertz’s request.
Heading into the 1949 season with Red Rolfe now at the helm, the Tigers had five outfielders battling for three spots: veterans Hoot Evers, Pat Mullin and Dick Wakefield as well as the aforementioned Johnny Groth and Vic Wertz. Evers, Mullin and Wakefield were all productive in ’48. That season they had OPS+ marks of 118, 133 and 130 respectively. Evers and Mullin were American League All-Stars. Wakefield was reportedly a Tiger fan favorite as well as a favorite of Tigers’ owner Walter O. Briggs. Wakefield was also drawing a large salary. The then 21 year-old Johnny Groth hit .471 in his 17 AB’s for the Tigers after being called up from the minors where he hit .340 and socked 30 HRs at Triple-A Buffalo in the International League. Of the five outfielders on the Detroit roster, Vic Wertz had arguably the weakest year in ‘48.
Wertz’s poor showing in ‘48 made him fifth in the Tiger outfield pecking order heading into spring training. In fact, Rolfe had originally planned on his outfield being Wakefield in left, Groth in center and Mullin in right with his contingency plan being Evers in left, Groth in center and Mullin in right. “And if that doesn’t work, I will give Wertz a crack at right field alongside Groth and Evers (9),” Rolfe declared to the press that spring. However, Wertz forced Rolfe’s hand by having a tremendous training camp, winning right field job outright. As a result, Rolfe’s Tiger outfield to begin the 1949 season was Hoot Evers in left, Johnny Groth in center and Vic Wertz in right. Later Rolfe would acknowledge that the decision to make Wertz his regular right-fielder occurred just prior to the beginning of the season. “Wertz was the last outfielder I inserted in my spring training lineup (10),” said Rolfe as the team broke camp.
During the season injuries and slumps forced Rolfe to juggle his outfield line-up. Evers was benched early on after a slow start at the plate. Groth, who started the season red-hot, was shuffled in and out of the line-up in July and August after slumping. Groth’s season eventually came to an end on August 19 when he broke his wrist in a collision at first base with St. Louis Browns’ infielder Johnny Sullivan after an attempted bunt. Pat Mullin, who was being used mainly as a back-up to Hoot Evers, eventually slid into the left field job after Evers took over center for the injured Groth. Rolfe used the left-hand hitting Dick Wakefield almost exclusively against right-handers.
Throughout the season though, Vic Wertz was a mainstay in right field as Rolfe promised he would be just prior to the opening of the season. “You’re going to stay in there against all kinds of pitching until you come to me and ask out (11),” Rolfe told Wertz just before the Tigers broke camp. Wertz seized the opportunity. Wertz played in all 155 Tiger games including one suspended game and put up fantastic numbers. He led the team with 133 RBI, 60 more than Johnny Groth whose 73 RBI was the second most amongst Tiger players. Wertz’s 133 RBI total was second in the AL behind Boston Red Sox Ted Williams’ and Vern Stephens’ totals of 159. Wertz also finished third in the AL in total bases with 283.
Wertz credited Rolfe’s allowing him to play every day for his turnaround season. “It was just that Rolfe gave me a chance to play every day. How better can a player develop in the big leagues? Three days before we broke camp he put me in right-field and I was never again out of the lineup….I knew I hadn’t been hitting well enough…but when Red put me in there everyday something happened (12).” According to Wertz, Rolfe’s decision to move him from left-field to right-field also impacted his hitting. “He (Rolfe) put me in right-field instead of left and that helped. It seemed to me I just could never play left naturally. So after a while my fielding was better and I was hitting better (13).”
In ’49 Rolfe didn’t seem concerned with Wertz’s ability to hit left-handed pitching. Rolfe believed that once a batter had a reputation for not being able to hit left-handed pitching, “it was difficult to shake off (14)” and that sometimes all a batter needs is a “chance to prove whether he can hit left-handers or not (15).” What Rolfe was more concerned about heading into the season was Wertz’s propensity to swing at bad pitches. “We (Tigers) are also hitting bad balls with men on the sacks – particularly Wertz (14),” Rolfe had documented in his daily journal during spring training. Rolfe reiterated his concern regarding Wertz’s questionable pitch selection just one day before the 1949 season opener. “I didn’t see much of him (Wertz) last season but I understand that he swung at a lot of bad balls and looked at a lot of good strikes (15).”
However by the end of June of ‘49, Rolfe was praising Wertz for his improvement at the plate, particularly his pitch selection. “He has improved tremendously. They used to call him a bad ball-hitter, but they can’t say that anymore. He’s pretty much a straight away hitter and if he pulled the ball more he’d get a lot more home runs. Of course the outfielders can’t play position on him because he often hits to left field (16)…..He has been an ideal fourth place hitter for the Tigers (17).”
According to the Detroit Free Press, Wertz’s ability to go the other way and hit the ball to left was a direct result of Rolfe’s coaching:
“Possessed with tremendous power, he (Wertz) was taking a terrific swing at the ball that found him meeting it late on most occasions. That made him lash long, harmless flyballs into centerfield that provided rival fielders with lots of exercise and putouts but did little to improve Vic’s batting average. All other managers he had played under tried to make him pull the ball into right field in order to utilize his many muscles. But Rolfe reversed the procedure…He showed him how to slow down his swing instead of trying to make him speed it up. As a result, Vic is clipping hits, many of them doubles into left field, a spot seldom utilized by left-handed hitters. His power is such; however, that he is still hitting homeruns into the right-field stands (17).”
Wertz’s new swing and his laying off of bad pitches may have also helped him against lefties as his numbers versus southpaws improved in 1949. In his 208 plate appearances against left-handers, Wertz hit .249 and slugged .357. His OPS was .679. At first glance Wertz’s numbers versus lefties do not seem impressive; however, they were on par with young left-handed hitting stars and future Hall of Famers, Yogi Berra and Duke Snider, and a big improvement from the year before. For context, in Yogi Berra’s 156 plate appearances versus left-handers in 1949, the All-Star catcher hit .257 and slugged .385. Berra had an OPS of .680. Duke Snider managed a .251 batting average and a .351 slugging average versus southpaws. His OPS was .670.
For his breakthrough 1949 season the Tigers rewarded Wertz with a $9,000 pay raise which doubled his salary to $18,000. Tigers GM Billy Evans justified the hike in Wertz’s salary by predicting that his All-Star outfielder would be a “fellow who should develop into one of the greatest players in the game. He can do everything well. I look for him to be an outstanding star before his playing days are over (18).” Manager Rolfe concurred, “I feel sure Vic Wertz is going to be one of the key players in the drive of the Tigers to get back to the top of the American League (19).”
Sure enough, Vic Wertz followed-up his breakthrough 1949 season with a stellar 1950 campaign. In 149 games played, Wertz hit .308 and slugged .533 with a .941 OPS, all three of which would end up being career highs. Wertz also improved his homerun total to 27, seven more than he hit the previous season and led the AL in intentional walks with eight. Versus left-handed pitching, Wertz improved on his 1949 numbers by hitting .247 and slugging .420 including seven homeruns with an OPS of .744 in 195 plate appearances. Again, Wertz’s numbers versus lefties were comparable to Yogi Berra’s. In Berra’s 265 plate appearances versus lefties, the all-star catcher hit .276 and slugged .424 with seven homeruns. His OPS was .760. Granted, Berra did strike out only eight times versus southpaws whereas Wertz had struck out 21 times in 70 less plate appearances.
Thanks in large part to Wertz as well as third baseman George Kell, second baseman Jerry Priddy, whom the Tigers had acquired from the St. Louis Browns in the offseason to address their need for power, and a formidable starting rotation led by Art Houtteman, the Tigers won 95 games in 1950 under Rolfe, their highest win total since 1934. Detroit had actually led the AL as late as September 15 before ultimately finishing in second, three games behind the New York Yankees. For his efforts, Red Rolfe was named The Sporting News’ Manager of the Year. “Red Rolfe didn’t win the pennant but he turned in the finest managerial job of the year in the majors with the Tigers (16),” The Sporting News (TSN) wrote. TSN concluded that “The test of a good poker player comes in playing a poor hand well. And Rolfe did well to keep the Tigers in first place 119 days of the season (17).”
By “playing a poor hand,” The Sporting News was referring to Rolfe having to cope with injuries to his pitching staff as well as the Tigers’ lack of speed and power. Rolfe certainly agreed with the latter point. Rolfe believed the Tigers’ lack of power cost them the pennant.
Prior to the opening of the 1950 season, Rolfe had expressed his concern with his team’s deficiency in power. That concern grew as the AL Pennant race heated up that summer. “I’ve got just one fellow who can belt the ball out of the park- Vic Wertz. The Yanks have got three or four, Cleveland has three, and the Red Sox have at least four. It makes a difference (17),” Rolfe told the press that August while his Tigers were sitting atop of the American League standings, up by three games. “Our lack of homerun power to match that of Cleveland or New York puts an added burden on the pitchers too (18).”
Compounding the Tigers’ issues with power was the team’s lack of speed. Rolfe inherited a team that stole just 22 bases in 1948 and were caught stealing 32 times. In ’49 under Rolfe, the Tigers increased that total to 39; however, their caught stealing total increased to 52. In 1950 the Tigers stole 23 and were caught stealing 40 times. Of note Rolfe was not a small-ball, stealing bases and manufacturing runs type of manager. In fact he was quite the opposite, especially given the Tigers’ lack of speed:
“In general, I play for one big inning, the type of game I learned on the Yankees under Joe McCarthy, who adopted it from Miller Huggins. It was Huggins’ theory that the winner scores more runs in one inning than the loser does the entire game- and you’d be surprised how often it works out that way…Detroit is a good hitting club, though, and one big inning is especially suited to a slow outfit that can’t wangle a run here and there (19).”
The Tigers’ 114 homerun total in ’50 was just slightly below league average; however, as Rolfe had pointed out during the heat of the pennant race, Detroit’s homerun tally was much less than New York, Boston and Cleveland whose final homerun totals were 159, 161 and 164 respectively. Rolfe made the same point during the spring of ’51. “You see, we have a homerun park at Detroit. We should be one-two in the American League in homeruns. Instead we finished fourth last year in that department behind Cleveland, Boston and New York. We had 114 which was a deep fourth….What I would give for a fellow who can really bang that ball into the stands (29).”
Ideally for Rolfe, that fellow would be a “first baseman who could hit from 20 to 30 homeruns a season (21),” and preferably left-handed. “Right-handed pitchers had it too easy against us last season (22),” Rolfe said in the spring of ‘51. “We’ve got to try and get some southpaw punch into our batting order (23).” Indeed, Rolfe and the Tigers received virtually zero production from the first base combination of Don Kolloway and Dick Kryhoski. In fact, Detroit was last in the AL in wins above average (WAA) at the first base position.
That winter Tigers’ GM Billy Evans tried to fulfill his manager’s wishes by attempting to acquire Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Ferris Fain. Although not the “20 to 30 homerun” hitting type Rolfe had envisioned, Fain was a left-handed first baseman with an excellent eye at the plate. In 1950 the 29 year-old Fain hit ten homeruns and drove in 88 for the last place Athletics. Fain was selected to the AL All-Star team. The New York Yankees were also reportedly interested in acquiring Fain to replace the aging Johnny Mize and the recently retired Tommy Henrich. Envisioning a Tiger infield with Fain at first base, Rolfe remarked during spring training that, “If we should get Fain it would change the picture considerably. Then I would definitely list my club as a genuine threat (24).” However, the Tigers’ reported offer of $100,000, outfielder Pat Mullin and three minor leaguers in exchange for Fain was rejected by the A’s.
Rolfe knew the 1950 Detroit Tigers had exceeded expectations and that the 1951 version had the “same limitations (25),” as last year’s team including issues at first base. Rolfe’s assessment of the Tigers heading into the 1951 season was the following:
Catching- Must hit better
Hitting- Needs more punch
Detroit’s dreadful showing in the 1951 Grapefruit League reinforced Rolfe’s belief that the Tigers would have difficulty keeping pace with the upper echelon AL teams i.e. Boston, Cleveland and the Yankees. The Tigers struggled throughout the spring, particularly the hitting and managed to win just eight of their 30 games. The Tigers’ 8-22 spring record was the worst amongst major league teams. Moreover, the Tigers’ eight wins included wins against minor league squads. In fact at one point the Tigers had lost 12 of 16 versus major league teams. According to the Argus Leader newspaper the Tiger batters “looked wretched in exhibitions” and that “Nobody is hitting (26).” The newspaper picked the Tigers to finish fifth in the AL. Although not as pessimistic as the media, the realistic Rolfe predicted his team would finish fourth on the eve of the season opener.
Throughout the spring though, Rolfe remained high on Wertz and predicted another big season from his outfielder. “Vic is stepping into the ball the way we’ve been trying to make him (27),” Rolfe explained. “If he can keep on pulling the ball the way he has so far this spring, he should hit 35 home runs easily (28).” A slimmed down Wertz agreed with his manager. “I never felt better in my life. I think I ought to have my best year…I’d like to lead the league in homeruns and RBI (29).” The last Detroit Tiger to accomplish that feat was first baseman Hank Greenberg whom Wertz had idolized. In fact, Wertz switched his uniform from number 20 to Greenberg’s number 5 to begin the 1951 season.
Wertz began his 1951 season by holding out in the spring for an increase in pay. He ended his holdout after signing an estimated $25,000 contract. Evidently, Wertz’s late start to the spring hadn’t affected his performance. Wertz was one the few Detroit players who hit during spring training action. The same could not be said about Hoot Evers. Evers too held out that spring. Evers ended his hold-out by signing a $38,000 contract which was a $10,000 raise from the year before. Evers’ new contract made him the third highest paid player on the Detroit roster behind George Kell and Hal Newhouser who reportedly both signed for $40,000. Add Rolfe’s $42,500 salary, second highest in the AL amongst managers, and the Tiger’s payroll heading into the 1951 season was approximately $600,000, the highest in team history. Having drawn a franchise record 1.95 million in attendance in 1950, Tiger ownership apparently believed it could absorb the increase in payroll. Unlike Wertz though, Evers struggled mightily at the plate throughout the spring. His struggles carried over into the season.
The Detroit Tigers opened the 1951 season at home in front of approximately 43,000 fans with a 2-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians. They lost to the Indians the next day 4-2 in 10 innings. The final game of the three-game series was postponed due to cold weather. They then travelled to Chicago for a three-game set against the White Sox. The Tigers were shut-out in the opener 5-0 and then evened the series the next day with a 7-6 win before losing the finale 3-2. After five games the Tigers were 1-4 with just 12 runs scored.
Like the rest of the team, Vic Wertz had opened the season slowly. He collected just three hits in Detroit’s first five games and had scored just one run. Although Rolfe was concerned that the hitting slump his team had experienced throughout most of the spring had seemingly extended into the season, understandably he wasn’t about to make any drastic changes to the line-up, especially based on such a small sample size. “I am not going to make a lot of changes in the line-up. It’s bad for team morale (30),” Rolfe wrote in his journal. “I am going to stick with them for a while yet. I believe they will snap out of it (31).”
Rolfe proved to be correct. By the middle of May the Tigers had reversed course. As of May 20th the Tigers had won 13 of their last 18 games including series wins versus the Red Sox and Yankees and had climbed to within 2.5 games of first place. During that span Wertz hit a sparkling .351 and slugged .568 including four homeruns. However, soon thereafter the Tigers’ hitting woes returned as the team dropped 12 of its next 13 games, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians in which the Tigers scored just three runs in the four-game set.
After said sweep by the Indians, Rolfe reportedly tore into his hitters during a team meeting. “You’re asleep at the plate. You’re not in the right frame of mind when you go up there. You’ve lost confidence as hitters. You’re going to bat your way out of this slump. We’ll have two-hour batting drills before every game…We’ve been losing games in a way that’s a crime (32).” At the same time, Rolfe was again making it publicly known that his lineup desperately needed a homerun hitter. “We must have a long ball hitter,” Rolfe proclaimed to the press. “We’ve lost too many games for the want of the long ball. Sometimes a long fly was all that stood between us and victory and we couldn’t deliver (33).”
Rolfe had a point. At the time the Tigers had scored 190 runs; just six more than the 13-31 St. Louis Browns. In terms of home runs, the Tigers were fifth in the American League with 30, again one less than the Browns. Wertz was leading the Tigers in homeruns with nine. Interestingly, part-time outfielder Steve “Bud” Souchock was second in home runs with six in just 59 plate appearances.
The Tigers had acquired the right-handed Souchock via the Rule V draft in the prior offseason. The 31 year-old versatile Souchock was capable of playing in the infield as well as the outfield and was coming off a Sacramento team record 30-homerun campaign in the PCL. The Tigers’ original intent was to have the slugging Souchock compete for the first baseman’s job. As spring training wore on though the plan had changed. Red Rolfe opted to use Souchoch as a right-handed pinch-hitter who could provide the “threat of a long ball (34),” coming off the bench. However by early June, Rolfe had started Souchock in leftfield in 11 of the Tigers’ 39 games. A wrist injury to centerfielder Johnny Groth on May 6th caused by a hit by pitch forced Rolfe to move Hoot Evers from leftfield to center. Rolfe filled the opening in left by platooning Pat Mullin and Bud Souchock with the right-handed hitting Souchock being the weak side of the platoon.
To go along with the six homeruns Souchock hit once he began platooning in left were 10 runs scored, a .277 batting average and a .745 slugging average. He was also coming up big in key situations. On May 18th in a game versus the Philadelphia A’s, Souchock led off the ninth inning with a homerun to ignite a six-run Tiger rally. On May 27th Souchock homered, doubled, scored the winning run and threw out a man at home plate in a 3-2 Detroit win versus the Browns. On June 2nd, Souchock walked with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to send a game versus the Yankees into extra innings.
By that time Johnny Groth had returned to the line-up; however, Rolfe chose to stick with his platoon of Mullin and Souchock in left field and sit the struggling Hoot Evers who was hitting just .134 and slugging an anemic .232. Evers was also leading the Tigers in strikeouts with 17. In the meantime, Vic Wertz was in the line-up every day up until June 19th.
On that day Rolfe gave Wertz the day off and inserted the hot-hitting Souchock in right field versus A’s left-hander Sam Zoldak. At the time Wertz was hitting .288 and slugging .495 with 11 homeruns and 39 RBI, easily leading the team in both categories. Souchock responded with a key two-run homerun in the sixth inning to cut the A’s lead to just one. However, the Tigers ended up losing the game 9-5. In that same game, Hoot Evers, whom Rolfe started in leftfield finally showed signs of breaking out of his season-long slump by going 3 for 3 with a homerun.
On the following day June 20th, the Tigers played a doubleheader versus the A’s. Wertz was back in the Detroit lineup versus right-handed A’s starter Bob Hooper in game one. Rolfe sat Wertz in the second game versus left-hander Bobby Shantz opting instead to go with Souchock in right and Evers and Groth in left and center, the same outfield Rolfe had used the day prior versus Sam Zoldak.
The Tigers won the first game rather easily by a 7-2 score. In the second game, with the Tigers trailing 5-1 in the top of the ninth, Souchock once again came thru in the clutch, this time drilling a two-run homerun to cut the lead to two. A double by Hoot Evers followed by an A’s error made the score 5-4. With the right-handed Johnny Kucab now on the mound for the A’s, Rolfe sent in Vic Wertz to pinch-hit. Wertz walked and then was lifted for a pinch-runner, that being pitcher Hal Newhouser. If there was any question as to Wertz’s lack of speed, his being pinch-ran for by a 30 year-old pitcher should remove all doubts. Kucab was then able to get the last out of the game and preserve the win for the A’s.
That Souchock ninth-inning homerun was his eighth of the season in just 76 plate appearances and matched the combined homerun total of outfielders Pat Mullin, Hoot Evers and Johnny Groth. However, despite the team’s lack of homerun power and its 27-28 record which was only good for fifth place in the AL and 10.5 games behind the American League leading White Sox, Rolfe did not give Souchock another start until late July. Instead, Rolfe went mainly with an outfield consisting of Evers, Groth and Wertz despite the fact that the Tigers faced a left-handed starting pitcher on several occasions. Moreover, the Tigers played in five doubleheaders during that span; two of which were twin-bills in which the opposing team had scheduled both a right-handed and a left-handed starter to start the two games. If there was ever a time in which Rolfe was going to either rest his players or begin platooning them, it would have been during this stretch which included another four-game set versus Detroit’s 1951 nemesis, the Cleveland Indians. Rolfe did neither.
In that four-game series against Cleveland which occurred on June 29th thru to July 1st, the Tigers were swept as Detroit managed to score a total of only four runs. They were shutout once and were also no-hit by Cleveland ace Bob Feller. “We simply can’t be that bad (35),” a perplexed but sympathetic Rolfe had documented after the series. “It’s tough on everybody to lose like we’ve been losing. That goes for the players…They feel it as much as anybody else and even more. The players still have a lot of fight left. We’d like to get some help but I don’t know where we can get it (36).” Despite being clearly frustrated with his team, Rolfe stuck with essentially the same line-up for the next three weeks.
From June 21st, the day Souchock socked his eighth homerun of the year in that second game of a doubleheader versus the A’s, thru to the twenty-second of July, the Tigers were 12 and 17. Detroit’s overall won/loss record stood at 39 and 46. After being rested by Rolfe on June 19th and 20th, Wertz hit .333 and slugged .604 with six homeruns and 25 RBI. On July 22nd Wertz was out of the starting lineup due to a badly swollen finger, the result of an attempted catch of a sinking line-drive off of the bat of Red Sox third baseman Lou Boudreau which had occurred the day before. Wertz misplayed the ball and was charged with an error. The injury forced Wertz to miss two games before he was able return to the line-up on July 26th.
In his journal Rolfe had criticized Wertz for the error on the Boudreau ball, partially blaming Wertz for the Tigers losing the game. “An error by Wertz on a line-drive in the seventh cost us whatever chance we had of coming from behind to win. The misplay led to two runs and a four-run lead (37),” Rolfe had written following the game. That wasn’t the first time that month that Rolfe had criticized Wertz’s fielding and pinned, at least in part, the loss on his outfielder. In the Bob Feller no-hit game three weeks earlier, Rolfe knocked Wertz for not making a play on a ball that in Rolfe’s opinion Wertz “should have caught (38).” It was Rolfe’s opinion the Wertz misplay led to Detroit starter Bob “Sugar” Cain’s, “downfall.”
Besides defense, Rolfe had also expressed his dissatisfaction in Wertz’s recent inability to come up with the big hit late in a game. For example, after a July 13th 3-1 loss to the Washington Senators Rolfe wrote that, “Failure to hit in the clutch hurt us. Evers stranded two men in the first and Wertz failed twice with two men on base (39).” In the July 22nd game at home versus the Red Sox in which Wertz was out of the starting line-up due to his finger injury, the Tigers had runners on first and second with one out and down one run in extra-innings when Rolfe summoned for Wertz to pinch-hit for Souchock versus Red Sox right-hander Walt Masterson. Wertz proceeded to strike out. Hoot Evers followed by popping up to first base to end the game. Once again Rolfe had singled out Wertz along with Evers in his postgame notes. “A line drive by Pesky that Evers missed by inches cost us the game, although the failure of Evers and Wertz cost us a tie ball game (40).” The Tigers ended up losing the game 10-9.
Interestingly, Rolfe benched Evers after that game in favor of the veteran Charlie Keller. Keller had gone three for four in that 10-9 loss to Boston. Keller had also made a sensational first-inning catch which robbed Ted Williams of an extra-base hit. Moreover, Keller had hit a ninth inning pinch-hit three-run homerun versus the Yankees two weeks earlier to draw the Tigers within one run in that game.
Eventually Vic Wertz, the other player Rolfe had recently criticized for his defense and his inability to come up with a late inning hit, would also be in and out of the line-up i.e. “platooned” during a Tigers 15-game road trip. After a 7-4 July 25th loss to the Washington Senators in the second game of said road trip, Rolfe wrote the following ominous entry in his journal: “My club continued to stutter and stumble both at bat and in the field. I have a real problem on my hands now to keep the ball club together (41).” Rolfe had sat both Wertz and Evers in the July 25th Washington game in favor of Keller and Mulllin.
To be sure, the next several weeks would be eventful ones for the Detroit Tiger franchise. As the team began its long road trip in late July, news had come out that Tigers’ GM and executive vice-president Billy Evans would be resigning at the end of the season i.e. effective October 1st. Though Evans claimed that he had always intended on resigning at season’s end, speculation was that Tigers’ owner Walter Briggs had grown tired of a team that wasn’t winning; wasn’t hustling and wasn’t drawing enough fans at the gate to justify its bloated $600,000 payroll (including Rolfe’s $42,500 salary) and thus Evans had to be sacrificed. Evans’ replacement was to be Hall of Fame second baseman and former Detroit Tiger, Charlie Gehringer. Despite the original plan being that Evans would be running the Tigers until October 1st, Gehringer officially took over the general managerial duties on August 10th.
The news of Evans’ resignation understandably had hit Rolfe hard. “I regret to see Evans go…He is a fine man and I have enjoyed working for him (42),” a disappointed Rolfe stated. “I am as responsible as he is if there is anything wrong with the Tigers. He never criticized anything I have done. We took over a hard job with a ball club on the downgrade. We never fooled ourselves about what we had in the way of material…it takes time to build a ball club (43).”
With the Detroit media focused mainly on the Evans resignation, the Tigers began playing better ball away from home. Detroit took two of three from Washington in the first series of the 15-game road trip and then split a four-game series in Philadelphia. They then split another four-game series with the first-place Yankees in New York before taking three of four from second-place Boston at Fenway. In all, the Tigers won nine and lost six of the 15 games away from home, making the road-trip the Tigers’ most successful one of the 1951 season. During the trip Rolfe had made some changes to his line-up. The chart below contains Rolfe’s starting line-ups for those 15 road games plus the Tigers’ first two games after returning home:
Rolfe’s infield remained essentially the same as it had been for most of the season. At catcher Rolfe continued to rotate Joe Ginsberg with aging veterans Bob Swift and Aaron Robinson. At first base Rolfe stuck with his platoon of Dick Kryhoski and Don Kolloway. Jerry Priddy remained at second base and George Kell at third. At shortstop Rolfe had originally made the switch from Johnny Lipon to Neil Berry in the second game of a doubleheader played against the A’s on July 19th. Interestingly, prior to Lipon being benched, the veteran shortstop had gone six for his last 17 at-bats including a 4 for 4-game versus the Yankees just three days before. However as in the case of Wertz, Rolfe had recently become dissatisfied with Lipon’s defense. Rolfe documented the switch at short from Lipon to Berry in his journal with the following entry, “Berry replaced Lipon at short in the second game. Lipon has been weak in the field and the shift might help us defensively (44).”
Similarly, Rolfe had recently criticized Hoot Evers in his journal but in Evers’ case, the criticism was mainly directed at Evers’ offense. At the time Rolfe benched Evers in favor of Charlie Keller on July 24th; Evers was hitting just .219 and slugging .346. “I simply felt I had to get Hoot out of the line-up. He wasn’t helping us at all (45),” Rolfe explained to the press when asked about Evers being benched. After starting Keller on the 24th in place of Evers, Rolfe had the left-handed hitting Pat Mullin start the next four games in leftfield versus right-handed pitchers.
As previously mentioned in Wertz’s case, after Rolfe had held him out the day after injuring his finger versus Boston, Rolfe sat Wertz on July 25th against Washington Senator right-hander Don Johnson, an indication that Wertz’s finger was still troubling him. Rolfe then started Wertz in the next three games, all versus right-handers. Wertz was 4 for 13 with a walk in those three games. However, with Detroit facing left-handed starters in the next three games occurring on July 29th and 30th, Rolfe sat Wertz in favor of Souchock.
Returning to the lineup on August 1st in a doubleheader versus the Yankees, Wertz proceeded to go 0 for 8 at the plate including five strikeouts. Of note, in that August 1st game versus the Yankees, New York started right-hander Allie Reynolds. Reynolds though lasted only one inning and was replaced by lefty Joe Ostrowski. Rolfe allowed Wertz to bat three times versus Ostrowski, all of which resulted in Wertz striking out. With the next four games, three of which scheduled versus left-handed starters occurring on August 2nd thru to August 5th in Boston, Rolfe once again sat Wertz in favor of Souchock against lefties.
It is unknown at this point as to exactly why Rolfe sat Wertz in those games. Rolfe did not document the reason(s) in his journal. However, according to news reports it was clear that at this point Rolfe was sitting Wertz against left-handed starting pitching. In fact on July 31st the New York Daily News reported that Vic Wertz was being “benched” and that Wertz, “will not play against left-handers for a while (46).” The report came the day after Wertz sat versus the Yankees’ Ed Lopat. The Boston Globe corroborated the Wertz benching on August 4th during the Tigers/Red Sox four-game set. “Vic Wertz, who has been the big RBI man for the Bengals for two seasons, has been in a slump…He is being rested against southpaw servers…which means that he’ll see little action in the series (47).” Although a direct quote from Rolfe commenting on his use of Wertz in Boston cannot be found, one has to assume Rolfe was the original source for the mentions in the Daily News and the Boston Globe.
However, it doesn’t appear as though Rolfe sat Wertz strictly because of a perceived weakness versus left-handed pitchers. Although Wertz wasn’t tearing the cover off of the ball versus southpaws; he was hitting .265 and slugging .343 with one double, two homeruns and eight walks in 73 AB’s as of July 24th against lefties. Those numbers aren’t great but on their own should not have been reason enough for Rolfe to begin platooning Wertz. And based on Rolfe’s previous statements, both written and publicly stated, as well as the events leading up to and during the July 24th to August 5th 15-game road trip, Rolfe’s decision to sit Wertz against lefties was most likely based on several reasons.
First and foremost was the fact that Wertz was injured at the time which forced him out of the line-up. Rolfe, who made the decision to sit Wertz, had no qualms when it came to resting injured players. In fact in the middle of September 1950, with the Tigers battling for the American League Pennant and just one-half game out of first place, Rolfe sat Wertz for two games due to an injured groin. Rolfe may have been doing the same in this case and in games much less important than those of September 1950.
Secondly, Wertz wasn’t the only regular whom Rolfe had sat during that timeframe. Rolfe had also sat shortstop Johnny Lipon and leftfielder Hoot Evers; Lipon due to his defense and Evers, namely for his offense. In Wert’z case it may have been the combination of being injured and Wertz’s recent poor defensive play which according to Rolfe had hurt the team. Moreover, Rolfe’s back-up outfielders, namely Bud Souchock and Charlie Keller were producing in their limited roles, particularly Souchock who despite being second on the team in homeruns with eight, hadn’t started in consecutive games in over a month. In fact the last time Souchock had made consecutive starts was on June 19th and 20th versus the A’s in which Souchock went a combined 2 for 6 with two homeruns, four RBIs and one walk versus lefties Sam Zoldak and Bobby Shantz. The Tigers were scheduled to face those same pitchers in the July 29th doubleheader. Rolfe gave the well-rested Souchock the start in both games and sat Wertz. Souchock went a combined 3 for 7 with a double and a walk as the Tigers split the twin-bill.
Lastly Billy Evans’ resignation may have also played a role in Rolfe’s decision-making. Reports were that Evans was sacrificed due to ownership’s perceived view that the Tigers were underachieving and lackadaisical in their approach to the game. Rolfe had made it known publicly that he shared the blame for the team’s performance. As a result, Rolfe may have decided to shake-up his lineup which may explain in part his July 25th journal entry in which he expressed concern in keeping “the ball club together.”
For whatever reason, Rolfe did in fact platoon Wertz for a two-week span during late July and early August of 1951. However, given the events during that time, Rolfe’s thinking was most likely more nuanced than him simply believing Wertz was having trouble hitting left-handed pitching and that a platoon was in order. In fact on August 7th Rolfe started Wertz versus tough Chicago lefty and former Tiger, Billy Pierce, which meant that the benching/platoon of Wertz against lefties had ended.
From August 5th thru August 15th, Wertz made every start in right field. On August 16th Wertz along with Evers were out of the starting line-up for precautionary measures. The two outfielders had collided in the field the day before as Evers was playing in center in place of an injured Johnny Groth. Wertz returned to the starting line-up on August 17th versus the St. Louis Browns.
Wertz’s string of bad luck injury-wise continued on August 19th. On that day, Wertz was forced to leave after the sixth inning due to a “badly pulled muscle in his left side (48).”Bud Souchock replaced Wertz in right field in nine of the Tigers’ next ten games. Charlie Keller received the other start. Wertz returned to the starting line-up on August 29th at home versus the Red Sox.
Of note, at the time not only was Wertz dealing with various injuries, he was also dealing with issues in his personal life which came to a head in early September. Indeed, on September 6, 1951 Wertz filed for divorce from his wife, Mrs. Bernice M. Wertz, charging “indignities of the person (49).” Understandably Wertz provided little in the way of an explanation when confronted by the media about his filing for divorce. Wertz simple stated that he “wouldn’t like to say anything about it now…That wouldn’t be fair (50).” Wertz was not in the Tigers’ starting line-up on September 8th versus White Sox right-hander Lou Kretlow and September 11th versus Red Sox southpaw Leo Kiely.
The being shuffled in and out of the line-up, the injuries and the goings-on in his personal life didn’t seem to affect Wertz’s hitting. Indeed, after returning to the starting line-up on August 29th after pulling his side muscle, Wertz got hot at the plate. Wertz slugged eight homeruns in his 122 plate appearances and drove in 22. In a three-game series versus the Cleveland Indians which was the final home series for the Tigers in ’51, Wertz was 5 for 13 at the plate with two homeruns and five RBI to increase his totals on the year to 27 and 94 respectively, making Wertz one the club’s most productive hitters that season. The Tigers ended up sweeping the Indians in the three-game set, all but knocking Cleveland out of the AL pennant race. Prior to that series the Tigers had lost 16 of 17 to Cleveland.
Red Rolfe took a personal satisfaction in defeating the Indians. “We helped the Yankees sure (50),” admitted Rolfe. “But we mainly got a measure of revenge. When Cleveland beat us 16 out of 17 games, I knew they weren’t that much better than our club. We proved that decisively and we also squared accounts for the way Cleveland knocked us out of the race (51).”
Besides essentially eliminating Cleveland from postseason play, Rolfe had little else to point to in terms of positives. His Tigers finished the 1951 season with a 73-81 record, Rolfe’s first losing season as either a player or manager in his major league career. It was also the first season since ’42 that the Tigers finished below .500. As a result, Tiger attendance dropped sharply from 1.95 million in 1950 to 1.1 million in ’51. The drop in attendance combined with “financial losses at the Toledo farm club (52),” resulted in an overall loss of approximately $500,000 for Detroit Tigers owner Walter Briggs. Briggs would pass away in January of 1952. He was succeeded as president of the Detroit Tigers by his son Walter O. (Spike) Briggs Junior. Of note, Briggs Jr. had once played college baseball for Georgetown University.
Undoubtedly most of the blame for the Tigers’ poor 1951 season rested with its offense. The Tigers scored 152 fewer runs in ’51 than they had in ’50. In terms of run prevention, the 1951 Tigers allowed just 28 more runs than it had the season before; quite the achievement considering that the team had committed 43 more errors and had lost former 19-game winner Art Houtteman to the military for the entire 1951 season.
Part of Rolfe’s reasoning as to why the Tigers’ run production had dropped so dramatically in ‘51 was the lack of “balance” in his line-up. Once again Rolfe singled out his team’s overall poor performance versus the Cleveland Indians to make his point. “One reason we lost a lot of games last year is that we lacked balance. We had too few left-handed batters. Vic Wertz was the only good left-handed batter we could throw in there regularly. That’s why a team like Cleveland, with lots of right-handed pitching was so tough for us. We’re going to try for more balance this year (53).” To be clear, heading into ’52 Rolfe was concerned with having too few lefties to face right-handed pitching rather than too few right-handed batters opposing left-handed pitching. Rolfe had made the same point in 1950 despite the team winning 95 games that season.
Rolfe’s statement regarding a more balanced line-up came shortly after the Tigers swung a seven-player trade with the St. Louis Browns in February of 1952. In that deal Detroit sent pitchers Sugar Cain and Gene Bearden as well as first baseman Dick Kryhoski to St. Louis in exchange for right-handed catcher Matt Batts, left-handed outfielder Cliff Mapes, another left-handed bat in first baseman Ben Taylor and left-handed swingman Dick Littlefield.
According to Tigers’ GM Charlie Gehringer, the keys to the deal were Batts and Mapes. “Batts was the best available (catcher) without giving our eye tooth. He’s a solid catcher and should help plenty. Cliff Mapes should replace Charlie Keller (retired) as outfielder and pinch-hitter. His power is suited for our right field stands (54),” Gehringer had explained to the press once the trade was announced. By “eye tooth” Gehringer was referring to one of Wertz, Groth, Evers or Kell, the only Detroit players that drew any interest from other teams during trade talks. At the time though, Gehringer wasn’t willing to part with any of them.
The acquisition of Cliff Mapes, Rolfe believed, afforded him more options when it came to his outfield. First and foremost, unlike the 34-year-old veteran Charlie Keller for example, Rolfe believed Mapes was capable of playing every day. “Mapes is a big strong outfielder who is capable of stepping into the line-up and playing regularly if any of our starters show signs of slipping (55),” was Rolfe’s description of the newly acquired outfielder. “It would really be something if we can get him in there and play regularly (56).” At the very least Rolfe considered Mapes to be “good enough to make a regular work hard to keep his job (57).”
At the beginning of spring training Rolfe outlined his plan for the outfield. Rolfe announced that he was going to begin the season with Evers in left, Groth in center and Wertz in right. However, if Evers or Groth struggled, Rolfe would “substitute Cliff Mapes for Groth in center and Pat Mullin for Evers in left against right-handed pitchers (58).” “They (Evers and Groth) have first call on their regular jobs (59),” Rolfe announced. “But if we don’t get power from them, I definitely will use two-left-handed hitters out there when we face right-handed pitchers (60).” Once again Rolfe had made it known his desire for more left-handed power in the line-up. “With Wertz in right field; that would give me three left-handed hitting outfielders….all of them capable of a long ball. (61).”
Although Rolfe had announced plans to implement a platoon system, by no means was he an advocate for platooning; however, given his team’s offensive woes in ’51, Rolfe was willing to give it a chance. “I’ve never before believed in the two-platoon system but I’ll be darned if I don’t try it if that is the best way to get maximum power out of our club. We simply don’t have enough hitting the way we stand now (62),” Rolfe conceded to the press.
Clearly though Rolfe had no intention of platooning Wertz at the beginning of the 1952 season despite the fact that Wertz’s numbers versus left-handers had regressed. In 1951 Wertz hit .230 and slugged only .327 versus southpaw pitchers with three homeruns and two doubles. Nevertheless, Rolfe was predicting another big year from his all-star hitter by stating that Wertz could “boost his homerun total to 35 (63),” in the upcoming season. According to the Detroit Free Press, Wertz along with third baseman George Kell and second baseman Jerry Priddy; were the only Tiger players assured of being in the line-up every day.
In fact as spring training wore on Rolfe seriously considered having Wertz join Kell and Priddy in the Detroit infield; so much so that Rolfe began to audition Wertz at first base. Rolfe’s thinking was that with Wertz at first he’d get more production out of a Detroit infield that hit a total of only 23 homeruns in ‘51. “Putting Wertz on first will give me more wallop (64),” Rolfe explained to the press while writing out his lineup card prior to a spring training game. “My infield hit only 23 homeruns last year and that’s not enough….I’ve never had a first baseman who could hit real well….Taking Wertz out of the outfield will enable me to give Cliff Mapes more work along with Johnny Groth and Hoot Evers (65).”
Rolfe acknowledged that making the transition to first base wasn’t as easy as it seemed but Wertz was more than capable of doing so. “I think Wertz can play first base…Today there are a lot of fellows playing first base who are not outstanding; men like Luke Easter, Walter Dropo and Johnny Mize. Wertz is not as bulky and he moves a lot faster….Oh, he’ll make mistakes but I think he’ll do an acceptable job (66),” Rolfe explained. When asked for his opinion on the transition to first base Wertz replied, “I like the spot because it gets me closer to the ball game (67).”
However, the plan to move Wertz to first base was sacked when with just several days away from the Tigers’ season opener; Hoot Evers suffered a broken thumb fouling off a pitch in a spring training game against the Cincinnati Reds. The technical term for Evers’ injury was a “compound fracture of the first phalanx on the right thumb.” The injury wasn’t considered serious; however, initial reports indicated that Evers would be out of action for at least four weeks. With Evers out of the lineup Rolfe was forced to change his plans. The Vic Wertz first base experiment was over. Wertz was moved back to right field. To replace Evers in left Rolfe planned to platoon Pat Mullin and Bud Souchock. Rolfe’s plan for center field was to platoon Cliff Mapes and Johnny Groth. In the season opener versus St. Louis Browns’ right-hander Ned Garver, Rolfe’s starting outfield was Mullin in left, Mapes in center and Wertz in right. The Tigers were blanked 3-0.
The Tigers lost the next two games to the Browns by the scores of 5-4 and 3-1. The Tigers then travelled to Cleveland and were swept in a four-game series versus the Indians. All four losses came against right-handed starters. The Tigers’ next game was in Chicago. There, Detroit was shut-out 2-0. After eight games, the Tigers were 0-8. The team scored a total of 14 runs and allowed 35. Naturally Rolfe attributed the team’s poor start to his offense as well as bad luck. “We’re not that bad (68),” Rolfe insisted when questioned by reporters after the Tigers dropped their seventh straight game. “With any kind of breaks we could be five-and-two right now (69)…We’ll get going when we get some long-ball hitting, period (70).” Indeed, only Wertz and Mapes had hit homeruns in Detroit’s first eight games. Wertz though was just 2 for 29 at the plate with a .069 batting average. He had also struck out seven times.
After the Tigers’ eighth consecutive loss, a story broke in the Cleveland Plain Leader. The Plain Leader’s editor, Gordon Cobbledick, claimed that Rolfe had lost his team and that the players had become so “anti-Rolfe” that some “close observers” were predicting “a blow-up comparable to the ‘Vitt rebellion’ of the 1940 Indians (71),” a reference to the “Cleveland Crybabies” who called for a mutiny against their manager Ossie Vitt. Cobbledick had written extensively of the incident at the time. In this case, Cobbledick claimed that Rolfe “hadn’t won the esteem of his ball players,” and that Rolfe’s players “dislike their manager with a bitterness that can’t help but affect their play (72).”
Cobbledick wasn’t the first to report unrest between the Tiger players and Rolfe. Just two weeks earlier with spring training just about to end, the Detroit Free Press’ Lyall Smith claimed that the Tiger players were furious with Rolfe due to his hardline approach that spring. In his column titled “Tigers Are Fighting Mad at Manager Rolfe,” Smith claimed that the “reason for this cantankerous attitude was the result of heavy riding, verbal lashings and other sharp treatment accorded them this spring by Robert Abial Rolfe (73).”
However just two weeks later, Smith contradicted Cobbledick’s report of a potential Tiger player uprising. Smith claimed that the Tigers were “now one big happy family (74).” Smith wrote that while it was true the players had “resented Rolfe’s coldly analytical attitude and his seemingly stubborn refusal to recognize them as individuals (75),” the players were now on Rolfe’s side. Smith quoted the players as saying “He (Rolfe) knows what we are going through. He has become one of us. He has done things in this first week when we could do nothing right. That has made us admire him and respect him (76).”
After holding a player’s only meeting soon after the Cobbledick story was released, the Tiger players went on the record in their support for Rolfe. Veteran Tiger pitcher Fred Hutchinson claimed to be speaking for the team when he stated that the players were “100 percent” behind Rolfe. “He is a fine manager. The fact that we have failed to win a game is our own fault, not his. We are with him all the way…He has been wonderful to all of us while we have suffered all this bad luck at the start of the season (77),” Hutchinson reported to the press. When asked about a rumored blowup between Rolfe and the players Tiger catcher Joe Ginsberg responded by saying that, “The only blowup we’re to have is when we finally break out with some hits (78).” Vic Wertz agreed with Ginsberg by adding, “You said it. What are we waiting for (79)?”
Sure enough in their first game played after the Cobblestick story was released, the Tigers pummeled Cleveland 13-0. Vic Wertz was 1 for 5 on the day and cranked out his second homerun of the season in the 5th inning to put the Tigers up 3-0. After beginning the season just 2 for 29 at the plate, Wertz heated up. He .260 and slugged .563 with seven homeruns and 19 RBI from April 26th to June 2nd. Wertz’s seven homeruns was second in the majors to Hank Sauer’s eight despite Wertz missing time in May due to an injured toe suffered in a May 4th games versus the Athletics and a sprained heel suffered in a May 10th tilt versus the White Sox. The injuries forced Wertz to sit-out seven games that month. The Tigers were 1-5 (one game was suspended) in Wertz’s absence.
On June 3rd, with the Tigers sitting with a record of 13-27, dead last in the American League and four games behind seventh place St. Louis, Tigers GM Charlie Gehringer pulled off a blockbuster trade with the first-place Boston Red Sox. In what was dubbed the “Million Dollar Deal,” the Tigers sent All-Star third baseman George Kell, Hoot Evers who the day prior had just returned to the line-up after being sidelined for 54 days due with his broken thumb, 37 year-old starting pitcher Dizzy Trout and shortstop Johnny Lipon in exchange for slugging first baseman Walt Dropo, veteran shortstop Johnny Pesky, third baseman Fred Hatfield, outfielder/infielder Don Lernhardt and left-handed pitcher Bill Wight.
“The deal can’t hurt us. We weren’t getting anywhere with the guys we gave up (80),” was Gehringer’s explanation to reporters after the trade was announced. “In Dropo and Lenhardt we got some run-making power; something Kell and Evers hadn’t been able to do. In Pesky we got someone who can get on base a lot and can play as good defensive ball as Lipon. And Hatfield’s the best defensive third baseman in the league (81).”
When speaking to reporters, Rolfe went into much more detail as to how the deal would help his club:
I never liked the balance of this club…Now I have two left-handers, Fred Hatfield and Johnny Pesky for my infield. In Dropo I have added a power hitter. The same in Lenhardt…Both of them can hit the ball out of the park…The new men will enable us to play a lot more the type of baseball I like…The lack of the long ball has been hurting us tremendously…We were fighting for our lives to come up with a run or two all the time. Now with some long-ball hitters we stand a chance of producing big innings…We were at the stage where we simply had to make changes (82).”
Indeed, on top of their 13-27 record, the Tigers were next to last in runs scored with 144 (3.60 runs scored per game) as well as homeruns with 19, eight of which were hit by Wertz. One of those homeruns came in the ninth inning in a May 15th game versus the Washington Senators. Wertz’s ninth inning blast was the only run the Tigers could muster as their starter, Virgil Trucks, was firing a no-hitter. Thanks to Wertz the Tigers won the game and Trucks completed the no-no.
For all of Rolfe’s talk over the last year and a half about the need for more power from the left side, it was left-handed starting pitching that was hurting the Tigers in ’52. Indeed, up until the big trade with the Red Sox, the Tigers were 1-13 in games in which the opposing starting pitcher was a lefty. Detroit scored a total of 48 runs in those games. Although overall he was having a typical Vic Wertz-like season in ’52, Wertz had been struggling mightily against left-handed pitching. As of June 3rd, Wertz was hitting .143 and slugging .286 in his 42 ABs versus southpaw pitching. Conversely Wertz’s back-up, Bud Souchock, was hitting a cool .364 and slugging .582 in his 55 ABs versus lefties.
On June 4th in a game versus the Philadelphia Athletics’ lefty Bobby Shantz, Rolfe sat Wertz down in favor of Souchock. It was Souchock’s first start of the season in right field. Wertz would not make a start versus a left-handed starting pitcher for Rolfe ever again. Also in the starting line-up were the newly acquired power right-handers Walt Dropo and Don Lenhardt. Dropo was at first base and Lenhardt was in left field. The chart below contains the Tigers’ defensive line-ups from June 4th to July 4th which was Rolfe’s last day as manager of the Detroit Tigers:
Clearly at this point Rolfe was platooning Wertz in right field. Once again reports in the papers had confirmed this fact. On June 7th the Boston Globe reported that, “Vic Wertz has been in a slump and Rolfe is using him only against right-handed pitching for the time being (83).” According to Wertz though, he was being sat down versus lefties because, “Red thought I couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. Seems like I hit both kinds in 1950 when we finished second (84),” Wertz told the press two weeks after Rolfe’s firing. Just two months earlier though, Wertz was praising Rolfe for “building my confidence and playing me steady. I owe him a lot (85).”
Whether the decision to platoon Wertz was just a temporary one as the Boston Globe had suggested or permanent as Wertz had implied is unknown. Rolfe did not document the reason for his decision in his journal. However, Wertz’s numbers versus lefties in 1952 as well as the Tigers’ 1-13 record against left-handed starting pitchers, leave little doubt as to why Rolfe had stopped using Wertz against left-handers.
The acquisition of right-handers Dropo and Lenhardt which occurred at the time Rolfe began platooning Wertz may have played a role in Rolfe’s decision. With Dropo and Lenhardt in the line-up against lefties, Rolfe may have thought that he could at the very least temporarily platoon Wertz, his only true run-producer. Whether or not Rolfe would have platooned Wertz had the Tigers not acquired Dropo and Lenhardt is anybody’s guess.
If Rolfe’s decision to platoon Wertz had been a temporary one, Wertz certainly didn’t help himself to get back into the everyday line-up sooner during those four weeks. Indeed, in a June 12th game versus the Yankees at New York, Wertz as well as Cliff Mapes drew the ire of Rolfe for not making outs on at least two fly balls that in Rolfe’s opinion should have been caught. “A couple of fly balls dropped in there for hits, and I was getting sick and tired of it (86),” a clearly angered Rolfe explained to the media after word had gotten out that Rolfe had fined both players $25 for “indifferent play (87).”
At the same time Rolfe had fined Wertz and Mapes, the rumor that Rolfe was about to be fired was beginning to spread, not a surprise given the Tigers’ recent 10-21 record over the 31 games in which Rolfe began platooning Wertz. Interestingly, during that span the Tigers were 4-6 in games versus left-handed starters; a marked improvement over their previous 1-13 record versus southpaws that season. Also, Wertz got hot at the plate in those 31 games in which the platoon was in place. Wertz hit .301 and slugged .639 including seven homeruns and 23 RBI. Nevertheless, the Tigers were only 6-15 against right-handed starting pitching with Wertz in the line-up.
On July 2nd the Associated Press reported that Tiger players were complaining about Rolfe’s use of a “two-platoon system.” Also according to the report owner “Briggs and some of the directors are known to have spoken out against overuse of this system (88).” Two days later, after the Tigers were swept in a doubleheader by a combined score of 21-1 at home against the Indians, Rolfe was fired. At the time the Tigers were 23-49 and last in the American League. The Tigers replaced Rolfe with Fred Hutchinson. When it was announced that Hutchinson would be replacing Rolfe, Wertz told reporters that the Tigers, “couldn’t have picked a better man. We’ll play for that guy…The players are all for him (89).” Under Hutchinson the Tigers were 27-55. Detroit finished the 1952 season dead last in the American League. It was the first time in franchise history the Tigers had finished at the bottom of the AL standings.
After originally giving Wertz the opportunity to play every day in 1949 and 1950, it is clear that Rolfe platooned or “benched” Wertz versus left-handed pitching during two stretches, once in 1951 and again in 1952. In ’51 Rolfe platooned Wertz from July 29th to August 7th. In 1952 Rolfe platooned Wertz from June 4th up until the last day of Rolfe’s tenure as Detroit Tigers manager, that being July 4th, 1952.
It appears as though Rolfe’s decision to platoon Wertz in 1951 was due to at least two reasons, the first being injury. The 1951 platooning of Wertz began just days after Wertz had injured his hand while attempting to field a line-drive. The injury had forced Wertz out of the starting line-up the following day. Rolfe most likely sat Wertz against left-handers in those 10 days in order for Wertz’s hand to heel. Given the team’s struggles to score runs though, Rolfe probably felt that he could not afford to sit Wertz for the entire 10-day stretch which meant that Wertz would still be in the line-up versus right-handers. Wertz’s injured hand did affect his hitting but most likely in Rolfe’s mind, not enough to remove his only source of power from the left side of the plate. Secondly, Wertz’s recent poor defensive play may have also factored into Rolfe’s decision-making. Rolfe had recently criticized Wertz’s defense on several occasions in his journal prior to the platooning of Wertz in ’51 and placed part of the blame for team losses on Wertz’s defense.
It doesn’t look as though Rolfe lost confidence in Wertz’s ability to hit left-handed pitching in ’51. Although there were reports made that Wertz had been struggling versus left-handers at the time, there was no indication that Rolfe believed Wertz had suddenly completely lost it at the plate against left-handers. After all, it was Rolfe who had originally made Wertz an everyday player. Moreover, Rolfe had allowed Wertz to face left-handed relievers during the 1951 platoon period, most notably three at-bats versus Yankee left-handed reliever Joe Ostrowski on August 1st. Ostrowski had come into the game in relief of starter Allie Reynolds. Also, Wertz’s numbers versus left-handers prior to being platooned in ‘51, although not great, were decent and not too far off his numbers versus southpaws in ’49 and ‘50. Surely the “analytical” Rolfe would have had a fairly good idea as to what Wertz’s performance was versus lefties at the time.
The same cannot be said in regards to 1952. That year Wertz’s numbers versus left-handers had indeed cratered. Again, Rolfe was almost assuredly aware of Wertz’s struggle versus lefties which is why the 1952 platooning of Wertz was most likely due to his year-long slump versus left-handed pitching. Moreover, Rolfe almost assuredly would have been aware of the Tigers’ 1-13 record against left-handed starting pitching at the time he began to platoon Wertz.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that the platooning of Wertz in ’52 began just after the Tigers acquired right-handed power hitters Walt Dropo and Don Lenhardt. With Dropo and Lenhardt in the line-up, Rolfe could sit the struggling Wertz versus lefties without sacrificing much in power. Also Wertz’s platoon partner, Bud Souchock, had hit extremely well against left-handers since the Tigers had acquired him the season before. Souchock’s availability also afforded Rolfe the ability to possibly extend the platooning of Wertz for a longer period of time after Rolfe had fined Wertz for “indifference” on defense.
Obviously there is no way of knowing exactly how long Rolfe planned to platoon Wertz in ’52 because Rolfe was fired while the platoon was still in place. However, given his prior statements on platooning i.e. he was not a believer of the platoon system, Rolfe probably was not going to stick with the plan much longer. Rolfe used platooning or benching as a way to snap a player out of a slump. In addition to platooning Wertz Rolfe had done the same with his other outfielders, notably Hoot Evers. Rolfe platooned/benched Evers during the same period in ‘51 as he had Wertz. Despite Evers hitting just over .200 at the time, Rolfe returned Evers to the starting line-up shortly thereafter. With Rolfe being obsessed with the Tigers’ lack of balance, specifically from the left side of the plate ever since being hired; the odds are that Rolfe would have eventually returned to starting Wertz every day.
When analyzing Rolfe’s platooning of Wertz one must also take into consideration the circumstances Rolfe was dealing with from an overall team standpoint at the time he implemented the platoon. In ’51 the Tigers were underperforming and the man that hired Rolfe, Tigers GM Billy Evans, had just been fired. Moreover, reports were that Tigers’ ownership felt the team was once again underperforming/not hustling. Rolfe was originally hired in large part to put an end to the player’s complacency and “emphasize hustle.” In ’52 the Tigers were well on their way to their worst season in franchise history. Attendance was down drastically and the team was losing money. New Tigers owner and president, Walter Briggs Jr. and Charlie Gehringer had inherited Rolfe which made Rolfe’s job security all the more tenuous. Surely these events had to have played some role in Rolfe’s decision-making as he tried to reverse the team’s fortunes.
One could say the platooning of Wertz was at least somewhat successful. In 1951 the Tigers were 6-4 while the Wertz platoon was in place, including a split in New York against the first place Yankees and three wins in four tries versus the second-place Red Sox in Boston. In ’52, prior to platooning Wertz, the Tigers were 1-13 versus left-handed starting pitching. With the Wertz platoon in place, the Tigers were 4-6 against southpaws. Overall though Rolfe and the Tigers managed a 10-21 record during the Wertz platoon in ’52 or a .322 winning percentage; practically the same winning percentage (.325) the Tigers had ended the 1952 season with.
On August 14th 1952, the Tigers traded Wertz to the St. Louis Browns in a seven-player deal. According to Wertz’s SABR biography, Charlie Gehringer stated that Wertz was “one of those outfielders who must hit .300 or be a liability. When he didn’t hit, he hurt us (90).” In 1954 the Browns began platooning Wertz in right field. The Browns then traded Wertz on June 1st of that year to the Cleveland Indians. Approximately six weeks later, the Indians made Wertz a first baseman, something Red Rolfe had seriously contemplated doing two years prior.
The View From the Dugout: The Journals of Red Rolfe (1, 2, 4, 14, 15, 16, 19, 30, 31, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 50, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 68, 69, 86)
Detroit Free Press: Nov 16, 1948 (3, 5, 6)
St. Louis Globe Democrat: April 10, 1949 (7)
Detroit Free Press: August 26, 1947 (8)
Detroit Free Press: July 1, 1949 (9)
Knoxville Sentinel: March 28, 1950 (10)
The Tribune: March 11, 1950 (11, 12)
York Dispatch: August 24, 1949 (13, 17)
Battle Creek Enquirer: March 11, 1950 (18)
Miami News: March 11, 1951 (20, 22, 23)
The Gazette Sun: March 4, 1951 (21)
Daily Republican: April 6, 1951 (24)
Capital Journal: April 4, 1951 (25)
Argus Leader: April 10, 1951 (26)
York Dispatch: Mar 24, 1951 (27, 28)
Knoxville Journal: March 18, 1951 (29)
Capital Journal: April 4, 1951 (34)
Detroit Free Press: July 25, 1951 (45)
NY Daily News: July 31 1951 (46)
Boston Globe: August 4, 1951 (47)
Boston Globe: August 29, 1951 (48)
Lancaster New Era: September 6, 1951 (49)
Detroit Free Press: September 7, 1951 (50)
Battle Creek Enquirer: February 29, 1952 (53)
Salt Lake Tribune: March 3, 1952 (58, 59, 60)
Detroit Free Press: March 3, 1952 (61)
Alabama Journal: April 4, 1952 (62)
High Point Enterprise: January 17, 1952 (63)
Spokesman-Review: April 6, 1952 (64, 65, 66, 67)
Battle Creek Enquirer: April 22, 1952 (70)
News Palladium: April 23, 1952 (71, 72)
Detroit Free Press: April 8, 1952 (73)
Detroit Free Press: April 23, 1952 (74, 75, 76)
Detroit Free Press: April 24, 1952 (77, 78, 79)
St. Joseph Gazette: June 4, 1952 (80, 81)
Detroit Free Press: June 4, 1952 (82)
Boston Globe: June 7, 1952 (83)
Kenosha Evening News: July 18, 1952 (84)
The Record: May 21, 1952 (85, 86)
The Dispatch: June 14, 1952 (87, 88)
The News Press: July 6, 1952 (89)
SABR Biography: Vic Wertz (90)