Charles Leonard Gehringer was born May 11, 1903 on the Ruttman farm in Iosco Township, Livingston County, Michigan. He was the son of Leonard and Theresa (Hahn) (Eisele) Gehringer, both German immigrants. Leonard was a farmer, and when Charlie was young the family moved to the Ed Angel farm just south of Fowlerville, MI.
Gehringer remembered in interviews that he started to play baseball around age seven. He and his older brother Al laid out a diamond behind the barn, using a rock for home plate, a pump handle for first base, the door of an outdoor cellar for third base and a rain barrel for second. He remembered putting together a scrapbook of newspaper and magazine photos of the Tiger stars of that period, such as Ty Cobb. In later years his mother would remember how she "used to scold him because he wouldn't be around for his meals and wouldn't do any of the chores. He was always playing ball. i used to get so mad I could spank him."
My grandmother, Marion (Gehringer) Winegar was Charlie's niece, and told of gathering eggs with Charlie. One of them would throw the eggs from the chicken coop and the other would catch the eggs at the back porch.
Charlie didn't care much for farm work. In a 1934 newspaper interview, my great-grandfather Chris Gehringer, Charlie's half-brother, was asked if Charlie ever worked on the farm. Grandpa Chris replied that "he never set the North River on fire working at anything. He was all right when you got him started but it was a tough job getting him started. I guess he just wasn't cut out for farm work."
Gehringer played baseball in high school for Fowlerville. For three years he pitched and played infield, losing only one game, 2-1 to Detroit Northern, before graduating in 1922. Besides playing on the Fowlerville High team, Charlie played on the town team. Back then most towns had a local baseball team; playing Howell or Williamston was as big an event as the Fowlerville Fair.
He attended the University of Michigan, playing football, basketball and baseball. Oddly enough, he lettered in basketball, but not baseball. During his year at the University of Michigan he continued to play with the town team whenever he could. He was also good enough to play with an independent team from Angola, Indiana. The team played in the Indiana-Ohio League and was managed by a former Washington Senator player, George W. "Jock" Somerlott.
Everything changed in 1923. Former Detroit outfielder Bobby Veach was in Fowlerville for a hunting trip with his friend, Floyd Smith. Veach was persuaded to take a look at Gehringer, and told then Detroit Tigers president and owner Frank Navin that he should sign the young Gehringer before someone else did so.
Charlie was invited to a tryout with Ty Cobb presiding. After the tryout, Cobb and Frank Navin offered Charlie a contract of $3600, plus a $300 signing bonus. Gehringer didn't immediately accept. He wanted to go home and check with his parents. Leonard thought that it was a pretty good idea, but Theresa wasn't too sure. After much persuasion, she gave her permission. When he returned to Detroit to sign, he insisted on one stipulation: if he were sent to the minor leagues, it must not be too far from Fowlerville.
Gehringer went on to play for the Tigers during the next 19 years, collecting 2839 hits for a lifetime batting average of .320. He played in three World series, and six All-Star games, including the first game in 1933, when he scored the first run off a 1st inning home run by Babe Ruth. In 1937 he was the American League batting champion, batting 20 points over Lou Gehrig. He was also selected the league's MVP in 1937, edging out Joe DiMaggio. Gehringer was known as "the Mechanical Man" for his grace and effortlessness in fielding. he was also known within baseball as "the Silent Marvel" and "the Silent Knight" because of his reputation of not speaking much. In off-season barnstorming tours he had the opportunity to play against Satchel Paige. Charlie also served as manager of the Tigers for a short time in the early 1950s.
In World War II Charlie enlisted in the Navy Air Corps, serving as a Lieutenant Commander. In 1938 he became a partner in a business, Gehringer and Forsyth, and after the war returned to it, selling fabrics to auto manufacturers. He became wealthy as the business succeeded. He sold out in 1974, at the age of 71.
Charlie's dad, Leonard, died in 1924, before Charlie got called up to the majors. After a few years, Charlie bought his mother a house in Detroit, and lived there with her until she died in 1946. Because she was diabetic and had difficulty getting around, Charlie never married while she was alive, feeling that it was too much to ask of another woman to deal with the situation. After Theresa died, he married Josephine Stillen in San Jose, California, on the very day that he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Upon the 1982 announcement of the impending retirement of his and Hank Greenberg's numbers in 1983, Gehringer said "I guess it's an honor, but it's no big deal. I didn't want them to do it if they didn't want to, and I didn't want to do it if they didn't do Greenberg's. If we can't get a number for Ty Cobb, maybe no one deserves one." (Cobb played before numbers were used on uniforms.)
Charlie occasionally returned to Fowlerville. I remember several times when it was to pick up or drop off Sister Blandine, his half-sister who was a nun, at my grandmother's house. In 1973 he was the guest of honor at the Fowlerville Alumni Association banquet and I had the honor of of serving his table. I only remember meeting him one or two other times, both of them in Durand for functions honoring his half-brother George. Charlie died in January 21, 1993 in Bloomfield Township at the age of 89, from complications due to a stroke he suffered a month earlier.
In the excellent book Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit, author Richard Bak provides a long chapter on Gehringer in his own words, and ends with this story:
"My greatest thrill? You know, people ask me that all the time, and I've got to say that every day in the major leagues is a thrill, and the next game is even bigger. Still, one that I'll always remember is back in 1929, when the folks from my home town of Fowlerville had a day for me at Navin Field.
"They presented me with a set of golf clubs. They were beautiful: matched Spalding irons and woods with a beautiful leather bag. They also were right-handed, and of course I'm left-handed. But I learned how to play the game right-handed, those clubs were so nice. Anyway, we played the Yankees that day and we won big. i started off with a home run. I had four hits and almost hit for the cycle, and to top it off I stole home. I probably had some better afternoons, but that was kind of a special day."
(adapted from an article I wrote for the Fowlerville News & Views, August 5, 1996, honoring Gehringer as a Distinguished Alumnus of Fowlerville High School)