When the Tigers shifted Miguel Cabrera to third base in 2012 to make room for Prince Fielder, they weren't breaking new ground. Back in the 1930s, the Tigers chose to ignore defense to fit another big bat into the lineup. Rudy York, a promising young slugger, was brought into the fold with Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg entrenched in the lineup. Fortunately, York's bat did what it was meant to, and he anchored the Tigers' lineup through the late 1930s and 1940s.
Rudolph Preston York was born on August 17th, 1913 in Ragland, Alabama. York's family moved to Aragon, Georgia while he was still young. He grew up playing for the ATCO (American Textiles Company) mill team, where he also worked. He began his professional career in 1933, playing in 30 combined games for three different minor league teams, including a three game stint for the Knoxville Smokies of the Southern Association.
York played a combined 100 games for a pair of Texas League in 1934, alternating between catcher and right field. He was called up by the Tigers in August that year, but only played in three games, going 1-for-6 with a walk. Still, optimism was abound as sportswriters compared the 21 year old York to greats like Rogers Hornsby and Heinie Manush. Unfortunately for York, the Tigers still saw him as a catcher, and he was sent back to the minors in 1935.
After a huge season that saw him win the Texas League MVP, York made headlines in Spring Training in 1936. Hank Greenberg and the Tigers were at odds about his contract, and York's move to first base during the 1935 season had opened some eyes throughout the game. Greenberg worked out his contract that spring, however, leaving York without a position on a loaded roster. York was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers, then a minor league team in the American Association.
York won another MVP in 1936, all but forcing the Tigers to put him on their 1937 roster despite not having a position for him to play. He would have been a perfect designated hitter in today's game, as his glove at all positions besides first base reportedly left a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, York's rookie season predated the DH rule by over 30 years. He spent the early part of the 1937 playing third base, with manager Mickey Cochrane admitting that the Tigers were sacrificing defense for offense.
"[I]f we are going to be weak on the mound, we’ll have to sacrifice our defensive strength for power at the plate. We’ll need all the heavy hitters we can get because it’s a cinch the other fellows are going to get some runs and we’ll just have to try and outscore them."
Despite missing a decent chunk of time due to defensive struggles, York hit .307/.375/.651 with 35 home runs and 103 RBI in 417 plate appearances in 1937. He finished 23rd in the MVP voting and likely would have been a shoo-in for the Rookie of the Year award had it existed. York followed that year with his first All-Star appearance in 1938, hitting .298/.417/.579 with 33 home runs and 127 RBI.
York spent the next couple seasons as the team's primary catcher before Greenberg was moved to the outfield in 1940. York responded by having his best season to date, hitting .316/.410/.583 with 33 home runs and 134 RBI. His 5.8 WAR was second on the team (to Greenberg) and ninth in the American League, while his .441 wOBA ranked fifth in the AL. Thanks to York and Greenberg's production -- Greenberg won his second MVP that year -- the Tigers won the AL pennant, but lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
With players beginning to leave the game for military service in 1941, York was left as the lone power threat in the Tigers' lineup. He also suffered a broken hand during the 1941 season, and hit just .259/.360/.456, but still hit 27 home runs and drove in 111 RBI. Despite sub-par showings during the 1941 and '42 seasons, York made the All-Star team both years and amassed a combined 5.7 WAR.
York bounced back in 1943 as war-time baseball started to take full effect. He led the AL with 34 home runs and 118 RBI, finishing third in the MVP race. The Tigers steadily improved over the next three seasons, eventually winning the AL pennant in 1945. The championship season was York's worst to date; his 18 home runs, .745 OPS, and .353 wOBA were all career lows at that point. He didn't help matters by hitting a paltry .179 with one double in the seven-game World Series.
York's poor showing in 1945 combined with the return of several players from military service forced the Tigers' hand that offseason. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Eddie Lake shortly after the new year in 1946, ending his career in Detroit. York put together an All-Star caliber season for the Red Sox that year, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 119 RBI with an .808 OPS. Things would quickly fall apart after that, however.
York made his seventh and last All-Star appearance in 1947 despite finishing the season with a .233 batting average and .699 OPS. York's off-field problems became more public that year as well. He drank and smoked on a regular basis, and was known for setting hotel rooms on fire due to his tendency to fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand. Former teammate Charlie Gehringer once noted that York "led the league in burned mattresses."
After 31 games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1948, York retired from baseball. He ended his career with a .275 batting average, 277 home runs, and 1152 RBI in 1603 games. As a Tiger, York's 35.0 WAR ranks 15th all-time among position players. He sits seventh in franchise history in home runs, 11th in RBI, and ninth in wOBA.