The best double play combo in Tigers history is without a doubt that of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, both of whom have already been profiled on our countdown. Prior to the glory years of Tram and Lou, however, the combination of Charlie Gehringer and Billy Rogell dazzled Detroiters for a decade in the 1930s. Gehringer, a Hall of Famer, already got his due on our countdown. Now, his double play partner lands at #42 on our list.
William George Rogell was born on November 24th, 1904 in Springfield, Illinois. He began his professional career with the Coffeyville Refiners of the Southwestern League in 1923, playing in 28 games. He also spent the 1924 season in the minors before signing with the Boston Red Sox in 1925. Only 20 years old, he played in 58 games during his rookie season, hitting a measly .195/.244/.237 in 189 plate appearances. He spent another year in the minors -- though Baseball Reference has no record of this -- before rejoining the Sox in 1927. After a pair of sub-par seasons in which he posted 0.6 WAR in a utility role, Rogell was released.
Rogell excelled in the American Association in 1929, hitting for a .336 average with 18 triples in 162 games for the St. Paul Saints. His performance netted him offers from several teams, but he chose to sign with the Tigers. Things didn't click immediately for him once back in the majors, however. He hit just .167/.250/.222 in 165 plate appearances in 1930 and was supplanted by Mark Koenig in the middle of the season.
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Once again, Rogell thrived in the minors. He hit .316 in 244 plate appearances for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1930 and .330 with 11 triples in 118 games to open the 1931 season. He closed out the '31 season in Detroit, amassing 1.3 WAR in just 48 games down the stretch. This landed him the starting job in 1932, and he didn't falter this time. In a then-career-high 613 plate appearances, Rogell hit .271/.332/.394 with 44 extra base hits. He also excelled with his glove, amassing 1.4 wins above replacement on defense alone.
If the Tigers were pleased with Rogell after his 1932 campaign, they must have been ecstatic in 1933. He put up a career high 5.3 WAR, hitting .295/.381/.404 in 674 plate appearances. His breakout season was particularly noteworthy because he did not hit any home runs. However, thanks to his 42 doubles and 11 triples, Rogell's 237 total bases are the most by a Tigers player without a home run in a single season.
Rogell followed up his spectacular 1933 season with a 4.7 WAR effort in 1934, hitting .296/.374/.392 with 100 RBI. He was one of three Tigers infielders with at least 100 RBI that year, with third baseman Marv Owen just missing the cut at 96. Overall, the foursome drove in 472 RBI, a major league record. Rogell, leading off in front of four future Hall of Famers -- Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, and Goose Goslin -- scored a career high 114 runs. The Tigers won 101 games and went to the World Series, where Rogell was involved in one of the stranger sequences in baseball history. A memoir from the New York Times details the event:
Dizzy Dean, the Cardinals' colorful pitching star, was pinch-running at first base in the fourth inning, with Leo Durocher on third base and no one out, when a grounder was hit to Gehringer, who tossed to Rogell for a forceout. Dean, arriving at second base standing up, was hit in the forehead by Rogell's double-play relay to first base, the ball caroming into right field.
Dean, knocked unconscious, was carried off the field, and the Tigers, with Rogell driving in four runs, rolled to a 10-4 victory. Dean quickly recovered and was the Cardinals' starter the next day. According to an often told but perhaps apocryphal tale, a newspaper headline that day read, "X-Rays of Dean's Head Revealed Nothing."
Dean lost Game 5 to Tigers starter Tommy Bridges, but had the last laugh when he shut out the Tigers in Game 7 to give the Cardinals their fourth championship.
Rogell's batting average fell off his near-.300 pace in 1935, but a 12.3% walk rate helped him maintain a .367 on-base percentage and .353 wOBA in 648 plate appearances. He also put up his best defensive season of his career, amassing 2.7 defensive WAR, the best figure in the American League. The Tigers won 93 games and the World Series, where Rogell hit .292/.346/.375 in the six game series.
Rogell continued to stay productive over the next three seasons, putting up a combined 7.0 WAR in just under 1900 plate appearances. What little power he had originally started to decline in 1937. While he still posted an excellent .373 on-base percentage, he logged a career-low 33 extra base hits for a .353 slugging percentage (also a career low). After a slow start in 1939, Rogell was benched and then traded to the Chicago Cubs after the season. Rogell only appeared in 33 games for the Cubs in 1940 before retiring from baseball.
After his retirement, Rogell was elected to the Detroit City Council in 1941. He spent 38 years serving the city, and was remembered for helping other former Tigers who had fallen on hard times and for his work in establishing the groundwork for what is now Detroit Metro Airport (Merriman Road becomes William G. Rogell Drive as you enter the airport). The Tigers did their part to honor Rogell too. He threw out the final first pitch at Tiger Stadium on September 27th, 1999.
Mr. Rogell passed away on August 13th, 2003.