If Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Ken Griffey Jr. has a Rudy York kind of August, the home run record will be toast before Labor Day. In August 1937 the Tigers' York hit 18 home runs, a record for the month that still stands. The improbable part of the story is that Rudy York had a Rudy York kind of August.
On the surface York's performance is enough of a historical aberration to make the head shake: He only averaged about 25 homers a year in his 11 full seasons in the majors, so 18 in one month is rather striking. Yet look deeper, and York's record becomes odder still.
In 1937 York was a 23-year-old rookie who had been so unsuccessful in cracking the Detroit lineup that he had warmed up several times to pitch. A first baseman in the minors, he was blocked at that position by the Tigers' future Hall of Famer, Hank Greenberg. He'd played a little second, but Detroit had another future Hall of Famer, Charlie Gehringer, there. He'd lumbered around the outfield once, but the Tigers' starters were strong enough that Hall-bound Goose Goslin, then age 36, was the fourth outfielder. York had done a little catching, but he wasn't going to beat out Mickey Cochrane, who also was headed for Cooperstown and happened to be the Detroit manager. Even when Cochrane and third baseman Marv Owen were felled by injuries, York couldn't get in the starting lineup.
By Aug. 4 York and the Tigers were well on their way to a season of frustration (despite an 89-65 record, they would wind up in second place, 13 games behind the Yankees). Detroit had lost six straight when Cochrane, who had missed two months recuperating from a fractured skull but was back managing, decided to again try York behind the plate. York responded with four home runs in the next six games. But through Aug. 16 York had hit just five homers in the month. Then came a sixth in Chicago on the 17th, two more there on the 19th, two more in St. Louis on the 22nd, three in a doubleheader at home on the 24th, solo shots in Detroit on the 25th, 27th and 30th, and finally, on the 31st, in his fourth multihomer game in 12 days, a pair of three-run shots off Pete Appleton of the Senators.
In addition to the 18 homers, York had 49 RBIs, a .360 batting average and a .929 slugging percentage in August. Even with a quiet September, he finished the 1937 season with 35 homers in just 375 at bats, and he had 103 RBIs in 104 games.
Aided in large part by the parade of sluggers and quality pitchers who went off to World War II, he would lead the majors in homers (277), RBIs (1,146) and total bases (2,838) during his years as an every-day player, 1937 through '47 But true greatness eluded him, as did fame. In balloting for the American League Most Valuable Player award in '37, he received a single vote. Twenty-five years later he got one Hall of Fame vote, 10 in the next election and was then dropped from the ballot. He died of cancer in '70. His Rudy York kind of August, however, remains immortal.