The Story of Kansas

March 29, 2010

Native Kansan pitched his way to baseball greatness

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression when a struggling young radio announcer got his first chance at the big time in the 1935 World Series:

Chicago Cubs announcer Ronald Reagan landed an interview with Kansan Elden Auker, already a baseball legend as a pitcher.

Two years earlier, Auker made his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium. He faced the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He struck out Ruth on four pitches.

Auker, who had grown up playing on the sandlots in northwest Kansas, wrote in his autobiography, “Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms,” that he tried not to think about the big names in front of him. He simply concentrated on the 60 feet and 6 inches between him and the batter.

In the 1935 World Series, the right-hander started Game 3 for Detroit and the Tigers won in extra innings. Detroit went on to win the Series in six games.

Auker was known for his submarine pitching style, which he began using after he injured his right shoulder playing college football.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who hit his first majorleague home run off Auker, later described Auker’s style: “He threw it from about as low as you could go without untying your shoes. Any lower and you’d scrape your knuckles on the pitching rubber.”

Auker was born Sept. 21, 1910, in Norcatur. He attended the Kansas Agricultural and Mechanical College, later named Kansas State University, in Manhattan.

In college, Auker earned nine varsity letters playing football, basketball and baseball.

In his first football game as a sophomore, Auker injured his right shoulder so that he couldn’t throw a ball overhand. He started throwing from the side, then under.

He signed with the Tigers for $450 a month.

In the 1934 World Series, Auker lost Game 7 of the series to Dizzy Dean after winning Game 4 10-4.

His first endorsement as a baseball player was for Camel cigarettes. For lending his name, he received $500 a year and was given 12 free cartons of cigarettes.

In his book, Auker wrote that the cigarettes were so strong, he went to the local grocery store and traded them for the brand he really preferred, Lucky Strikes.

Auker played 10 years in the majors for the Tigers, Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Browns.

He retired from baseball after the 1942 season to work for a company that made antiaircraft guns for the war effort.

In 1969, he returned to Kansas to be inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Auker died in 2006, at age 95.

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