I’ve typed this before, but it bears repeating. My grandfather once told me there were three things you never discussed in public: politics, religion, and sports. Eventually you’d quit discussing and start arguing. The only thing worse was to combine two of them in the same discussion. I’ve discovered there’s a lot of truth to that, but I’m going to break that rule (as I’ve done before with Billy Sunday and Count Sensenderfer) and do a little bit on a man who combined two. In his case it was sport and politics, and he did both well. His name was Billy Rogell.
Rogell came out of Springfield, Illinois to play shortstop in the big leagues in 1925. He’d done well in the minors and the Red Sox tried him at second base. They also tried to make him give up switch hitting and concentrate on hitting right-handed. Needless to say the change in batting stance and playing out of position made him ineffective (he hit a buck ninety-five with no power) and got him sent back to the minors. He resurfaced in 1927, did better. Played in 1928, and was let go by Boston. After another year in the minors, Detroit picked him up for the 1930 season.
Again, he didn’t do particularly well, but by late 1931 he’d become the Tigers regular shortstop. He hit .303 in 48 games and played a solid short. He remained the Tigers primary shortstop through the 1930s. Teaming with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, he helped form one of the best keystone combinations of the era. He hit well (generally in the .270s) with little power (the nine home runs he hit in 1932 was his peak), a good eye (he tended to walk about twice as often as he struck out), and his WAR (BBREF version) floated between 2.0 and a high of 5.1 in 1935. He led the American League in fielding percentage, assists, putouts, and double plays a few times, but almost always was in the top three or four in the AL in most fielding categories.
He helped Detroit to consecutive AL pennants in 1934 and 1935. In the former year the Tigers lost a seven game World Series to the St. Louis “Gas House Gang.” He hit .276 for the Series with four RBIs and eight hits. In the famous incident involving the beaning of Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean, Rogell was the man who threw the ball. He was such a competitor that when told he’d hit Dean in the head, he responded, “If I’d known his head was there, I’d have thrown the ball harder.” In 1935 Detroit won the Championship with Rogell hitting .292 with seven hits, including a pair of doubles.
By 1938 he was 33 and fading, although he set a Major League record by walking in seven consecutive plate appearances in August (three games were involved). He had a bad year in 1939 and was traded to the Cubs. He was through. He hit all of .136 in 33 games. He retired at the end of the season, but returned to baseball as a minor leaguer in 1941.
Hugely popular in Detroit, Rogell ran for public office in 1941 and was elected to the City Council. Except for a two-year break, he remained in City Government into 1980. Much of his emphasis was on public works and he chaired the committee that built the modern Detroit airport (the road leading into the airport is named for him). In retirement he was chosen to throw out the first pitch in the final game at Tiger Stadium. Returning to retirement, he died in 2003 at age 98.
For his baseball career he hit .267 with an OBP of .351, slugged .370, and had an OPS of .722 (OPS+ 85 and 23.7 WAR–again BBREF version). His WAR peaked in 1933 at 5.3 (he was also above 4.0 in 1934 and 1935). He had 1375 hits, 256 doubles, 75 triples, and 42 home runs for 1907 total bases. He scored 757 runs and had 610 RBIs to go with 82 stolen bases and 649 walks.
Teaming with Gehringer he made the Tigers a formidable defensive team up the middle. Although he didn’t hit nearly as well as Gehringer, Rogell was still a good enough hitter. He’s never gotten much push for the Hall of Fame and probably shouldn’t.
Billy Rogell was an example of something that was missing in baseball for a long while, the civic-minded sportsman. We’re seeing it begin to return at least a little as teams realize the good PR that can be gained by having their team at least appear civic-minded. It seems that in Rogell’s case it was, as 38 years on the Detroit City Council would prove, much more than appearance.