Archive for Saturday, August 5, 2006

K-State product Auker dies

Ex-KSU quarterback, major-league pitcher dead at age 95

August 5, 2006

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Kansas State University graduate Elden Auker, the submarine-style pitcher who struck out Babe Ruth, faced Dizzy Dean and helped the Detroit Tigers win their first World Series championship, died Friday. He was 95.

Auker died in Vero Beach, Fla., where he had lived since 1974.

An occasional visitor at old-timers' events and a regular on the golf course until recent years, Auker used his unique delivery to go 130-101 for the Tigers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns from 1933-42.

He was an all-Big Six Conference selection at Kansas State in football, basketball and baseball.

"He was a physical and mental genetic marvel," said Journal-World sports editor Tom Keegan, who co-authored the book "Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms" with Auker.

"He was the nicest gentleman you'd ever meet," Keegan added. "Roberto Clemente was always my favorite baseball player. After meeting Elden, Roberto became my second-favorite baseball player. Elden had so much more mental energy than I do, it never occurred to me I'd outlive him."

Auker's exploits on the mound were legendary.

"He threw it from about as low as you could go without untying your shoes," Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller said Friday. "Any lower and you'd scrape your knuckles on the pitching rubber."

Feller, in fact, hit his first major-league home run off Auker, in 1940 at the first night game played in St. Louis.

"He found my bat, somehow," Feller said.

Yet as a rookie, Auker fanned Ruth on four pitches with his unorthodox motion. Auker recalled how one of the New York Yankees' bench jockeys heckled him, shouting, "You got the Bam real upset."

Ruth was not the only big hitter who got bamboozled by Auker's right-handed, drop-down pitches. During the 38th game of his 56-game hitting streak in 1941, Joe DiMaggio grounded a hard double off Auker in his final at-bat to extend the string.

"I used to have pretty good success against him. He used to tell me that he had trouble picking up the ball the way I threw it underhanded," Auker remembered, the day after DiMaggio died.

"A few years later, he signed a picture to me," he said. "He wrote, 'To my friend Elden. A tough submarine to sink."

Auker developed his unique style after getting hurt as a quarterback at Kansas State, where Grantland Rice picked him as a second team All-American. Auker had a chance to play pro football for the Chicago Bears, but chose baseball and enjoyed early success.

In 1934, Auker went 15-7 as the Tigers took the AL pennant. He pitched a complete game and beat St. Louis 10-4 in Game 4 of the World Series, but lost to Dean and Cardinals 11-0 in Game 7.

The next year, Auker went 18-7 and led the league in winning percentage as Detroit again reached the 1935 World Series. Auker got a no-decision in Game 3, and the Tigers went on to win their first title in six games.

Auker kept his connection with Detroit over the years. He was at Tiger Stadium for the ballpark's closing ceremonies at its final game in 1999.

A nine-letter athlete at Kansas State and a member of its Hall of Fame, Auker considered a career in medicine before becoming a ballplayer. After retiring, Auker became a successful businessman in the abrasives field. He later moved to Vero Beach, and his home was wrecked by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

"He was a real solid citizen, on and off the field," Feller said. "You wouldn't find a person who would have a bad thing to say about Elden."

Auker is survived by his wife of 73 years, Mildred, and a son, Jim.

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