Grave Story: George Gerkin (1903-1977)

Here lies George Gerken, who was known for his strong hitting and base-stealing expertise in the minors but never really got a chance to show off his skills in the big leagues. Gerken played for the Cleveland Indians as an outfielder in 1927 and ’28.

George Herbert Gerken was born in Chicago on July 28, 1903. He later would be given the nickname of “Pickles” for rather obvious reasons. His parents, Henry and Minnie Gerken, were first-generation German-Americans. Henry Gerken worked in city government for most of his career as a county clerk. George was their only child.

George Gerken’s grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Covina, Calif.

Baseball Reference does not list where Gerken attended school. However, there are several newspaper articles that include a Gerken at first base for a semipro team in Glenview. In 1925, the Rock Island Argus reported that Gerken, 21, had been brought to the Rock Island Islanders of the Mississippi Valley League by manager Preston Gray. The first baseman was converted into an outfielder, and he quickly began attracting scouts from pro teams. And it’s no surprise why. Gerken batted .339 for Rock Island with 35 doubles, 12 triples and 6 home runs. He also stole 44 bases. In mid-June, as he was hitting at a .400 clip, Gerken was sold to Decatur of the Three-I League for $4,000. It was the largest sum ever paid for a Mississippi Valley League player. As part of the agreement, Gerken finished the season with Rock Island and reported to Decatur in 1926.

Source: The Rock Island Argus, July 19, 1925

Gerken kept hitting with his new team, leading the Commodores with a .336 average, along with 23 doubles and 18 home runs. While the league’s stolen base totals are not recorded, he was reported to be a threat on the bases as well. In May, Gerken hit a home run to right field in a game against Evansville. Later that same game, he slammed another home run, this time to left-center, that almost hit a box car that stood by a train shed behind the Decatur stadium. The Commodores sold Gerken’s contract to the Cleveland Indians in July. The price was not specified in the newspapers, but it’s safe to assume that Decatur made a tidy profit in the deal.

The 1927 Cleveland Indians happened to have a rather large hole in their outfield, caused by the departure of long-time center fielder Tris Speaker to the Washington Senators. Gerken was part of the squad seeking to fill those large shoes in center. He quickly developed a good number of fans, including manager Jack McCallister and team captain George Burns, thanks to his heavy hitting in training camp. The big question was his defense. In his two years in the minors, Gerken had been a shaky fielder, though his assist totals indicate that he had a strong arm. Ultimately, Cleveland started the ’27 season with Bernie Nies in center field. After he failed to hit much, Gerken was given a few starts. He made his major-league debut on April 19, 1927, as a pinch-runner for Joe Sewell. His first start came on April 25 against the St. Louis Browns. He was 1-for-4 with a single off Browns starter Win Ballou. The very next game, he hit a 2-run single off Milt Gaston in the bottom of the first inning to make the score 3-0. He added a walk and another hit in the 6-2 win. After Gerken went hitless in 3 at-bats on the 27th, McCallister benched him and tried a couple other players in center. Gerken made a couple of appearances in left field but was sent to the minors in June, after his playing time in the majors had practically vanished. He had 3 hits in 14 at-bats for a .214 batting average, and he made 1 error in 7 chances in center field.

Source: The Rock Island Argus, April 20, 1928.

Gerken was demoted to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, and he batted nearly .300 and showed some good power. He rejoined Cleveland in 1928 but, again, did not see much playing time. The right-handed hitter was used early on against southpaw starters and fared well. He had a double and a triple off Detroit’s Earl Whitehill on April 16, 1928, with a run scored and 2 runs driven in. On April 19, he knocked White Sox lefty Charlie Barnabe out of the game with an RBI double in the bottom of the third inning. But new Cleveland manager Roger Peckinpaugh preferred Sam Langford in center field. With veterans Homer Summa and Charlie Jamieson established in the corner outfield spots, Gerken and the rest of the backup outfielders spent most of their time sitting on the bench). Gerken was released to the New Orleans Pelicans in August. Baseball Reference doesn’t list his statistics, but he is said to have rejuvenated the Pels with his “sparkling play.” “From first to home on a single is just a jaunt in a little more than nothing,” wrote Fred Digby, a New Orleans sportswriter.

Gerken returned to Cleveland in September as a semi-regular in left field and finished the ’28 season with a .226/.305/.322 slash line in 38 games. He had 7 doubles and 2 triples among his 26 hits, and he also stole 3 bases in 7 attempts. His fielding in center field wasn’t terrible, but he committed 4 errors in left field for a .886 fielding percentage.

Source: The Selma Times-Journal, March 29, 1927.

In December of 1928, Cleveland acquired pitcher Jim Zinn from Kansas City of the American Association, sending cash, Gerken and another player in return. That transaction ended Gerken’s time with the Indians as well as his major-league career. Over parts of 2 seasons, Gerken appeared in a total of 44 games, with a .225/.301/.310 slash line. His 29 hits included 7 doubles and 2 triples. He drove in 11 runs and scored 17 times, with 13 walks and 25 strikeouts. He stole 3 bases and was thrown out 4 times. In the outfield, he had a combined fielding percentage of .937 in 303 innings. He had 4 assists but also made 6 errors.

Gerken was 25 years old when the 1929 season started, and he played for another seven seasons in the minors. While minor-league statistics from that era are incomplete, he had several very good seasons. He batted .280 for Kansas City in 1929 with 11 homers and 12 triples. He might have had more, but he missed some time with an injured foot after a collision with second baseman Freddy Spurgeon. The rangy second baseman had a bizarre habit of running into and disabling his own outfielders while chasing pop flies. He once bragged about taking out two Cleveland outfielders, Summa and Burns, in one game. Gerken wasn’t even the first teammate that Spurgeon had injured with Kansas City. He hit Bob Seeds in the very first game of the season and took him out with some injured ribs.

“There are a lot of fine points to Spurgeon,” said Gerken. “In fact, you’re likely to run into one of his fine points every time you hit him. They’re sticking out all over him.”

Source: The Tennessean, April 23, 1935.

Gerken avoided vengeful infielders in 1930 while playing for Kansas City and Milwaukee. He totaled 196 hits, including 28 doubles and 10 home runs, for a .329 average. He started moving around the minors frequently, going from Milwaukee to Wichita Falls in 1931 and back to Milwaukee and then Little Rock in ’33. He continued to hit almost everywhere he went, with batting averages in the .290s or .300s. However, his power declined noticeably. He signed with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association in 1934 but hit .157 in 19 games. His contract was sold to the Davenport Blue Sox of the Western League. He and Davenport management couldn’t come to terms on a salary, so Gerken went back home and didn’t play any further in 1935. His final season in pro ball came in 1936 with Nashville and Knoxville of the Southern Association. In a change from the norm, Gerken struggled to hit with the Nashville Vols but was lauded for his fine fielding. He was cut to make way for another player and finished the season with the Knoxville Smokies. Based on the statistics that are currently available, Gerken batted .303 in his 10-year minor-league career. There are no stolen base totals, but if he was capable of stealing 40+ bases early on in his career, he could have reached 200 thefts if his legs held up.

Gerken played for the Racine Belles of the amateur Wisconsin State League in 1936. He managed a team in Aurora, Ill., which was a little closer to his Chicago home, in 1937 before joining a squad from Springfield, Ill., that competed in the Denver Post annual semipro tournament. By 1940, he had moved back home with his parents in Chicago. He was listed in the 1940 U.S. Census as a “Baseball Professional,” though he indicated that he was seeking work. His World War II registration card describes him as owning his own business at 4357 N. Western Ave. in Chicago. Gerken married Lorraine Lavery on September 14, 1943. They had two children, Marianne and Thomas.

Gerken was the manager of a bowling alley in Chicago, per the 1950 U.S. Census. Some time after that, the family moved to Arcadia, Calif. George Gerken died there on October 23, 1977, at the age of 74 from lung cancer. He was survived by his wife and children. Lorainne Gerken lived to the age of 101 before she died on March 17, 2019, in Laguna Hills.

George Gerken is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Covina, Calif.

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