Some might say Dale Alexander started his major-league career 44 years too soon. He was the prototype for the designated hitter, which started in the American League in 1973.
The strapping Alexander, nicknamed “Moose” or “Ox,” burst onto the major-league scene in a way few have, but defensive liabilities, a powerless stretch and eventually an injury left other players and fans to wonder what could have been.
Alexander attracted attention in 1928 with Toronto in the International League. He batted .380 with 236 hits, 31 home runs and 144 RBIs, and he was purchased by the Tigers along with another player for $100,000.
Tigers Hall-of-Fame outfielder Harry Heilmann was attempting to make the move to first base in spring training, but Alexander put on a power display that resulted in Detroit keeping Heilmann in the outfield.
The first-base job belonged to Alexander. It turned into an historic season.
Alexander hit for power and hit for average, much as he had the previous season in Toronto.
Some were calling Alexander the new Babe Ruth, but the original Ruth was more than holding his own. A doubleheader on September 7, 1929, featuring Alexander’s Tigers and Ruth’s Yankees, drew a lot of attention at Yankee Stadium.
Alexander won the matchup in the first game as he had a triple, home run and three RBIs in a 5-4 victory for the Tigers. Ruth was held to two singles. However, Ruth turned the tables in the second game with three hits, including a double and his 41st home run of the season, and four RBIs as New York defeated the Tigers 11-7.
Alexander had a single, double, home run and two RBIs as both sluggers finished with five hits in the doubleheader.
At the end of the season, Alexander had 25 home runs, 137 RBIs and a .343 average. He finished with 215 hits, making him the first rookie in the American League with more than 200 hits since Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox had 239 in 1911. Alexander also made history along with teammate Roy Johnson, who had 201 hits, as the first rookie teammates to each top 200 hits in a season.
But there was a problem. Alexander was horrible in the field.
“I know I look bad at first base,” Alexander said in a story written by Michael Santa Maria and James Costello in the 1991 Baseball Research Journal. “I had the bad habit of getting my feet crossed at first. But I’ve had some good coaching, and I’m getting so I can reach for a ball without falling down.”
He made 56 errors in his first three seasons at first base and twice led the AL in that category.
John Kieran of the New York Times wrote, “Big Dale used to play beside Charley Gehringer and Charley went into a decline after a while. That is, he practically declined to play second if Dale continued to play first.”
Kieran went on to write that when a ball came the way of Alexander, he would say, “I’ll take it – no, you take it – never mind, I have it – ah, there it goes.”
But he continued to hit. In 1930, Alexander nearly duplicated his great rookie season by batting .326 with 20 home runs and 135 RBIs. During the season he had a 29-game hitting streak that featured six home runs and 40 RBIs. Alexander drove in at least one run in 22 of the 29 games, including 19 of the last 22.
The highlight of the streak came on May 24 against the Chicago White Sox in Comiskey Park. He homered in consecutive at-bats off Tommy Thomas, and his second home run came after one hit by Marty McManus for back-to-back shots.
The streak came to an end on June 19 in Yankee Stadium. The Tigers had off days on June 17-18 to travel from Detroit, where they had just concluded a 13-game homestand. Ed Wells and a rookie by the name of Vernon Gomez – who would become better known in future years as Lefty Gomez – combined to end Alexander’s streak with an 0-for-3 performance, although he did have a sacrifice fly. Wells left the game after five innings with a blister.
Alexander began the 1931 season by collecting 27 hits in 53 at bats (.509) in 14 games. Of course, he could not keep up that pace, and he ended up hitting .325. But something was missing. He had just three home runs in 517 at bats.
With his power gone, Alexander was not nearly the feared hitter that he had been his first two seasons, causing Shirley Povich to write in the Washington Post, “When Alexander isn’t hitting he’s about as much use to a club as an armless pitcher.”
A few days before the 1932 season opener, the Tigers purchased Harry Davis from Toronto, and Tigers manager Bucky Harris, frustrated with Alexander’s defensive shortcomings, announced that Davis was his new first baseman.
Alexander never made a start for the Tigers in 1932. He appeared in 23 of their first 50 games – nearly all of them as a pinch-hitter – and Detroit dealt him to the Boston Red Sox on June 13, 1932. The Tigers swapped Alexander and outfielder Roy Johnson – the same Roy Johnson who had 201 hits for the Tigers in 1929 – for outfielder Earl Webb, who led the AL in doubles in 1931 and batted .333.
Alexander was batting just .250 (4-for-16) in 23 games when they dealt him, but he found Boston and Fenway Park to his liking. He went on to post a .372 average in 101 games for the Red Sox and became the first player to win a batting championship in the same season in which he had been traded. But the batting title came with controversy.
Alexander’s .367 average came in 392 at bats and 124 games. That was before baseball changed the rule so that a batter would need 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title; in 1932 it was 100 games.
Alexander’s batting title cost Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx the Triple Crown. Foxx led the AL with 58 home runs and 169 RBIs, but his .364 average fell short of Alexander.
However, Alexander’s rebirth as a slugger was short-lived. On May 30, 1933, Alexander twisted his knee sliding into home in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. He underwent a new therapy in the clubhouse between games, and that was the beginning of his decline.
Alexander returned to the Red Sox and belted a home run 11 days later against the Washington Senators at Fenway Park, but he wasn’t the same slugger. Alexander finished the 1933 season with a .281 average – his only average under .325 in five big-league seasons – five home runs and 40 RBIs. He hit the final home run of his major-league career off Tigers reliever Firpo Marberry at Navin Field in Detroit on June 21, 1933.
“I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t field, and when I got hurt, that was the end,” Alexander said.
The following season he was in Newark of the International League, and he never played in the big leagues again. However, he showed minor-league fans a glimpse of his massive power on June 14, 1935, when he hit four home runs in four successive at bats for Double-A Kansas City. For the rest of his minor league career, Alexander never hit under .300 until his final season in 1942. In the minor leagues, Alexander finished with 2,072 hits, 1,171 RBIs and an average of .338.
When he was through playing, Alexander became a manager in the minor leagues and later a scout and totaled 36 years in professional baseball. He died after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer on March 2, 1979, in his hometown of Greenville, Tenn. He was 75.
“D” TALES: Dale Alexander’s rebirth as a slugger with the Boston Red Sox was short-lived.
On May 30, 1933, Alexander twisted his knee sliding into home in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. Red Sox trainer Doc Woods tried diathermy, a new therapy, on Alexander in the clubhouse between games. In the 1991 Baseball Research Journal, Michael Santa Maria and James Costello wrote, “Diathermy uses electric currents to produce heat in body tissues. After putting Dale in for the treatment, the trainer went out to get something to eat and forgot about him.”
Years later, Alexander’s son Don said, “They’d just barbecued his leg. It really sort of atrophied. It really was smaller than the other. Just like it was a burn. Scarring tissue. It was discolored.”
Alexander described the treatment in that issue of Baseball Research Journal.
“It was a new method of treatment and not much was known about it,” Alexander said. “I noticed my left leg felt awfully hot. I ended up with third-degree burns and a gangrene infection, and I almost lost my leg. I was finished in the majors.”