Chuck Hostetler, the epitome of a war-time major-league baseball player, was a 40-year-old rookie for the Tigers in 1944. He had not played professional baseball since 1937.
Hostetler, who mainly played right field and pinch-hit for the Tigers in 1944-45, spent 10 years in the minor leagues from 1928-37. He was with the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators, but none of them called him up.
During Hostetler’s 10 years in the minors, he hit .300 or better five times with his best season in 1931 when he hit .358 in 119 games for the Class A Topeka Senators. He hit .338 for the Wichita Aviators of the same league the following year and finished with 1,466 base-hits for a .307 average with 30 home runs in the minors.
After the 1937 season, Hostetler quit baseball. He was 34 and married and took a job on a mooring boat and played semi-pro baseball in Bayton, Texas. He moved to Wichita, Kansas, and worked at Boeing at the start of World War II.
“I gave up the idea of playing in the majors a few years ago,” Hostetler said in The Associated Press in the summer of 1944.
Hostetler continued to play for the Boeing team, and former Tigers pitcher Red Phillips, who umpired some of those games, saw him and recommended him to the Tigers, who were searching for big-league talent like the rest of the league with the rosters ravaged by World War II.
Hostetler was 40, but he was listed as 38 when he reported to spring training in 1944, and he made the team. He became the oldest player to make his major-league debut in history, and since then he has been surpassed by two pitchers. He remained the oldest position player to make his major-league debut as of 2019.
A hot start kept Hostetler in the Tigers’ plans. He had a pinch-hit single in his major-league debut. He was hitting .429 (9-for-21) at the end of April, and his average never dropped below .300 until August 21. He finished at .298 with 42 runs scored, no home runs, 20 RBIs and four stolen bases, and earned a return trip to the Tigers.
Hostetler did not duplicate his rookie season, and his playing time suffered. He went from 265 at-bats to 44 and hit just .159 with three runs scored and two RBIs
However, the Tigers won the American League pennant, and Hostetler was on the roster. He appeared in three World Series games and was 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter.
With his lack of playing time and many players returning to baseball after the end of World War II, Hostetler was not offered a contract by the Tigers, and he left baseball. He worked as a sports announcer at KHOX in Arkansas and became a farmer, but those did not last long. He went back to work for Boeing, and he went back to baseball as he was one of four managers for the Chanute Giants in the Class D Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League in 1950.
Hostetler became ill with mesothelioma in 1970 and died the following year at age 67.
“D” TALES:” Chuck Hostetler had just turned 42 years old a month before the start of the 1945 World Series. Although he was on the Tigers’ roster, he didn’t expect to see much game action, and he didn’t.
However, Hostetler could not have expected or hoped to commit a blunder on baseball’s biggest stage.
It was Game 6 of the World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago, and the Tigers had won three of the first five games. One more victory would secure the second World Series title in franchise history, but they trailed the Chicago Cubs 5-1 going into the top of the seventh inning.
Hostetler led off the inning as a pinch-hitter for Skeeter Webb. Hostetler reached first on an error by Cubs third baseman Stan Hack. Hostetler took second on an infield out, and Doc Cramer followed with a single to left field. As Hostetler charged around third base and had made it about two-third of the way to home when he sprawled face first onto the ground. He scrambled to his feet, but by then Cubs catcher Mickey Livingston had the ball. Hostetler tried to get back to third, but Livingston threw to third baseman Hack, who tagged Hostetler.
Tigers manager Steve O’Neill, in the third-base box, did not give Hostetler the signal to keep running.
“We would have won if Chuck Hostetler had only caught my signal to hold up when he was rounding third after Eddie Mayo had singled,” O’Neill said in the Detroit Free Press, “but Chuck didn’t see it until he was past third. I shouted at him and Chuck, trying to pull up short, fell down and was tagged out. Later in that inning, we scored two runs, and for Chuck’s faux pas, we would now have been headed home.”
O’Neill also reasoned that because Hostetler was a fast base runner, he understood why Hostetler might not have been expecting to be held up at third base and did not see the sign.
Detroit trailed 5-3 with runners on first and second when the third out was made in the inning, so Hostetler’s flop – it became known as “Hostetler’s Flop” – might have cost the Tigers more runs. The Tigers did finally tie the game, but they lost 8-7 in 12 innings.
It was Hostetler’s final moment on the field during a major-league game, but two days later, it didn’t matter. The Tigers won Game 7 to secure the World Series, and Hostetler was a world champion. On June 15, 1946, the Tigers welcomed back Hostetler and the other members of the 1945 team to witness the raising of the World Series and American League banners. They also were presented with gold rings.