Del Baker played 173 games for the Tigers over three seasons. Despite hitting just .209, he proved a highly intelligent baseball man. The Tigers hired Baker to manage their Texas League team before he joined Bucky Harris’ staff in Detroit. He remained a coach under Mickey Cochrane and replaced the Hall of Famer as Tiger skipper in 1938. Baker led the Tigers to the American League Pennant in 1940, but World War II decimated the roster and he lost his position in 1942.
22-year-old Del Baker made his big league debut in 1914. The young catcher appeared in 44 games and hit just .214. He returned to play in 68 games in 1915 and 61 in 1916. Although he hit a respectable .246 for the dead ball era, he suffered a dramatic offensive drop off in 1916. Baker hit .153 in his final season and finished his career at .209.
Although a marginal player, Baker showed an aptitude for the game. Eventually, the Tigers gave him the opportunity to manage in the Texas League. He led the Beaumont Exporters to a championship warranting a big league call up. Baker coached for Bucky Harris in 1933 and demonstrated an uncanny ability to steal signs.
The Tigers dispatched Harris before the end of the 1933 season. Baker managed the final two games of the season. Then, the Tigers hired Mickey Cochrane to manage the squad in the offseason. Cochrane did not purge Baker from the coaching staff. Instead, Cochrane promoted Baker to “senior coach.”
Baker coached the Tigers through the 1938 season. He helped Cochrane lead the Tigers to two pennants and the 1935 World Series. As senior coach, he served as acting manager when Cochrane suffered a nervous breakdown in 1936 and a skull fracture in 1937. The Tigers finished 59-39 during his brief tenure. As a result, Tiger management believed they had Cochrane’s replacement on staff if needed.
Cochrane’s high strung personality proved incapable of managing long term. In 1938, the Tigers began the season 47-51 leading to Cochrane’s dismissal. Detroit replaced the manager with Del Baker. The Tigers responded by playing .661 baseball for the rest of the season. However, 1939 proved another disappointment and the club eyed 1940.
The Yankees collapsed in 1940 opening the door for Detroit and Cleveland. Baker moved hard hitting catcher Rudy York to first base and switched Hank Greenberg to the outfield. York responded by hitting .316 with 33 home runs, driving in 134, and finishing with a .993 OPS. Meanwhile, Greenberg won the MVP with a .340, 41, 150, and 1.103 performance. Baker topped himself on the season’s final day. He tabbed rookie pitcher Floyd Giebell to start against Bob Feller. Giebell bested Feller 2-0 and Detroit won the pennant. Unfortunately, the Tigers lost a thrilling seven game epic to Cincinnati.
The American League champs floundered in 1941. The army took Greenberg and star pitcher Bobo Newsom struggled mightily. Baker’s bag of tricks ran dry and Detroit finished below .500 for two consecutive years. In response, Tiger management fired Baker. He finished his Tiger managing career with 417 wins, one pennant, and a .540 win percentage. He managed again in 1960 for Boston. His final big league game coincided with Ted Williams’ final appearance.
Del Baker was one of Detroit’s greatest skippers. He took a rudderless team and transformed them into contenders. Baker’s expertise led Hank Greenberg to switch positions and win another MVP, led to the emergence of Rudy York, and won a pennant. World War II decimated the Tigers and they became also-rans until Greenberg returned from the war.