On May 30, 1934, more than 27,000 fans settled into their seats at League Park, lured by the promise of a Memorial Day doubleheader between the Indians and the White Sox. The star of the show turned out to be Hal Trosky, a player signed off the farm in Iowa in his first full year with the Indians.
The Tribe dropped a heartbreaker in the first game, losing 8-7 in 12 innings. Odell Hale hit two home runs, but the Indians were undone by three errors – one by Hale. In the second game (can you really call it a nightcap since League Park never installed lights?), Trosky hit three home runs – each over the 40-foot wall in right field, but none a cheap shot, said Plain Dealer Sports Editor Gordon Cobbledick.
“All three were socks that would have cleared the barrier in any park in the major leagues,” Cobbledick wrote. “But he saved his best shot for the last. That one, soaring high over the wall in right center, smashed through the windshield of a car parked deep in a lot on the far side of Lexington Avenue.”
Trosky, at the time 21 years old and still one of the youngest players to hit at least three home runs in a game, appeared on his way to fulfilling the potential seen in him by scout Cy Slapnicka. Cobbledick recounted that after the win – which kept the Indians barely in first place, a half-game ahead of the Yankees – General Manager Billy Evans wired Slapnicka commending him on unearthing Trosky.
Trosky, a sandlot player in his native Iowa, had attracted the attention of several teams. The Cardinals wanted to sign him after he graduated high school in 1930. Bing Miller, from a nearby town and fresh off a World Series appearance with the Athletics, wanted to bring him to the attention of A’s manager Connie Mack. But it was Slapnicka who charmed Trosky’s father and got Trosky to sign on the dotted line for the Indians.
Trosky made a brief appearance in the majors at the end of 1933, with 13 hits – including a double, two triples, and a home run – in 11 games for an average of .295. He was penciled in as the Tribe’s everyday first baseman in 1934. It was an era of slugging first basemen, with Lou Gehrig – who just two years earlier had become the first modern player to hit four home runs in a game – in New York, Jimmie Foxx in Philadelphia, and Hank Greenberg in Detroit. It appeared Trosky would take his place among them.
“At 21, the young first baseman has a dozen years ahead of him in which he should spread terror among opposing pitchers – increasing terror as the seasons pass,” the Plain Dealer wrote.
And the season bore out that prediction. Trosky played every inning of all 154 games, batting .330 and hitting 35 home runs. He even got enough votes to finish seventh in the race for American League MVP. After a down year in 1935, Trosky came roaring back, again playing all 154 games in 1936. He hit 42 home runs and drove in 162 runs, both team records.
But after that, his power declined precipitously. He never hit more than 32 home runs in a season, and his batting average declined as well, as migraines took a toll on him to the point where he was seriously contemplating retirement. In 1940, he was blamed – most likely unfairly – for the clubhouse revolt against manager Oscar Vitt. After the 1941 season, Trosky did, in fact, retire, but not before hitting his 200th home run, then putting him in rare air in the major leagues, one of just 17 players to do so. But the dozen years predicted for him to terrorize American League pitching turned out to be just eight.
He returned to the family farm in Iowa, and was declared 4-F for World War II – a fact which no doubt brought him back to the majors in 1944, the year of the 4-F Browns winning the American League pennant. Trosky had an inconsistent year, but his ten home runs were enough to lead the Pale Hose. After spending 1945 out of baseball, he had one last go-around with the White Sox in 1946, but he was done.
After his retirement, he returned to his farm in Iowa. His son Hal Jr. had a brief major league career. The elder Trosky died in his home in 1978.
Trosky still has a place in the Indians record book, fourth all-time in RBI with 911 (his record of 162 in a season stood until Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999), fifth all-time in home runs with 213, 11th in hits (1,365) and runs (758) and 12th in batting average at .313. But it’s a fraction of what was expected of him after Memorial Day 1934.