In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we look back at the Latin players that joined the Detroit Tigers and left an everlasting impact. Today, we look at Aurelio Rodríguez. We started the series with Aurelio Lopez.
Detroit Tigers general manager Jim Campbell was as good as Dave Dombrowski in the art of trading. As soon as the season ended in 1970, Campbell shipped 1969 Cy Young award winner and 30 game-winner in 1968, Denny McLain, Norm McRae, Elliott Maddox, and Don Wert to the Washington Senators for shortstop Ed Brickman, pitcher Joe Coleman, Jim Hannan, and prize player in the trade, Aurelio Rodriguez.
The irony of the trade was that just a few months earlier on August 4, Rodriguez tied the record at the time for most home runs by a Mexican-born player when he went deep off Denny McLain in the Senators 4-1 victory at Tiger Stadium.
The value the Tigers got when they traded for Aurelio Rodriguez and Brinkman, coming off seasons of 5.6 WAR and 4.4 WAR season in Washington in 1970 was impressive, and seemly, the Tigers wanted to move on from McLain. New manager, Billy Martin was so eager to meet Rodriguez, he went to go see him play for Los Mochis in the Mexican Winter League and they met in a middle of a supermarket in Culiacan, discussing their favorite passion, baseball.
Even former Tigers manager Mayo Smith, who was recently fired after a 79-83 season, made a Sparky Anderson like proclamation to Detroit News columnist Joe Falls just a few weeks after the trade.
“He could hit 40 or 50 home runs for the Tigers”
Smith also added this:
“If they’d made this trade while I was the manager, I still might be the manager”.
Aurelio Rodriguez held it down
For nearly a decade, Rodriguez was one of the best third basemen in the game. The American League was stacked at third in the 1970s, with Brooks Robinson winning the Gold Glove fifteen straight seasons before Rodriguez won the award in 1976. Keep this in mind about Rodriguez and his 1976 season, he had to fight off not only a 39-year-old Brooks Robinson but emerging talents like Buddy Bell and George Brett and stalwarts of the decade like Sal Bando and Graig Nettles, who win the award back to back in ’77 and ’78.
After the 1972 season, the Tigers began a sharp decline for the rest of the decade but Aurelio Rodriguez’s personality made him one of the faces along with Rusty Stubb, John Wockenfuss, and Jason Thompson that Tigers fans remembered in the mid-’70s. He was all over Metro Detroit.
If you have a moment today, check out this broadcast of Tigers baseball with George Kell and Al Kaline from June 20th, 1978, as Rodriguez takes a bat in Toronto. He wasn’t an offense force, just a .239 batting average in his time in Detroit but defensively all-time ranks 121 among 3rd baseman in WAR with a 14.7. But most importantly and this was I remember as a kid was seeing him around in the Southwest Detroit community. He was a celebrity that would say hello to anyone.
Even after going back to Mexico to manage several teams, including leading the Sultanes de Monterrey to a Mexican League title in 1991, among other teams, he managed in his 10 seasons, he always found his way back to Detroit.
Tomorrow will be 20 years since his death in a senseless accident. He in town for a baseball card show at the Gibraltar Trade Center and just had lunch at El Rancho restaurant. Fans saw him on the street asked him for an autograph. A car drove by a woman who had a seizure, struck Rodriguez. From what was reported, she was not even supposed to be driving in the first place.
The first team he managed in Mexico, Los Mochis have his jersey retired in the outfield and made into a cross in a ceremony last year at Cañeros stadium. His daughter, Maria Fernanda Rodriguez Arce was on hand to witness the ceremony last year and was touched by how many people still remember his playing career. (The interview is in Spanish) He was inducted in the Professional Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995.
The Tigers and fans alike still think about the rocket arm he had and holding down the hot corner for 9 seasons at Tiger Stadium.