Craig Wilson, the last Wildcat to crack the big leagues.
Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Browns
Taking it in stride. That expression pretty well describes Elden Auker's approach to life. He's had quite a life to handle, covering 87 years and enough significant achievements to fill many people's portfolios. Auker played football, basketball and baseball at Kansas State in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and he was selected as an all-American in all three sports. After graduation, he had offers to play professional football and baseball. He chose baseball, and embarked on a 10-year major league career.
On his first visit to venerable Yankee Stadium in New York, the first batter he faced was none other than Babe Ruth, whom Auker struck out on four pitches. He also played with or against numerous other Hall of Famers in a career with the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns.
Even today, at age 88, Auker still is competitive, as can be attested by the fact that he plays golf three times a week. In a sport in which it is every participant's goal to shoot his age, Auker has made a habit of it, recording the feat 20 times in a row at one point. And his exploits have earned fans of all ages and circles, including a former President of the United States, who came to Auker and asked if he remembered him. It's just another day in the life of Elden Auker.
Auker grew up in Norcatur, in northwest Kansas, where he was coached in football by Pete Peterson, an alum of the University of Nebraska. "He said, 'They'll get you a job if you'll go to Nebraska. I think you ought to go there,'" Auker said. "But I played in a basketball tournament in Norton against Almena, and we beat them, 10-9. (Those were the days when defense was everything.) I scored nine of the 10 points in that game. The referee in that game was Charley Corsault, the basketball and baseball coach at Kansas State.
"After the game he talked with me about going to Kansas State. He gave me quite a talk on it. He said, 'I'll get you a job. But I think you owe it to Kansas; you're a Kansas boy. If you go to Nebraska, you're not being loyal to your home state.' I was young and I thought a lot of Kansas, so I decided that was where I should go."
Among the sports he played at K-State, he liked football the best. " I just liked the physical contact, I guess," he said. He played quarterback and halfback on offense and safety on defense. "I got as far away from the action as I could on defense, but I got plenty of contact back there on punts and passes."
Despite all the success Auker had, his most vivid memories of his K-State playing days were two losses. In 1931, the Cats were 5-0 and bound for a possible berth in the Rose Bowl, the only postseason bowl game in existence at that time. They had won their first five games by a total score of 94-14, including three straight shutouts against Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia. But late in the contest against West Virginia, an injury to Ralph Graham, one of the other stars on that team, left the Wildcats shorthanded.
The Cats lost their next two games, and Auker takes more than his share of the blame. "The third quarter of the Iowa State game was scoreless," he said. "I dropped back to punt (that was when the goal post was on the goal line) and I faked it. The end had been cutting in fast and almost blocked a couple of punts. So when he cut in, I faked a punt and ran 102 yards for a touchdown. That put us ahead 6-0. Henry Cronkite, who was doing the place kicking, missed the point after touchdown.
"In the fourth quarter I was playing safety. The guy got behind me and they threw a pass over my head for a touchdown. I tipped the ball, but the guy still caught it and fell over the goal line. They kicked the point and beat us 7-6. The Kansas City Star came out the next day and said, 'Auker hero and goat.' That's one I remember.
"The next game was against Nebraska. We had Nebraska beat, 3-0, with 27 seconds left to play. I punted a ball, trying to kick it out of bounds down the right-hand side of the field. Nebraska put in a little guy who caught it right on the sideline. The guys thought he was out of bounds, but he wasn't, and he ran 80 yards for a touchdown and they beat us, 6-3. Those two games I remember. I always remember those bad things. The good things are just kind of taken in stride, but those bad things, you never forget them."
Auker remembers a lot about his K-State days, even though they occurred more than 65 years ago. He recalls working his way through school cleaning a drug store for $1 a day. "In those days, they didn't pay you any money for signing," he said. "They gave athletes jobs. I got a job cleaning out the drug store every morning, sweeping it and mopping it. I did that for four years for $1 a day. And that got me through school. In those days, you could buy breakfast for 15 cents, dinner was about 35 cents. I worked in the harvest fields in the summertime and I pitched baseball and made a little money. They didn't know it at the university, of course."
Auker didn't attend college to be an athlete. He wanted to be a doctor and didn't have money for tuition. He got as much pre-med work as possible done at K-State, but still didn't have the money for medical school when he finished, so he tried another route - professional sports. "I was in it for the money, 100 percent," he said, only half-joking. But the money was good, and Auker had his choice. After graduation, he was offered a contract for $6,000 ($500 per game) by the Bears. "That was back in 1932 when times were tough," he said. "Six thousand dollars was a lot of money."
In 1932, there was no Deion Sanders to follow and no agents to negotiate, and Auker was forced to make a choice. "I graduated on June 1 and went directly to Detroit," he recalled. "When I got there, I reported to Mr. Navin, who owned the Tigers. In our first conversation he said, 'I understand that you have an opportunity to play football this fall.' I said, 'Yes. I've been offered a contract with the Chicago Bears.' "He said, 'We think you have the possibility of being a major-league pitcher, but before you come up here, we've got to send you to the minor leagues. We're going to have to invest money in training you and getting you ready for professional baseball. Right now, you're a liability to us. If you're going to play football, then I'm not going to invest any money in you, and you can go on back to Kansas. I'll give you a ticket. But if you're going to play baseball, then there will be no football. You can make up your mind whether you want to play football or baseball. I'm going to leave the room for a couple of minutes, and when I come back, I want your decision.'
"Well, that was a long two minutes, but it didn't take me long to make up my mind, because I had $450 in my hand, and that was a lot of money for me at that time. So Mildred (then his fiance and now his wife of 65 years) and I decided that was the best thing to do." Auker possessed a good fastball and a good curve. But a football injury to his shoulder prevented him from throwing overhand. His first manager in the minors, Bob Coleman, convinced him to try pitching underhand, instead of sidearmed. After practicing for awhile, Coleman told Auker he wanted to give him some game action so Auker was going to pitch nine innings, regardless of his performance. He pitched a shutout, winning 1-0, and never threw overhand again.
He made the majors the next year. His catcher that year with the Tigers, Ray Hayworth, still is living in North Carolina. Auker and Hayworth form the oldest living battery in baseball. Hayworth was behind the plate when Auker came to the mound in a relief role in Yankee Stadium to face Ruth. "Bucky Harris was our manager," Auker said. "He said to me, 'Elden, you go to the bullpen, and if I need you, I'll call you in.' We had a left-handed pitcher named Carl Fisher. He got into the third inning and got in trouble. So the phone rang, and they called me in from the bullpen. The hitter was Babe Ruth. I threw four pitches to him, and struck him out.
"I didn't think anything about it. All I was trying to do was get him out, and I went from there. I had to get him out before I could do anything else. I later played golf with him for a couple of years down in Florida. He was a good personal friend. He told me, 'I didn't like your style of pitching. It bothered me.'"
Auker also was friends with another Yankee Hall of Famer, Lou Gehrig. The two players often wrestled for fun in the common hallway between the two locker rooms at Fenway Park. Until one time when Auker caught Gehrig by surprise. "I grabbed him. Usually he just lifted you off the ground and you started just bearhugging," he said. "This time, he just folded up. He said, 'Don't do that.' I helped him get up and said, 'What's the matter with you?' He said, 'I've got something wrong with me. I don't have any strength. I can't hit the ball out of the infield. I don't know what's wrong with me.' He said he had begun to notice it the previous winter. He had had a lousy spring and by the time they got to Boston, he wasn't doing well at all. He played a couple of innings that day and he took himself out. Then the next day, he played a couple more innings, and took himself out. They went to Detroit, and that's when he left the team and went to the Mayo Clinic. That was the last time I saw him."
The list of former teammates - Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane - is a list of some of the all-time greats of the game. In 1935, he opened the World Series against the Chicago Cubs and was interviewed by a young reporter from WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, named Ronald Reagan. Twenty-five years later, Reagan, then the governor of California asked Auker if he remembered him. "I thought he had it turned around, but he remembered interviewing me," Auker said.
Auker's athletic exploits are limited to the golf course these days, though he plays like someone much younger. His history has earned him a place in several Halls of Fame, including K-State's and the state of Kansas.
"I was the first member to be elected into the Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame," he said. "They hold a banquet whenever they have someone to go in, and Mrs. Auker and I always go. We have a great time. We don't see many old friends, because there are not many of them left, but we see some new friends that we've made."
Even the fact that he has outlived most of his contemporaries doesn't bother Auker. He just takes it all in stride.
John A. Billings
Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns
Tabbed as the “Best catcher ever,” according to coach Mike Ahearn, John A. Billings enjoyed an 11-year career in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox.
Elmer “Butch” Neiman
Born on February 8, 1918, in Herkimer, Kansas, Elmer Newman lettered in 1939 for Kansas State before catching on with the Boston Braves. The lefty played three season in Bean Town, playing in over 100 games in his first two season, before finishing his career on September 30, 1945.
Keith “Kite” Yhomas
Philadelphia Athletics and Washington Senators
A letterwinner in 1947, Keith “Kite” Thomas signed with the New York Yankees as an amateur free agent following his playing days at K-State. After being drafted in the rule 5 draft by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1951, Thomas made the Big Leagues in 1952, starting 75 games. He played with the A’s for 24 games to begin the 1953 season before he was selected off waivers from the Washington Senators, where he finished his career.
L.A. Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians
Power played for eight teams during his 13-year major career (Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Detroit, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Seattle). He led the National League with 78 appearances in 1984. He finished third in the Rolaids Fireman-of-the-Year standings in 1985. Power spent the 1990 season helping the Pittsburgh Pirates to the National League Championship Series in 1990 and started the sixth game (no decision).
Second Base (1976-80)
Randall was stalwart in the Minnesota Twins’ infield for four seasons. He was involved in the Twins’ league-record 203 double plays turned during the 1979 season. Randall had his finest season in 1976, his first in Minnesota, as he played in 153 games, hit .267, scored 55 runs and hit his only major-league home run. In 1978, he hit a career-best .278. Randall, a pure contact hitter, averaged one strikeout for every 13 at bats during his major-league career.
St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers
Originally drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, Replogle made his major-league debut with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978. Earned his first major-league victory on April 16, 1978, vs. Baltimore as he allowed two runs in 5.2 innings pitched. In his rookie season, Replogle posted a 9-5 record and a 3.75 ERA. He began his professional career in the St. Louis farm system in Johnson City and St. Petersburg in 1975. He garnered Cardinals Minor League Pitcher-of-the-Month in April of 1976.
Chicago White Sox, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets
The most recent Wildcat to make it to The Show, Carlos Torres, a five-year veteran of the Chicago White Sox minor-league system, broke through with the South Siders as he was called up and made his debut on July 22, 2009, against the defending American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays. He became the first K-State baseball alum to play in a Major League game since Craig Wilson’s last game in 2000. Torres earned his first Big League victory against the cross-town rivals Chicago Cubs on Sept. 3, 2009. Against the Cubs, Torres threw seven shutout innings, allowing five hits with no walks and six strikeouts in 98 pitches. Torres went on to pitch as a reliever for the Colorado Rockies in 2012 and is currently a relief pitcher for the New York Mets.
Utility Infielder (1998-2002)
Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers
Craig Wilson spent three years with the Chicago White Sox before being traded to the Kansas City Royals in 2001. He signed a free agent contact with the Detroit Tigers in 2002 , where he played for the team’s AAA affiliate, the Toledo (Ohio) Mud Hens. He saw action in 119 games for Toledo, posting a .263 average with 48 runs scored on 109 hits and 46 RBIs. He played three years for the White Sox from 1998-2000, posting a career .272 average with 54 runs scored and 40 RBIs. He saw action at three positions in 28 games in 2000, compiling a .260 average with 12 runs scored and four RBIs. He saw action in 98 games for in 1999, posting a .238 batting average with 28 runs on 60 hits. His .468 average (22-of-47) in 1998 was the highest in major league history among players with a minimum of 50 plate appearances. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a home run, two RBI and three runs scored in his major-league debut on 9/5/98 vs. New York. He singled off Andy Pettitte in his first career at-bat. He played in 754 minor-league games before making his debut at age 28. He went 4-of-7 with two home runs, five RBIs, four runs scored and 10 total bases in extra-inning victory at Detroit on 9/14/98.