Third baseman Rodriguez was a hero in Mexico and well-loved in Detroit

This 1973 Topps baseball card shows a rarely clean-shaven Aurelio Rodriguez.

This 1973 Topps baseball card shows a rarely clean-shaven Aurelio Rodriguez.

If Brooks Robinson and Graig Nettles had not existed in the late 1960s or throughout the 1970s, then Aurelio Rodriguez would be far more appreciated than he is today. He would have won a slew of Gold Gloves, so dominating the third base position that he would be recognized as one of the game’s fielding giants.

In contrast to his 1969 Topps card, which mistakenly featured a photograph of the California Angels batboy, the 1973 Topps card actually shows Rodriguez, albeit without his trademark mustache. It is somewhat ironic that this card, photographed at the original Yankee Stadium, shows him holding a bat in his hands. He looks comfortable holding the bat, in contrast to what often happened during the actual games. He often struggled at the plate; some say it was because he was too easygoing and didn’t work hard enough on his hitting, while others pointed to his problems against breaking pitches. Whatever the reason, Rodriguez’ offensive inconsistency helps explain why he has become a figure of relative obscurity from baseball’s past.

In tracing Rodriguez’ history, it’s important to note that he was never drafted and was not even signed as an amateur free agent. Rather, he came to the major leagues via the Mexican League. In 1966, the league’s Jalisco franchise sold the 19-year-old infielder to the California Angels.

Rodriguez never hit much for the Halos, who repeatedly sent him back to the minor leagues over a four-year span. They finally lost patience with him early in 1970 and traded him, along with onetime bonus baby Rick Reichardt, to the Washington Senators for veteran third baseman Ken McMullen. Joining the Senators in mid-stride, Rodriguez met the man who would have a profound influence on his hitting. Senators manager Ted Williams urged his new third baseman to be more selective, work deeper counts, and use the whole field. Rodriguez responded by hitting a career-best 19 home runs in 547 at-bats, collecting 76 RBIs. As a bonus, he somehow used his average footspeed to swipe a career-high 15 bases.

At the age of 22, Rodriguez had seemingly found a home. The Senators needed a third baseman who could hit and field; Rodriguez appeared to fill the bill on both counts.

Then came the off-season of 1970. Presented with an opportunity to acquire a brand name pitcher in Denny McLain, who was only two seasons removed from a 31-win campaign, the Senators agreed to include Rodriguez as part of a large package of players. So Rodriguez, shortstop Eddie Brinkman, and right-handers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan headed to Detroit in exchange for McLain and three lesser players.

It turned out to be a steal for the Tigers, who suddenly had a Gold Glove left side of the infield with Rodriguez and Brinkman. The 1971 season would mark the start of a nine-year run for Rodriguez in the Motor City. With his game headlined by durability and defense, Rodriguez would stabilize the third base position for nearly a decade in Detroit.

The move from Washington to Detroit would deprive Rodriguez of the chance to work further with Ted Williams, but he still played top-flight defense and showed power, hitting 15 home runs in his first season with the Tigers. With Don Wert and Eddie Mathews gone, the Tigers could now boast of a new breed third baseman, their best defender at the position since the days of George Kell. With his superior range and impeccable footwork, Rodriguez also gave the Tigers the added bonus of being able to back up Brinkman at shortstop.

Whenever the Tigers appeared on television, I appreciated the opportunity to watch Rodriguez play third base. In that era, there were only two third basemen whom I considered better, and they were Robinson and Nettles. But there was one area where Rodriguez rated the edge. Of the three, Rodriguez had the best arm, and it wasn’t even close. In fact, I’ve never seen a third baseman who could throw with the velocity and accuracy of the rifle-armed Rodriguez.

The 1972 season saw Rodriguez provide the division-winning Tigers with a mixed bag of results. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was abysmal (104 to 28), as was his on-base percentage of .272. But he did hit 13 home runs and he guarded third base like a fortress. With Rodriguez at third and Brinkman at shortstop, the Tigers locked down half of their infield at a Gold Glove caliber.

In winning the American League East by a half-game over the Red Sox, the Tigers gave Rodriguez his first shot at the postseason. Unfortunately, he did not respond well in the ALCS. He came up empty in 16 official at-bats. It was a forgettable experience for Rodriguez, who watched his Tigers endure a tough five-game loss to the eventual world champion A’s.

In 1973 and ‘74, Rodriguez’ regular season numbers took a dip, as his OPS fell below .600 each season. He then improved his hitting in 1975, primarily through an increase in power (13 home runs). But he reverted to subpar form in 1976, a trend that led to rumblings that the Tigers would replace him at third base. If there was a bright spot to be found, it was his continuing excellence at third base; with Brooks Robinson becoming a part-time player, Rodriguez finally won a Gold Glove, the only one of his career.

Rodriguez’ play put the Tigers in a quandary. His soft hands, cannon arm, and phenomenal range made him an elite fielder, but his hitting approached the level of a prototypical middle infielder. So in 1977, the Tigers platooned him with young Phil Mankowski, a left-handed hitter with some power.

In 1978, Rodriguez regained his everyday job, enjoying a terrific start to the season. But as the summer wore on, his batting average dropped. By 1979, he lost the third base title, as the Tigers began to audition a young Tom Brookens for the position.

After the 1979 season, the Tigers decided to make a change. Considering him an old 31, they sold Rodriguez to the Padres for $200,000. The trade placed him nearer to his native Mexico, but Rodriguez hit miserably for the lowly Padres. Late in the summer, the Pads sold him to the Yankees, where he didn’t do much in 1980, but would post an OPS of .870 as a utility man in 1981. He then batted .417 in the World Series, a far cry from his 1972 postseason performance.

Closing out his major league career with the Orioles and White Sox, Rodriguez decided to return to the Mexican League for four seasons, finally retiring in 1989 at the age of 41.

I lost tabs on Rodriguez for a number of years, but in 1997, his name came up during a NY-Penn League game in Oneonta. The opposition Watertown Indians featured a player named Aurelio Rodriguez; I figured he had to be related to the “original” Aurelio Rodriguez. Approaching the young shortstop/third baseman, I asked him if he was indeed related to the former Tiger. When he confirmed that Rodriguez was his father, I told him how much I had enjoyed watching his dad play third base in the 1970s. The son seemed pleased that someone in New York state had remembered his father.

Three years later, I picked up a copy of a newspaper and saw a headline that stunned me. The elder Aurelio Rodriguez, returning to Detroit to participate in an autograph show, had been involved in a horrific accident. While walking on a sidewalk in Detroit, the 52-year-old Rodriguez had been struck by a car and killed. The driver of the car had suffered a stroke, resulting in the car swerving badly, jumping the curb, and running over Rodriguez.

The news of his death produced only minor headlines in the states, but the tragedy became a huge story in his native Mexico. How beloved was Rodriguez? Thousands of fans and friends attended his funeral. The throng of well-wishers included the president of Mexico.

That final autograph appearance in Detroit would not have attracted thousands, but it would have brought out at least some of the rabid Tiger fans who would have loved nothing better than to reminisce with the likeable Rodriguez. I wish that Rodriguez would have had that opportunity, so that he could have known that he was pretty well-loved in Detroit, too.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.