The kid who replaced Hank Greenberg

A star at Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte, Michigan, Ed Mierkowicz played parts of three seasons for the Detroit Tigers in the 1940s.

A star at Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte, Michigan, Ed Mierkowicz played parts of three seasons for the Detroit Tigers in the 1940s.

It’s not often that a boy gets to play in the major leagues with a player he had worshiped growing up. It’s even rarer for that kid to replace his hero in the lineup – if only for a few minutes. But for Ed Mierkowicz, his brief moment in the sun provided him with a lifetime of memories.

Mierkowicz always acknowledged he wasn’t much of a big leaguer. He spent most of his playing days in the Tigers’ farm system, though he was occasionally called up to the parent club. As a Tiger he batted a collective .175 with one home run and four RBI in 35 games between 1945 and 1948. In 1950, he had one final major-league at-bat for the St. Louis Cardinals. He struck out. As they say, it ain’t much, but there are millions of American males who would wear a gasoline suit in hell for just one game in the majors, never mind a World Series ring.

Ed’s father was an aspiring ballplayer who died young working in a gasket factory. Ed had fond memories of going down to Briggs Stadium with his dad and his brother, keeping his eyes riveted on every boy’s hero – the lanky, classy, home-run-smashing Hank Greenberg.

Ed, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound first baseman at Wyandotte’s Roosevelt High, patterned himself after Hammerin’ Hank. In a 1942 game against Dearborn Fordson, big Ed belted two long home runs and a double and drove in all of his team’s runs in a 5-2 victory over a pitcher who had not lost once in four years. Tigers scout Wish Egan, there to scout the pitcher, wound up signing Mierkowicz.

But with World War II in full swing, the army claimed Mierkowicz, just as it had claimed Greenberg and hundreds of other professional ballplayers. However, Ed contracted rheumatic fever and was given a medical discharge. In September 1945, he was playing for the farm team in Buffalo when he was called up to Detroit in the waning days of the pennant race. He watched from the bench as Greenberg, back from four years in uniform, hit a grand slam against the St. Louis Browns to clinch the pennant for the Tigers on the last day of the season.

Ed got into 10 games as a rookie, but he was merely a spectator in the World Series against the Cubs. That is, until the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game, when manager Steve O’Neill sent Mierkowicz out to left field as a defensive replacement for Greenberg. The Tigers were beating the Cubs, 9-3, with Hal Newhouser on the mound. They were just three outs from winning the Series. Newhouser mowed them down and the Tigers were champs.

Standing out on the grass that late Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field got his stomach fluttering, Mierkowicz later admitted. “Nervous, you know, but a big thrill,” he said. “In fact, it was so much that I couldn’t handle it. My folks in the stands…hell, you go from high school to the majors in a couple years and you’re in all this excitement. But it was a nice break for me. I got a World Series ring. Some guys play ball for 30 years and never get one. We came back that night on the train and, Christ, there were 10,000 people waiting for us at Union Station on Fort Street.”

After winning a ring as a rookie, it was all downhill after that. Mierkowicz doggedly kept after his dream of being a big league regular. He played in Cuba, Mexico, and the Pacific Coast League, finally quitting in 1957. He was 33 years old. He found a job at the waste treatment plant in his hometown and spent the next quarter-century there. He retired in 1984, the same year a new generation of Tigers won the World Series.

“You know, it’s a funny thing,” Ed once told me. “I never really thought all that much about money because I just loved to play baseball. Hey, that was better than carrying a lunch bucket. Where the hell could you get paid for playing a sport? That was really something to me.”

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.