Bill Gilbreth enjoyed the best memories of his major-league career in a 17-day span beginning with his major-league debut in June of 1971.
Gilbreth threw complete games in two of his first three starts, and after four appearances he was 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA in 24 and one-third innings. For the rest of his career, he was 0-1 with a 16.50 ERA in 12 innings.
The Tigers had taken Gilbreth out of Abilene Texas Christian University in the third round of the 1969 June amateur draft. After going a combined 22-15 in his first two professional seasons, Gilbreth began the 1971 season in the Class AAA International League with the Toledo Mud Hens. He was called up in late June when the Tigers shuffled their pitching staff and sent Tom Timmerman and Bill Zepp to Toledo for Gilbreth and Chuck Seelbach..
A little more than 24 hours later, he was on the mound at Tiger Stadium with nearly 25,000 paying customers on hand for a Friday night game against the Cleveland Indians. He made quite a first impression, although walking seven in nine innings was alarming.
Gilberth pitched a complete in a 6-1 victory, but it was not as easy as the score indicates. It was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the seventh inning before the Tigers got to Indians starter Steve Dunning.
Gilbreth put the game away with only a two-out walk to Graig Nettles in the top of the ninth inning. He also was 2-for-4 at the plate.
“I really don’t know what to think,” he said after the game in the Detroit Free Press. “I’m too excited right now to realize. I’d like to start every four days up here, too, if they’ll let me. That’s what I was doing in Toledo, and that’s what I’m used to.”
Forty-six years later, he recalled that night for the Abilene Texas University Today magazine.
“There I was, 23 years old from what many considered a podunk town, with a team that had won the ’68 World Series,” he said. “I mostly kept my eyes and ears opened and my mouth shut.”
He made his next start six days later against the Boston Red Sox. He gave up three runs on seven hits and did not get out of the sixth inning at Tiger Stadium, but he did not figure in the decision.
One week later, Gilbreth threw the best game of his major-league career with a three-hitter against the New York Yankees. He walked just two after walking 11 in his first two starts. Thurman Munson hit a solo home run off Gilbreth in the fifth to account for the Yankees only run.
“I put it right above his knees,” Gilbreth said in the Free Press. “Right where (Norm) Cash told me not to put it.”
Well, he listened most of the time, at least according to Tigers manager Billy Martin.
“The big thing is that the kid listens and does what you tell him to do,” Martin said in The Sporting News.
Three days later, he was needed for an inning in relief against the Washington Senators, and he did not allow a run or a hit. A week later, the control problems surfaced as he walked four and did not get anyone out in the second inning. He allowed six runs in one inning, and after two more relief appearances, he was returned to Toledo.
Gilbreth came back in September and was hit hard in a start against Boston. He spent most of the 1972 season in the minors and pitched well. He had a 1.92 ERA with 14 saves for Toledo and came up to Detroit at the first of August and appeared in two games. He allowed nine earned runs in five innings and returned to Toledo.
The California Angels claimed Gilbreth on waivers in September of 1972, and he appeared in two games for them in 1974, and that was hit for his major-league career.
Gilbreth returned to his hometown of Abilene, where he did not play baseball in high school because the school did not field a team. After leaving Abilene Texas Christian University, the baseball program was discontinued, but Gilbreth resurrected it as its coach. He was inducted into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and was the first baseball player to have his number retired.
In July of 2020, Gilbreth died of complications after undergoing emergency heart surgery. He was 72.
“D: Tales: It was a Thursday afternoon in Toledo, and the Mud Hens did not have a game scheduled. Bill Gilbreth and his wife had the idea to make the one-hour drive to Detroit and watch the Tigers that night. As he prepared to call the Tigers and ask for some passes, the phone rang, and Tigers general manager Jim Campbell was on the other end. He told Gilbreth that he was being called up to the majors.
“When Mr. Campbell called Thursday afternoon, I didn’t believe it at first,” Gilbreth said in the Free Press. “A friend of mind had called before to say I was going up to the Tigers, and I figured it was somebody else fooling around. I was really surprised.”
If an award existed for most overlooked second baseman in Tigers history, Frank Bolling would be a leading contender.
Bolling was Detroit’s starting second baseman every year from 1954-60, except for 1955 when he missed the entire season while he was in the service, and he is sixth in franchise history with 760 games started at second base.
With the longevity question answered, Bolling also was a productive player. He had two seasons with a WAR of 3.5 or better for Detroit and hit .261 with 64 home runs and 312 RBIS in six seasons. Twice he received votes for the American League MVP Award, and he won a Gold Glove for second basemen in 1958 – the first Tigers player to win a Gold Glove.
Bolling’s professional career began in 1951, and he got his first taste of Class AAA ball a year later. He reached the majors in his fourth year, and he began it with a bang. Bolling made his major-league debut by starting at second base and batting lead-off before 46,994 fans on Opening Day at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. After failing to get a hit off Orioles starter Don Larsen in his first three at-bats, Bolling hit a 1-2 pitch down the line in left field and into the stands for a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to build Detroit’s lead to 3-0.
It was the first time in franchise history that a player hit a home run on Opening Day while making his major-league debut. Bolling went on to start five times on Opening Day for the Tigers, but he hit just .130 (3-for-23), including 0-for-7 in the 1959 opener.
Bolling’s rookie season was the worst season offensively of his time with the Tigers. He hit .236 with six home runs, 38 RBIs and an OPS of .639, and all four of those stats were lows for his career in Detroit. Bolling missed the following season as he served in a military police detachment at Ft. McPherson from September of 1954 and returned to the Tigers on May 28, 1956, while on a furlough prior to his discharge.
Bolling’s job was waiting for him, and although he played in just 102 games, he topped his rookie season output with seven home runs, 45 RBIs, a .281 batting average and a .789 OPS. He even finished 27th in the voting for the AL MVP Award.
Firmly established as Detroit’s starting second baseman, Bolling went on a four-year run of playing in at least 127 games each season, and he put up three consecutive double-digit totals in home runs form 1957-59, including the only walk-off home run during his time with the Tigers in 1957.
Bolling enjoyed his finest season with Detroit in 1958. He hit .269 with 14 home runs and a career-high 75 RBIs. He also scored a career-high 91 runs and led the American League with nine sacrifice flies. Defensively, Bolling led all American League second basemen with 445 assists and a .985 fielding percentage. He received a Gold Glove Award for his performance.
Bolling regressed a little in 1960 as his .254 average and .664 OPS were his lowest totals since his rookie season. In December of 1960, Detroit traded Bolling and Neil Chrisley to the Milwaukee Braves for catcher Dick Brown, outfielder Bill Bruton, infielder Chuck Cottier and relief pitcher Terry Fox. It was a good trade for the Tigers, and Bolling resurrected his career in Milwaukee.
Bolling was a National League all-star in his first two seasons with the Braves, but his production fell off dramatically in 1963 and he never was able to duplicate his earlier success. He stayed with the Braves long enough to play one season after the team’s move to Atlanta. He retired after the 1966 season.
After his playing days, Bolling lived in Alabama and began a baseball league for children who were physically or mentally challenged.
Bolling was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and died at age 88 on July 11, 2020.
“D” Tales: Frank Bolling had his best season for the Tigers in 1958, and it likely was his most special season, too. During the 1958 season, Bolling was not only teammates with his older brother, Milt, they formed the Tigers’ double-play combination more than a few times.
Milt, a year older than Frank, had been acquired with Vito Valentinetti from the Cleveland Indians during spring training Pete Wojey and $20,000. They made their first appearance together on April 19 when Milt replaced Billy Martin at second base. During that game, the first Bolling-Bolling double play was turned.
The Bolling brothers had two double plays four days later, and on April 24, they started together for the first time. Frank hit lead-off, and Milt batted second. For five consecutive days, the Bolling brothers started at shortstop and second base for the Tigers, and they turned two double plays in that time.
They only started together one more time, and that came on June 26. There also was an unusual twist when Milt replaced Frank at second base during a game on July 15, and they played their last game together on July 26 when Milt entered the game at shortstop as a defensive replacement.
Nobody could have blamed Jim Northrup for not expecting to play for the Tigers on June 24, 1968. But nobody could have expected what happened on that Monday night at Cleveland Stadium on the banks of Lake Erie.
Northrup tied a major-league record by hitting two grand slams in one game, and star pitcher Denny McLain picked up win No. 13 in a 14-3 victory.
A left-handed hitter from Breckenridge, Mich., Northrup was in a deep slump, and manager Mayo Smith was thinking about sending Northrup to the bench. Northrup must have sensed it. He was hitless in his previous eight at-bats after hitting and had endured a 2-for-38 slump earlier in the month.
“I told Mickey Stanley on the way to the ballpark in Cleveland that they weren’t going to play me that night,” Northrup said in The Sporting News.
Smith did play Northrup, but he put him in the seventh spot in the batting order, the same spot Northrup was in the day before in the second game of a doubleheader. Prior to that, Northrup had not hit lower than third for the Tigers since May 6 – a span of 44 games.
Going into the game, Northrup was hitting .225 for the season. Since going 1-for-3 on June 6, Northrup had hit just .114 (8-for-70) with no home runs, three doubles and five RBIs.
“Jim was in a quite a slump because of those three cracked ribs,” Northrup’s father, Gerald Northrup, told the Lansing State Journal. “Jim’s ribs are OK now. He couldn’t keep his elbows out and wasn’t following through as fully as he should.”
A two-run single by Bill Freehan gave Detroit a 2-0 lead in the first. It was Freehan’s first hit an 0-for-25 skid covering 35 plate appearances. Jim Price homered in the fourth – it was his first major-league home run – to make it 3-1. Northrup struck out in his first two at-bats against Indians right-hander Mike Paul. The bases were loaded for Northrup’s first at-bat.
“It looked like more of the same those first two times up,” Northrup said in The Toledo Blade.
In the top of the fifth, the Tigers held a 3-2 lead. Mickey Stanley led off with a walk, Freehan doubled and Willie Horton was intentionally walked to load the bases.
The Indians had pulled Paul and brought in knuckleballer Eddie Fisher, a 31-year-old right-hander in his 10th major-league season with his fourth team. Fisher struck out Don Wert with the bases loaded and one out, bringing Northrup to the plate. He hit the first pitch – a knuckleball – far over the barrier in right-center field for his fifth career grand slam and second of the season to pad Detroit’s lead to 7-2.
“That was a good pitch I threw him,” Fisher said in The Toledo Blade. “Sometimes they hit good pitches.
“The way I was hitting, I was just trying to get it out of the infield,” Northrup said in The Toledo Blade.
He was not finished. One inning later, the Tigers loaded the bases off reliever Hal Kurtz. Freehan was hit by a pitch, Horton doubled and Wert was hit in the head by a pitch. Wert was carried from the field on a stretcher and taken to Shaker Medical Center Hospital. He was placed on the 10-day disabled list.
Indians manager Alvin Dark pulled Kurtz, and Billy Rohr, a 22-year-old left-hander, took over on the mound.
Rohr had gained a bit of fame in 1967, when he no-hit the New York Yankees for eight and two-third innings in his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium. Catcher Elston Howard ruined the no-hit bid, and Rohr settled for a one-hitter.
Northrup hit the first pitch thrown by Rohr into the right-field stands for his second grand slam of the game. Northrup became the first player to hit two grand slams on two successive pitches, and he also became the first to hit them in back-to-back innings.
“Everyone knows the record,” Northrup said in The Toledo Blade. “I did say to myself, ‘If you’re ever going to tie the record, this is it.’ But I really wasn’t trying to hit it that hard.”
“The second time, I was thinking more of myself,” Northrup said in the Lansing State Journal.
With the Tigers comfortably ahead 14-2, the game essentially was on cruise control the rest of the way. Northrup had one more at-bat. He led off the top of the eighth inning with a walk against pitcher Willie Smith, a left-hander who broke in with the Tigers in 1963 and started the game at first base.
Smith was ahead of his time; he could pitch and play the field. Eleven of his 17 appearances for the Tigers in 1963 were as a pitcher, but he settled in as a first baseman for most of his nine-year career. After appearing in 26 games as a pitcher in 1963-64, Smith had just three more games on the mound – all in 1968. He threw three innings of one-hit, shutout ball against the Tigers in the second-to-last pitching performance of his career.
“That’s a heckuva way to come out of a slump, isn’t it,” Northrup said in the Lansing State Journal. “I have not been hitting for two weeks.”
In The Sporting News, Northrup said, “I don’t worry about the record book.I was just happy to get a couple of hits.”
McLain went the distance for his 13th win of the season. He struck out eight and did not walk a batter. McLain singled two batters after Northrup’s second grand slam and scored on a single by Dick Tracewski.
It was quite a day. The two grand slams came one day after the 50th wedding anniversary of Northrup’s grandparents, Clarence and Sylvia Emery, and it was the same days as the seventh birthday of Northrup’s son Jimmy.
Five days later, Northrup hit another grand slam to become the first player in major=-league history to hit three grand slams in one week.
If you read the pitching portion of the all-time post-Detroit team of former Detroit Tigers, you understand the format. Players are chosen only on what they did after they left Detroit, either by trade or free agency.
This is a 26-man roster – the 2020 rules – and these are the non-pitchers. This is set to be a team as it would be presented on the field, so the bench has to be able to complement the starters and be able to help with defensive flexibility.
And, of course, it needs a batting order, so let’s get with it.
Batting first: Tony Phillips, second base – .264/.388/.414/.803, 66 HR, 251 RBIs, 444 R, 51 SB
Phillips is a perfect fit, not only on this team but at the top of the batting order.
First, he can play second base, third base and in the outfield, so that versatility is a plus. He is a switch-hitter who can run, and he gets on base, as his .388 on-base percentage shows. He never made an all-star team, but he was a sparkplug for many of his teams.
The Tigers traded Phillips to the California Angels for outfielder Chad Curtis on April 13, 1995.
Numbers do not tell the entire story of Tony Phillips.
Batting second: Howard Johnson, third base – .247/.340/.453/.793, 209 HR, 691 RBIs, 687 R, 214 SB
Possibly the biggest mistake Sparky Anderson made in his time with the Tigers was trading Howard Johnson to the New York Mets. HoJo went on to an excellent career.
Johnson is the only player to hit 200 home runs and steal 200 bases in the major leagues after leaving the Tigers. He nearly became a 40-40 man in 1989 when he hit 36 home runs and stole 41 bases.
It is hard to imagine how Sparky ever put Marty Castillo at third base in the 1984 World Series, although Castillo delivered a home run in the Fall Classic.
The Tigers received pitcher Walt Terrell from the Mets for Johnson.
Batting third: Heinie Manush, left field – .333/.378/.480/.856, 90 HR, 999 RBIs, 902 R, 65 SB
After spending the first five seasons of his major-league career with the Tigers, Manush was traded with first baseman Lu Blue to the St. Louis Browns for Harry Rice, Elam Vanglider and Chick Galloway in December of 1927. It was not a good trade for the Tigers.
In his first season away from Detroit, Manush led the American League with 241 hits and finished second in the voting for the AL MVP Award. From 1928-34, Manush’s yearly batting averages were .378, .355, .350, .307, .342, .336 and .349. Most of those seasons were with the Washington Senators, who acquired Manush from the Browns in 1930.
Manush finished his 17-year major-league career with a .330 batting average and an OPS of .856. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1964, and his name is on the right-field brick wall in Comercak Park in Detroit with other Tigers Hall of Famers.
No player ever hit more home runs after leaving the Tigers than Gonzalez, who belted a career-high 57 in 2001 when home runs were flying out of ballparks at a record rate. He spent only one season in Detroit and hit 23 home runs with 71 RBIs in 1998.
In one of their worst trades, the Tigers traded Gonzalez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Karim Garcia on December 28, 1998. It was practically a three-day late Christmas present to the Diamondbacks.
Gonzalez made the first of five National League all-star teams in 1999, and in 2001 he was a key to Arizona winning the World Series for the first time. He had one home run and five RBIs for the Diamondbacks in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
Gonzalez retired with a .283 batting average and 354 home runs. He hit 107 in his first nine seasons, including his only year in Detroit, and 247 in the next 10 seasons after leaving the Tigers.
Batting fifth: Vic Wertz, left field – .270/.354/.464/.818, 157 HR, 647 RBIs, 424 R, 4 SB
Wertz signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent and worked his way through the minor leagues before reaching Detroit. In August of 1952 – his sixth season with the Tigers – he was part of an eight-player trade with the St. Louis Browns.
Wertz had been a three-time all-star with the Tigers and hit 20-plus home runs four years in a row and twice topped 100 RBIs in a season. He hit his peak with the Cleveland Indians in the 1950s. He was on the 1954 Indians team that won the pennant but lost to the New York Giants in the World Series, and he was the batter who hit the long fly to center field that was tracked down by Willie Mays, who made a memorable over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds.
Wertz had his best two seasons in back-to-back years with Cleveland in 1956-57. He hit 32 home runs with 106 RBIs in 1956 and 28 homers with 105 RBIs in 1957. The Tigers re-acquired him in 1961, but he was in the twilight of his career and hit just five home runs for Detroit in limited playing time.
He finished with 266 career home runs and an OPS of .833.
Batting sixth: Baby Doll Jacobson, center field – .312/.358/.451//809, 83 HR, 814 RBIs, 782 R, 86 SB
Jacobson had the toughest challenge in baseball when he broke in with the Tigers as a rookie in 1915. Detroit had one of the best outfields of all-time in Sam Crawford, Ty Cobb and Bobby Veach, ajd Jacobson had no chance to get any regular playing time. On top of that, he was a center fielder, and Cobb owned that position in Detroit.
The Tigers needed pitching, so they traded Jacobson and $10,000 to the St. Louis Browns for Bill James. It was a great trade for the Browns, just not instantly. Jacobson went back and forth from the minors to the majors for a few seasons before breaking through in 1919 with a .323 average.
Jacobson was never a power hitter as he reached double-digits just twice, but from 1919-26 he had batting averages of .323, .355, .352, .317, .309, .318 and .341. He scored more than 100 runs twice in a season, and he topped 100 RBIs twice in a season.
But the question on everyone’s mind certainly is why he was called Baby Doll. His given name was William Chester, and he had been known as Big Bill. He was in the minors in 1912, and on Opening Day, a band in attendance began playing a popular song of the day, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” Jacobson led off with a home run, and a lady seated behind the plate jumped up and yelled, “you must be that beautiful doll they were talking about.”
Beautiful was turned to baby, and Jacobson had a nickname that stuck for the rest of his career.
Batting seventh: Wally Pipp, first base – .281/.342/.408/.749, 90 HR, 999 RBIs, 971 R, 125 SB
Pipp is famous for being the first baseman Lou Gehrig replaced at the start of his consecutive-games streak, but the Yankees obtained him by purchasing his contract from the Tigers in 1915.
Pipp, a graduate of Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School, appeared in just 12 games for the Tigers in 1913. He was 5-for-31 but three of his hits were triples. After Detroit, Pipp had a 14-year career in the majors, including 11 with the Yankees. He hit .281 with 90 home runs in his post-Detroit career with a WAR of 31.2
He was the Yankees’ regular first baseman from 1915-24, and he spent the last three seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Reds. He had a career .281 batting average with 90 home runs and 1,001 RBIs.
Hoiles is a clear-cut choice with a WAR of 23.5. No other catcher is higher than 10.0.
The Tigers took him in the 19th round of the 1986 draft out of Eastern Michigan. After hitting 45 home runs in three minor-league seasons for the Tigers, they traded him to Baltimore with two minor-leaguers who never made the majors for Fred Lynn at the trading deadline.
Hoiles, who never played a game for the Tigers, was Baltimore’s No. 1 catcher for eight years in a row (1991-98) and peaked in 1993 by hitting .310 with 29 home runs and 82 RBIs. He hit 14 home runs against the Tigers in his 10-year career, including two two-homer games at Tiger Stadium.
Injuries forced Hoiles to retire after 10 years, all with the Orioles, and he was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame. He also indirectly led Mickey Tettleton to the Tigers. When the Tigers traded Hoiles to Baltimore, they felt they had their catcher of the future in Matt Nokes. When Hoiles was ready for everyday duty in Baltimore, the Orioles had to trade a catcher, and they dealt Tettelton to Detroit.
The Tigers had Wills from October of 1958 until the end of spring training in 1959. It was a conditional deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he was returned to the Dodgers on April 2, 1959. Big mistake.
Wills held his own as a rookie in 1959 and took over as the Dodgers’ regular shortstop in 1960. He was a slap hitter with a lot of speed, and in 1962 he became the first player to steal at least 100 bases in a season when he stole 106 to break Ty Cobb’s record of 96 set in 1915. Wills hit .299, won the National League MVP Award and received his second consecutive NL Gold Glove Award at shortstop that season.
Wills led the National League in stolen bases six years in a row and played 14 years in the majors. He finished with 586 career stolen bases.
Parrish was the first of the 1984 stars to leave Detroit. He left via free agency after the 1986 season and spent the next 10 seasons away from Detroit. He played for the Phillies, Angels, Mariners, Indians, Pirates and Blue Jays. The last three seasons were spent as backups.
Adames was just 18 when he was traded to Tampa Bay as part of the package for starting pitcher David Price. He was a solid prospect at the time, but projecting an 18-year-old can be tough, so the Tigers let him go. Adames reached the majors in 2018 and hit .278 with 10 home runs in 85 games. Last year, he had his first full season in the majors and hit 20 home runs with 52 RBIs while just 23 for most of the season.
Adames seems primed for a long, productive career in the majors, and while he might not be the choice for this team as a starter right now, he will be soon enough.
Eugenio Suarez, third base – .267/.347/.486/.833, 143 HR, 407 RBIs, 373 R, 23 SB
Suarez spent one season in Detroit, and he hit four home runs in 85 games before he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for underperforming pitcher Alfredo Simon. It was a terrible trade. Suarez has developed into a middle-of-the-order slugger for the Reds, and he has combined to hit 83 home runs with 207 RBIs the past two seasons.
Suarez is just 28 years old and has hit 143 home runs since leaving Detroit, including 49 in 2019. It is only a matter of time before he breaks the record of 247 held by Luis Gonzalez.
Granderson spent his first six major-league seasons with the Tigers before they dealt him to the New York Yankees as part of a three-team trade that brought pitcher Max Scherzer to Detroit. Granderson had a fine 10-year career after Detroit, mostly with the Yankees. He was a three-time all-star and had his best two seasons in back-to-back years with the Yankees in 2011-12. He hit 41 home runs with a league-leading 119 RBIs in 2011 and 43 home runs with 106 RBIs in 2012.
The Detroit Tigers have had their good moments and bad moments in trades and free agency. They have added players like Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer, and they have traded away players like Justin Verlander and, well, Max Scherzer.
Here is a unique all-Tigers team, and it features a 26-man roster (2020 rules) as if a pennant were at stake. We are looking for the most deserving players and, at some point, versatility.
It is a collection of the players who did the best AFTER leaving Detroit. Nothing they did with the Tigers counts, only what they did in their post-Detroit career. So, Willie Horton and Rocky Colavito are out. And if they returned to the Tigers, those years don’t count; only what they did with other teams after they spent time in Detroit.
Also, a player does not necessarily have to have played for the Tigers, but he must have been a part of the organization at one point. With that said, we will start with the pitching staff, and the ace is one of those guys who never spent a day in the majors with the Tigers. But he was in the organization.
The rotation boasts three right-handers and two left-handers. Three are in the Hall of Fame. The other two will be in Cooperstown five years after they retire from the game.
STARTING PITCHERS (post-Detroit stats in parentheses)
Carl Hubbell, 253-154, 2.98 ERA, 33 saves, two-time NL MVP, Hall of Fame.
Hubbell, a lefty and the king of the screwball, spent his entire major-league career with the New York Giants of the National League. He was 22 when he signed with the Tigers after the 1925 season, but manager Ty Cobb hated the screwball. He felt it led to injuries and told Hubbell not to throw it. Hubbell lost his effectiveness in the minors, and the Tigers finally sold his contract without ever giving him a chance in the majors. He led the Giants to the 1933 World Series and won both of his starts.
Hubbell’s major-league career stretched from 1928-43. The Tigers won three American League pennants but just one World Series in that stretch. There might have been a few more championships with Hubbell leading the pitching staff.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1947.
John Smoltz, 213-155, 3.33 ERA. 154 saves, 1996 NL Cy Young Award, Hall of Fame.
Like Hubbell, Smoltz never appeared in a major-league game for the Tigers, who dealt him to the Atlanta Braves in August of 1987 for Doyle Alexander, who helped Detroit win the American League East Division title. It might have been worth it had the Tigers won the World Series, but they lost to the Twins in the ALCS.
Smoltz, a right-hander and a Lansing native, was 15-4 in the postseason and helped Atlanta win the 1995 World Series. He also converted to relief in 2001, and the next year he led the National League with 55 saves. He only made one major-league appearance in Detroit, and that came in 2004 when he struck out two of the three batters he faced and recorded a save in a 4-3 victory in 10 innings at Comerica Park.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
Max Scherzer, 79-39, 2.74 ERA, 2016-17 NL Cy Young Award, five-time NL all-star
The hard-throwing right-hander was the No. 2 man in Detroit behind Justin Verlander, and he lands No. 3 on this list. The Tigers obtained him from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team trade in December of 2009, and he was 82-35 with the Tigers in five seasons and won the AL Cy Young Award in 2013. He left Detroit via free agency after the 2014 season and signed a seven-year, $210 million deal.
Scherzer led the National League in strikeouts three years in a row, topping out with 300 strikeouts in 2018. In May of 2016, he tied a major-league record by striking out 20 batters against the Tigers.
Last year, Scherzer was 3-0 in the postseason as the Nationals won the World Series. He will be a first-ballot entrant into the Baseball Hall of Fame when his time comes.
Justin Verlander, 42-15, 2.45 ERA, 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner, no-hitter
Verlander only gets the fourth slot because of his fewer seasons away from Detroit, but he has made the most of them. He was traded by the Tigers at the deadline in 2017, and he helped the Houston Astros win the World Series that fall. Detroit received minor-leaguers Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers in return for Verlander. Only Rogers has reached the major leagues so far.
Verlander was the MVP of the 2017 ALCS by winning two games as the Astros knocked off the New York Yankees and went on to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
In his two full seasons with the Astros, Verlander has led the American League in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ration both years. He led the NL with 290 strikeouts in 2018 and struck out 300 last year to finish second behind teammate Gerrit Cole’s 326.
Like Scherzer, Verlander will be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Rube Waddell, 193-143, 2.16 ERA, four-time 20-game winner, Hall of Fame.
Waddell, a left-hander, appeared in nine games for the 1898 Detroit Tigers of the Class A Western League. Two years later, the Western League was renamed the American League, and in 1901 it became a major league. By then, Waddell was long gone, but the fans at Bennett Park – the corner of Michigan and Trumbull – never forgot him and packed the park when he pitched against the Tigers.
The Louisville Colonels claimed Waddell from the Tigers in the 1898 Rule 5 draft, and he pitched for five major-league teams in his 13-year career. He was a rare strikeout pitcher in those days and led the American League in strikeouts six years in a row from 1902-07. He peaked in 1904 when he struck out 349 batters in 383 innings. The following year, he won the pitching Triple Crown by leading the league in wins (27), ERA (1.48) and strikeouts (287).
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946.
Mike Marshall, 96-109, 3.19 ERA, 188 saves, two-time all-star, 1974 NL Cy Young
Marshall would have been the perfect closer for Hubbell as both were masters of the screwball. A native of Adrian, Marshall pitched in 37 games for the Tigers in 1967 and was 1-3 with a 1.98 ERA. They sent him to the minors in 1968 and tried to convert him into a starter. He was 15-9 with a 2.94 ERA for the Toledo Mud Hens of the Class AAA International League. The Seattle Pilots chose Marshall in the 1968 expansion draft, ending his Tigers career.
Marshall, a right-hander, made a huge splash in baseball in the mid-1970s as a dominant closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he was a busy one. He appeared in a major-league record 106 games as a relief pitcher in 1974 and won the Cy Young Award. He had a 14-year major-league career and appeared in 724 games with just 24 starts., and he led the league in saves three times.
Marshall gives this team a solid and experienced closer with the rest of the eight-man bullpen filled with starters. Smoltz would provide the team depth at the back end of the bullpen as he has experience as a closer. He could move to the bullpen with a capable starter ready to take his spot in the rotation, and any of the starters could work the ninth inning as well.
Billy Pierce, 208-169, 3.22 ERA, 33 saves, 7-time all-star, AL Pitcher of the Year
Pierce is one of four left-handers and one of four 200-game winners in the eight-man bullpen. A Detroit native, Pierce broke in with the Tigers as a teen-ager when he appeared in five games in 1945. He did not return until 1948, when he was 3-0 for the Tigers in 22 games (five starts), but he had a 6.34 ERA.
Detroit needed a catcher and dealt Piece and $10,000 to the Chicago White Sox for former Yankees catcher Aaron Robinson, who lasted two-plus seasons in Detroit and was out of the major leagues by 1952. Pierce found a home with the White Sox and had double-digit wins ever year except one from 1950-62, the last coming with the San Francisco Giants.
Pierce led the American League with a 1.97 ERA in 1955 and then had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1956-57 when he was named the American League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. He also led the league in strikeouts with 186 in 1953.
Eddie Cicotte, 208-147, 24 saves, 2.37 ERA, Black Sox Scandal
Cicotte was born in Springwells, Michgan, not far from Detroit, and made his major-league debut with the Tigers in 1905 at age 21. He was 1-1 in three games but returned to the minor leagues. The Boston Red Sox purchased his contract prior to the 1908 season, and five years later he blossomed with the Chicago White Sox.
A right-hander and a switch-hitter, Cicotte won 66 games in his first five seasons with Chicago and then went 28-12 in 1917 when the White Sox won the World Series. Two years later, Cicotte was 29-7, and the White Sox returned to the World Series as heavy favorites against the Cincinnati Reds. That was the season of the Black Sox Scandal when Chicago threw the World Series for a financial gain.
Cicotte was one of the main culprits in the scandal, which was not uncovered until after the 1920 season. Cicotte was 21-10 in 1920 to give him 209 career wins, but he was banned from baseball for life because of his involvement in the scandal.
He returned to Detroit, where he lived the remainder of his life until his death in 1969.
Jamie Moyer, 235-155, 4.19 ERA, 2008 World Series champion, AL all-star
Easily the most surprising pitcher on this staff, but it was impossible to overlook his 45.0 WAR, sixth of all pitchers for their careers after leaving the Tigers. But even more amazing is that Moyer had 235 wins after leaving the Detroit organization. The franchise record for wins is 223, held by Hooks Dauss.
Moyer was a six-year veteran who was released by the Chicago Cubs at the end of spring training in 1992, and the Tigers signed him in May and sent him to the minors, where he stayed all season. He was 10-8 with the Toledo Mud Hens with a 2.86 ERA in 1992, and the Baltimore Orioles signed him as a free agent that December.
The soft-tossing lefty went on to pitch another 19 seasons. He was a two-time 20-game winner who enjoyed his best seasons with the Seattle Mariners in the 1990s. From 1997-2009, he made at least 30 starts in every season but one. During that stretch, he was 16-7 with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and started one game of the World Series at age 45.
Moyer pitched in his final game at age 49. He only made one all-star team, but his consistency allowed to win 269 games in his major-league career.
Jim Bunning, 106-97, 3.10 ERA, perfect game in 1964, Hall of Fame
Bunning, a right-hander, was just the second pitcher to record at least 100 wins in both the American and National Leagues. He was 118-87 for the Tigers from 1955-63, and he pitched a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park in 1958 – one year after his only 20-win season.
Bunning, who had led the American League in strikeouts twice and set a career-high with 14 strikeouts in a game in 1958, was just 12-13 for the Tigers in 1963. It was his lowest win total since 1956, and the Tigers traded him with catcher Gus Triandos to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Don Demeter and pitcher Jack Hamilton.
Philadelphia was a fine fit for Bunning, who won 19 games in each of his first three seasons with the Phillies and tossed a perfect game against the New York Mets on Father’s Day in 1964. He finished his career with 224 wins and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
David Price, 55-25, 3.73 ERA, AL all-star, led AL in innings pitched in 2016
The stay was short and the price tag high for Price, a lefty who came to the Tigers in the summer of 2014. Detroit was bidding for its fourth consecutive American League Central Division title but had not won a World Series. With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello, the addition of Price to the rotation seemed to stamp the Tigers as World Series favorites. Detroit had to give up 18-year-old shortstop Willy Adames in the three-team deal. Detroit also sent pitcher Drew Smyly to Tampa Bay with Adames, and center fielder Austin Jackson went to the Seattle Mariners.
Price was the only player the Tigers acquired in the trade, and the Tigers were swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2014 ALDS. Price won just 13 games in parts of two seasons for the Tigers, and with it likely he would leave for free agency after the 2015 season, Detroit traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitchers Daniel Norris, Matthew Boyd and Jairo Labourt.
Price pitched well in a short time for Toronto and moved on to the Boston Red Sox, where he won 46 games in four seasons while being riddled with injuries. After the 2019 season, Price signed a three-year contract worth $96 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His post-Detroit story is not finished.
Jack Morris, 56-36, 4.55 ERA, all-star, 1991 World Series MVP, Hall of Fame
Morris lands the last right-handed spot on the pitching staff because the final two years of his career were rough. He had ERAs of 6.19 and 5.60 for Toronto and Cleveland in 1993-94, but in 1991 and 1992 he led two teams to the World Series championship. Those could not be ignored.
Morris, the ace of Detroit’s 1984 World Series team, left the Tigers via free agency after the 1990 season. He returned to his home state of Minnesota to pitch for the Twins, and in 1991 he won 18 games. That year, he matched up with Atlanta’s John Smoltz in Game 7 of the World Series, and Morris threw a 10-inning shutout for a 1-0 win in what remains one of the greatest pitched games of all-time.
The following year, Morris was in Toronto, and he was 21-6 for a Blue Jays team that won the World Series against the Braves in six games. Morris was the losing pitcher in both of Toronto’s losses, but it didn’t matter in the end.
The 1994 season was cut short by the player’s strike, and that was the end of his career. Still, he managed a 10-6 record with his 5.60 ERA and finished his career with 254 wins.
Morris was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with former Tigers teammate Alan Trammell in 2018.
David Wells 166-101, 4.30 ERA, MVP of 1998 ALCS, perfect game, three-time all-star
Wells spent 21 seasons in the majors, and the last 12-plus seasons came after Wells was traded by the Tigers to the Cincinnati Reds on July 31, 1995. He had been a swingman with the Blue Jays, but the Tigers turned him into a full-time starter, and in 1995 he made his first all-star team.
From 1995-2005, Wells posted double-digit win totals in each season, topped by a 20-win season with Toronto in 2000. He was 18-4 for the New York Yankees in 1998 and won two games in the ALCS against the Indians as he was named the MVP of the series. In May of 1998, Wells pitched the first regular-season perfect game for the Yankees when he blanked the Minnesota Twins at Yankee Stadium.
Wells finished his career 239-157 with 12 shutouts and 13 saves.
As spring training unfolded in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968, the hopes were high for the Tigers’ chances to contend for the pennant after falling just short in 1967.
There were not many opportunities to make the 25-man roster, and there was virtually no chance that a pitcher who had one year of professional experience and had not pitched in two years could make the team.
He knew that. However, he might have had the best story of any player in camp that spring, and he was one of the first arrivals at Tigertown in 1968.
His name was Charley Kuhn. He was a left-handed pitcher who was 22 years old and had pitched for the Tigers’ Class A affiliate Daytona Beach in 1965. He had a great excuse for not being in camp the previous two springs: He was with the military in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Kuhn served 19 months of military service in Vietnam, mostly as a military policeman with the 25th Infantry Division.
“I hadn’t pitched in two years, and I was apprehensive about coming back to baseball,” Kuhn said in The Sporting News. “I’m proud of going over there. I spent 12 months with our military police and seven months as an advisor to the South Vietnamese national police. The Vietnamese are intelligent people, and I respect them.”
Kuhn began his professional career in the Chicago Cubs organization in 1965, but that season Detroit acquired him and sent him to the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Class A Florida State League. He was 4-3 with a 2.30 ERA and a 1.340 WHIP at age 19 with Daytona Beach in 1965, and he did not pitch again until the spring of 1968.
“He’s got a fine arm,” Tigers pitching coach Johnny Sain said. “After what he’s been through, he shouldn’t get scared on the mound, should he?”
Kuhn, who never appeared in a Grapefruit League game in 1968, was a frequent batting-practice pitcher that spring for the Tigers. He split the 1968 season between Rocky Mount of the Class A Carolina League and Lakeland of the Class A Florida State League and combined to go 3-5 with a 4.28 ERA.
Kuhn pitched in the minors for Detroit from 1968-73, although he did appear in seven games with Denver, an affiliate of the Washington Senators, in 1970. He had his best season in 1972 with the Montgomery Rebels of the Class AA Southern League. He was 10-9 with a 3.15 ERA, and he struck out 130 batters in 143 innings.
The following spring, Kuhn was a non-roster invitee to the Tigers’ major-league camp. He finished his seven-year career in the minors with a record of 38-42 and a 3.87 ERA. He appeared in 251 minor-league games with 62 starts.
He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from John Carroll University. After baseball, he became an insurance claims adjuster in Pennsylvania. He also built and maintained web sites and was a horse handler at Brandywine Raceway in Wilmington, Del. He spoke five languages, including Vietnamese, Russian and Latin.
Kuhn passed away unexpectedly at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia on April 30, 2016. He was 70 years old.
It is one of those records that could be broken at some point, but it isn’t likely.
Marc Hall pitched a Detroit Tigers franchise record 13 relief innings on July 5, 1914, in the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns at Navin Field.
Tigers starting pitcher George Boehler gave up three runs in the top of the first inning and did not return for the second inning. Hall, a third-year pro in his second season with the Tigers, came on in relief. A right-hander who was five weeks shy of his 27th birthday, allowed one run in the third inning and another in the eighth, and after nine innings the game was tied 4-4. It stayed that way until the top of the 14th when the Browns scored what proved to be the winning run in a 5-4 victory.
Hall had pitched 13 innings and allowed three runs on 13 hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He also was 0-for-5 at the plate, and the loss dropped him to 4-4. Earl Hamilton of St. Louis pitched all 14 innings to get the win.
Only eight pitchers have thrown more than 13 relief innings since 1913, and the record belongs to Cubs pitcher Zip Zabel, who pitched 18 and one-third innings on June 17, 1915, at West Side Grounds in Chicago.
Hall’s record 13 innings of relief become even more amazing for two reasons: 1, He had pitched four and two-third innings of relief the previous day, and 2, he was on the verge of being diagnosed with a disease that would take his life in less than seven months.
Hall, a native of Joplin, Mo., broke into professional baseball in 1907 at the age of 19 in the Class D Oklahoma-Arkansas-Kansas League. He pitched for Springfield in 1909 and Joplin in 1910 of the Class C Western Association and got his first taste of the major leagues when the St. Louis Browns in 1910. He was 1-7 with a 4.27 ERA in eight games with the Browns and returned to the minors.
In 1911-12, Hall went 42-26 in two seasons with Omaha of the Class A Western League, and that got the attention of the Tigers, who signed him for the 1913 season. He made his debut with the Tigers in his native Missouri against his old team, the Browns. Hall pitched two scoreless innings of relief against the Browns in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and he went on to got 10-12 with a 3.27 ERA for the Tigers.
Hall’s season was cut short in August when he broke a bone in his foot while fielding a bunt. The highlight of the season was a four-hit shutout on June 1, 1913, against the White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago. It was the only shutout of his career.
Hall entered the 1914 season with high hopes. Eight of his 25 appearances were as a starter, and he was 4-6 with a 2.79 ERA when his season – and ultimately, his career – ended when he was diagnosed with diabetes. The doctors told him he would never play baseball again. The Tigers released him.
Hall reported early to the Tigers’ training camp in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1915, in an attempt to work out on his own. Even though he did not feel he would be in shape to make a major-league roster, he hoped to show enough to land in the minors, according to The Sporting News.
During that time, Hall’s illness became worse, and he returned home to Joplin, where he died on Feb. 24, 1915, at the age of 27.
Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Elden Auker wrote in his book that the only major-league player he knew of before he played baseball was Babe Ruth. Even the subtitle of the book is, “A Lifetime of Memories From Striking Out The Babe to Teeing It Up With The President.”
There is no verification that Auker ever struck out Ruth. In his book, he said it happened in 1933 after he entered the game as a relief pitcher in the third inning. In Auker’s first appearance against the Yankees, he did enter the game in the third inning. Babe Ruth sat out that game.
Auker pitched against the Yankees twice that season, and Ruth did not play in either game. OK, maybe he mixed up the seasons. In 1934, Auker pitched against the Yankees five times. Here is a recap of those five games:
May 5, 1934: Ruth grounded out the first time he faced Auker and homered in the second meeting.
May 18, 1934: Ruth singled and walked against Auker.
June 16, 1934: Ruth singled in his only at-bat against Auker.
July 14, 1934: Ruth grounded out, homered and singled in three at-bats against Auker.
September 19, 1934: Ruth did not play.
That’s it. Auker faced Ruth just eight times, and Ruth was 5-for-7 with two home runs and a walk. The only times Auker retired Ruth were on two ground outs, unless the historical play-by-play is wrong.
However, we’re not going to hold it against Auker, whose book was published in 2001 – 68 years after the alleged strikeout of Ruth.
However, there was a day in 1937 when Auker hit like The Babe, and this one is verified Auker had three career home runs, and two came on August 14 in the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns at Navin Field in Detroit.
Auker pitched a four-hitter in a 15-1 win. After a sacrifice fly in the third, Auker led off the sixth inning with a home run off Nig Lipscomb, a rookie second baseman who was being used as a pitcher to give the bullpen a rest in the blowout. An inning later, Auker hit a three-run shot off Lipscomb to give him five RBIs.
“Part of the beauty of baseball is that on any given day even a banjo hitter might just swing the bat with more power than one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the game,” Auker wrote in his book.
Auker was not making another reference to Ruth. He was writing about teammate Hank Greenberg, who had hit 26 home runs that season going into the doubleheader. The Tigers pounded the Browns in the second game, too, so St. Louis again turned to Lipscomb to rest toe bullpen.
Greenberg faced Lipscomb two times in the first game. He grounded into a double play and popped out to second base. In the second game, Greenberg 2-for-3 with a walk before Lipscomb entered the game. Greenberg finished 2-for-5, so it’s clear that he was hitless in two at-bats and finished the say 0-for-4 against the rookie.
“After it was over, I went up to Hank in the clubhouse and said, ‘Here, you want these two home runs of mine? I don’t need them,’ ” Auker wrote in his book.
Greenberg finished with 40 home runs in 1937. Auker never hit another one for Detroit.
“How can I get the same feeling of satisfaction out of it? I’m not giving them the same thing, so I’m not getting the same thing. You think they’re hurting me? But I’m hurting them, that’s the difference.” – Lou Gehrig to his wife, Eleanor, on May 1, 1939, the day before he benched himself in Detroit.
When Lou Gehrig decided to bench himself on May 2, 1939, it was a decision that did not come overnight. It might have started back in the final month-plus of the 1938 season when Gehrig hit an unusual three home runs in the final 39 games of the season.
After struggling in the preseason, Gehrig was off to a slow start in 1939, and on April 30, Gehrig was convinced his play was hurting the Yankees. He went 0-for-4 in a game against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium, and in his final at-bat he hit the ball as hard as he had hit one all season, and it failed to clear the fence for a home run.
In the next inning, Gehrig fielded a ball to his right at first base. Normally, he would have jogged to first to make the out, but he realized he might not get there in time and had to throw the ball to the pitcher to make the out. Gehrig’s teammates congratulated him in the dugout, and it caused him to wonder if his play had fallen so far that he would be congratulated for making a routine play.
“Heavens, has it reached that stage?” he asked himself, according to Jonathan Eig’s book, “Luckiest Man.”
The Yankees had an off day before starting a road trip in Detroit. Joe DiMaggio already was out with an injury, and Gehrig was not producing with a .143 batting average and no home runs in eight games.
At home on Monday, Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor, described him as, “troubled, shaken, even shocked,” in “Luckiest Man.”
The train carrying the Yankees arrived in Detroit early that Tuesday morning. After eating breakfast with Yankees catcher Bill Dickey at the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Gehrig saw manager Joe McCarthy in the lobby. Gehrig told McCarthy they needed to talk, and when they arrived at the manager’s room, Gehrig asked McCarthy to play someone else at first base.
Gehrig had played in 2,130 consecutive games, stretching from June 2, 1925, until April 30, 1939, so it was national news that he was going to miss a game.
McCarthy talked the press and said, “it’s a black day for me and the Yankees.”
Babe Dahlgren was chosen to replace Gehrig at first base, and he pleaded with Gehrig to reconsider, but Gehrig had his mind made up. After batting practice and infield practice, it was obvious that Gehrig was going to sit out the game, and the only thing left was to make it official.
McCarthy gave the lineup card to Gehrig, who as team captain occasionally would take it out to the meeting with umpires at home plate prior to the game. As Gehrig walked back to the dugout, Tigers broadcaster Ty Tyson grabbed the public address system and said, “How about a hand for Lou Gehrig, who played in 2,130 games in a row before he benched himself today.”
The crowd of 11,000 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit responded with cheers and an ovation. Gehrig rose to the top step of the dugout, tipped his cap and retreated to the locker room in tears. Doc Holst described the scene in The Detroit Free Press.
“Gehrig bawled like an engineer who has been given a party at his retirement on full pension after 55 years of faithful, honest service,” Holst wrote. “Gehrig cried because at 36, the greatest thing in his life had ended. He felt like a nobody.
“He didn’t want a parasol for 50 years of faithful service or an engraved gold watch. He wanted to keep on working. Rocking on the front porch and thinking of the things you used to do holds no glamour for a thirty-six-year-old man. So, Gehrig bawled like a baby and Boss McCarthy of the Yankees didn’t blame him.
“He’s the only truly modest fellow I’ve ever known,” McCarthy said in the Free Press. “He could hit a ball over that Masonic Temple over there, and you would never hear Lou tell about it. I never in my life heard Gehrig talk about something that he did. It was always something he didn’t do that worried him.”
It created a somber atmosphere in Briggs Stadium, but the game went on. The Tigers were starting a rookie pitcher, Fred Hutchinson, who was making his major-league debut. Hutchinson went on to pitch for Detroit for 10 seasons and win 95 games. He later managed the Cincinnati Reds but died of cancer at age 45. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center was named in his honor.
The Yankees were way too much for Hutchinson in his debut. He gave up eight runs in the first three innings, and New York went on to a 22-2 victory, obviously fired up to win one for Gehrig. Dahlgren, who replaced Gehrig, had two hits, including a home run in the third inning.
Gehrig never played again, although he stayed with the team as the two-week road trip progressed. When the team was in Chicago, Gehrig flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he underwent tests for six days before it was determined that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which later became known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
He was finished as a ballplayer, and on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day was held at Yankee Stadium. It was then that Gehrig made his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. He died on June 2, 1941, at the age of 37.
Gehrig lived nearly two years after his diagnosis and just 25 months to the day after he benched himself on a Tuesday afternoon in Detroit. That same day, a baby named William James Brown was born in Crestline, Ohio, less than 200 miles from Detroit. Thirty years later, that baby would become one of the most beloved Tigers players of all time. But we didn’t know him as William Brown or Bill Brown, we knew him as Gates Brown, born on the same day Lou Gehrig benched himself in Detroit.
Some might say Dale Alexander started his major-league career 44 years too soon. He was the prototype for the designated hitter, which started in the American League in 1973.
The strapping Alexander, nicknamed “Moose” or “Ox,” burst onto the major-league scene in a way few have, but defensive liabilities, a powerless stretch and eventually an injury left other players and fans to wonder what could have been.
Alexander attracted attention in 1928 with Toronto in the International League. He batted .380 with 236 hits, 31 home runs and 144 RBIs, and he was purchased by the Tigers along with another player for $100,000.
Tigers Hall-of-Fame outfielder Harry Heilmann was attempting to make the move to first base in spring training, but Alexander put on a power display that resulted in Detroit keeping Heilmann in the outfield.
The first-base job belonged to Alexander. It turned into an historic season.
Alexander hit for power and hit for average, much as he had the previous season in Toronto.
Some were calling Alexander the new Babe Ruth, but the original Ruth was more than holding his own. A doubleheader on September 7, 1929, featuring Alexander’s Tigers and Ruth’s Yankees, drew a lot of attention at Yankee Stadium.
Alexander won the matchup in the first game as he had a triple, home run and three RBIs in a 5-4 victory for the Tigers. Ruth was held to two singles. However, Ruth turned the tables in the second game with three hits, including a double and his 41st home run of the season, and four RBIs as New York defeated the Tigers 11-7.
Alexander had a single, double, home run and two RBIs as both sluggers finished with five hits in the doubleheader.
At the end of the season, Alexander had 25 home runs, 137 RBIs and a .343 average. He finished with 215 hits, making him the first rookie in the American League with more than 200 hits since Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox had 239 in 1911. Alexander also made history along with teammate Roy Johnson, who had 201 hits, as the first rookie teammates to each top 200 hits in a season.
But there was a problem. Alexander was horrible in the field.
“I know I look bad at first base,” Alexander said in a story written by Michael Santa Maria and James Costello in the 1991 Baseball Research Journal. “I had the bad habit of getting my feet crossed at first. But I’ve had some good coaching, and I’m getting so I can reach for a ball without falling down.”
He made 56 errors in his first three seasons at first base and twice led the AL in that category.
John Kieran of the New York Times wrote, “Big Dale used to play beside Charley Gehringer and Charley went into a decline after a while. That is, he practically declined to play second if Dale continued to play first.”
Kieran went on to write that when a ball came the way of Alexander, he would say, “I’ll take it – no, you take it – never mind, I have it – ah, there it goes.”
But he continued to hit. In 1930, Alexander nearly duplicated his great rookie season by batting .326 with 20 home runs and 135 RBIs. During the season he had a 29-game hitting streak that featured six home runs and 40 RBIs. Alexander drove in at least one run in 22 of the 29 games, including 19 of the last 22.
The highlight of the streak came on May 24 against the Chicago White Sox in Comiskey Park. He homered in consecutive at-bats off Tommy Thomas, and his second home run came after one hit by Marty McManus for back-to-back shots.
The streak came to an end on June 19 in Yankee Stadium. The Tigers had off days on June 17-18 to travel from Detroit, where they had just concluded a 13-game homestand. Ed Wells and a rookie by the name of Vernon Gomez – who would become better known in future years as Lefty Gomez – combined to end Alexander’s streak with an 0-for-3 performance, although he did have a sacrifice fly. Wells left the game after five innings with a blister.
Alexander began the 1931 season by collecting 27 hits in 53 at bats (.509) in 14 games. Of course, he could not keep up that pace, and he ended up hitting .325. But something was missing. He had just three home runs in 517 at bats.
With his power gone, Alexander was not nearly the feared hitter that he had been his first two seasons, causing Shirley Povich to write in the Washington Post, “When Alexander isn’t hitting he’s about as much use to a club as an armless pitcher.”
A few days before the 1932 season opener, the Tigers purchased Harry Davis from Toronto, and Tigers manager Bucky Harris, frustrated with Alexander’s defensive shortcomings, announced that Davis was his new first baseman.
Alexander never made a start for the Tigers in 1932. He appeared in 23 of their first 50 games – nearly all of them as a pinch-hitter – and Detroit dealt him to the Boston Red Sox on June 13, 1932. The Tigers swapped Alexander and outfielder Roy Johnson – the same Roy Johnson who had 201 hits for the Tigers in 1929 – for outfielder Earl Webb, who led the AL in doubles in 1931 and batted .333.
Alexander was batting just .250 (4-for-16) in 23 games when they dealt him, but he found Boston and Fenway Park to his liking. He went on to post a .372 average in 101 games for the Red Sox and became the first player to win a batting championship in the same season in which he had been traded. But the batting title came with controversy.
Alexander’s .367 average came in 392 at bats and 124 games. That was before baseball changed the rule so that a batter would need 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title; in 1932 it was 100 games.
Alexander’s batting title cost Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx the Triple Crown. Foxx led the AL with 58 home runs and 169 RBIs, but his .364 average fell short of Alexander.
However, Alexander’s rebirth as a slugger was short-lived. On May 30, 1933, Alexander twisted his knee sliding into home in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. He underwent a new therapy in the clubhouse between games, and that was the beginning of his decline.
Alexander returned to the Red Sox and belted a home run 11 days later against the Washington Senators at Fenway Park, but he wasn’t the same slugger. Alexander finished the 1933 season with a .281 average – his only average under .325 in five big-league seasons – five home runs and 40 RBIs. He hit the final home run of his major-league career off Tigers reliever Firpo Marberry at Navin Field in Detroit on June 21, 1933.
“I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t field, and when I got hurt, that was the end,” Alexander said.
The following season he was in Newark of the International League, and he never played in the big leagues again. However, he showed minor-league fans a glimpse of his massive power on June 14, 1935, when he hit four home runs in four successive at bats for Double-A Kansas City. For the rest of his minor league career, Alexander never hit under .300 until his final season in 1942. In the minor leagues, Alexander finished with 2,072 hits, 1,171 RBIs and an average of .338.
When he was through playing, Alexander became a manager in the minor leagues and later a scout and totaled 36 years in professional baseball. He died after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer on March 2, 1979, in his hometown of Greenville, Tenn. He was 75.
“D” TALES: Dale Alexander’s rebirth as a slugger with the Boston Red Sox was short-lived.
On May 30, 1933, Alexander twisted his knee sliding into home in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. Red Sox trainer Doc Woods tried diathermy, a new therapy, on Alexander in the clubhouse between games. In the 1991 Baseball Research Journal, Michael Santa Maria and James Costello wrote, “Diathermy uses electric currents to produce heat in body tissues. After putting Dale in for the treatment, the trainer went out to get something to eat and forgot about him.”
Years later, Alexander’s son Don said, “They’d just barbecued his leg. It really sort of atrophied. It really was smaller than the other. Just like it was a burn. Scarring tissue. It was discolored.”
Alexander described the treatment in that issue of Baseball Research Journal.
“It was a new method of treatment and not much was known about it,” Alexander said. “I noticed my left leg felt awfully hot. I ended up with third-degree burns and a gangrene infection, and I almost lost my leg. I was finished in the majors.”