The Tigers’ 10 Greatest Hitters
Ty Cobb (1905-26)
While it may be debatable as to whether Ty Cobb is the greatest baseball player ever, there’s no argument that he’s one of the angriest, if not the angriest, man ever to put on a major league uniform.
It didn’t matter if it was during the depths of the deadball era or the peak of the offensive high times of the 1920s; the Georgia Peach put up sensational numbers all the same. His .366 career batting average is the highest ever; he held the record for lifetime hits, runs and stolen bases for generations, won a record 10 batting titles, hit over .400 three times (including a .401 figure in 1922, at age 37) and once hit safely in 40 straight games, a mark which is the third longest in American League history. Though Cobb preferred the station-to-station method of grind-it-out offense, he showed that hitting with power was no big deal when, as Babe Ruth’s home run feats dominated attention in the 1920s, he once told reporters before a game in 1925 that he would go out and attempt to hit home runs. He ended up belting three on the day (something even Ruth had yet to accomplish) and added two more the next day.
As lauded as Cobb was for his immense talent and drive, he was equally vilified for a volcanic temper that brought on eruptions of legendary proportions. Throughout the first half of his major league career—which began at the age of 18—nary a year passed without some sort of major controversy, on the field or off it, that involved the feisty Cobb. He went to war with anyone and everyone, including teammates who hazed him—with violent reaction. Outfielder Davy Jones likely spoke for many of Cobb’s Tiger teammates when he remarked, “Cobb was born without a sense of humor. He was strictly for himself. He spoiled the game for me.” Some say the spark that fueled Cobb’s intense anger was lit days before his first game as a Tiger when, back home in the South, his father was killed by his mother when she allegedly mistook him for an intruder. (Her claim was disputed and she was put on trial, only to be acquitted.)
Cobb’s relations with his teammates during his early years in Detroit became so strained, he resorted to carrying a gun with him on the team train for his own protection. Exhausted, Tiger management attempted to trade Cobb, one-up, for Cleveland star hitter Elmer Flick in 1907; the deal fell through, Flick was washed up within a few years, and Cobb remained a major offensive asset in Detroit for the next 20 years. But not without more headache.
Long branded as a racist—though recent revisionist biographies have pained to suggest otherwise—Cobb in 1909 attacked a bellhop at a Cleveland hotel simply because he was black. He made more headlines that same year when he spiked Philadelphia A’s third baseman Frank Baker with one of his patented aggressive slides, setting off major controversy that led to a heavy security force the next time the Tigers came to Philadelphia. In 1910, the hatred American Leaguers hoarded over Cobb came to the surface when the St. Louis Browns allowed Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie to beat out six bunt hits on a season-ending doubleheader to give him an artificial (but official) edge over Cobb for the AL batting title. In 1912, Cobb went into the stands in New York to pummel a handicapped heckler; when suspended, his teammates—in a rare show of support—protested and refused to play the next game. That same year, Cobb claimed to be ambushed by three street thugs in Detroit, suffering a knife wound to the back but otherwise repelling the attack, killing one of the assailants (police could never verify his account). In 1914, he missed two months of the season with a broken thumb after another scuffle with a fish vendor, and in 1917 scuffled with members of the New York Giants (including equally temperamental manager John McGraw) during a series of exhibition games in Dallas.
Cobb’s villainous reputation only seemed to harden his resolve on the field and make him a better player. After hitting .240 in his part-time rookie season of 1905, Cobb never hit below .300 again. Few pitchers were spared his amazing ability to make constant contact with the baseball; even the great Walter Johnson couldn’t contain Cobb, who hit .335 against him.
In 1921, Cobb became player-manager of the Tigers, and constantly led the team over the .500 mark but without serious contention for the AL pennant. He was forced to step down in 1926 when Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis got wind of a 1919 game-fixing scandal that implicated Cobb and Cleveland’s Tris Speaker (among a few others). Cobb spent the final two years of his career with the A’s, gradually playing less but still displaying potency at the plate; in 1927, a 41-year-old Cobb hit .357 and slapped out his 4,000th career hit against, ironically, Detroit; a year later, he batted .323 in 93 games before finally calling it quits.
Perhaps Cobb’s biggest disappointment on the field was that he never won a World Series—and when the Tigers got three straight chances after winning AL pennants from 1907-09, he contributed to a trilogy of failure by batting an un-Cobb like .262 in three Series losses.
In retirement, Cobb retreated to the South and continued to be a difficult man to get along with, but did not lack for wealth—reaping major dividends from early-life investments in Coca-Cola and Detroit auto companies.
Sam Crawford (1903-17)
Ty Cobb’s statistical sidekick was a star in his own right, finishing a 19-year career just 39 hits shy of 3,000, a soundly safe place in the record book with a major league-best 309 career triples, and a well-deserved spot in the Hall of Fame.
Beginning his career with the Cincinnati Reds, a 21-year-old Crawford paced the National League in 1901 with a career-high 16 home runs; a year later, he bolted to the AL and Detroit in one of the last controversial interleague moves before the two warring leagues settled for peace. The left-handed slugging Crawford didn’t miss a beat playing for the Tigers, and his production improved even more with the arrival of Cobb, whose abrasive personality proved difficult even for the gentlemanly Crawford to embrace.
Protecting Cobb in the lineup—and vice versa—Crawford between 1910-15 knocked in 100-plus runs five times (leading the AL thrice) and led the junior circuit four times in triples, including an AL record-tying 26 in 1914. By winning the AL home run crown (albeit with just seven) in 1908 for the Tigers, Crawford became the first and only player to date to have led both leagues in home runs and triples. Alas, Crawford, like Cobb, also underperformed in the Tigers’ three World Series losses from 1907-09, batting just .243 in 70 at-bats.
Harry Heilmann (1914, 1915-29)
One Hall of Famer took over for another when Heilmann, a San Francisco native nicknamed Slug, inherited Crawford’s spot in the outfield during the mid-1910s.
After being taught the finer points of hitting from Ty Cobb, Heilmann emerged as one of baseball’s premier hitting stars of the 1920s, oddly saving his best for odd-numbered years; he won four batting titles—in 1921, 1923, 1925 and 1927. All four times, Heilmann hit over .390—and when he peaked at .403 in 1923, became the last .400 hitter in the AL until Ted Williams topped the magical mark in 1941. Heilmann’s four batting crown averages are represented among the top 13 in AL history, and his .342 career figure is the eighth best in the majors since 1900.
Though Heilmann is not remembered as a free-swinging home run hitter—his personal best is 21, in 1922—he did become the first player to hit at least one homer in every active major league ballpark, thanks to a two-year run in the NL late in his career at Cincinnati that gave him a shot to play in all 16 big league venues.
Heilmann returned to Detroit after he retired, doing radio play-by-play from 1933 until his death in 1951. Incredibly, he wasn’t elected to Cooperstown until a year after his passing, as skeptical voters had argued that Heilmann’s numbers primarily came during the time of inflationary offense in the 1920s.
Hank Greenberg (1930, 1933-41, 1945-46)
A tower of power generally regarded as the greatest slugger in Tigers history, the tall, lanky and very imposing Greenberg was equal parts determined, stubborn and studious. One of the first major leaguers to be drafted during World War II—six months before Pearl Harbor—he served the armed forces at the peak of his career and missed four seasons; given his productivity at the time, had it not been for war he might have finished his career with as many as 500 home runs instead of the 331 listed in the books.
The New York Yankees were the first to knock at a young Greenberg’s door, but he signed with the Tigers knowing that he had a better shot of playing in Detroit than being stuck on the Yankee depth chart behind Lou Gehrig at first base. He all but became an instant star with the Tigers upon assuming an everyday role in 1934; over the next seven years, he would hit well over .300 with a seasonal average of 34 home runs and 131 RBIs—and that takes into account a 1936 campaign for which he played just 12 games before breaking his wrist. He twice won MVPs during this period, came tantalizingly close in 1938 to matching Babe Ruth’s then-season record of 60 home runs (he finished with 58), and the year before fell just one RBI short of Gehrig’s all-time AL season mark of 184. The near-miss of the latter record was more disappointing to Greenberg, who made bringing baserunners home a higher priority than the home run—though he would blast over 40 four times in his career.
Despite his size and strength, Greenberg was made a special target of opponents because of his Jewish upbringing; even having authoritative commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis within earshot did not deter members of the Chicago Cubs to shout out anti-Semitic epithets at Greenberg during the 1935 World Series (Landis fined the offending mouths $200 a piece). The taunting didn’t bully Greenberg from continuing his wrath of destruction upon opponents, especially in October; in 23 World Series games throughout his career, Greenberg hit .318 with five homers and 22 RBIs.
A first baseman all of his life, Greenberg graciously moved to the outfield in the late 1930s to give defensively challenged (but offensively gifted) teammate Rudy York the relatively easy job of playing first; a $10,000 snack given by the Tigers as an advanced thank you didn’t hurt.
Greenberg’s return to the majors from the war midway through the 1945 season resulted in one of the franchise’s most memorable feel-good sequences. He homered in his first game back, and homered in the final game of the regular season—a game that clinched the AL pennant and sent the Tigers on to a World Series triumph over the Cubs. After one more thunderous season with Detroit in 1946 (leading the AL with 44 homers and 127 RBIs), Greenberg was released by the Tigers, who worried that decline was around the corner for the 36-year old. Sold to Pittsburgh, Greenberg did indeed show an accelerated fade in 1947; he retired after the season.
After his playing days, Greenberg remained a force within the game via the front office, helping to mold pennant winners as general manager for Bill Veeck—first with the 1954 Cleveland Indians, then with the 1959 Chicago White Sox.
Al Kaline (1953-74)
Despite exploding on the scene in 1955 by becoming, by one day, the youngest batting champion in history at age 20, visions of superstardom failed to materialize for Kaline—but he nevertheless prevailed over a long and productive tenure.
At first, the Tigers were worried that their $30,000 investment in Kaline wouldn’t pay off, especially after a modest first full year in 1954 when he hit just four home runs. But it became obvious early in 1955 that a lack of power would not become a long-term issue for Kaline, who hit three homers in the sixth game of the season—on his way to 27 to go with a .340 mark that won him the batting title. He never had as spectacular a season over his next two decades in a Detroit uniform, and when it appeared he was on the verge of another such campaign, injuries interfered—most notably in 1962 when a broken collarbone limited Kaline to 100 games, even as he still gathered up a personal-best 29 homers and 92 RBIs. Kaline failed to win a MVP but twice finished second in voting; he was also as sharp with the glove as he was with the bat, winning 10 Gold Gloves in the outfield while leading the AL six times in fielding percentage.
When given a chance to shine on baseball’s brightest stages, Kaline didn’t disappoint; he hit .324 with two homers in 37 at-bats over 15 impressive All-Star Game appearances, and in his only World Series activity of his career—against St. Louis in 1968—he hit .379 with a pair of homers and eight RBIs.
Kaline’s longevity helped secure his 3,000th hit in his eighth-to-last game as a major leaguer in 1974; however, he failed to hit one more long ball that would have given him 400 for his career. Yet he remains at the top of the franchise home run list.
Miguel Cabrera (2008-23)
One of the game’s premier hitters since 2000, Cabrera became a Tiger after the 2007 season when the Florida Marlins—back to their old habits of shipping away star talent for prospects in the name of making a profit on a shoestring—sent him and ace pitcher Dontrelle Willis to Detroit for six youngsters, none of whom would pan out for the Marlins. And although Willis self-destructed in Detroit, Cabrera ramped up the surge at the plate and easily proved that the Tigers got the better end of the deal.
Cabrera’s time in Detroit was full of highlights. He led the AL with 37 home runs in 2008, knocked in a league-leading 126 runs in 2010, and won his first of four batting titles to date with a .344 mark in 2011 as the Tigers won their first divisional title in 24 years—but he finished behind teammate Justin Verlander in the AL MVP vote, for which he had always been largely overlooked. That oversight changed in 2012 when, buoyed by the first triple crown performance by a hitter in nearly half a century, the voters couldn’t ignore Cabrera and his .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs—the latter two marks establishing personal bests. He won a second MVP a year later with his third straight batting title (a career-high .348 figure), 44 more homers and 137 RBIs.
Cabrera at his peak was all the more impressive considering he was seldom at 100%—sometimes well below it; he played much of his 2013 MVP campaign in pain, and had an enormously productive September for the Tigers in 2014 (finishing the year at .313-25-109) despite playing with both bone spurs in his ankle and a stress fracture in his foot. But by the time Cabrera reached his mid-30s in the late 2010s, he finally became grounded by mortality, struggling to play a full season while his input began to decrease.
Injuries aside, Cabrera’s biggest challenge was alcohol. An ill-timed drinking binge (topped by a charge of spousal abuse) in the midst of a down-to-the-wire divisional race at the end of the 2009 season very possibly robbed the Tigers of a postseason trip. And before camps opened in 2011, he was arrested again in Florida after a bizarre series of events that included threatening a restaurant owner and recklessly running cars off the road while heavily intoxicated. He avoided major jail time for the incidents, apologized and underwent rehab that appears to have led to a prolonged sobriety.
Charlie Gehringer (1924-42)
Born just north of Detroit, the quiet, almost robotic left-handed hitter made for fame with his nickname “The Mechanical Man,” given to him for his unwavering year-in, year-out ability to hit above .300. Tiger manager Mickey Cochrane once said of Gehringer, “He says hello on Opening Day and goodbye on closing day, and in between he hits .350.”
Batting slumps were foreign to Gehringer. Between 1927 and 1940, he hit anywhere between .298 and .371, the latter figure accomplished during a 1937 MVP campaign. Though Gehringer didn’t contain prodigious power—he never hit more than 20 homers—he fattened up his slugging percentage with 574 doubles and 146 triples over his career; he is the last American Leaguer to date to reach 60 doubles in one season when he reached the milestone in 1936. Gehringer stroked out 200-plus hits six times, scored 100-plus runs an astonishing 12 times and knocked in over 100 seven times—all with a knack for contact, rarely striking out. On defense, Gehringer was an exceptional second baseman with great range, leading the AL seven times each in fielding percentage and assists.
A career .320 hitter during the regular season, Gehringer further proved his automatic abilities with a bat in the postseason, hitting .321 in 20 World Series contests; he also found NL pitchers to be no problem at the All-Star Game, collecting 10 hits in 20 at-bats over six appearances.
Bobby Veach (1912-23)
Part of the rich Detroit outfield that was baseball’s most potent in the 1910s and 1920s, Veach teamed up with Cobb, Crawford and later Heilmann to make for a venerable 7-8-9 on the field—and an unstoppable 3-4-5 in the lineup.
Veach packed a good deal of punch for a man with a hardly imposing 5’11”, 165-pound frame. After proving his worth in a late 1912 audition by hitting .342 in 23 games, Veach became an everyday force and led the AL in RBIs three times over a four-year period between 1915-18; his home run power briefly sprang to life in the 1920s—peaking with 16 in 1921—before he began a career decline a few years later. As with many of his Tiger teammates, Veach had a cold relationship with Ty Cobb, who never embraced what he felt was Veach’s lack of intensity on the field (never mind that he led AL outfielders over four straight years in both putouts and assists) and continually toyed with trading him; he finally succeeded when he sent Veach to the Yankee-depleted Red Sox in 1924.
Norm Cash (1960-74)
The Texan native wowed the baseball world in 1961—even as Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were grabbing most of the headlines—with a stunning, breakout effort in which he won the AL batting crown (at .361) with an abundance of power, clubbing 41 home runs and 132 RBIs as well as forging 124 walks. And although Cash would become a Tiger mainstay for the next 13 years, he would never come close to duplicating those incredible numbers; his average tumbled 118 points to .243 the next year, and he never hit any higher than .283 during the rest of his career. Part of the mystery for Cash’s rich 1961 campaign was explained in later years when he admitted using a corked bat for the bulk of that season.
Cash would continue to display good slugging figures, hitting 30 or more homers four times and placing second in franchise history with 373. Twice, in 1965 and 1971, Cash won the Comeback Player of the Year award. He’s also remembered for having a sharp World Series effort against St. Louis in 1968, hitting .385 with a home run.
Rudy York (1934, 1937-45)
The muscular York was the perfect all-hit, no-glove player who came 40 years too early for the designated hitter role. He was brought up as a catcher, but after allowing 30 passed balls in just 238 games, it was evident his defensive future didn’t lie there. Neither would it lie in the outfield, where his fielding percentage after 14 games was an embarrassing .815. It took a $10,000 carrot stick aimed at star first baseman Hank Greenberg to allow York to switch to the least demanding station on the field at first.
By then, few would have bothered with a player of such poor glovework, except that York was a major threat with a bat in his hands. Exhibiting a big and brawny frame reminiscent of Jimmie Foxx, York in 1937 showed how tolerable his defensive inadequacies could be by clobbering 35 home runs and 103 RBIs—in just 104 games. A good chunk of that production occurred in August, when York set then-major league records for homers (18) and RBIs (49) in one month; six years later, York nearly matched that when he launched 17 over the fence, again in August.
The Tigers nearly lost York in the late 1930s when Commissioner Landis ruled that the team had been hoarding too many prospects in their minor league system and set many of them loose to become free agents; York was among those, but since he had already made the parent club, Landis allowed him to remain a Tiger.
York was one of the few star players to stay put in the majors for the duration of World War II, in part because of an old knee injury that classified him as a 4-F. Despite the inferior pitching he faced, York’s numbers didn’t go shooting through the roof—if anything, they receded, save for a 1943 campaign in which he led the AL with 34 homers and 118 RBIs.
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