History of the Detroit Tigers
The history of the Detroit Tigers dates to the late 19th century. The club is a charter member of the American League, one of four such clubs (with the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians) in its original city. Detroit is also the only member of the Western League, the AL's minor league predecessor, that remains in its original city under its original name. It was established as a charter member in 1894.
- 1 Western League: 1894–1900
- 2 American League: 1901–present
- 3 The Tigers
- 4 The Cobb era (1905–1921)
- 5 The Tigers break through (1922–44)
- 6 1945 World Series Champions
- 7 A Long Drought: 1946–67
- 8 1968–72
- 9 A slow decline (1973–78)
- 10 The "Bless You Boys" Era (1979–87)
- 11 A new approach (1988–95)
- 12 Declawed: The Randy Smith era (1996–2002)
- 13 Most losses in American League history (2003)
- 14 Rebuilding the franchise (2004–06)
- 15 Falling short (2007–2010)
- 16 2011: First AL Central Championship
- 17 References
Western League: 1894–1900
The current Detroit club was a charter member when the Western League reorganized for the 1894 season. They originally played at Boulevard Park, sometimes called League Park. It was located on East Lafayette, then called Champlain Street, between Helen and East Grand Boulevard, near Belle Isle. In 1895, owner George Vanderbeck decided to build Bennett Park at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues, which would remain their base of operations for the next 104 seasons. The first game at the corner was an exhibition on April 13, 1896. The team, now occasionally called the "Tigers", beat a local semi-pro team, known as the Athletics, by a score of 30–3. They played their first Western League game at Bennett Park on April 28, 1896, defeating the Columbus Senators 17–2. (Richard Bak, A Place for Summer: A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium, 1998, pp. 58–59)
When the Western renamed itself the American League for 1900, it was still a minor league, but next year it broke with the National Agreement and declared itself major, openly competing with the National League for players, and for fans in three contested cities. For a few years there were rumors of abandoning Detroit to compete for Cincinnati or Pittsburgh but the two leagues made peace in 1903 after similar moves into St. Louis and New York.
American League: 1901–present
The Tigers played their first game as a major league team at home against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 25, 1901, with 10,000 fans at Bennett Park. (Richard Bak, A Place for Summer: A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium, 1998, pp. 73–74) After entering the ninth inning behind 13–4, the team staged a dramatic comeback to win 14–13. The team finished third in the eight-team league.
Detroit's blue laws prevented baseball from being played at Bennett Park on Sundays. Owner James D. Burns built a ballpark on his own property named Burns Park where the Tigers played their Sunday home games for the 1901 and 1902 seasons.
11 years later, an elegant stadium was constructed on the site of Bennett Park and named Navin Field for owner Frank Navin. In 1938 it was improved and named Briggs Stadium and renamed "Tiger Stadium" in 1961. Tiger Stadium was used by the Tigers until the end of the 1999 season; from 2000 they have played in Comerica Park.
There are various legends about how the Tigers got their nickname. One involves the orange stripes they wore on their black stockings. Tigers manager George Stallings took credit for the name; however, the name appeared in newspapers before Stallings was manager. Another legend concerns a sportswriter equating the 1901 team's opening day victory with the ferocity of his alma mater, the Princeton Tigers.
Richard Bak, in his 1998 book, A Place for Summer: A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium, pp. 46–49, explains that the name originated from the Detroit Light Guard military unit, who were known as "The Tigers". They had played significant roles in certain Civil War battles and in the 1898 Spanish–American War. The baseball team was still informally called both "Wolverines" and "Tigers" in the news. The earliest known use of the name "Tigers" in the media was in the Detroit Free Press on April 16, 1895. Upon entry into the majors, the ballclub sought and received formal permission from the Light Guard to use its trademark. From that day forth, the team has been officially called the Tigers.
The Cobb era (1905–1921)
In 1905, the team acquired Ty Cobb, a fearless player with a mean streak, who came to be regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. The addition of Cobb to an already talented team that included Sam Crawford, Hughie Jennings, Bill Donovan and George Mullin quickly yielded results, as the Tigers won their first American League pennant in 1907.
1907 American League Champions
Cobb and the Tigers lost in the 1907 World Series against the Chicago Cubs. With the exception of Game 1, which ended in a rare tie, the Tigers failed to score more than one run in any game and lost four straight.
1908 American League Champions
The Cubs would deny Detroit the title again in '08, holding Detroit to a .209 batting average for the series, which the Cubs again won in five games. This would, however, be the last World Championship won by the Chicago Cubs up to and including the present day.
1909 American League Champions
In 1915, the Tigers won a then-club record 100 games but narrowly lost the American League pennant to the Boston Red Sox who won 101 games. The 1915 Tigers were led by an outfield consisting of Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Bobby Veach that finished #1, #2, and #3 in RBIs and total bases. Cobb also set a stolen base record with 96 steals in 1915 that stood until 1962, when it was broken by Maury Wills. Baseball historian Bill James has ranked the 1915 Tigers outfield as the greatest in the history of major league baseball. The only team in Tigers' history with a better winning percentage than the 1915 squad was the 1934 team that lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
In the teens and twenties, Cobb remained the marquee player on many Tigers teams that would remain mired in the middle of the American League. Cobb himself took over managerial duties in 1921, but during six years at the helm, his Tigers never had a record better than 86–68.
In 1921, the Tigers amassed 1724 hits and a team batting average of .316—the highest team hit total and batting average in American League history. (The Elias Book of Baseball Records, 2008, p. 88) That year, outfielders Harry Heilmann and Ty Cobb finished #1 and #2 in the American League batting race with batting averages of .394 and .389. As early proof of the baseball adage that good pitching beats good hitting, the downfall of the 1921 Tigers was the absence of good pitching. The team ERA was 4.40, and they allowed nine or more runs 28 times. Without pitching to support the offense, the 1921 Tigers finished in sixth place in the American League, 27 games behind the Yankees with a record of 71–82.
The Tigers break through (1922–44)
The Tiger teams of the 1930s were consistently among the league's best with "Black Mike" Mickey Cochrane behind the plate, slugger Hank Greenberg at first, and consistent Charlie Gehringer, "The Mechanical Man", at second. All three players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
1934 American League Champions
The Tigers won the AL Pennant but would lose again in the 1934 World Series in seven games to the "Gashouse Gang" St. Louis Cardinals. Again, when the chips were down in the deciding game, Detroit folded, giving up seven third-inning runs and losing Game Seven 11–0 at Navin Field (Tiger Stadium). The game was marred by an ugly incident. After spiking Tiger third baseman Marv Owen in the sixth inning, the Cardinals' Joe "Ducky" Medwick had to be removed from the game for his own safety by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis after being pelted with fruit and garbage from angry fans in the large temporary bleacher section in left field.
1935 World Series Champions
With a lineup that featured four future Hall of Famers (Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Goose Goslin and Charlie Gehringer), the Tigers finally won the World Series the following year, defeating the Cubs, 4 games to 2. Game 6 concluded with Goslin's dramatic game-ending single, scoring Cochrane to seal a 4–3 victory.
Despite being forecast to win the American League title again in 1936 the Tigers returned to the middle of the American League standings in the late 1930s. At the close of the 1938 season, however, the Tigers presciently held out doubts about a pennant in 1939, but figured that 1940 would be their year.
1940 American League Champions
The Tigers won the American League Championship and reached the World Series once again. But the Tigers lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in a seven-game series. This was the third time the Tigers had lost a World Series in a deciding seventh game.
1945 World Series Champions
With the end of World War II and the timely return of Hank Greenberg and others from the military, the Tigers took the 1945 American League pennant. With Virgil Trucks, Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout on the mound and Greenberg leading the Tiger bats, Detroit responded in a Game 7 for the first time, staking Newhouser to a 5–0 lead before he threw a pitch en route to a 9–3 victory over the Cubs. Because many baseball stars had not yet returned from the military, some baseball scholars have deemed the '45 Series to be among the worst-played contests in Series history. For example, prior to the Series, Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown was asked who he liked, and he answered, "I don't think either one of them can win it!" But the Cubs had no answer to Greenberg, and the Series went Detroit's way.
A Long Drought: 1946–67
After their 1945 Series win, the Tigers sank back to the middle of the pack in the American League for most of the 1950s. Notwithstanding Detroit's fall in the standings, the decade saw the debut of outfielder Al Kaline. One of the few Major League players who never played a day in the minor leagues, he would hit over .300 nine times in his career. He also made 15 All-Star teams, won 10 Gold Gloves, and featured one of the league's best arms in right field. In 1955, the 20-year-old Kaline hit .340 to become the youngest-ever batting champion in major league history.
The 1950s also saw the Tigers as the 15th of the then 16 MLB teams to field an African-American player. In the Tigers' case, it was an Afro-Caribbean player, Ozzie Virgil, Sr., who integrated the Tigers in 1958. Only the Boston Red Sox then trailed the Tigers in integrating their roster.
As the American League expanded from 8 to 10 teams, Detroit began its slow ascent back to success with an outstanding 1961 campaign. They won 101 games but still finished eight games behind the Yankees, one of the few times a team had failed to reach the postseason despite winning over 100 games. First baseman Norm Cash had the best batting average in the American League, a remarkably high .361, while teammate Al Kaline finished second. Cash never hit over .286 before or after the '61 season, and would later say of the accomplishment: "It was a freak. Even at the time, I realized that." Cash's plate heroics, which also included 41 home runs and 132 RBI, might have earned him MVP honors that season were it not for New York's Roger Maris bashing a record 61 homers the same year.
The 1961 club featured two nonwhite starters, Jake Wood and Bill Bruton, and later in the 1960s, black players such as Willie Horton, Earl Wilson, and Gates Brown would contribute to Detroit's rise in the standings.
As a strong nucleus developed, Detroit repeatedly posted winning records throughout the 1960s. Pitchers Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain entered the rotation during the middle of the decade, with outfielders Willie Horton (1963), Mickey Stanley (1964) and Jim Northrup (1964) also coming aboard at this time.
The team managed a third-place finish during a bizarre 1966 season, in which manager Chuck Dressen and acting manager Bob Swift were both forced to resign their posts because of health problems. Thereafter, Frank Skaff took over the managerial reins until the end of the season. Both Dressen and Swift died during the year – Dressen in August because of a kidney infection, Swift in October due to cancer. Skaff was replaced by Mayo Smith in 1967, perhaps the last step before World Series contention.
Indeed, in 1967 the Tigers were involved in one of the closest pennant races in history. They needed to sweep a doubleheader from the California Angels on the last day of the season to force a one-game playoff with the Boston Red Sox. They won the first game but lost the second, giving the Red Sox the flag with no playoff. Detroit finished the season at 91–71, a single game behind Boston. Starter Earl Wilson, acquired the previous season from the Red Sox, led the Tigers with 22 wins and would form a strong 1–2–3 combination with Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich over the next few years.
Glory in '68 (1968 World Series Champions)
The Tigers finally returned to the World Series in 1968. The team grabbed first place away from the Baltimore Orioles on May 10 and would not relinquish the position, clinching the pennant on September 17 and finishing with a 103–59 record. In a year that was marked by dominant pitching, starter Denny McLain went 31–6 (with a 1.96 ERA), the first time a pitcher had won 30 or more games in a season since the St. Louis Cardinals' Dizzy Dean accomplished the feat in 1934; no pitcher has accomplished it since. McLain was unanimously voted American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner for his efforts.
In the 1968 World Series, the Tigers met the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, led by starter Bob Gibson (who had posted a record 1.12 ERA during the regular season) and speedy outfielder Lou Brock. The series was predicated with a bold decision by manager Mayo Smith to play center fielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop, replacing the slick fielding but weak hitting of Ray Oyler. Stanley had never played shortstop before, but was a gold glover in the outfield and an excellent athlete. Smith started him at short for the final nine games of the regular season and all seven World Series games, with Oyler only appearing as a late-inning defensive replacement. This allowed Smith to play an outfield of Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Al Kaline in every Series game.
In Game 1, Gibson completely shut down the Detroit lineup, striking out 17 batters, still a World Series record, en route to an easy 4–0 win. However, due in no small part to pitcher Mickey Lolich's victories in Games 2 and 5, the Tigers climbed back into the Series. Many fans believe the turning point in the Series came in the fifth inning of Game 5, with the Tigers down three games to one, and trailing in the game, 3–2. Left fielder Willie Horton made a perfect throw to home plate to nail Lou Brock (who tried to score from second base standing up), as catcher Bill Freehan blocked the plate with his foot. The Tigers came back with three runs in the seventh to win that game, 5–3, and stay alive in the Series. The Cardinals would not threaten to score the rest of this game, and scored only two more meaningless runs over the remainder of the series. In Game 6, McLain ensured a Game 7 by notching his only win of the Series, a 13–1 blowout, despite pitching on only two days' rest.
In Game 7 at Busch Memorial Stadium, Lolich, also pitching on two days' rest, faced Gibson. Both men pitched brilliantly, putting zeros up on the scoreboard for much of the game. In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Cardinals looked primed to take the lead as Lou Brock singled to lead off the inning, only to be promptly picked off first base by Lolich. One out later, Curt Flood followed with another single, and was also picked off first by Lolich. In the top of the seventh, an exhausted Gibson finally cracked, giving up singles to Norm Cash and Willie Horton. Jim Northrup then struck the decisive blow, lashing a triple to center field over the head of Flood, who appeared to mis-judge how hard the ball was hit. That scored both Cash and Horton; Northrup himself was then brought home by a Bill Freehan double. Detroit added an insurance run in the ninth. A solo home run by Mike Shannon was all the Cardinals could muster against Lolich as the Tigers took the game, 4–1, and the Series, 4–3. For his three victories that propelled the Tigers to the World championship, Lolich was named the World Series Most Valuable Player.
This was the greatest comeback in World Series history. No other team has been behind 3 games to 1 and down by 3 runs in the 5th game to win the 5th, 6th and 7th games.
1969 saw further expansion as both leagues realigned into two divisions of six teams, and the Tigers were placed in the American League East. That year, Detroit failed to defend its '68 title, despite Denny McLain having another outstanding year with a 24-9 campaign. The Tigers' 90 wins placed them a distant second in the division to a very strong Baltimore Orioles team, which had won 109 games.
McLain, suspended three times in 1970, was only 3-5 that season and was traded after the season was done. Mayo Smith was also let go after a disappointing fourth-place finish in 1970, to be replaced by Billy Martin. Following his playing career with the New York Yankees, Martin had worked in the Minnesota Twins organization, managing that team to an AL West Division title in 1969. But he was fired after that season due to rocky relationships with his players, which included a legendary fight with pitcher Dave Boswell in an alley behind Detroit's Lindell AC sports bar. He would spend the 1970 season out of baseball.
Martin's Tigers posted 91 wins in 1971, but again had to settle for a second-place finish behind the Orioles, who won 101 games to take their third straight AL East Division crown. The season was highlighted by Mickey Lolich's 308 strikeouts, which led the AL and is still the Detroit Tigers single-season record as of 2011. Lolich also won 25 games and posted a 2.92 ERA.
1972 AL East Champions
After the 1970 regular season, Denny McLain was traded to the Washington Senators in what would turn out to be a heist for Detroit. The club acquired pitcher Joe Coleman, shortstop Eddie Brinkman and third baseman Aurelio Rodríguez, all of whom would play critical roles in 1972 when the Tigers captured their first AL East division title. Oddities of the schedule due to an early-season strike allowed the 86-70 Tigers to win the division by just ½ game, just as they had won the pennant in 1908. Brinkman was named Tiger of the Year by the Detroit Baseball Writers, despite a .205 batting average, as he committed just 7 errors in 728 chances (.990 fielding percentage) and had a 72-game errorless streak during the season. Mickey Lolich was his steady self for the Tigers, winning 22 games, while Coleman won 19. Starter Woodie Fryman, acquired on August 2, was the final piece of the puzzle as he went 10–3 over the last two months of the regular season.
In the 1972 American League Championship Series, Detroit faced the American League West division champion Oakland Athletics, who had become steadily competitive ever since the 1969 realignment. In Game 1 of the ALCS in Oakland, Lolich, the hero of '68, took the hill and allowed just one run over nine innings. Al Kaline hit a solo homer to break a 1–1 tie in the 11th inning, only to be charged with an error on Gonzalo Marquez's game-tying single that allowed Gene Tenace to score the winning run. Blue Moon Odom shut down Detroit 5–0 in Game 2. The end of Game 2 was marred by an ugly incident in which Tiger reliever Lerrin Lagrow hit A's shortstop and leadoff hitter Bert Campaneris on the ankle with a pitch. An angered Campaneris flung the bat at Lagrow, and Lagrow ducked just in time for the bat to sail over his head. A bench-clearing brawl ensued, and both players were suspended for the remainder of the series.
As the series shifted to Detroit, the Tigers caught their stride. Joe Coleman held the A's scoreless on seven hits in Game 3, a 3–0 Tiger victory. In Game 4, Oakland scored two runs in the top of the 10th and put the Tigers down to their last three outs. Detroit pushed two runs across the plate to tie the game before Jim Northrup came through in the clutch again. His single off Dave Hamilton scored Gates Brown and evened the series at 2 games apiece.
A first-inning run on a Gene Tenace passed ball gave Detroit an early lead in the deciding fifth and final game in Detroit, but Reggie Jackson's steal of home in the 2nd tied it up. Tenace's two-out single to left field gave Oakland a 2–1 lead in the fourth inning. The run was controversial to many Tiger fans, as George Hendrick was ruled safe at first base just prior to the Tenace hit. Hendrick appeared to be out by two steps on a grounder to second, but umpire John Rice ruled that Norm Cash pulled his foot off first base. Replays and photos, however, show that Cash did not pull his foot. Thanks to that play and four innings of scoreless relief from Vida Blue, the A's took the American League pennant and a spot in the World Series.
A slow decline (1973–78)
Martin did not survive the 1973 season as manager and the Tigers spent much of the next decade in the middle or lower ranks of the AL East. In 1974, Ralph Houk, who managed the dominant Yankee teams of the early 1960s, was named manager of the Tigers. "The Major" served in that capacity for five full seasons, through the end of the 1978 season. The roster of players who played under Houk were mostly aging veterans from the 1960s, whose performance had slipped from their peak years. Perhaps the biggest signal of decline for the Tigers was the retirement of Kaline following the 1974 season, after he notched his 3000th career hit. Kaline finished with 3007 hits and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1980.
A feel-good story emerged in late 1973, as Martin was lured to a Michigan prison to watch Detroiter Ron LeFlore play an inmate baseball game. LeFlore, who was serving a sentence for his involvement in an armed robbery, would earn a tryout at Tiger Stadium and made the team the following year under Houk. He would go on to have several productive seasons with the Tigers, Montreal Expos and Chicago White Sox, finishing with a career .288 batting average and 455 stolen bases. His story was documented in a book (Breakout: From Prison to the Big Leagues) and a TV Movie starring LeVar Burton (One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story).
Tiger fans were provided the possibility of improvement when 21-year-old rookie Mark Fidrych made his debut in 1976. Fidrych, known as "the Bird", was a colorful character known for talking to the baseball and other eccentricities. During a game against the Yankees, Graig Nettles responded to Fidrych's antics by talking to his bat. After making an out, he later lamented that his Japanese-made bat didn't understand him. Fidrych was the starting pitcher for the American League in the All Star Game played that year in Philadelphia to celebrate the American Bicentennial. He finished the season with a record of 19–9 and an American League-leading ERA of 2.34. Fidrych, the AL Rookie of the Year, was one of the few bright spots that year with the Tigers finishing next to last in the AL East in 1976.
Injuries to his knee, and later his arm, drastically limited Fidrych's appearances in 1977–78, as the Tigers returned to doormat status. Perhaps more important, however, was the talent coming up through the Tigers farm system at the time. Key players like Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish all made their debuts in the late 1970s.
The "Bless You Boys" Era (1979–87)
Houk's immediate successor as Tiger manager in 1979 was Les Moss, but Moss would only last until June of that year. From June 14, 1979, until the end of the 1995 season, the team was managed by George "Sparky" Anderson, one of baseball's winningest managers and owner of two World Series rings as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. When Sparky came on board in 1979 and assessed the Tigers young talent, he boldly predicted that his team would be a pennant winner within 5 years.
Ascerbic sports anchor Al Ackerman of Detroit's WXYZ-TV (and later WDIV-TV) initiated the phrase "Bless You Boys" whenever the Tigers would win a game—sarcastically at first, because the team still wasn't winning enough to be respectable. But the phrase would take on a whole new meaning in 1984.
"The Roar Of 84" 1984 World Series Champions
As in 1968, the Tigers next World Series season would be preceded by a disappointing second-place finish, as the 1983 Tigers won 92 games to finish six games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East.
The first major news of the 1984 season actually came in late 1983, when broadcasting magnate John Fetzer, who had owned the club since 1957, sold the team to Domino's Pizza founder and CEO Tom Monaghan. The sale of the franchise caught everyone by surprise, as the negotiations culminating in the sale of the franchise were conducted in total secrecy. There were no rumors or even speculation that Fetzer had put the franchise up for sale.
The 1984 team started out at a record 35–5 pace (including Jack Morris throwing a no-hitter early in the season against Chicago en route to the Tigers' 9–0 start) and cruised to a franchise-record 104 victories, besting their previous record of 103 set in 1968. They also easily won the division, winning by a staggering 15 games over the Toronto Blue Jays. They featured the great double play combination of shortstop Alan Trammell and second baseman Lou Whitaker; the duo would play together a record 19 seasons. The team also included Darrell Evans, Dave Bergman, Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon, Tom Brookens, Larry Herndon, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Milt Wilcox, Dave Rozema, Johnny Grubb, Aurelio López ("Señor Smoke") and relief ace Willie Hernández, who won the 1984 American League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player just one year after pitching on the Philadelphia Phillies' National League championship club.
The Tigers faced the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, which would prove to be no contest, not surprising given the fact the Royals won 20 fewer games during the season. In Game 1, Alan Trammell, Lance Parrish and Larry Herndon went deep to crush the Royals 8–1 at Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium). In Game 2, the Tigers scored twice in the 11th inning when Johnny Grubb doubled off the late Royals closer Dan Quisenberry en route to a 5–3 victory. The Tigers completed the sweep at Tiger Stadium in Game 3. Marty Castillo's third-inning RBI fielder's choice would be all the help Detroit would need. Milt Wilcox outdueled Charlie Leibrandt, and after Hernandez got Darryl Motley to pop out to preserve the 1–0 win, the Tigers were returning to the World Series. (Note: At that time, the team with home field advantage in the ALCS and NLCS, played the first two games on the road. This changed in 1985 when the format was changed from best-of-five to best-of-seven.)
In the NLCS, a San Diego rally from 2–0 down prevented a fifth Cubs-Tigers series and meant the Tigers would open the 1984 World Series against the San Diego Padres in Trammell's hometown. (Had the Cubs won the NLCS, Detroit would have been awarded home-field advantage in the World Series because NBC insisted on all midweek games starting at night. This was impossible at the time in Chicago's Wrigley Field.)
In Game 1, Larry Herndon hit a two-run home run that gave the Tigers a 3–2 lead. Morris pitched a complete game with 2 runs on 8 hits, and Detroit drew first blood. The Padres evened the series the next night despite pitcher Ed Whitson being chased after pitching two-thirds of an inning and giving up three runs on five Tiger hits. Tiger starter Dan Petry exited the game after four and one-third innings when Kurt Bevacqua's three-run homer gave San Diego a 5–3 lead they would hold onto.
When the series shifted to the Motor City, the Tigers took command. In Game 3, a two-out rally in the second inning led to four runs and the yanking of Padre starter Tim Lollar after one and two-thirds innings. The Padres, plagued by poor starting pitching throughout the series, never recovered and lost 5–2. Eric Show continued the parade of bad outings in Game 4, getting bounced after two and two-thirds innings after giving up home runs to Series MVP Trammell in his first two at-bats. Trammell's homers held up with the help of another Morris complete game, and the Tigers held a commanding lead.
In Game 5, Gibson's two-run shot in the first inning would be the beginning of another early end for the Padres' starter Mark Thurmond. Though the Padres would pull back even at 3–3, chasing Dan Petry in the fourth inning in the process, the Tigers retook the lead on a Rusty Kuntz sacrifice fly (actually a pop-out to retreating second baseman Alan Wiggins that the speedy Gibson was able to score on), and doubled it on a solo homer by Parrish.
A "Sounds of the Game" video was made during the Series by MLB Productions and played on TV a number of times since then. When Kirk Gibson came to bat in the eighth inning with runners on second and third and the Tigers clinging to a 5–4 lead, a situation that might call for San Diego reliever Goose Gossage to pitch around him, Padres manager Dick Williams was summoned to the mound. Anderson was seen and heard yelling to Gibson, "He don't want to walk you!" and making a swing-the-bat gesture. As Anderson had suspected, Gossage threw a 1–0 fastball on the inside corner, and Gibson was ready. He launched a hard smash into Tiger Stadium's right field upper deck, effectively clinching the game and the series.
Aurelio López pitched 2-1/3 innings of relief without putting a runner on base for the win. Despite allowing a rare run in the top of the 8th inning, Willie Hernández got the save as Tony Gwynn flied out to Larry Herndon to end the game, sending Detroit into a wild victory celebration.
The Tigers led their division wire-to-wire, from opening day and every day thereafter, culminating in the World Series championship. This had not been done in the major leagues since the 1927 New York Yankees.
1987 AL East Champions
After a pair of third-place finishes in 1985 and 1986, the 1987 Tigers faced lowered expectations – which seemed to be confirmed by an 11–19 start to the season. However, the team hit its stride thereafter and gradually gained ground on its AL East rivals, eventually finishing with the best record in the Majors. This charge was fueled in part by the acquisition of pitcher Doyle Alexander from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for minor league pitcher John Smoltz. Alexander started 11 games for the Tigers, posting 9–0 record and a 1.53 ERA. Smoltz, a Lansing, Michigan, native, went on to have a long and productive career, mostly with the Braves, winning the Cy Young Award in 1996. The Tigers won the division this year but possibly gave up some of their future. The Tigers had a great season but despite their improvement, they entered September neck-and-neck with the Toronto Blue Jays. The two teams would square off in seven hard-fought games during the final two weeks of the season. All seven games were decided by one run, and in the first six of the seven games, the winning run was scored in the final inning of play. At Exhibition Stadium, the Tigers dropped three in a row to the Blue Jays before winning a dramatic extra-inning showdown.
The Tigers entered the final week of the 1987 season 3.5 games behind. After a series against the Baltimore Orioles, the Tigers returned home trailing by a game and swept the Blue Jays. Detroit clinched the division in a 1–0 victory over Toronto in front of 51,005 fans at Tiger Stadium on Sunday afternoon, October 4. Frank Tanana went all nine innings for the complete game shutout, and outfielder Larry Herndon gave the Tigers their lone run on a second-inning home run. Detroit finished the season a Major League-best 98–64, two games ahead of Toronto.
In what would prove to be their last postseason appearance until 2006, the Tigers were upset in the 1987 American League Championship Series by the Minnesota Twins (who in turn won the World Series that year) four games to one. The Twins won the Series in Game 5 at Tiger Stadium 9–5.
A new approach (1988–95)
Despite their 1987 division title victory, the Tigers proved unable to build on their success. The team lost Kirk Gibson to free agency in the offseason, but still spent much of 1988 in first place in the AL East. A late-season slump left the team in second at 88–74, one game behind division-winning Boston.
In 1989, the team collapsed to a 59–103 record, worst in the majors. The franchise then attempted to rebuild using a power-hitting approach, with sluggers Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer and Mickey Tettleton joining Trammell and Whitaker in the lineup (fitting for the team with the most 200+ home run seasons in baseball history). In 1990, Fielder led the American League with 51 home runs (becoming the first player to hit 50 since George Foster in 1977), and finished second in the voting for AL Most Valuable Player. He hit 44 home runs in 1991, again finishing second in the AL MVP balloting, and would hit at least 28 in each of the next four seasons. Behind the hitting of Fielder and others, the Tigers improved by 20 wins in 1990 (79-83), and posted a winning record in 1991 (84–78). However, the team lacked quality pitching, despite Bill Gullickson's 20 wins in 1991, and its core of key players began to age, setting the franchise up for decline. Their minor league system was largely barren of talent, as well, producing only a few everyday players (Travis Fryman, Bobby Higginson) during the 1990s. Adding insult to injury, the Tigers and radio station WJR announced in December, 1990, that they were not renewing the contract of long-time Hall of Fame play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell, and that the 1991 season would be Harwell's last with the team. The announcement was met with resounding protests from fans, young and old.
1992 saw the Tigers win only 75 games. But late in the season, Sparky Anderson won his 1,132nd game as a Tiger manager, passing Hughie Jennings for the most all-time wins in franchise history. Following the 1992 season, the franchise was sold to Mike Ilitch, the President and CEO of Little Caesars Pizza who also owns the Detroit Red Wings. Ilitch made it one of his first priorities to re-hire Ernie Harwell. The team also responded with an 85-77 season in 1993, but it would be their last winning season for 13 years.
On October 2, 1995, manager Sparky Anderson chose to not only end his career with the Tigers, but retire from baseball altogether.
Declawed: The Randy Smith era (1996–2002)
From 1994 to 2005, the Tigers did not post a winning record. This was by far the longest sub-.500 stretch in franchise history; prior to this, the team had not gone more than four consecutive seasons without a winning record. The team's best record over that time was 79–83, recorded in 1997 and 2000. In 1996, the Tigers lost a then-team record 109 games, under new general manager Randy Smith, who served the team from 1996 to 2002.
In 2000, the team left Tiger Stadium, then tied with Fenway Park as the oldest active baseball stadium, in favor of the new Comerica Park. This capped an argument lasting more than a decade about whether or not a new stadium was needed to keep the club competitive.
Soon after it opened, Comerica Park drew criticism for its deep dimensions, which made it difficult to hit home runs; the distance to left-center field (395 ft), in particular, was seen as unfair to hitters. This led to the nickname "Comerica National Park." The team made a successful bid to bring in slugger Juan Gonzalez from the Texas Rangers for the inaugural 2000 season at Comerica Park. Gonzalez hit a meager (for him) 22 home runs that season, and many cited Comerica Park's dimensions as a major reason he turned down multi-millions to re-sign with the club in 2001. In 2003, the franchise largely quieted the criticism by moving in the left-center fence to 370 feet (110 m), taking the flagpole in that area out of play, a feature carried over from Tiger Stadium. In 2005, the team moved the bullpens to the vacant area beyond the left-field fence and filled the previous location with seats.
In late 2001, Dave Dombrowski, former general manager of the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins, was hired as team president. In 2002, the Tigers started the season 0–11, prompting Dombrowski to fire the unpopular Smith, as well as manager Phil Garner, following the 6th game of the season. Dombrowski then took over as general manager and named bench coach Luis Pujols to finish the season as interim manager. The team finished 55–106. After the season was over, Pujols was let go.
Most losses in American League history (2003)
Dombrowski hired popular former shortstop Alan Trammell to manage the team in 2003. With fellow '84 teammates Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish on the coaching staff, the rebuilding process began. In 2003, still playing with mostly players Smith had drafted or acquired, the Tigers shattered their 1996 mark for team futility by losing an American League-record 119 games. This eclipsed the previous AL record of 117 losses set by the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, and was just .030 ahead of the 1916 A's .235 win percentage. On August 30, 2003, the Tigers' defeat at the hands of the Chicago White Sox caused them to join the 1962 New York Mets as the only modern MLB teams to lose 100 games before September. They avoided tying the 1962 Mets' modern MLB record of 120 losses only by winning five of their last six games of the season, including three out of four against the Minnesota Twins who had already clinched the Central Division (into which the Tigers had moved in 1998), and were resting their stars.
Mike Maroth went 9–21 for the 2003 Tigers and became the first pitcher to lose 20 games in more than 20 years. Tigers' pitchers Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman (6–19), and Nate Cornejo (6–17) were #1, #2, and #3 in the major leagues in losses for 2003—the only time in major league history that one team has had the top three losers.
Designated hitter/left fielder Dmitri Young is the one member of the 2003 Tigers to have a truly good year, with a .297 batting average, 29 home runs, and .537 slugging percentage. He managed 85 RBIs despite having no real table-setters on base in front of him. According to Win Shares, the Tigers would have had about six fewer wins without him.
While the 2003 Tigers rank as the third worst team in major league history based on loss total, they fare slightly better based on winning percentage. The Tigers went 43–119 that season, 47 games behind division-winner Minnesota.
Rebuilding the franchise (2004–06)
Although the 2003 season was a complete morass, Dombrowski gave Trammell a chance to finish the remaining two years of his contract over the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Under Dombrowski, the Tigers demonstrated a willingness to sign marquee free agents. In 2004, the team signed or traded for several talented but high-risk veterans, such as Fernando Viña, Iván Rodríguez, Ugueth Urbina, Rondell White and Carlos Guillén, and the gamble paid off. The 2004 Tigers finished 72–90, a 29-game improvement over the previous season, and the largest improvement in the American League since Baltimore's 33-game improvement from 1988 to 1989. However, the team was still sub-.500.
Prior to the 2005 season, the Tigers spent a large sum for two prized free agents, Magglio Ordóñez and Troy Percival. On June 8, 2005, the Tigers traded pitcher Ugueth Urbina and infielder Ramón Martínez to the Philadelphia Phillies for Plácido Polanco (and later signed him for 4 years). The Tigers stayed on the fringes of contention for the American League wild card for the first four months of the season, but then faded badly, finishing 71–91. The collapse was perceived as being due both to injuries and to a lack of player unity; Rodriguez in particular was disgruntled, taking a leave of absence during the season to deal with a difficult divorce. Trammell, though popular with the fans, took part of the blame for the poor clubhouse atmosphere and lack of continued improvement, and he was fired at the end of the season.
A highlight of the 2005 campaign was Detroit's hosting of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, its first since 1971. In the Home Run Derby, Rodriguez finished second, losing to the Phillies' Bobby Abreu.
In October 2005, Jim Leyland, who managed Dombrowski's 1997 World Series–winning Marlins club, replaced Trammell as manager; two months later, in response to Troy Percival's '05 arm problems, closer Todd Jones, who had spent five seasons in Detroit (1997–2001), signed a two-year deal to return to the Tigers. Veteran left-hander Kenny Rogers also joined the Tigers from Texas in late 2005. These offseason additions set the stage for the resurgence of "Tiger Fever" in Detroit and its environs the following year.
The return of the Tigers: 2006 American League Champions
After years of futility, the 2006 season showed signs of hope. After an early season tirade by Jim Leyland, the team exploded and quickly rose to the top of the AL Central. The team reached a high point when they were 40 games over .500, but a second half swoon started to raise questions about the team's staying power. On August 27, a 7–1 victory over the Cleveland Indians gave the Tigers their 82nd victory and their first winning season since 1993. On September 24, the Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals 11–4 to clinch their first playoff berth since 1987. A division title seemed inevitable. All that was required was one win in the final five games of the season, which included three games against the Royals, whom the Tigers had manhandled much of the season. Unfortunately, the Tigers lost all five games and the division title went to the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers were the AL wild card winner, the first time a team from the AL Central had won the honor.
The playoffs saw the Tigers beat the heavily favored New York Yankees 3 games to 1 in the ALDS and sweep the Oakland Athletics in the 2006 ALCS, thanks to a walk-off home run in Game 4 by right fielder Magglio Ordóñez. They advanced to the World Series, where they lost to the underdog St. Louis Cardinals in five games.
Falling short (2007–2010)
The Tigers would field competitive teams over the next four years, but struggles in the second half of all four years kept them from repeating their 2006 playoff appearance.
In 2007, the Tigers returned 22 of 25 players from their 2006 World Series roster, and traded for outfielder Gary Sheffield, who had been a part of the 1997 Marlins World Series team managed by Jim Leyland. In addition to acquisitions, Dombrowski developed a productive farm system. Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, the most notable rookie contributors to the 2006 team, were followed by Andrew Miller, who was drafted in 2006 and called up early in the 2007 campaign, and minor-leaguer Cameron Maybin, an athletic five-tool outfielder ranked #6 in Baseball America's 2007 Top-100 Prospects. The Tigers suffered from injuries in the 2007 season, especially to their pitching staff. Kenny Rogers did not start until late June because of surgery to remove a blood-clot in his throwing arm. Other pitchers who were injured included Tim Byrdak, Fernando Rodney, Jair Jurrjens and Joel Zumaya.
With their fan base energized following the 2006 World Series appearance, the team would draw 3,047,133 paid customers in 2007, the third-highest attendance in the American League and the most in team history, surpassing the 2,704,794 customers at Tiger Stadium in 1984.
The 2007 Tigers had the best record in baseball in mid-July, but lost a few players to injuries and started to play poorly in the second half and fade from contention. This pattern of good starts followed by a poor second half would be repeated over the next three seasons. The Tigers gave up their division lead to the Cleveland Indians in early September and were officially eliminated from playoff competition on September 26, 2007, when the New York Yankees clinched a wild card berth. The Tigers, at 88-74, finished second in the AL Central.
The 2007 season included several highlights of historic significance for the Tigers franchise:
- Justin Verlander pitched a no-hitter on June 12 against the Milwaukee Brewers. It was the first Tiger no-hitter since Jack Morris in 1984 against the Chicago White Sox on the year the Tigers won the 1984 World Series, and the first no-hitter at home by a Tiger since Virgil Trucks did it in 1952. It was also the first in Comerica Park history.
- Magglio Ordóñez became the AL Batting Champion for 2007 with a major-league best .363 average. He was the Tigers' first batting champion since Norm Cash in 1961, and posted the highest average by a Tiger since Charlie Gehringer hit .371 in 1937.
- On September 9, Curtis Granderson stole his 20th base of the season and joined Willie Mays and Frank "Wildfire" Schulte as the only players in major league history to reach 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in a season. (The feat was matched, however, just 21 days later by the Philadelphia Phillies' Jimmy Rollins.) Granderson's 23 triples were the most by a major leaguer since 1949, and his total was higher than six major league teams in 2007.
Going into the 2008 season, the franchise traded for prominent talent in Edgar Rentería (from the Atlanta Braves) and Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis (from the Florida Marlins). However, the Tigers (who now boasted the second-highest team payroll in the majors at over $138 million) began the regular season by losing seven straight games. The Tigers climbed back, and at the midway point of the season, they were 42–40. In the end, the team finished miserably, slumping to a 74–88 record. Justin Verlander finished with his worst season as a pro, as he went 11–17 with a 4.84 ERA. The Tigers also lost closer Todd Jones to retirement on September 25, 2008. Despite the disappointing season, the team set another attendance record in 2008, drawing 3,202,654 customers to Comerica Park.
In the 2009 season, the Detroit Tigers faced lowered expectations, and were predicted by some media to finish last in the AL Central. However, the Tigers started very hot, quickly gaining the lead in the AL Central and keeping it for much of the year. This was fueled primarily by the combination of pitching and defense.
The Tigers acquired starter Edwin Jackson from the 2008 AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, and called up rookie and former #1 draft pick Rick Porcello. Jackson was outstanding in the first half, making his first All-Star team, while Porcello was solid most of the year, posting a 14–9 record with a 3.96 ERA and displaying grit and maturity beyond his 20 years of age. Tigers ace Justin Verlander bounced back from an off 2008 to win 19 games. He posted a 3.45 ERA and led the AL in strikeouts (269) to finish third in the AL Cy Young balloting. Fernando Rodney assumed the closer role in spring training, replacing the retired Todd Jones. Rodney responded with 37 saves in 38 tries, while Bobby Seay, Brandon Lyon and young Ryan Perry shored up the middle relief that plagued the team in 2007–08.
Despite the improvements, the Tigers again found themselves struggling to hold a lead in the AL Central during the second half of the season, and in particular, the final month. The offense they were known for in recent years slumped badly and was unable to support strong outings by the pitching staff. The team entered September with a 7-game lead on its AL Central rivals, but wound up tied with the Minnesota Twins at 86 wins by the final day of the regular season. The season ended on October 6 with a 6–5 loss in 12 innings to the Twins in the tie-breaker game, leaving the Tigers with an 86–77 record. The Tigers spent 146 days of the 2009 season in first place, but became the first team in Major League history to lose a three-game lead with four games left to play.
Entering 2010, the Tigers parted ways with Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson as part of a three-way trade with the New York Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks; in return they picked up outfield prospect Austin Jackson and pitchers Phil Coke, Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth. Key losses included Plácido Polanco, Fernando Rodney and Brandon Lyon, who all left via free agency. Key signings included a five-year contract extension for ace Justin Verlander, and the acquisitions of All-Star closer José Valverde and two-time World Series champion Johnny Damon. Austin Jackson made the Tigers opening day roster, and was American League Rookie of the Month for April. 2010 also saw the debut of Brennan Boesch, who was named the AL Rookie of the Month for May and June.
At the All-Star break, the Tigers were a half-game out of first place in the AL Central, behind the Chicago White Sox. But a slow start after the break and injuries to three key players sent the Tigers into yet another second-half tailspin. The Tigers finished the season in third place with an 81–81 record, 13 games back of the division-winning Minnesota Twins. While playing outstanding baseball at home, the Tigers were just 29–52 on the road. Only the Seattle Mariners had fewer road wins than the Tigers among American League teams.
Among the 2010 season highlights were Miguel Cabrera hitting .328 with 38 home runs and an AL-best 126 RBI, earning the American League Silver Slugger Award at first base and finishing second in the AL MVP race (earning 5 of 28 first-place votes). Austin Jackson (.293 average, 103 runs, 181 hits, 27 stolen bases) finished second in the AL Rookie-of-the-Year voting. Justin Verlander enjoyed another strong season (18–9 record, 3.37 ERA, 219 strikeouts).
The near-perfect game
On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga was pitching a perfect game against the Cleveland Indians with 2 outs in the top of the ninth inning when first base umpire Jim Joyce made a controversial call, ruling Jason Donald safe at first. Video replay showed he was out. A tearful Joyce later said "I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." Later Galarraga told reporters Joyce apologized to him directly and gave him a hug. The next day, with Joyce umpiring home plate, Galarraga brought out the Tigers lineup card and the two hugged again. The sportsmanship demonstrated by Galarraga and Joyce earned them both widespread praise for their handling of the incident. Despite large fan support for overturning the call, commissioner Bud Selig let the call stand, but said he would look into expanding instant replay for the future.
2011: First AL Central Championship
The Tigers returned much of their roster from 2010, with four notable departures. The team chose not to re-sign catcher Gerald Laird, outfielder Johnny Damon and pitcher Jeremy Bonderman. They also traded pitcher Armando Galarraga to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two minor league pitching prospects. Notable offseason additions included catcher/DH Victor Martinez, relief pitcher Joaquín Benoit and starting pitcher Brad Penny.
On May 7, 2011, Justin Verlander took a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays into the 8th inning, and after a walk to J. P. Arencibia, Verlander got his double play and went on to the 9th inning to complete his 2nd career no-hitter. It was the 7th no-hitter in Tigers history. He faced the minimum 27 batters and recorded 4 strikeouts with 1 walk and a pitch count of 108. In his next start, Justin went 5 and 2/3 against the Kansas City Royals before surrendering his first hit, bringing his consecutive innings without a hit to a total of 15 2/3.
The Tigers sent five players to the 2011 All-Star Game. Catcher Alex Avila was voted in as a starter, while Justin Verlander, José Valverde and Miguel Cabrera were added as reserves. (Verlander was unavailable to play in the game due to the scheduling of his regular-season starts.) Shortstop Jhonny Peralta was later added to the All-Star team when the Yankees' Derek Jeter was unable to play due to injury.
On August 27, Justin Verlander defeated the Minnesota Twins, 6-4, to become the first Tiger since Bill Gullickson in 1991 to win 20 games in a season. Verlander also became the first major league pitcher since Curt Schilling in 2002 to reach 20 wins before the end of August.
In May, the Tigers were as many as eight games back of the first-place Cleveland Indians, but slowly pulled back to near-even by the All-Star break. As a three-way battle for the division title developed between the Tigers, Indians, and Chicago White Sox, the Tigers put together an 18-10 record in August to begin to pull away. After a loss on September 1, the Tigers reeled off a 12-game winning streak to put any thoughts of another late-season collapse to rest. The streak consisted of four consecutive three-game sweeps over their AL Central Division rivals. It was the Tigers longest winning streak since the 1934 team won 14 straight. On September 16, the Tigers clinched the AL Central Division title with a 3–1 win over the Oakland Athletics. It was their first AL Central title since joining the division in 1998, and first overall since 1987. The Tigers clinched the division with 11 games left to play, tying the franchise record set by the 1984 team.
Members of the 2011 Tigers won multiple statistical awards in 2011. Justin Verlander won the triple crown of pitching, leading the American League in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250). José Valverde was the AL saves leader with 49 (in 49 save opportunities). Miguel Cabrera won the AL batting title with a .344 average.
On October 6, the Tigers beat the New York Yankees 3–2 in Game 5 of the ALDS, winning the series 3–2. They advanced to the ALCS, which they lost to the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers, 4 games to 2.
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