Genuine fans take the best team moments with the less than great, and know that the games that are best forgotten make the good moments truly shine. This monumental book of the Detroit Tigers documents all the best moments and personalities in the history of the team, but also unmasks the regrettably awful and the unflinchingly ugly. In entertaining—and unsparing—fashion, this book sparkles with Tigers highlights and lowlights, from wonderful and wacky memories to the famous and infamous. Such moments include the impressive run to the World Series in 2006 and the clutch hitting of Kirk Gibson in 1984, as well as the horrendous years when the Tigers were in the cellar of their division and the particularly disastrous 2003 season. Whether providing fond memories, goose bumps, or laughs, this portrait of the team is sure to appeal to the fan who has been through it all.
About the Author
George Cantor is a retired sportswriter who has been a journalist for the Detroit Free Press and a columnist for the Detroit News. He has written numerous books, including several on Detroit sports, and teaches sportswriting at Oakland University. He lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Willie Horton is a retired professional leftfielder and designated hitter in Major League Baseball, who primarily played with the Detroit Tigers. He made the American League All-Star team four times and won the World Series. In 2000, his number was retired in Comerica Park, where there is also a statue of him, and in 2004 the State of Michigan created “Willie Horton Day” to honor him on October 18, his birthday. He now works as a special assistant with the Tigers. He lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Detroit Tigers
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Detroit Tigers History
By George Cantor
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 George Cantor
All rights reserved.
FOUR UNFORGETTABLE HITS (1935, 1945, 1968, 1984)
The Tigers have won four world championships. Strangely enough, when you add up the four big hits that sealed those deals, they reveal a cycle. Not only a cycle, but a progressive cycle.
A single in 1935. A double in 1945. A triple in 1968. A home run in 1984.
Goose Goslin. Paul Richards. Jim Northrup. Kirk Gibson. They got the four hits to remember, and what they did will never be forgotten in Detroit.
Goose's Single: 1935
When Goslin walked to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 6, the Tigers had endured decades of World Series frustration. They had lost all four times they made it there. In fact, just three other big-league teams — the lowly St. Louis Browns, the horrible Philadelphia Phillies, and the slaphappy Brooklyn Dodgers — had failed to win a championship by 1935.
It had been particularly galling the previous year. Detroit had taken a 3–2 lead back to Navin Field against the Cardinals, only to lose the final two. Now they were up 3–2 again, this time against the Cubs, and the score was tied 3–3.
Bottom of the ninth. A restless stirring within the crowd. So many had waited so long for something to cheer about in this Depression year. The Cubs had come dangerously close to breaking it open in the top half of the inning. Stan Hack led off with a triple. But Tommy Bridges, a man with a curveball for every occasion, managed to get the last three hitters in the Chicago batting order, and Hack stayed put.
Cubs manager Charlie Grimm allowed his pitcher, Larry French, to bat with one out. His staff was worn out, and Grimm had said before the game that he had no one to bring in after French. Bridges got him on a bouncer back to the mound, then retired Augie Galan, and the threat was over.
But there was a sense of urgency in the Detroit dugout. Their big slugger, Hank Greenberg, was down with an injury, and memories of the previous year were all too fresh. The Tigers needed to end it now.
Manager Mickey Cochrane started it off with a one-out single. Then Charlie Gehringer smashed a wicked drive down the firstbase line. It looked like a sure double that could score Cochrane with the game-winning run. But first baseman Phil Cavarretta made a sensational stab for the ball and stepped on first for the out. Cochrane could only advance to second.
Now it was Goslin's turn. This was his fifth Series, the most of any Tiger. He was nine days short of his 35 birthday, nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career. He had been acquired from the financially strapped Washington Senators before the 1934 season, and while his average had tailed off to .292 that year, he had still knocked in 109 runs. There was one more on the pond to pick up.
"I said to the plate umpire, 'If they pitch that ball over the plate, you can take that monkey suit off,'" said Goose. "And sure enough, the first ball French threw in there ... zoom. Lucky hit. That's all that it was. Just a looper into right field. But you've got to be lucky to get up to bat at just the right time.
"Oh, did those Tigers fans go wild. I'll never forget it. You know, I played for three teams in my 18 years in the majors and I was with the Tigers for just four of them. But the best baseball town I ever played in was Detroit."
Richards's Double: 1945
Some baseball historians call the 1945 Series the worst ever played, which isn't altogether fair. World War II had been over for two months when the Series began, and people were eager for the return of good times. Normal times. But 4-Fs still dotted the rosters of the Tigers and the Cubs. Even the return of Greenberg, a bona fide superstar, couldn't change the fans' perception that they were watching a bogus Series.
The feeling was heightened when Detroit's Chuck Hostetler fell down rounding third with what would have been the winning run in Game 6. Instead, the Cubs pulled it out in 12 innings and forced a seventh game, to be played at Wrigley Field.
Just as in 1935, though, their manager, Grimm, had an exhausted pitching staff. His most effective starter was Hank Borowy. He had shut out the Tigers in Game 1 and then threw four innings of relief to stop them again in Game 6.
In an incredible gamble, Grimm decided to start Borowy again on one day's rest in the deciding game. Moreover, his opponent was Hal Newhouser, a 25-game winner and the American League MVP for the second straight year.
The Cubs had hammered Newhouser in Game 1, though, and hit him pretty well in a Game 5 loss. Grimm felt they could get to him again if Borowy just held off the Tigers for a while.
But Borowy's tank was empty. Three straight singles drove him from the game in the first inning and brought on Paul Derringer. He had beaten the Tigers in Game 7 in Cincinnati in 1940 and he got two quick outs now, but then forced in another run with a walk. Now it was 2–0. Next to the plate was Paul Richards, a weak-hitting catcher who had gone just two-for-15 in the Series. If they could get him out, the inning would be over — and the Cubs would still have a chance.
Richards may have been the paradigmatic wartime ballplayer. He was almost 37 years old and had spent seven straight years in the minors before the Tigers bought his contract in 1943. The intention was to make him Newhouser's valet.
Newhouser had been a big disappointment. A starter as an 18-year-old rookie, he had seemed to be regressing every year since. Tigers management was convinced the problems were in his head, and that a wise old soul like Richards behind the plate could straighten him out.
The plan worked to perfection. By 1945 Newhouser was the best pitcher in baseball, and Richards replaced regular catcher Bob Swift every time Newhouser started. A career .227 hitter, Richards now found himself at the plate at the most critical moment of the Series.
His future teammate, George Kell, said of Richards, "He wakes up every morning, looks in the mirror, and says, 'I'm Paul Richards and I'm tough.'" It was that attitude that came to the fore now. He drove Derringer's offering into the left-field corner for a three-run double. The Tigers had handed Newhouser a five-run lead and that was more than enough as Detroit cruised home, 9–3.
Richards played one more season in Detroit before embarking on a career with the White Sox and the Orioles that established his reputation as the most cerebral manager of his time. But he never again made it to the Series.
Northrup's Triple: 1968
By the seventh inning, the tension at Busch Stadium was unbearable. This was supposed to be a St. Louis walkover. Even after the Tigers had come back from a 3–1 deficit to force a seventh game, they still had to get past Bob Gibson to win it. And he, quite simply, was unbeatable.
He had been the hero of the Cards' Series wins in 1964 and 1967 and had handled the Tigers easily in two previous starts this time around. But now he was hooked up in a 0–0 duel with Mickey Lolich, and as the innings passed, Lolich seemed to be getting stronger.
Lolich had pulled out of big trouble by picking off two of the best St. Louis base runners, Lou Brock and Curt Flood, in the sixth. But Detroit couldn't muster anything even resembling a threat and had a total of only one hit going into the seventh.
When Norm Cash singled with two outs, it seemed harmless enough. Then Willie Horton grounded a single through the left side. Now it was Jim Northrup's turn.
The slender outfielder, in his third season as a starter, had been a top prospect in the Tigers farm system after an outstanding athletic career at Alma College in Michigan. This had been his most productive year, with 90 RBIs. Sixteen of them had come on just four swings of the bat.
Northrup had launched four grand-slam homers, including two in one game, and then added a fifth in Game 6 of the Series. Veteran play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell had taken to referring to him as "the Slammer Himself."
Gibson went right after him, anxious to snuff out this little threat quickly and get his team back at bat. Northrup's response was a dart to dead center, where Flood, one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, waited. But he took one step in, and when he tried to pivot back, his footing slipped on turf sloppy from rain and a recent football game. The ball landed behind him, Northrup raced to third, the Tigers had a 2–0 lead, and with it the Series.
"Even if he broke back right away, no way does he catch that ball," Northrup always insisted.
Horton expressed it even better, saying, "I touched the plate, looked up, and I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer coming over the left-field roof."
The Tigers had their biggest Series upset ever.
Gibson's Homer: 1984
The news photograph hung in Michigan homes for years. Here was Kirk Gibson, uniform pants filthy and torn, arms upraised in a bellow of triumph, returning to the dugout after his three-run homer put away San Diego for keeps.
The Padres were huge underdogs in this Series, but they were pesky. Their starters couldn't get past the third inning in four of the five games, their slugging left fielder Kevin McReynolds was injured. But still they kept hanging around.
The Tigers were up three games to one, but if they lost this one, the Series would return to California, and the Padres had whipped the Cubs three-straight there in the playoffs. So there was a strong sense that it must be finished now.
Game 5 fit the pattern. Mark Thurmond was routed in the first inning, but Detroit lost a 3–0 lead. As the Tigers came to bat in the eighth, they were clinging to a 5–4 advantage.
On the mound was an old nemesis, Goose Gossage, who had toyed with the Tigers when he was the top reliever with the Yankees. He had lost a little off his fastball at age 33, but it was still good enough to close for the National League champs.
The first two hitters reached base in the eighth and were sacrificed to second and third. That brought Gibson to bat, with Lance Parrish on deck. The obvious play was an intentional pass, hoping Parrish would then hit something on the ground. That's what manager Dick Williams called, but to his astonishment Gossage waved him off. Williams trotted out to the mound to make sure he and Gossage understood each other.
Gibson watched and prepared himself.
"He [Gossage] had just abused me in the past," said Gibson. "I knew what he was thinking. What he didn't realize, though, was that he had just given me the challenge I needed."
Gibson was a superstar athlete, an All-American receiver at Michigan State who could have been an NFL standout. Instead, he chose baseball and was touted as a player "who had a chance to be the next Mickey Mantle."
But it wasn't happening, and in 1983 his performance had been so bad (a .227 average and just 15 homers) that he went to Seattle after the season to clear his head. He came back as a force, the team's top run-producer and its emotional leader. Now the promise had met the moment.
Gossage's second pitch was sent on a line into the right-field upper deck. The Tigers' lead was now 8–4, and everyone knew it was over. The ninth was only a formality.
It was the last Series game ever played at Michigan and Trumbull and gave the old ballpark one of its most indelible memories.
MAGGLIO THE MAGNIFICENT (2006)
It was an incredible capper to an impossible year. The Tigers jumped and howled at the plate in Comerica Park as Magglio Ordonez circled the bases on a chilly October night, running toward home.
The doormats of the American League had won the playoffs and were going to the World Series. Had anyone at that ballpark said he knew that was going to happen when the 2006 season began, you'd have strapped him up and taken out the polygraph. Delirious doesn't even begin to describe the feeling.
It was richly symbolic that the three-run homer that finished the playoff sweep of Oakland was hit by Ordonez. After exploring new depths of awfulness in 2003, the Tigers had picked up three high-profile free agents in the long struggle back to respectability.
First there was catcher Pudge Rodriguez. This year it had been left-handed starter Kenny Rogers. In between was Ordonez, cut loose by the White Sox after a debilitating leg injury. He had been one of the top sluggers in the league for several seasons, but Chicago figured he was past his prime. Then the Sox turned around and won the World Series without him in 2005.
"That was the most painful experience I ever had, watching that on TV," he said afterward. "I made up my mind that I had to use it as motivation."
Ordonez was still hampered by his injury in his first year in Detroit. The power stroke wasn't there. But in 2006 he held down the cleanup spot, and while it was apparent that he wasn't entirely back to normal, it was still good enough for 104 RBIs and 24 homers.
Rogers had already paid off big, winning 17 games during the season, stabilizing the pitching staff, and shutting out the Yankees and Oakland in his playoff starts. The game with New York, before the loudest, most jubilant crowd in Comerica history, set the tone for the postseason celebration.
The Tigers took care of the A's twice in Oakland and went up 3–0 once the Series returned to Detroit. But there was still one to go, and the Yankees had demonstrated in 2004 how very wrong things could turn for a team with that lead.
Oakland went ahead 3–0 in this game, and even when the Tigers came back to tie it, there was still room for painful doubt. So much had gone wrong in the recent past. No one could be sure until the coffin lid slammed down hard on the A's.
The first two Tigers went down in the ninth. Then Craig Monroe and Placido Polanco laced out singles against reliever Huston Street. Ordonez's ensuing blast went deep into the left-field seats, gone from the get-go. As radio announcer Dan Dickerson hollered, "The Tigers are going to the World Series!" the city erupted in an outburst of joyful disbelief.
Even their subsequent five-game loss to the Cards in the World Series couldn't dampen the sheer exhilaration of that moment.
WHAM! HERE I AM (1965, 1976)
Two of the most explosive arrivals to the Tigers were Willie Horton and Mark Fidrych. When they made their opening statements, there was little doubt that Detroit fans were seeing the introductions of two stars.
Horton came first in 1965. The entire city had been waiting for him. He was one of the biggest signings of the decade, a star on the Detroit sandlots. He had made appearances in 40 games with the team the previous two years, just enough to tease everyone with the potential of what could be.
Although he hit just .220 with two homers in these brief trials, it was enough for the Tigers to clear the way by trading left fielder Rocky Colavito. That saddened Horton.
"My first time up with the team I went up to Rock and told him how much I admired him when I was growing up," said Horton. "He thanked me and said that he was going to be traded because of me. He wasn't mad or anything, it was just the way things were. Still, it gave you a funny feeling."
Horton was given the starting job in 1965 and suffered through a lackluster April. But then the calendar turned, and what happened next has gone down in Tigers lore as the "Seven Games in May."
Between the 11th and 18th of that month, Horton utterly destroyed the Washington and Boston pitching staffs. He went off on a tear that included six home runs, 18 RBIs, a batting average of .588, and a slugging percentage of 1.235.
The outburst launched the Tigers on a run that had them in the pennant race until August. Just as important, it gave a preview of things to come. Horton finished the season with 29 homers and 104 RBIs and was installed as Detroit's cleanup man for the next 11 years.
Move the calendar ahead to May 1976. Horton was now 33 years old and in his last full season with the team. Then along came Fidrych.
It was obvious this team wasn't going anywhere. The veterans who had won a championship in 1968 and a division title in 1972 were either gone or going. The Tigers had lost 102 games the previous year and weren't supposed to do much better this time around.
On May 15, a 21-year-old, gangly, frizzy-haired right-hander was called up from the minors. He was handed the ball to start against Cleveland, and when the ball was placed in his hand, he talked to it. He got on his hands and knees and landscaped the mound. He went over and bucked up his teammates if they made an error. He looked like Big Bird on Sesame Street. So the legend of "Mark the Bird" was born.
He beat the Indians on a two-hitter that day, 2–1, before a tiny Saturday afternoon crowd. He didn't win his second until two weeks later when he went all 11 innings to beat Milwaukee. Then he did the same thing at Texas.
Now the crowds were starting to build. Not only was Fidrych pitching strong, complete games, but the team seemed inspired, winning behind him with last-ditch rallies in the ninth or in extra innings.
By the time the Yankees came to town in late June for a nationally televised Monday night game, the Bird was 7–1, and Detroit was in a frenzy. With a crowd of 48,000 on its feet and yelling "Go, Bird, Go," Fidrych stifled the Yankees (who would win the pennant that year) 5–1. He was now a true American idol.
Cakes arrived in the clubhouse with the phone numbers of lady admirers attached. He was mobbed by autograph seekers on the streets. The man who had arrived almost anonymously in Detroit just six weeks before was now the prince of the city.
Excerpted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Detroit Tigers by George Cantor. Copyright © 2008 George Cantor. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
In the Clutch,
Numbers Don't Lie (Or Do They?),
It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over,
Wheelin' and Dealin',
A Touch of Violence,
Just Plain Weird,