Welcome to my All-Time Detroit Tigers by position series. I will start by nominating 5 outfielders as the all-time top 5 in the storied history of the Detroit Tigers baseball club. In the forthcoming articles, I will nominate 3 players from the other defensive positions, 5 starters, and 3 relievers.
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From a historical perspective, the outfield position for the Detroit Tigers has been dominated by generations of yester-year. A vast majority of current fans have only been around to witness 1 or 2 World Series titles by the Tigers, one in 1968 and the other in 1984. On the same note, we have only been able to personally witness a handful of players that would merit consideration of being among the top 5 outfielders in Detroit Tigers history. Read on to find out who made the cut and who just missed.
#1 – Ty Cobb (1905-1928 – last 2 years with Philadelphia) – “The Georgia Peach” was anything but a peach on and off the diamond. While playing semi-pro ball as a teenager in Tennessee Cobb drummed up fake publicity about his baseball skills and leaked them to the Atlanta Journal. It worked as he got noticed, signed with the Tigers, and quite simply became the greatest Tiger of all-time. Shortly before signing with Detroit, his mother was being suspected of cheating on her husband so the husband sneaked up to the bedroom window, thinking it was an intruder, Mrs. Cobb blew his head off with a shotgun. Maybe this helps explain some of the violent on field behavior that Cobb became famous for, including spiking helpless defenders on vicious slides into bases. Cobb was also an extreme racist off the field. Despite all of his personality faults, Cobb was often considered part of a 2-horse race for the best baseball player of his generation, along with Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner. Both Cobb and Wagner are conservatively considered among the best baseball players of any era. Cobb set 90 records during his playing career, several of which still stand today. His lifetime .367 batting average is still a major league best as are his 12 batting titles. Cobb hit over .300 in 23 consecutive seasons, a major league record that will never be broken. Ty holds the record for most career steals of home plate with 54. He is 3rd All-Time in stolen bases in MLB history behind Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock with 892, 2nd to Pete Rose in hits with 4,191, and 2nd to Rickey Henderson in runs with 2,245. Cobb leads all Tigers in at-bats (10,586), hits (3,902), batting average (.369), runs (2,087), doubles (664), triples (286), RBI’s (1,805), stolen bases (865), on base % (.424), and total bases (5,471). He is 2nd to Al Kaline in games played with 2,806. Cobb struck out just 329 times while with the Tigers. Perhaps the finest season of Cobb’s career was in 1911 when he hit .420 with 47 doubles, 24 triples, 8 homers, 147 runs, 127 RBI’s, and collected 248 hits and 83 stolen bases. In 1936, Cobb was voted to the inaugural Hall of Fame class.
#2 – Al Kaline (1953-1974) – “Mr. Tiger” played his entire 22-year career with the Detroit Tigers. He donned the Old English D more than any player in Tiger baseball history, suiting up for 2,834 games. Kaline was a key component of the 1968 World Series championship team. He finished his career with 3,007 hits (2nd all-time), 399 home runs (a Tiger record), 1,583 RBI’s (2nd all-time) and a lifetime .297 batting average. Teammates affectionately knew Kaline as “Six” in the clubhouse, a number that is now retired by the organization. Kaline came straight from high school baseball in Baltimore to the big leagues, having never played in the minor leagues. Kaline was known for having a rocket launcher right arm in right field. He led the league in outfield assists twice in his career (1956 and 1958). Kaline won 10 Gold Gloves, appeared in 15 All-Star games and was the AL MVP runner-up twice (1955, 1963). Legendary 3rd baseman Brooks Robinson had this to say about Kaline: “There have been a lot of great defensive players. The fella who could do everything is Al Kaline. He was just the epitome of what a great outfielder is all about – great speed, catches the ball and throws the ball well.” Six’s finest season may have been just his 2nd full season in the big leagues, 1955. In that amazing year, he hit .340, knocked out 27 homers, 24 doubles, 8 triples, 102 RBI’s, and scored 121 runs while collecting a career-high 200 hits. Kaline was voted to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, 1980. Kaline still serves the Detroit Tigers as a special assistant to GM Dave Dombrowski.
#3 – Harry Heilmann (1914, 1916-1929) – Harry “Slug” Heilmann wasn’t known for being a fleet of foot outfielder but he could flat out rake at the plate. Heilmann won 4 AL batting crowns with the Tigers (1921, ’23, ’25, and ’27). In 1923, Heilmann hit .403 for the season putting him in elite company. He and Ted Williams are the last 2 players to bat over .400 for a full season. Slug’s .342 career batting average is 2nd to Ty Cobb on Detroit’s all-time list. Heilmann was a prolific run producer as well, crushing 164 home runs, 497 doubles, 145 triples, and driving in 1,442 runs in his Tigers career. Heilmann’s .518 slugging % is 2nd only to Hank Greenberg on Detroit’s all-time list while his 2,499 hits rank 4th. In 1916, Slug’s overall most productive season was probably 1921 when he hit .394, with 19 homers, 43 doubles, 14 triples, 139 RBI’s, 114 runs, and 237 hits. Heilmann saved a woman’s life as she was drowning in the Detroit River. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1952.
#4 – Sam Crawford – (1903-1917 – first 4 seasons with the Reds) – “Wahoo Sam” is the major league’s all-time leader in career triples with 309. 249 of those came while with the Tigers, which ranks 2nd to Ty Cobb on the Tigers’ list. The powerful lefty also holds the MLB record for most inside-the-park homers in a career with 51. He was considered one of the top power hitters of the dead-ball era. Using what is known as the “Gray Ink Test”, which awards points based on how often an offensive player is among the league-leaders in hitting categories, Crawford is considered the 9th best hitter in MLB history ahead of Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and more. Crawford batted .309 in his Tigers career, which included 1,115 runs (8th most for a Tiger) and 1,264 RBI’s (5th). He also stole 317 bases (3rd). Piggybacking Ty Cobb’s amazing 1911 season, Crawford also did his finest work that year posting a .378 average that included 36 doubles, 14 triples, 7 homers, 109 runs, 115 RBI’s, 217 hits, and 37 steals. Wahoo Sam was elected to the MLB Hall of Fame in 1957.
#5 – Bobby Veach (1912-1925 – first 11 seasons with the Tigers) – Veach was the 3rd member (Cobb and Crawford) of what baseball historian Bill James considers the best outfield of All-Time. James also ranks Veach as the 33rd best left fielder of all-time. For the Tigers, he hit .311 over 11 impressive seasons with 1,859 hits, which included 345 doubles and 136 triples. On August 9th, 1925, Veach earned the distinction of being the only player in history to pinch hit for Babe Ruth. In 1915, 1917, and 1918, Veach led the AL in RBI’s. Baseball historian Robert Creamer remembers Veach as, “surely one of the least remembered truly fine hitters”. Veach’s best statistical season came in 1921 when he hit .338 with 43 doubles, 13 triples, 16 homers, 128 RBI’s, 110 runs, and 207 hits.
Bob Fothergill (1922-1933, played for Tigers first 9 years) – “Fats” Fothergill had a nice 9-year run with the Tigers. He was given his nickname due to his less than flattering physique (5’11’’, 250’ish pounds), but that didn’t stop him from posting the 3rd highest career batting average as a Tiger by hitting .337 during his tenure in Detroit. Fothergill’s career year came in 1927 when he hit .359 with 9 homers, 38 doubles, 9 triples, 114 RBI’s, and 93 runs with a .401 on-base %. Fats finished in the top 10 in slugging % four straight years (’26-’29). Fothergill died of a stroke at the age of 40.
Willie Horton (1963-1980, played for Tigers first 14 years) – stats with Tigers: .276 avg., 262 homers (ranks 4th), 886 RBI’s (12th), .472 slugging % (19th). Hotron hit a career high 36 homers in the ’68 championship year. Willie was named to 4 All-Star games while with the Tigers (’65, ’68, ’70, and ’73). His #23 is one of six numbers retired in the history of Tiger baseball.
Jim Northrup (1964-1975, first 11 years with Tigers) – Northrup had a fine career for the Tigers. The “Gray Fox” had a career high 90 RBI’s in the Tigers ’68 World Series season. Just one year later, he set a career best with 25 home runs. Northrup ranks 18th on the Tigers all-time home run list with 145 while his 204 doubles rank 23rd. In 1968, Northrup hit an incredible 5 grand slams including three in just one week and 2 in consecutive at-bats.
Kirk Gibson (1979-1995, first 9 years with Tigers, came back ‘93-’95 to retire a Tiger) – stats with Tigers: .273 avg., 195 homers (10th), 194 steals (6th). Gibby’s career year was 1985 when he hit .287 with 29 homers, 97 RBI’s, 96 runs, and 30 steals. The best game of his career was when he hit 2 home runs in the series clinching game 5 of the 1984 World Series against the Padres, including a dramatic upper tank blast off of Padres closer Goose Gossage to put the game and series out of reach. Gibson won the 1984 ALCS MVP award.
Bob Higginson (1995-2005) – .272 lifetime hitter, 187 homers (12th), 270 doubles (10th). Higgy led the majors in outfield assists twice. His career year was 2000 when he hit .300 with 30 homers, 44 doubles, 102 RBI’s, 104 runs, and 15 steals, with a .538 slugging %.
Magglio Ordonez (1997-2011, with Tigers from 2005-2010) – stats with Tigers: .318 avg. (8th all-time), 102 homers, 501 RBI’s, .492 slugging %. His career year was 2007 when he won the batting title with a .363 average while hitting 28 homers, driving in 139 runs, and scoring 117 runs. He also drove in 104 runs in the Tigers AL pennant year of 2006. Maggs was an American League All-Star in ’06 and ’07 and won a Silver Slugger award in ’07.
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