Detroit Tigers: Greatest All Time Team

Detroit Tigers (1901-Present)

American League (1901-Present)

American League Champion: 1907, 1908, 1909, 1934, 1935, 1940, 1945, 1968, 1984, 2006, 2012

World Series Champion: 1935, 1945, 1968, 1984

Began as a minor league club in the Western League in 1894, the Detroit Tigers are the only Western League Franchise that still exists in the town it originally represented when Ban Johnson created the American League from the remnants of the Western League in 1901.

The Tigers were not, however, the first Major League franchise to represent Detroit. That honor goes to the Detroit Wolverines. The Wolverines began play in the National League in 1881, and while not the worst team in the league, never contended for a championship until 1886. That was when new team owner Frederick Stearns began spending money liberally attempting to create the best team in baseball. He successfully lured, what was then known as the “Big Four”, catcher Deacon White, first baseman Dan Brouthers, second baseman Hardy Richardson, and shortstop Jack Rowe (White and Brouthers are now in the Hall of Fame), to Detroit.

The ploy paid immediate dividends as the Wolverines improved to 87-36 in 1886 and a second place finish. Stearns gambit came to full fruition in 1887 when they captured the National League Championship, then defeated the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in the end of season World Championship Series 10 games to 5. The spending habits of Stearns came home to roost soon after. The Wolverines fell to 4th place in 1888 and could no longer meet their payroll. He was forced to sell off his best players, and the club was disbanded after the 1888 season.

Major League Baseball would not return until 1901, with the Tigers in the American League. Detroit’s fortunes in the American League took a dramatic turn for the better with the signing of two superstar outfielders in the mid 1900s. First they signed Sam Crawford away from the National League’s Cincinnati Reds in 1903, and then purchased the contract of a teenage sensation from Georgia named Ty Cobb. With Cobb and Crawford in the outfield for the next 13 years Detroit became one of the best teams in baseball. They won three straight American League Pennants between 1907 and 1909, but lost the World Series all three years.

Ty Cobb (far left) was signed as a teenager and Sam Crawford (far right) was poached from the Reds. With Bobby Veach (center) they created a dominating Detroit Tigers team.

They would not return to the World Series until the signing of Mickey Cochrane in 1934, participating two years in a row, winning their first World Series Title in 1935. They remained one of the better teams in the league through the 1980s, but have never again won back to back American League Pennants.

The Tigers eight player line up described below is one of the best of all the franchises. Every member of their All-time team are in the Hall of Fame, except catcher and third base. The third baseman is still active, and unless something comes out about drugs or gambling, will certainly be a first ballot selection. The catcher we chose probably should already be in, but if we had gone with Mickey Cochrane instead that would give Detroit one of the three greatest catchers of all time. A very stable franchise in a city that has deep affection for their baseball heroes.

Catcher

When the Tigers purchased Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (1934-1937) from the Philadelphia Athletics after the 1933 season they knew exactly what they were getting, which was the most respected player in baseball. In 1934 Lou Gehrig won the Triple Crown in the American League, but he did not win the American League MVP; Mickey Cochrane did. The Tigers won the American League Pennant in 1934 and then the pennant and World Series in 1935. Cochrane was their catcher and manager both years. It ended suddenly for Cochrane on May 25, 1937. After he homered off Yankee Pitcher Bump Hadley, Hadley beaned him in the head in Mickey’s next at bat. For seven days Cochrane was in the hospital, fighting for his life. He eventually recovered, but doctors warned him that another blow to the head could be fatal. He attempted a comeback, but the Tiger’s ownership wisely said no, so his career was over. He was only 34 years old. That all being said, Cochrane was not there long enough to be the greatest catcher in Tiger history. That honor goes to Bill Freehan (1961-1976). Freehan’s peak value did not approach “Black Mike’s”, but he was Detroit’s regular backstop for 13 years, 11 as an All-Star. Winning four Gold Gloves, while also finishing in the top seven in the MVP vote three times, with a high of second in Detroit’s 1968 World Championship Season. A gold Glove fielder and a good hitter, he’s a deserving choice over Cochrane and Lance Parrish (1977-1986).

First Base

The choice at first base depends on where we put Miguel Cabrera (2008-Present). Cabrera has played over 1,100 games at first base, but also nearly 700 at third base. The Tiger’s have two outstanding other candidates at first, and no other candidates at third, so we’ll move Cabrera to third. Norm Cash (1960-1974) was a very underrated player. Lots of walks with good power. He had a monster year in 1961, 41 home runs, 132 RBI, and a League leading .361 batting average, but that season was out of context with the rest of his career. Our choice is Hank Greenberg (1930-1946). From 1934 to 1941 Greenberg won two MVP Awards for Detroit, and also finished in the top six in the voting three other times. The Tigers won the American League in 1934, 1935, and 1940. On May 7th, 1941 he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was honorably discharged on December 5th, 1941. He was 30 years old at the time. He re-enlisted in February, 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, joining the Army Air Corps. He participated in the China-Burma-India Theater. He would eventually serve 47 months, the longest of any Major League player. Returning to the Tigers for the second half of the 1945 season, Detroit immediately surged to another World Series Title. A great player, who’s career numbers were depressed because he sacrificed four seasons to serve his country. The Hall of Fame called in 1956, but he’s largely forgotten today. That’s a shame on the sports media. A final note on Greenberg. From 1934 to 1940 (except 1936 when he played only 12 games due to an injury) Greenberg’s triple crown averages were; 42 Home Runs, 150 RBI, and a .329 batting average. His first full year back after the war, 1946, he had 44 HR, 127 RBI and hit .277. He was 35 years old.  He concluded his career with 331 HR, 1,274 RBI and a .313 batting average. Let’s do the math, if he averaged 40 home runs a year for his 4+ missed seasons, that gives him 491 home runs. How about 130 RBI a season (20 less than his six year average) that gives him 2,054 RBI and a batting average around .325. Just for comparison, Lou Gehrig’s career triple crown numbers were; 493 HR, 1,995 RBI, and a .340 batting average. Another thing to think about when you’re evaluating Hank Greenberg.

Second Base

Lou Whitaker (1977-1992) should be in the Hall of Fame. That being said, he is not even close to being the pick at second base. Charlie Gehringer (1924-1942) is. Eight times he finished in the top ten for American League MVP, including his win in 1937. Among the greatest second basemen of all time.

Third Base

As we pointed out earlier, Miguel Cabrera’s (2008-Present) has played more games at first base in his career than third base, but in his two MVP seasons with the Tigers he played 154 and 145 games at third. Offensively those two seasons are equal to any other third baseman in history. In 2012 he led the league in home runs (44) RBI (139) batting average (.330) slugging (.606) and total bases (377). 2013 was even better with 44 HR, 137 RBI, .348 BA, .636 SA, and 353 total bases. He was not a good fielder, but you can give up some defense for that kind of offensive production.

Shortstop

Alan Trammell (1977-1996) is the only candidate.

Left Field

The Detroit outfield picks are fairly simple, with the only debate being which one of the four Hall of Fame members do we leave out. Cobb in center is obvious. The choice comes down to the two Hall of Famers who shared the outfield with Ty Cobb, “Wahoo” Sam Crawford (1903-1917) and Harry Heilman (1914-1929), plus Al Kaline (1953-1974). While interesting it’s not very difficult. As good as Heilman was, Crawford and Kaline were better players. They just were.

Center Field:

Ty Cobb (1905-1926)

Right Field

Al Kaline (1953-1974) and Sam Crawford are basically even.The evidence indicates that Kaline was better with the glove, so we’ll leave Kaline in right and move “Wahoo” Sam to left.

Pitchers

Rating the Tiger’s pitcher raises a unique problem. Statistically the two best pitchers are Hal Newhouser (1939-1953) and Paul “Dizzy” Trout (1939-1952). Newhouser won back to back American League MVP Awards in 1944 and 1945. 1945 also saw him win the pitching triple crown with a 25-9 won-lost record, an ERA of 1.81 and 212 strikeouts. Those were two of his four 20 win seasons for the Tigers. Trout’s numbers aren’t that good, but he did win 20 games in 1943, 27 games in 1944, and then 18 when he and Newhouser led the Tigers to a World Series Championship in 1945. You’ve probably already figured out the dilemma, 1943-1945 were the war years, when most of the real players were not in the League. How much should we discount their achievements? For both it’s significant, but it harms Trout more than Newhouser. All of Trout’s big years were during the war. Newhouser went 26-9, 17-17, 21-12 and then 18-11 in 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949 when the real ballplayers returned, confirming that he was a quality pitcher. Trout’s best season outside the war years was 17-13 in 1946. In fact, if you take out 1943-1945 from his career he has a losing record. So Hal Newhouser (1939-1953) stays #1 and we’ll elevate George Mullin (1902-1913) to #2. Mullin was the ace of the Tiger staff when they won three straight American League Pennants in 1907, 1908 and 1909, winning 63 games during those three years. Mickey Lolich (1963-1975) is #3, a mainstay on the Detroit staff for 12 years and the unexpected hero of the 1968 World Series. The #4 spot is a battle between Tommy Bridges (1930-1946), Justin Verlander (2005-2017), Jack Morris (1977-1990) and the previously mentioned Dizzy Trout. Bridges was the ace of the 1934 and 1935 American League Champions, winning two games, including the decisive Game 6, in 1935 when the Tigers won the World Series over the Chicago Cubs. Trout we’ve already discussed. Justin Verlander (2005-2017) won a Cy Young and MVP Award in 2011 when Detroit won the American League. Jack Morris (1977-1990) was never the best pitcher in baseball, but was a consistent staff anchor for ten years, earning his plaque in Cooperstown. Ultimately it comes down to innings pitched, when they played and the Designated Hitter rule. The lack of competition in his era seems to eliminate Trout. Verlander threw the fewest amount of innings of the four for the Tigers and contributed zero on offense due to the DH rule. Morris threw more innings than Bridges (3042-2826) and won more games in a Tiger uniform (209-194), but also had zero offensive value. It’s very close between the four, but we’ll go with 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, Jack Morris (1977-1990).

Manager

Hughie Jennings (1907-1920), of Baltimore Oriole fame, managed Detroit during the Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford days. He won three straight American League Pennants and had an overall record of  1,131-972 (.538), the second most wins for a Tiger Manager. George “Sparky” Anderson (1979-1996) followed his success in Cincinnati with a 17 year reign in Detroit. His team did win a World Championship in 1984, but the rest of his time there was rather mediocre. His teams did win 1,331 games for Sparky, which is the most for any Tiger Manager, but they also lost 1,248 (a .516 winning percentage), which is also the record. This leads to the conclusion that the best manager in team history was Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane (1934-1938). He only managed Detroit for 598 games, but had a record of 348-250 (.582) during his injury riddled five years. His Tigers won the American League Pennant his first year in charge and then won their first World Series Title the next. The Bump Hadley beaning ended his playing career, and eventually put an early end to his managerial career also.

MVP

The selection of Ty Cobb as the greatest Detroit Tiger of all time is indisputable. The question is whether Cobb is the greatest baseball player of all time. Doing a thumbnail study on the subject, we’ll compare him with three other players who overlapped his career, and also joined Cobb as four of the five initial inductees to the Hall Of Fame, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Babe Ruth. Johnson was a pitcher, so that’s tough to make a fair comparison, Wagner a shortstop, and Ruth a pitcher then a right fielder. All three are in the discussion for greatest of all time. Not going deep into the weeds, we’ll use just one rating system, Bill James’ Win Shares.

                              Best 3 Years Best 5 Years        Best 10 Years

Honus Wagner              150 237                       421

Walter Johnson             143 220                      390

Ty Cobb                        143 228                   407

Babe Ruth                     159 249                   467

We think James’ system is very good, but we do think that it tends to undervalue Pitchers and Catchers. Keep that into account when you look at the numbers for Johnson.

As you can see, except for Ruth, Cobb is in the discussion. In our list published in our Honus Wagner Article, we have Ruth 1st, Wagner 2nd, Johnson 4th, and Cobb 8th.

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