All-Time Detroit Tiger Outfield

I will begin my All-Tiger Team with what seems to be the easiest area to fill – the outfield.  Detroit has had some legendary players in its outfield throughout their history.  This includes several Hall of Fame players.  That being said, it is more difficult than it would seem to fill an outfield with the “best” Detroit Tiger players.  There is actually a glut of great players for this position, making it a challenge to narrow it down to just 6.  None the less I feel I was able to do it with minimal controversy based on the criteria I gave in the preface, although I am sure people will disagree with at least one of my picks.

The first player I placed on the All-Tiger team is Ty Cobb (L, R).  Cobb may not only be the most gifted, skilled, and accomplished Tiger to ever play; he may also be the most gifted, skilled, and accomplished baseball player to ever play.  All conversations about the greatest hitters who ever swung a bat begin with Ty Cobb, thanks to his .367 career batting average (highest career average in baseball history) and 4,191 hits (only surpassed by Pete Rose in 1985).  He also retired with 724 doubles (4th all-time) and 297 triples (2nd all-time).  His 892 career stolen bases were a record for 50 years, when this was broken by Lou Brock, and later Rickey Henderson.  It now stands as the 3rd highest total in baseball history.  More impressive are the 11 batting titles Cobb won (some historians still argue he had 12), and the 23 consecutive years in which he batted .300 or better.  In three separate seasons he batted .400, with his highest average in 1911 – .420.  He was also the first Tiger to win a Triple Crown in 1909, when he batted .377 with 9 home runs (all of which were in the park, which is very impressive), and 107 RBI.  He also led the league that year with 76 stolen bases (the only Triple Crown winner to accomplish this additional feat of productivity).  Cobb’s heroics helped get Detroit in the World Series each year from 1907 to 1909, but they could not overcome the National League champion in any of those years.   Here is how Cobb’s best seasons look (and note that I left off a season in which he batted .400):

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SBs

Notes

1911

.420

8

127

248

147

47

24

83

MVP

1912

.409

7

83

226

120

30

23

61

1921

.389

12

101

197

124

37

16

22

1909

.377

9

107

216

116

33

10

76

Triple Crown

Prime

.399

9

105

222

127

37

18

61

Second on the list is another legendary outfielder, who always gets brought into the conversation of greatest all-around players the game has known.  That player is Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline (R, R).  Kaline has been a mainstay in the Tiger organization since he began playing at the age of 18, in 1953, when he was one of the great “bonus babies” of the era.  Since retiring from play, he has done advising in the organization, coaching in spring training, and color commentary for TV broadcasts of Tiger games from 1975 to 2002.  It is said that no other person has done more for the Detroit Tigers than Al Kaline.  His gentlemanly personality sits in direct contrast Ty Cobb, who developed rivalries with his own teammates, not to speak of the bitterness he had toward the opposition.  These two are like yin and yang.  No other Detroit Tiger player is as beloved as Al Kaline, though.

“Six,” as he was called because of the number he wore, retired in 1974 with 3,007 hits, a .297 career average, and 399 home runs (most in team history).  He became the youngest player to win a batting title when he hit .340 in 1955, at the age of 20.  He made 18 All Star Teams, and won 10 Gold Glove awards.  He hit 25 or more home runs in seven different seasons, although he never hit 30 in any season.  He also batted .300 nine times during his career.  He had good speed to chase down fly balls in right field, and possessed a cannon for an arm, twice leading the American League in outfield assists (until runners caught on and quit trying for extra bases).  In his only World Series appearance, in 1968, Kaline hit .379 with 2 home runs and 8 RBI, including a very clutch hit with the bases loaded in the 7th inning of game 5.  The hit gave Detroit a 4-3 lead (they would win the game 5-3), which forced a game 6.  Eventually the Tigers won both game 6 and 7, claiming their first World Series title since 1945.

As for his four best seasons, these were both easy and hard to choose, because Kaline was so consistent many of his best seasons are hard to differentiate from his other seasons.  Either way, here are his prime numbers:

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

BB

Notes

1955

.340

27

102

200

121

24

8

82

MVP Runner-up, AS

1956

.314

27

128

194

96

32

10

70

AS

1959

.327

27

94

167

86

19

2

72

GG,AS

1963

.312

27

101

172

89

24

3

54

MVP Runner-up, GG, AS

Prime

.323

27

106

183

98

25

6

70

Next on the list is a player who gets obscured by the likes of Ty Cobb.  In fact, this player was a protégé of Cobb, but also flies under the radar a bit because he never played on a pennant winner (his rise was at the same time as the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig led New York Yankees of the 1920s).  Still, Harry Heilmann (R, R) is a Baseball Hall of Famer, and possesses the 12th highest career batting average in big league history at .342.  This average is also the second highest career batting average for a right handed hitter, with Rogers Hornsby’s .358 being first.  Ted Williams ranked Heilmann in his top 5 right handed hitters of all time in 1994, and named him the 17th best hitter, period.  The third outfielder on this team had the appropriate nickname of “Slug,” due to his slowness around the base paths, as well as his incredible hitting ability.
Heilmann won batting titles in 1921, 1923, 1925, and 1927.  Before Ted Williams’ 1941 season, Heilmann was the last American League hitter to bat .400 in a season, when his average was .403 in 1923.  He managed 2,660 hits in his career, and several times finished in the top 5 in home runs (despite what now appears to be modest power numbers) and RBIs.  His 542 career doubles are currently 28th in Major League history, and his 151 triples are 49th all-time.  There may be no better line drive hitters in the history of the game.  Following are his 4 best seasons, along with his Prime average.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

Notes

1923

.403

18

115

211

121

44

11

9

#3 in MVP vote

1921

.394

19

139

237

114

43

14

2

1927

.398

14

120

201

106

50

9

11

MVP Runner-up

1925

.393

13

134

225

97

40

11

5

Prime

.397

16

127

219

110

44

11

7

You know a team is good when one of your reserve outfielders is also in the Hall of Fame.  One of the fiercest power hitters of the dead ball era, Sam Crawford (L, L) retired with a .309 career batting average, and amassed 2,961 career hits.  More impressive than that were the number of triples he hit in his career – 309, a record which still stands, even though Crawford retired in 1917.  In 1903 he set the American League record for triples in a season with 25, but topped that in 1914 when he hit 26.  The record still stands (Shoeless Joe Jackson also hit 26 triples in 1912).
Crawford helped the Tigers win the American League pennant in 1907, 1908, and 1909, but he and Cobb could not provide enough punch to win the World Series in any of those years.  He was considered an above average fielder in his day, and also stole 366 bases in his career.  I used four seasons to come up with his prime season as well:

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

Notes

1911

.378

7

115

217

109

36

14

37

1903

.335

4

89

184

88

23

25

18

1912

.325

4

109

189

81

30

21

42

1914

.314

8

104

183

74

22

26

25

MVP Runner-up

Prime

.338

6

104

193

88

28

22

31

Bringing the conversation closer to today, the next outfielder I would place on the All-time Tiger team is Magglio Ordonez (R, R).  Magglio was a huge fan favorite when he came to Detroit in 2005, and he was a prolific hitter.  His arrival in Detroit came at a time when the Tigers had experienced over a decade of futility, and players did not want to play in Detroit.  He helped lead a resurgence of the Detroit franchise which culminated in the 2006 American League Championship.  Ordonez ended the ALCS that year with a walk-off home run off Huston Street of the Oakland A’s in the bottom of the 9th of game 4, sending Detroit to their first World Series in 22 years.
Detroit was also taking a risk in signing Maggs, because his 2004 season in Chicago was limited with a knee injury.  The White Sox felt his productivity would decline from there, so Detroit picked him up at a time when they needed an extra bat in the line-up.
Ordonez finished his career after the 2011 season with a .309 career batting average, with 2,156 hits, and 294 home runs.  In 2007, he gave Detroit one of the best batting seasons in the last several decades, hitting for the highest average (.363) a Tigers hitter has had since 1937.  He also added 28 home runs and 139 RBI.  He had a couple of other .300 seasons with Detroit, as well as a .298 average in 2006.  Although he only played 7 seasons with Detroit, and had some shortened by injuries, his importance in the revival of the franchise after the low point of 2003 cannot be measured.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

BB

K

Notes

2007

.363

28

139

216

117

54

76

79

MVP Runner-up, AS

2008

.317

21

103

178

72

32

53

76

2006

.298

24

104

177

82

32

45

87

AS

Prime

.326

24

115

190

90

39

58

81

The final person I would add to the outfield would be one who was instrumental in the winning of the 1984 World Series.  He is also considered one of the great competitors the game has ever seen – Kirk Gibson (L, L).  He never hit .300 (unless you count the strike-shortened 1981 season when he batted .328 in about 300 at bats), never had 30 home runs, never drove in 100 RBI, and never made an All-Star team for Detroit, but he was effective in every part of the game, offensively and defensively.  The two things he is most known for both occurred in 1988, and both for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The first is the home run he hit off Dennis Eckersley in game 1 of the World Series.  The second is that he won the National League MVP that year as well, although his offensive numbers were very similar to those he had in Detroit nearly every season he played for the Tigers.
Gibby came to the Tigers in 1979 after earning All-American honors as a wide receiver for the Michigan State Spartans.  He was also drafted into the NFL, but chose the Tigers despite only playing one year of baseball in college.  He was an excellent combination of speed and power during the 1980s.  Each year, Gibson was a threat to steal 30 bases, and hit 25 home runs.  In addition, he batted third in the order behind Whitaker and Trammell, with Lance Parrish hitting clean-up after him.   Tiger fans will remember his first iconic World Series home run, which came in game 5 of the 1984 World Series in the 8th inning off Goose Gossage.  Gossage, like Eckersley in 1988, was the best closer in the game at the time.  Gibson was a career 1-10 off Goose up to that point (the only hit coming on a bunt).  With runners on 2nd and 3rd (and an intentional walk appearing to be the best option), Kirk hit a 1-0 fastball in the upper deck of right field, essentially icing the game, and the series.
Bottom Line: Gibson is on this team because the Tigers do not win the 1984 World Series or the 1987 Eastern Division Title without him.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

Notes

1985

.287

29

97

167

96

37

5

30

1984

.282

27

91

150

92

23

10

29

ALCS MVP

1987

.277

24

79

135

95

25

3

26

Prime

.282

27

89

151

94

28

6

28

The difficulty in making any All-Time Team is who you leave off of it.  There are other players who certainly played well enough to make this team, or at least earned a place in the conversation.  You can see from the players I chose above, none of them had a 30 home run season (although 4 hit .360 or better at some point, with two cracking the .400 mark).  I could have changed that by adding Willie Horton (R, R) or Rocky Colavito (R, R) to this team.  In fact, many will argue that Horton deserves to be here more than Magglio Ordonez or Kirk Gibson, because he was so instrumental to the 1968 World Series team, when he batted .285 (good enough for 4th in the AL that year) and had 36 home runs.  His prime year would look like this:

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

.277

30

94

152

66

18

From looking at this, Horton’s numbers are comparable to Gibson’s, and Horton had the disadvantage of hitting in a pitcher’s era.  For me, it came down to total effect on the team.  Gibson had great speed, which was more productive on offense (see the difference in Runs scored), and gave him better range on defense.  Horton was a liability in both running the bases and playing defense.  Horton had higher power numbers (home runs and RBI) than Gibson, but only slightly, and not enough to offset the speed issue.  Perhaps if I watched Horton play in the 1960s, I might change my mind, but as it stands, I prefer Gibson for his speed and intensity, as well as the role he played for the Tigers in both 1984 and 1987.
Rocky Colavito (R, R) may actually appear to be a harsher slight.  He was with Detroit from 1960 to 1963, and averaged 35 home runs per year, with 108 RBI.  His Prime year (averaging his three best seasons, instead of all four) looks like this:

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Walks

.278

35

114

165

103

30

98

Colavito’s power numbers are amazing, and would easily lead this outfield.  His average is on par with Horton’s and Gibson’s, so why was he not selected?  There are three reasons for that: 1) from the day Rocky Colavito arrived in Detroit, the fans hated him.  He never endeared himself to Detroit like he did Cleveland, and fans saw him as an aloof star who only wanted the spotlight for himself instead of sharing it with Al Kaline.  This clearly is not fair to Colavito, who gave Detroit 4 excellent seasons.  Still, the fact that fans could not stand him is a factor.  2) Colavito did not help Detroit make the post season.  He was on the club in 1961 when the Tigers won over 100 games, and lost the pennant to the Yankees.  3) With only 4 years in a Tigers uniform, it’s hard to imagine Colavito as a Tiger.  History lists him as a Cleveland Indian first and foremost.  Both Gibson and Horton played more years in Detroit, and both were very instrumental in getting Detroit a championship, and that, in the end, gives these two the edge in my mind when comparing them to Colavito (I said I would do it).
There are still more outfielders who have an argument for earning a spot on this team.  Current fans will remember Bobby Higginson (L, R), who played with Detroit from 1995 to 2005.  Here is how his prime season would look (using his four best seasons):

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

SB

.299

27

92

164

91

37

9

His average is 17 points higher than Gibson, and he had 3 more RBIs, with the same number of home runs.  Higginson was also known for his great arm in the outfield, twice leading the league in outfield assists.  Alas, he gets an honorable mention here only because none of the teams he played on had a winning season, he never won a Gold Glove, and he never made an All-Star team.  In other words, nobody doubts that Bobby Higginson was a good player, but he never took the step to elite player, clutch player, and ultimately he fell victim to being a good player on a series of bad teams.
Another difficult cut was Hoot Evers (R, R), who started his career in Detroit in 1941, served his country, and resumed again in 1946.  He was a great hitter, and a popular player among Detroit fans until he was traded in 1952.  He made 2 All-Star teams, and ended up with a .290 average for his tenure in Detroit.  See his prime season, which is compiled with his 3 best seasons as a Tiger:

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

.314

13

93

157

83

30

8

These are great numbers, and on top of that Evers was a great defensive player.  Why the snub?  First, he came along when the Yankees began to dominate the American League.  He was basically a bright spot on an otherwise mediocre team.  Second, he just did not hold up physically.  It’s not very fair to use this on Evers in particular when he meets the criteria established previously, but Hoot never approached these numbers again in his career.  In this case, I am using the fact the others more longevity for their careers.  This was a tough cut, but there are only 6 outfield positions on this team.
One of the old Tiger greats who gets obscured because of the huge shadow cast by Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Harry Heilmann is Bobby Veach (L,R).  He played left-field for Detroit from 1912 to 1923 (he retired after the 1925 season from the Washington Senators), and maintained a .311 average, and compiled over 2,000 hits for his career.  He also hit 147 triples in his career (56th all-time).  He was considered a power hitter for the dead-ball era, typically among the league leaders in doubles and triples, as well as RBI.  Coincidentally, he is the first ever Tiger to hit for the cycle (if you ever need a trivia question).  Here is how his prime season looks:

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

.330

8

114

192

91

39

13

16

Why does Veach not make this team?  Mainly, he played on no pennant winners, and in his day with the Tigers he was always the third best outfielder, even though the other outfielders were Hall of Famers (and he is not).  Also, I feel this team is already deep in dead-ball era hitters.  I think Veach and Sam Crawford give essentially the same stats, but Crawford was on three pennant winners (and was the clean-up hitter on those teams).  Veach put up great numbers, but because each era is a little different, I feel I need to honor the players who came later and helped Detroit win pennants, and not just stack a team with high average players because their era allowed them to hit for high average.  With only 6 positions to fill, I said I would need to make cuts, and this is one of those.

The last person I left off truly is a snub, and I have no other reason for doing it than the fact that I like Gibson’s combination of speed and power more than I like what this player brings to the table.  Pete Fox (R, R) played for the Tigers from 1933 to 1940, placing him on 3 pennant winners.  He set the table for Gehringer and Greenberg to drive him in later in the order for those eight seasons.  He batted .300 twice for the Tigers, but always hovered around .290 when he didn’t hit .300 (he had a .302 career average when he left Detroit).  He was an excellent fielder, good base runner, and hit .327 (in 55 at bats) in the 3 World Series in which he participated.  Here is what his prime season looks like, compiled of his 4 best seasons:

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

SB

.310

10

79

178

98

34

8

16

These numbers look a lot like Hoot Evers’.  The difference here is Fox was a key component of 3 pennant winners, and he played consistently during his 8 seasons with the Tigers.  There is no reason to leave him off this team other than I prefer the 27 home runs and 28 stolen bases of Gibson.  If I had a 7th place to give, I would have to reward it to Pete Fox.  Let the debates begin.

All-Tiger Outfield:

Ty Cobb

Al Kaline

Henry Heilmann

Sam Crawford

Magglio Ordonez

Kirk Gibson

If I could make an All-Tiger second team outfield, it would look like this:

Pete Fox

Bobby Veach

Willie Horton

Bobby Higginson

Hoot Evers

Rocky Colavito

Up next: The corner positions of the infield – First Base and Third Base.

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