All-Time Detroit Tiger First Base and Third Base

When I started the process of creating an All-Time, All-Tiger Team I initially considered printing only one position at a time.  I ran into two issues with this: 1) Besides pitchers and outfielders, each position would only have 2 players listed, which I felt was too short.  2) When I listed the players I would place at first base, people would disagree with me for obvious reasons.  I decided that in order to explain myself, I would put first base and third base together.  Keep reading.

Stats are scrutinized, measured, and loved in baseball more than any other sport.  The greatness of a player in this sport not only gets measured by single season accomplishments, but also career accomplishments.  3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins – these all represent milestones which place a player in an elite grouping.  The 1940s challenge this notion, because many players lost 4 years (or more) of their careers to WWII.  Our imaginations stretch at the numbers great players like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams would have hit had they not gone to war.  Likewise, Bob Feller had a great career with 266 wins, but with 4 extra seasons, what would that number have been?

The same question gets asked of the greatest first baseman the Tigers have ever had – Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg (R, R). The original “Hammerin’ Hank” amassed 58 home runs in 1938 (a record for right handed hitters until 1998), and he was the first Tiger to win multiple MVP awards, leading Detroit to the pennant in both years he won the award.  He was the first American League player drafted into the army in 1940 (after his staggering season at the plate), and he served from 1941 through 1945.  In 1946, he had 44 home runs and 127 RBI in his first full season back (he was able to play a limited role on the 1945 World Series Champion).  He finished his career with a .313 batting average, and 331 home runs.  Even if he only averaged 35 home runs per season for the 5 seasons he was in the service, he would have finished his career with 506 home runs.  At 40 home runs per season, he would have reached 531 career home runs.  He deserves to be named in the same breath as Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig when the discussion of greatest first baseman comes up.

Greenberg began his career with Detroit in 1930, but broke into the lineup in 1933.  He was instrumental in helping the Tigers with the 1934 and 1935 pennants.  He earned MVP honors in 1935 when he batted .328 (7th), hit 36 home runs (1st), and amassed 170 RBI (1st), which was 51 RBI higher than second place Lou Gehrig.  He had record 103 RBI at the All-Star break, but did not make the All-Star team that year.  In 1937, he had the second highest RBI total in American League history with 183 (one behind Lou Gehrig’s AL record of 184, and 7 behind Hack Wilson’s Major League record of 190).  He got his second MVP award in 1940, hitting .340, with 41 home runs and 150 RBI.  Interestingly, Greenberg played the 1940 season in left field, to make room for another heavy hitter, Rudy York, who was more of a liability in the field than Hank.  The move did not hurt Greenberg’s numbers.  Here is what could be expected of this slugger in his prime:

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

BB

Notes

1938

.315

58

146

175

144

23

4

119

AS

1940

.340

41

150 

195

129

50

8

93

MVP, AS

1937

.337

40

183

200

137

49

14

102

AS

1935

.328

36

170

203

121

46

16

87

MVP

Prime

.330

44

162

193

133

42

11

100

The second player I would put at first base is the man who Hank Greenberg moved to left field to make room for in the line-up, Rudy York (R, R).  This is probably a surprise to many, but it really shouldn’t be.  York was a powerful hitter, but he had trouble finding a place which suited him in the field.  Manager Mickey Cochrane had to find a place for him somewhere (in the pre-DH days of the AL), and eventually he settled on first base.

In 1937, Mickey Cochrane’s career ended as a catcher when he was hit in the head by a pitch.  The Tigers were floundering as a team, and he wanted to find a way to kick start the team.  Cochrane inserted Rudy York in the line-up as a catcher (even though he was a defensive liability), and in 104 games played (and 375 at bats), York hit .307 with 35 home runs, and 103 RBI.  Imagine what he could have done with another 50 games and 200 at bats.  He hit 18 home runs in September alone, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 17, and he also had 49 RBI that month, breaking the record of 48 set by Lou Gehrig.  After this, it was determined that a position in the field would be found for him, because York’s bat would offset any liability he presented in the field.

In 1940, York settled in at first base, and hit .316, with 33 home runs and 134 RBI.  He and Hank Greenberg established the best 1-2 punch in the league, and this led the Tigers to the American League pennant. In all, he made the All-Star team 6 times while with Detroit, and slugged 239 home runs before being traded to Boston after the 1945 season.  Just like the Tigers of that era, York is simply too good not to place somewhere on this team.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

BB

Notes

1940

.316

33

134

186

105

46

6

89

1937

.307

35

103

115

72

18

3

41

104 games

1938

.298

33

127

138

85

27

1

92

AS

1943

.271

34

118

155

90

22

11

84

AS

Prime

.297

34

121

149

88

28

5

77

The question of who may have deserved to be here should naturally arise.  There are several players who could easily fill the role of first base, not least of which is Miguel Cabrera.  I will wait until I complete the other first base omissions before I address Miguel Cabrera.

Those who grew up watching the Tigers in the 1960s will wonder why I left Norm Cash (L, L) off this team.  Cash was a long-time Tiger (1960 to 1974), who finished his career second in club history with 373 home runs, and helped Detroit win the World Series in 1968.  On top of that, he had one of the great seasons in baseball history in 1961.  Let’s look at Cash’s top four seasons, and the resulting prime season:

Year

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

1961

.361

41

132

193

119

22

1966

.279

32

93

168

98

18

1971

.283

32

91

128

72

10

1962

.243

39

89

123

94

16

Prime

.292

36

101

153

96

17

Cash’s power numbers are good.  His home runs are a little higher than York, but his average and RBI are a lot lower.  He gets a nudge because he was on the 1968 and 1972 teams, but York gets the same consideration, being a member of 2 pennant winners (1940 and 1945).  The real issue I have with Cash is that his best year was far superior to any other year he had, which means he lacked overall consistency.  Cash hit .361 in 1961, and never batted above .283 again in his career.  He hit 41 home runs in 1961, but never hit 40 in any other year (although he hit 39 in 1962, but only managed a .243 average).  He had 132 RBI in 1961, but never drove in 100 again.  Although it is unfair to discount a player’s best season, if I were to take away both Cash’s and York’s best single season, and count only their next three best years, this is how they would stack up:

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Cash

.269

34

91

York

.289

34

116

Cash’s average drops severely once 1961 is taken away (a 23-point decline), while York’s average goes down 8 points.  Cash loses 2 home runs, while York maintains his 34 (which is now equal to Cash).  Cash also loses 10 RBI, while York’s goes down 5, but still remains high at 116 (and 25 RBI higher than Cash’s 91).
The bottom line for me with “Stormin’ Norman” is that I feel he lacked the consistency of other players, and that I would be placing him on this team on account of one great season.  He had other decent seasons, but nothing approaching 1961.  It was a tough cut, but one I feel justified in making.
The other first baseman who many will think earned a spot on this team would be Cecil Fielder (R, R), the only Tiger (after Greenberg) to hit 50 home runs in a season.
Big Daddy finished second in the American League MVP voting two years in a row in 1990 and 1991.  He played for Detroit from 1990 to 1996, when he was traded to the Yankees.  Few hitters were as exciting to watch at the plate than Fielder.  I attended several Tiger games in the 1990s simply to watch him play.  Even when he struck out, it was amazing to behold.  Still, even with his two great seasons, his numbers fall just short, mainly because he did not hit for high average.  Below is his prime season compiled from his three best seasons in Detroit.

3 Year Prime

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

.260

43

130

156

95

24

Fielder had great power numbers.  An argument could be made to add him to this team, and many others would make the case for him, because he was a superior home run hitter.  For me York has 2 advantages: 1) He was on the pennant winning 1940 team, and happened to have his best year that year.  He was also on the World Series winning 1945 team, although his skills were in decline.  The Tigers competed for a division title in 1991, but never made the playoffs with Cecil Fielder on the team.  2) York was a .300 hitter.  This debate could go on for years, but in my estimation, when runners are on base the home run is a beautiful thing, but I will take a single or a double just as well.  York had a greater likelihood to get a hit, any hit, with runners on than Fielder.  With that, let’s not discount the fact that York’s prime included 34 home runs as well.  I’ll take York, again by just the slightest of margins.
That leads me to Miguel Cabrera (R, R).  Many people would say that surely his numbers are better than York’s, and you would be correct.  Cabrera deserves to be on this team, but I didn’t add him as a first baseman so I could put him at third base.  I did this little switch because I was having such a difficult time narrowing down the first basemen for this team as it was, and since Cabrera also plays third base, as he did when we won the Triple Crown in 2012, while leading Detroit to the World Series.
Cabrera helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series over the New York Yankees in his rookie year of 2003.  From 2004 through 2007, he torched National League pitching.  After the 2007 season, the Tigers traded for Miggy, and gave him an 8 year extension to his contract.  Since 2008, he has been arguably the best hitter in baseball.

In 2008, Cabrera led the American League with 37 home runs.  In 2010, he finished second in MVP voting when he hit .328, with 38 home runs, and led the league with 126 RBI.  He followed that in 2011 with a .344 average, 30 home runs, and 105 RBI, while leading the Tigers to the ALCS.  In 2012, all the stars aligned as Cabrera hit .330 with 44 home runs, and 139 RBI to become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and second Triple Crown winner for Detroit.  He won the league MVP, and led the Tigers to the World Series.

Although he is currently not threatening to win a Gold Glove at third base, Cabrera took to the position better than many people expected in 2012.  With Prince Fielder playing first base for the foreseeable future, Cabrera will have time to grow into this position.  Here is how he looks in his prime, which is not over by any stretch:

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

SB

BB

Notes

2012

.330

44

139

205

109

40

4

66

MVP, Triple Crown, AS

2010

.328

38

126

188

111

45

1

89

MVP Runner-up, AS

2011

.344

30

105

197

111

48

0

108

AS

2009

.324

34

103

198

96

34

6

68

Prime

.331

37

118

197

107

42

3

83

These numbers compare very well with Greenberg’s, which is one reason why I wanted to make room for both on this team.  I could have placed Greenberg in the outfield, but with 4 Hall of Fame players there already, that didn’t seem appropriate.  Instead, I would rather place Cabrera at third, where there is less historical talent, and therefore a need for a slugger.
With that being said, there is still a Tiger player who represented himself very well at third.  In fact, this player is in the Hall of Fame, and in his day, was considered the best defensive third baseman in the league.  Another gentleman of the game, and long-time play-by-play announcer for the Tigers, the other choice for All-Tiger third baseman is George Kell (R, R).

Kell played for five teams in his 15 year career, and managed a .306 career batting average (.325 for Detroit).  He hit .300 or better in 9 of his 15 seasons, made 10 All-Star teams (6 as a Tiger), and led all third basemen in fielding percentage 7 times (This was the era just prior to Gold Glove awards being given).  His best years were with Detroit, where he played from 1946 to 1952.  In 1949, he batted .343, winning the batting title, and edging out Ted Williams, who was .0002 from winning his third Triple Crown.  Kell was also a very difficult strikeout, typically striking out only 15 to 20 times per season.  He is an obvious choice to be added to this team.

Year

Average

HR

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

Triples

K

Notes

1950

.340

8

101

218

114

56

6

18

AS

1949

.343

3

59

179

97

38

9

13

AS

1947

.320

5

93

188

75

29

5

16

AS

1951

.319

2

59

191

92

36

3

18

AS

Prime

.330

5

78

194

95

40

6

16

There really is no other discussion as far as third basemen go.  After George Kell, the talent falls off dramatically.  The next best third baseman would be Marv Owen, who was on both the 1934 and 1935 teams.  He was an excellent fielder, and in 1934 he hit .317 with 8 home runs and 96 RBI.  He never had another year that approached this one.  His career batting average was a solid, but not spectacular .275.

Some fans would want Brandon Inge to be in the discussion here, but a career .234 hitter simply does not deserve consideration on any All-Time Team.  The one person who deserves an honorable mention here would be Travis Fryman (R, R).  He was a solid third baseman before taking over the shortstop role in Detroit.  He also had decent power.  His prime numbers look like this:

3 year prime

Average

Home Runs

RBI

Hits

Runs

Doubles

.281

22

100

170

93

32

He wouldn’t be a bad selection, but in the end Kell is a better defensive choice, while also hitting for much better average (and having a Hall of Fame resume to boot).

The last third baseman I want to mention is Ray Boone (father of Bob Boone, and grandfather of Bret & Aaron Boone).  He played for Detroit from 1953 to 1958 (replacing Kell after he was traded), made two All-Star teams, and had three strong seasons.  His prime season would consist of a .295 average, with 22 home runs, and 94 RBI (very comparable to Fryman).  He would average 150 hits, with 7 triples, 71 runs, and only 49 strikeouts.  He doesn’t get more serious consideration, though, because his production fell as quickly as it rose, and Detroit was not very relevant in these years.

In the end, I felt third base was the weakest position on this team, but I felt I made it a strength by placing Miguel Cabrera in the hot corner, with George Kell as a defensive (and contact) option.  Plus, I wanted a way to get Rudy York on this team; a superior option to Travis Fryman  and Ray Boone at the plate.  Juggling around the positions slightly allowed me to do just that.

All-Tiger First Base:

Hank Greenberg

Rudy York

All-Tiger Third Base:

Miguel Cabrera

George Kell

 Next up: Middle Infielders

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