John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States. The Cold War, a “battle for men’s minds,” as Kennedy called it, wore on. Alan Shepard became the first American in space not long after the Soviet Union made Yuri Gagarin the first human being in space. Meanwhile, the hearts of baseball fans were taken by the spectacle unfolding at Yankee Stadium, where Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris both chased the single-season home run record set decades earlier by Babe Ruth–a record Maris eventually broke in dramatic fashion. 1961 was a big year for America and for baseball, but one great happening–one that should be regarded as such, especially among fans of the Detroit Tigers–is often lost in the shuffle.
While attention that year was largely focused on the New York Yankees’ M&M Boys, the Tigers fielded a brilliant slugging tandem of their own in Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash. Those two, together with Al Kaline, were enough to keep an otherwise marginal team in a tight race for the American League pennant with the Bronx Bombers for five months before the club from the Motor City finally fell out of contention, finishing in second place and eight games back of the eventual World Series champions.
As a pair of power hitters, the numbers Colavito and Cash put up hitting back-to-back were elite. You could contend that they combined for one of the best seasons in history for two sluggers on the same club–in the same company as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who in 1927, the year Ruth set the home run record Maris would later surpass, were good for 27 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR) together. Colavito and Cash, both acquired by virtual theft from the Cleveland Indians a year prior, worked magic in 1961 that the newly formed lineup threat of Miguel Cabrera preceding Prince Fielder can presently only dream of.
Only five players in the history of the Tigers have ever hit 40 home runs in a season. Darrell Evans hit exactly that number once with Detroit, in 1985. The legendary Hank Greenberg reached the mark four times, once hitting a downright supernatural sum of 58 bombs. Cecil Fielder eclipsed 40 dingers in a year twice; in 1990, when he hit 51 in his first year with the Tigers, and again the next year, making him the most recent Detroit player to accomplish the feat. Colavito and Cash both did it in ‘61, hitting 45 and 41 respectively; at least two players homering 40 times for the same club in the same season is something baseball has seen only 28 times and only a dozen before 1996. The iconic pairing of Ruth and Gehrig accomplished it just three times throughout their nine full seasons together.
In addition to phenomenal power numbers in ‘61, Stormin’ Norman, as he was affectionately known, batting predominantly in the fifth spot behind Kaline and Colavito respectively, also hit for average. Well enough, in fact, to take home the AL batting title; he batted .361, higher by 37 points than the runner-up, his teammate Kaline.
1961 was far and away the best year in the careers of both Colavito and Cash; Colavito was good for 8.8 WAR and Cash 10.8, giving him the third-best season by WAR for an offensive player in the history of the Tigers’ franchise. Since then, no batter has equaled or surpassed Colavito’s 8.8 WAR mark for Detroit. Magglio Ordonez and Curtis Granderson both made admirable attempts in 2007, but fell short with 8.1 and 7.8 respectively.
You can call it a fluke and even point to Cash’s self-admitted use of corked bats, but fair or not, these two guys made up the best power combination in Tiger history, at least for one year.
The Tiger career of Colavito, who used to point his bat directly towards the pitcher until the pitcher began his windup, lasted only four seasons. But over that span, which contained 629 games, he clubbed a fantastic total of 139 round-trippers. For comparison, Miguel Cabrera has hit the exact same number in 631 career games for Detroit.
Cash, one of the all-time great comedic players, would go on to play 13 more seasons after ‘61, all with the Tigers. His career after that astronomical peak was always viewed as somewhat of a disappointment–he never again hit for a better average than .283 and reached at least 30 home runs only four more times–but he was still one of the best in club history.
More than 50 years later, Cabrera and Fielder will now have a chance to make history together. Both in their prime, they’re capable of going yard 40 times each with a little luck. But regardless of whether or not they ever reach that arbitrary number, they will certainly be an intimidating and productive force, and hopefully for longer than were Colavito and Cash.
The modern duo is likely the best on any team in baseball today. Jayson Stark of ESPN.com concurs; he ranked them as the best 3-4 combination in the game; ahead of the Yankees’ Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez and the Colorado Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki among others.
Only 131 teams in baseball history have had at least two players both post an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) over .950 and concurrently log enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Bill James is projecting a 1.004 OPS from Cabrera and a .956 from Fielder, so the 2012 Tigers could soon join that list. Since 2002, it has been done 18 times, including by the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, who had Fielder and Ryan Braun OPS .981 and .994 respectively. The Detroit franchise has done it a dozen times, including in five years when their lineup featured the bat of Hank Greenberg, whose career OPS was 1.017. Yet once again, the most recent Tiger team to become a part of this prestigious club was the 1961 ball club with Colavito and Cash.
Here’s hoping 50 years from now someone will be writing a similar piece on the significance of the Detroit lineup that once included Cabrera and Fielder.