Tigers fans have had it pretty good over the years. No lost generations haunt the franchise. At least every 20 years or so the Tigers put together a stretch of winning baseball that culminates in a trophy or two of some kind. It’s not Yankees-type success, but it’s enough to renew the soul of old-time fans and reanimate the franchise to the next generation. Inarguably, Detroit is in the middle of one of those right now.
This is the most hardware-heavy eight-year period in franchise history. Two AL pennants, three division titles, and four post season appearances. The only other stretch that compares is Detroit’s 12-year run from 1934-1945 when the Tigers racked up four pennants and two World Series titles. This Depression-War II period remains the gold standard of all Tigers eras. But the current Justin Verlander-Miguel Cabrera led renaissance, which still has at minimum a couple of years left, could seriously threaten the hegemony of the Hank Greenberg-Charlie Gehringer years.
Let’s take a look at other contenders for the title of Best Period in Tigers History. A couple of facts to consider before we launch into the list. Fact one: It is more difficult to win a World Series today than it was in 1935. You need to win at minimum 11 postseason games in 2014 to earn a World Series title. Before 1968 you needed to win four postseason games. After 1968 you needed to win seven then later eight games to win the WS. In 1995 that number changed to the current 11 games. Fact two: It is much easier today than in 1908 to advance to the postseason and thus get that shot at winning a WS title. In 2014, 10 teams qualify for the postseason (or 33% of all teams). From 1901 to 1968 that number was two (12.5%). It leaped to four in 1969, eight in 1995, and 10 in 2012. Postseason appearances were more rarefied and thus more cherished years ago. They weight heavier than post seasons appearances today. But the odds of winning it all once you qualified in 1984 were greater than in 1945, and since 2012 they have risen even higher.
When thinking about golden eras I believe there are two factors to consider. There are the wins and losses and flags raised. The record, if you will. And then there are the intangibles. These are a measure of not what was won but how it was won. Put another way what was the aura surrounding the team and the period? Was there anything transcendent about the core players or feats of historical significance, either in the context of baseball itself or outside of it? How many, if any, Hall of Famers, major award winners, and league leaders (using traditional statistics) highlighted the period? Riveting, once-in-a-generation performers who get people talking, everywhere, is what I’m thinking of here. Let’s name these intangibles the mythmakers. The more mythmakers and mythmaking feats the more memorable the period.
On to the list, ranked somewhat in descending order and classified by the players that best symbolize each era.
5. The Whitaker-Trammell Era
Record: One World Series title (1984); one AL East title (1987). One 100-plus win season; two 90-plus win seasons. From 1978-1988 the Tigers finished above .500 each year. Detroit won more games in the 80s than any other franchise but the Yankees. They contended but fell short of a division title into the last month of the season in 1981, 1983, and 1988.
Mythmakers: The 1984 champion Tigers captivated baseball and the sporting public by winning 35 of their first 40 games, the best 40-game start in baseball history. Willie Hernandez won the CY Young and MVP award in the same year. Many consider the 1984 Tigers one of the greatest teams of all time. In 1987, the Tigers came from six games back in June to wrestle the AL East title away from the Blue Jays on the final day of the season. From August 11 on the biggest deficit for either team was 2 games. The Division changed hands eight different times during this stretch. It was one of the great pennant races of all time. But, oddly, outside of Detroit and Toronto it’s mostly forgotten today. Ken Burns’ acclaimed and much buzzed about documentary about baseball that aired in the mid 1990s completely ignored the 1987 race, for instance. The Burn’s documentary is certainly no litmus test for what was great and what fell just short, but it’s a decent marker for judging where a baseball event stands in the public consciousness. And the 1987 pennant race and just about everything else involving the Tigers in the 1980s failed to make an appearance, for even a fleeting moment. Furthermore, no key Tiger from this era has been elected to the Hall of Fame, and the 1980s Tigers produced only three league leaders in the categories most appreciated during this time (BA, HR, RBI, Wins, ERA, and Ks). The Alan Trammell-Lou Whitaker era resembled its two greatest stars: quiet greatness, with a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
4. The Cobb-Crawford Era
The Record: Three consecutive pennants (1907-1909). In 1915, the Bengals won 100 games and finished only 2.5 behind the Red Sox. In 1916 they contended down to the wire as well.
Mythmakers: Quiet greatness fails spectacularly to describe the man who embodies this era. Ty Cobb was loud, ornery, and widely acknowledged as the greatest player of his era, at least until Babe Ruth started tripling up everyone in home runs. Cobb wanted to beat you, and then humiliate you. And the baseball world loved him for it. That he was a racist didn’t really mark him, unfortunately, as different—or even necessarily odious—at the time. That he won 11 batting and six stolen base titles did. Before Ruth, Cobb was baseball’s biggest star playing in a city on the cusp of its own greatness. He earned lucrative national endorsements (Coca Cola for one), dominated the headlines of the “Bible of Baseball” (The Sporting News), and was the very first player elected to the new Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, ahead of even Ruth. Sam Crawford, Cobb’s tag-team partner in the Detroit outfield, more closely resembled Alan Trammell in temperament. Not surprisingly, he despised the Georgia Peach. Crawford hit behind Cobb and holds the major league record for career triples, which earned him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame as well. The three straight pennants spearheaded by Cobb and Crawford remains the most consecutive AL titles ever won by the Tigers. But Detroit never actually won any of these World Series, and the subsequent years returned lots of mediocrity. That’s what keeps this amazing three-year period from moving up the list. But no player in Tigers history—and few in all of baseball—mattered as much as Ty Cobb, for good and for ill. And for that reason alone this era will always contend for greatest in Tigers history.
3. The Kaline-McLain Era
Record: One World Series title (1968); one AL East title (1972). From 1964-1973 the Tigers had only one losing season. They won 100-plus games once and 90-plus games twice and came up just short of a pennant in 1967, falling on the final day of the season in one of the celebrated multiple team races of all time.
Mythmakers: Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline, is the last Tiger, who appears in a Detroit cap on his plaque, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame on the writer’s ballot. For an entire generation of Tigers fans Kaline is the penultimate, the most revered and beloved Tiger. The view outside of Detroit was much the same, although Kaline never rose to mythical status, a position achieved by his National League peer and near clone Roberto Clemente. Kaline turned 30 just as the nucleus of the Tigers championship team started forming in the mid ’60s, and although he was often among the league leaders he never actually lead the league in the ’60s in any of the big three offensive categories (BA, HR, RBI). Neither did any other Tiger. On the mound, however, the Tigers racked up hardware and lots of mythical points. Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968 and earned the AL MVP and Cy Young. It had been 34 years since anyone had won 30 games or more. McLain won 24 games the next year and snagged the Cy Young again. During this streaking-comet two-year period, McLain rose to national acclaim, keeping baseball pundits talking and gossip columnists buzzing. He made regular appearances on national television shows, including the influential “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, where he often showed off his other skills, such as playing the piano. McLain burned out quickly, in part due to overuse and in part due to his own recklessness. But for a three-year period he made the Tigers a national story that traveled beyond the sports page. The 1968 World Series, won by the Tigers in a thrilling seven-game series, is usually recognized as one of the Fall Classic’s best. Outside of Detroit, however, the most indelible memory of the WS involves not a Tiger but a member of the opposing Cardinals, Bob Gibson. He set a record by striking out 17 Tigers in Game One. In 1971, Mickey Lolich lead the league in wins and ERA to anchor a 91-win season that set up the Tigers division championship in 1972, which Detroit claimed by a half game over the Red Sox. This era stands slightly above the Cobb era because it includes a championship. It’s ahead of the Trammell-Whitaker era because it includes a Hall of Famer and a truly sublime performance that generated intense interest across the cultural spectrum of America.
2. The Verlander-Cabrera Era
Record: Two pennants (2006, 2012); two other division titles; one game 163. Since 2006 the have Tigers suffered only one losing season and won 90-plus games three times.
Mythmakers: Putting an era without a WS title this high will probably invite a fusillade of complaints. But in terms of the record and the ingredients of the sauce few eras compare. Only the Cobb era Tigers made the post season three straight years. Never, as I mention above, have the Tigers made four postseason appearances in such a short period of time. Plus, Detroit came within a funny hop in a joke of a ballpark from advancing to a fifth postseason. But what really elevates this period is the dizzying number of extraordinary performances. The last three AL MVP awards have gone to Tigers. Two of the last three Cy Young winners have been Tigers. Among league leaders (once again traditional categories, because, hey, they still matter to most baseball fans) here is the tally: four of the last seven BA leaders; two of the last seven HR leaders; two of the last four RBI leaders; two of the last three ERA leaders; three of the last five strikeout leaders; and three of the last five wins leaders. And this group of winners represents five different Tigers (Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera, Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and Max Scherzer). Throw in two no-hitters, multiple near-miss no hitters, and a frickin’ Triple Crown, the first in 46 years, and you reach a level of mythmaking probably unprecedented in franchise history. And it doesn’t hurt that one of your stars dates a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. All this era needs, of course, is a WS title. Win one and the gap between this era and one below sharply closes. Win two and we have a new champion.
1. The Greenberg-Gehringer Era
Record: Two World Series titles (1935, 1945); two other pennants (1934, 1940). From 1934-1943, the Yankees won every AL pennant but three. The Tigers won the rest. Between 1934-1946 the Tigers won 101 games once and 90-plus games three times.
Mythmakers: The G-Men, as the Tigers were called in the ’30s because of superstars Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, and Goose Goslin, made baseball cool again in Detroit. And they did it with flare. Three of the four World Series the Tigers appeared in went seven games. In the one that didn’t, the Tigers added ninth-inning heroics in Game Six to wrap up the title. Future Hall of Famer Goslin supplied the single to drive in the clinching run. Four other future Hall of Famers made meaningful contributions in a Tigers uniform during this period, and three of them appear in Cooperstown wearing a Tigers cap. The greatest middle infielder in Tigers history, Gehringer, the Mechanical Man, won the 1937 AL MVP and the batting crown that year. The greatest Tigers pitcher, at least for now, helped keep the good times rolling beyond the ’30s. Hal Newhauser won the pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, and Ks) in 1945, and the league MVP in 1944 and 1945. The third titan of this era, one of most feared sluggers in baseball history, was Greenberg, a native New Yorker. He turned downed an offer from the Yankees and was spurned by the Giants before landing in Detroit, where he became the most famous Jewish athlete of his era. Greenberg led the league four times in RBI and HRs and earned two MVPs (1935 and 1940). His 183 RBI in 1937 still rank third all time. He was one of the few Tigers featured prominently, and positively, in Ken Burn’s documentary. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Greenberg enlisted in the army, making him one of first high-profile major leaugers to commit to Uncle Sam. He returned from the war midway through the 1945 season and hit a homer in his first game. Then, to add even more polish to his legacy, Greenberg boomed a grand slam on the final day of the season to clinch the AL pennant. Other league leaders during at the time were player-manager and future Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane (MVP 1934), Tommy Bridges (wins 1936; Ks 1935-36), and Dizzy Trout (wins 1943; ERA 1944). This era has it all: grand performers, high drama, and unequaled hardware, including two of the most coveted kind. It remains, until further notice, the Golden Era of Tigers baseball.