It is kind of hard to imagine, as the Detroit Tigers head into their 114th year of baseball in 2015, the franchise has had just one Hall-of-Fame pitcher.
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While there have been a few pitchers that wore the Olde English D that now reside in Cooperstown (most notably Jim Bunning), only one was elected into the Hall as a member of the Tigers. That player is the subject of this week’s Throwback Thursday, left-handed ace and Detroit-native Hal Newhouser.
Newhouser rose to baseball stardom on Detroit baseball diamonds during his days playing for the old Wilbur Wright High School. With only 16 teams in baseball at the time of his graduation in 1939, Newhouser resigned himself to becoming a tradesman like many of his classmates as industry ratcheted up with war in Europe pending. But the hometown Tigers came calling and changed his fate.
The Tigers offered Newhouser a $500 signing bonus. The staggering sum for the depression-era (equivalent of nearly $8,100 in today’s dollars) made the 18-year old sign immediately. Ten minutes later the Cleveland Indians showed up with an offer of $15,000 and a $4,000 car for his parents.
The early Tiger catches the worm.
Hal made his major league debut later that summer, fittingly against Cleveland. It was the second half of a double-header at Briggs Stadium and Newhouser allowed three runs on five hits and took the loss in a five-inning shortened game. He made the 1940 AL pennant-winning team out of Spring Training but struggled with control and walked (76) nearly as many batters as he struck out (89).
Newhouser did not make an appearance in the 1940 World Series, which saw the Tigers lose in seven games to the Cincinnati Reds, and his control problems continued into 1941. After that season the United States went to war and like so many of his peers and teammates (like Hank Greenberg), Newhouser readily signed up to serve his country. Ultimately a heart murmur kept him out of war, but that may have been a good thing as his career began to take off in 1942.
Though he won just 8 games against 14 defeats for a bad Detroit team, he lowered his ERA to 2.45, began to strikeout more batters and earned his first of six All-Star appearances. By ’43 he was up to 144K’s and then he blew away batters in back-to-back years, striking out 187 and 212 respectively in 1944 and 1945.
The Tigers had a pair of near-misses in 1944. The ballclub finished just one-game behind the St. Louis Browns for the AL Pennant. It was the first and only appearance in the World Series for the woeful American League franchise in St. Louis that would move to Baltimore and become the Orioles nine years later.
Up until 1944, Newhouser hadn’t won double-digits games in one season, but he just missed out on the mythical 30-win plateau, going 29-9. He pitched 300+ innings in both 1944 and 45, coincidentally winning the AL MVP in each season and the pitching Triple Crown in 1945.
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Detroit wouldn’t miss out on the World Series the following year, besting the Washington Senators by a couple of games to win the pennant. Hal pitched in relief in a late season game that clinched the Fall Classic trip. They would go on to beat the Chicago Cubs in seven games to capture the franchise’s second World Series title. Playing at Wrigley Field in Game 7, Newhouser threw a complete game in the 9-3 win.
His dominance through baseball continued into post-war times when all the stars had come back from overseas. He won another 26 games, posting a microscopic ERA of 1.94 in 1946. Hal just missed out on his third straight MVP award, finishing a close second to Ted Williams.
He remained one of the best pitchers in the game through the 1948 season when injuries began to take their toll on that golden left arm. He slowly declined into the early 1950’s as the franchise took a step back. The Tigers released him following the 1953 season and the Indians were ready to finish what they started 14 years earlier. They used him as a reliever in their pennant-winning season of 1954.
Newhouser played his last game in 1955 but the game was never far from his life. He served as a scout for the Astros, Indians, Orioles and Tigers and is credited with discovering talents such as Milt Pappas and Dean Chance. He pushed hard for Houston to pick up a can’t miss Kalamazoo-native in the early 1990’s, but they passed on the youngster in favor of Phil Nevin. So upset was Prince Hal that he retired, ending his 50-year career in baseball.
That Kalamazoo-native was none other than Derek Jeter.
His number 16 is retired and displayed on the brick wall at Comerica Park along with his statue. Newhouser was elected to the Hall-of-Fame in 1992 and passed away seven years later.
The Hall’s website entry for Hal Newhouser includes this wonderful quote from him:
"“I had a philosophy that I pitched against the pitcher and I did not pitch against the hitters. The vast percentage of the time the ball was in my hand, everything was in my favor.” –Hal Newhouser"
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