These Detroit Tigers Greats Are the Team’s Franchise Four
By Tom Pollin
For 2015, Detroit Tigers fans, along with fans of every other MLB team, can vote for the Franchise Four, the four greatest players in each team’s history. There are also opportunities to vote for the four Greatest Living Players, Negro Leaguers and MLB Pioneers.
Dave Holcomb has already profiled the eight players on MLB’s Detroit Tigers ballot; Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Alan Trammel, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. There is also one space on each franchise’s ballot for a write-in candidate (fortunate for a reason that will be revealed near the end of this article).
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With the Detroit Tigers franchise being one of the charter members of the American League a number of worthy players like, Harry Heilmann, Norm Cash, Tommy Bridges and Mickey Lolich didn’t make the final cut. Of the ones who did the following four should be the Tigers players honored at the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati.
Ty Cobb (The Georgia Peach)
Detroit Tigers 1905 to 1926; Philadelphia Athletics 1927 to 1928
In the first half of the 20th Century Tyrus Raymond Cobb was the only one who could be mentioned in the same breath as Babe Ruth when arguments turned to who was the greatest player of all time. His standing as one of the greatest Detroit Tigers of all time has no argument.
Cobb terrorized the American League for 24 seasons as one of the fiercest competitors to ever play the game. His career batting average of .366 is considered one of the unbreakable records in major league history.
At the end of his career Cobb held the hits record with 4,189, a total not even approached until Pete Rose surpassed him in 1985. He won 12 batting titles (the 1910 title is disputed) and won the Triple Crown in 1909 with a .377 batting average, nine home runs and 107 RBI’s. He also led the American League that season with 76 stolen bases.
Cobb appeared in three World Series with the Tigers but never won one. They lost 4-0 and 4-1 to the Chicago Cubs in 1907 and 1908 and fell 4-3 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1909.
In 1936, Cobb along with Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson were the first players selected for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Al Kaline; 1953 to 1974
If Mr. Tiger isn’t named as one of the Franchise Four then the entire process is an exercise in futility.
Al Kaline’s stellar play in high school drew the attention of a number of major league teams who wanted to sign him after his graduation. The Tigers moved first and signed him to a contract with a $15,000 bonus.
That money brought Kaline to Detroit and, because of the rules at that time, made him what was called a “bonus baby”. The Tigers were prevented from sending him to the minor leagues for two years. By the time that period was over Kaline was a rising star and never played an inning of minor league ball.
He made his debut with the Tigers in June of 1953 at the age of 18. In 1955, Kaline won the American League Batting Title with a league-leading 200 hits and .340 average. He also led the league that season with 321 total bases.
In Mid-May of 1968 Kaline suffered a broken arm after being hit by a pitch and didn’t return until July 1. He wasn’t at full strength but was still able to contribute down the stretch to send the Tigers to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. In the series he hit .379 with two home runs to help Detroit fight back from a 3-1 deficit and become World Champions.
Kaline still holds Tigers records for most games played with 2,834 and most home runs with 399 (Miguel Cabrera was fifth on the list with 252 heading into the 2015 season). Kaline is second only to Ty Cobb in hits with 3,007, RBI’s with 1,582 and total bases with 4,852. He was also one of the best right fielders of his era with an outstanding arm, a .987 fielding percentage and 10 Gold Gloves.
Kaline continued his association with the Tigers after his retirement, becoming a radio color commentator and s spring training special instructor. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.
Hank Greenberg (Hammerin’ Hank);
Detroit Tigers 1930 to 1946; Pittsburgh Pirates 1947
This was the toughest choice to make among the players on the Franchise Four list. Crawford was great but overshadowed by Cobb during his career, Gehringer was one of the steadiest, most reliable players of his time and Cabrera may earn this spot before his career is over but at present Greenberg is No. 3.
Hank Greenberg was the first real slugger in Tigers history, he led the American League in home runs five times and could also hit for average, finishing his career at .313. He also only had two full seasons in his career with a lower than .400 on-base percentage.
Greenberg’s greatest individual season came in 1938 when he made a run at Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, falling two short with 58. In 1935 he was named A.L. MVP as the first baseman of the Tigers first World Series Championship team and repeated as MVP in 1940 as a left fielder.
Greenberg would be remembered as one of the greatest sluggers of all time if he hadn’t lost four years of his prime, most of 1941 and the complete 1942 to 1944 seasons due to World War II.
He came back from the war to help lead the Tigers to their 1945 Championship, winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award in the process, and had one more elite season before closing his career in Pittsburgh in 1947.
Greenberg became the first Jewish player named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1957.
Hal Newhouser (Prince Hal)
Detroit Tigers 1939 to 1993; Cleveland Indians 1954 to 1955
Harold “Hal” Newhouser is why the write-in portion of the Franchise Four ballot is so important. Justin Verlander has touched elite status in his career but currently would have problems justifying a standing of fifth best Tigers pitcher of all time.
Newhouser was declared ineligible to serve in the armed forces during World War II so the left-hander was able to pitch in Detroit through those years. He had a rough start to his career but came up big in 1944 when he led the American League with 29 wins and 187 strikeouts while taking home the MVP trophy.
He repeated as A.L. MVP in 1945 after leading the league with 29 wins, a 1.81 earned run average, 29 complete games, eight shutouts and 212 strikeouts. He also won game seven of that season’s World Series 9-3 over the Cubs to wrap up another Detroit championship.
Newhouser became well known throughout baseball for his duels with Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer Bob Feller. They pitched against each other 14 times, the most famous being in 1948. In the final game of the season Newhouser’s 7-1 complete game win knocked the Indians back into a tie for first place and force a playoff game with the Boston Red Sox.
Newhouser won more than 20 games in a season four times before soreness in his arm slowed his career. He won 207 for his career.
Newhouser is currently the only Detroit Tigers pitcher in the Hall of Fame and has more than earned a spot as one of the Franchise Four.