We continue to honor Black History Month by looking at some of the most influential African-American players who have played for the Detroit Tigers. Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon were two of the Tigers’ most important acquisitions of the early 80s.
The Tigers almost snuck into the playoffs in the strike-shortened season of 1981.
Thanks to the split-season format and a solid second half, they were in contention until the season’s penultimate game. Overall, the team’s .550 winning percentage was the franchise’s best since 1972, when the Tigers won the AL East. For a team that was developing a talented young core, it was a step in the right direction.
There was still room for improvement, though. Right-handed hitting was one need that General Manager Jim Campbell was looking to fill in the offseason. On November 27, he found what he was looking for, but shocked the fanbase in the process.
Steve Kemp, the Tigers’ best hitter, and run producer was traded to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Chet Lemon. Kemp was the first overall pick in the January 1976 draft. He needed only one season in the minors before arriving in Detroit. His emergence made it possible for the Tigers to trade long-time slugger and hero Willie Horton in early 1977. Two years later, Kemp became the star of the team.
While fans tried to make sense of the bombshell that was dropped upon them, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson was imagining how Lemon would fit into his 1982 plans. Lemon, a 26-year old former first-round draft pick and two-time All-Star, was coming off a .302/.384/.491 season. With an OPS+ of 155 (which turned out to be a career-high), he had been a big catalyst in the White Sox lineup. Regarding the Tigers’ lineup, Sparky said,
“I’m kicking around the idea of leading him off. We’ll start out that way and see how it works out. Lemon hit .335 leading off for Chicago in the last half of last year. He can hit anywhere from first through sixth in our lineup.
One thing that Lemon also seemed to do well was get hit by pitches. He wasn’t afraid to crowd the plate or be pitched inside. As a result, he’d gotten plunked over 10 times in three of the four previous seasons. Thirteen was his unluckiest number, as he led the league with 13 in the HBP column in both 1979 and 1981.
Sparky liked Lemon’s speed and envisioned him becoming a bigger base-stealing threat. Lemon averaged nearly 7.5 thefts a year in six full seasons. He agreed with Sparky but said the White Sox weren’t interested in working on his stealing. Instead, Lemon’s aggressive style of running, which included things like sliding head-first into first or running into outs elsewhere, drew criticism in Chicago.
(Ultimately, he never did become that bigger base-stealing threat. Lemon stole 13 as a rookie. He also stole 13 as a Tiger, but it took him his entire nine-year stint in Detroit to get that many.)
Although Lemon was a top-notch center fielder, Kirk Gibson finished 1981 as the Tigers’ starting center fielder. Sparky wasn’t initially sure where Lemon would play in Detroit. He said the decision would wait until Spring Training. Lemon seemed surprised when he caught wind of that, and he may have thought that he’d be taking over Kemp’s spot. He confidently declared,
“There aren’t too many places I would go where they wouldn’t put me in center. Maybe the Tigers would want to put Kirk Gibson in left.”
As it turned out, the Tigers wouldn’t need either Lemon or Gibson to play left field. The Tigers picked up left fielder Larry Herndon in a trade with the San Francisco Giants on December 9.
Herndon, a 28-year old right-handed hitter, led the 1981 Giants with 105 hits. He put up a respectable .288/.325/.415 with an OPS+ of 111. Sparky decided that Herndon, instead of Lemon, would be the Tigers’ leadoff hitter in 1982. Herndon usually hit fifth for the Giants in ’81 but had led off at times earlier in his career, mostly in his rookie year. He was also a little bit more of a base stealer than Lemon, averaging 10 steals a year in San Francisco.
For fans that weren’t able to watch much West Coast National League baseball, Herndon was described as “a line-drive hitter with plenty of speed” and “an exciting (and) aggressive player (who) can play all three outfield positions”. Detroit Free Press writer Brian Bragg described him as “a slightly smaller version of superstar Dave Winfield, with his long legs and arms”.
Darrell Evans, a player that Tigers fans would someday get to know better, had been Herndon’s teammate in San Francisco since both of them arrived there prior to the 1976 season. Evans was stunned that the Giants had traded Herndon away. He said,
“Larry was our MVP this year, so you know what the guys thought about him. I think he was among the top outfielders in the league, just coming into his own. We’re talking about a quality ball player, and I don’t know what we got for him.”
In exchange for Herndon, General Manager Jim Campbell gave up left-handed starting pitcher Dan Schatzeder, who’d been mediocre in the two seasons since the Tigers traded Ron LeFlore to the Montreal Expos to get him. Pitcher Mike Chris, who hadn’t seen the big leagues since 1979, was a throw-in.
With Gibson also in the mix, the 1982 Tigers outfield looked like an improvement over the 1981 version. Sparky quickly called it “the best defensive outfield I ever had” (primarily because of Lemon and Herndon, whose defense was seen as an upgrade over Kemp’s in left). It was clear that he was excited about the upcoming season. He announced to the baseball world,
“We’re legitimate now. I feel, by God, we can play with anybody. I mean, anybody!…There ain’t going to be nobody going to camp next spring who doesn’t think we’ve got a chance. They know it. Everybody here knows it. I’ll tell you. We can play.”
When the Tigers started playing in spring training, left fielder Herndon led off, and right fielder Lemon hit cleanup. Sparky wasn’t afraid to change his mind about things, though. By the end of March, he’d flip-flopped the two in the lineup. He thought Lemon was “uneasy” in the cleanup spot.
Lemon seemed to trust that his new manager was making the right move. With his typical aplomb, he proclaimed,
“When you’re swinging good, you can hit anywhere. Wherever Skip puts me in the lineup, it’s no big deal. I’m gonna get my dingers whether I’m batting third, fourth, fifth, or wherever. I’m gonna get my hits. I’m gonna get my doubles, no matter where I hit.”
Herndon hadn’t hit more than 8 home runs in a season before, but he felt like he’d be able to top that. His manager in San Francisco, Frank Robinson, was familiar with Tiger Stadium and predicted that Herndon would do some home run hitting there, Sparky, however, wasn’t looking for a power-hitting slugger to hit fourth. The silver-haired skipper, in the mangled syntax, that he was known for, explained,
“I don’t manage by history. I manage by my eyes. I don’t care about power, anyway, nowhere in my lineup. That’s the least thing I care about in baseball.
My style is to run and move people. I don’t want no tanks up there at the top.”
Both Lemon and Herndon were looking forward to hitting regularly in Detroit. Lemon believed that Tiger Stadium was a “more conducive” fit for him than Chicago’s larger Comiskey Park. A couple of Herndon’s friends had told him that the ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was “the best hitting park in the American League”.
With the confidence inspired by his two key newcomers, Sparky was in a mood to talk up his Tigers as Opening Day approached. He had a vision that he was proud to share and said,
“Finishing close to the top ain’t on my mind. I think we’re as good as anyone out there, and I honestly believe in my heart we can win it. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
The Tigers had almost made into the playoffs in 1981. Thanks to the acquisitions of Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon, the bar had been raised for 1982.
(To be continued.)
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