Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon both became full-time starters in the major leagues in 1976. Through trades, they became teammates on the 1982 Detroit Tigers.
In addition to wearing new uniforms, Herndon (a National League veteran) would be playing in a new league, and Lemon would be playing a new position in ’82. Sparky decided that Lemon, who played center field for the White Sox, would play right field in Detroit.
Lemon, who described himself as “an aggressive player”, was looking forward to the challenge. However, his first season with his new team would begin a bit later than expected. On March 30, Lemon pulled a muscle in his rib cage during a post-game batting practice session. He said,
"“I was hitting, and I broke my bat. So Lance (Parrish) handed me one of his ol’ 35-ouncers, and the first swing I took, I pulled my cage. I waited 10 minutes, and then tried to swing again, and it was still hurt.”"
Lemon was determined not to miss Opening Day, which was scheduled for April 6 at Tiger Stadium against the Blue Jays. After a few days out, he finally got back into action in the Tigers’ penultimate spring game. While running out a grounder, he pulled the muscle again, and Sparky pulled him from the Opening Day lineup.
Nobody would end up playing on April 6, or April 8, because the two-game series with the Jays was snowed out. The Tigers finally opened on April 9 in Kansas City, but Lemon missed the first five games. In his Tigers debut in Toronto on April 14, his pinch hit single in the ninth drove in two runs, part of a game tying 4-run rally. (The Tigers went on to lose 5-4.)
Lemon and Herndon finally started a game together on April 15 in the rescheduled home opener against the Jays. Lemon singled to lead off the bottom of the first, advanced to second on Enos Cabell’s sacrifice bunt, and scored the Tigers’ first run on Richie Hebner’s single. A recurring nuisance from seasons past emerged again later, when Lemon was hit by a pitch in the third.
Herndon shined in the seventh. With the game tied 2-2, he walked. Lou Whitaker lined a single to right-center, and Herndon was off with the pitch. He raced around the bases and slid head-first into the plate to beat the throw and score the go-ahead run. The Tigers won 4-2.
Two games later, after starting 3-5, the Tigers got hot and reeled off an 8-game winning streak that momentarily put them in first place the AL East. Lemon and Herndon played in all eight games, and each hit his first home run during the streak. (Herndon’s was off the Yankees’ Doyle Alexander. The two were teammates with the Giants in 1981, and they would eventually be teammates again as Tigers in the memorable 1987 season.)
"Herndon looked good at the plate (.345/.375/.552) as the Tigers rolled through those eight games. He scored three runs, drove in six, and walked twice. Lemon didn’t hit as well (.219/.342/.344), but he was helped by drawing four walks and getting hit by a pitch twice. He scored five runs, and also drove in six."
The Tigers finished April half a game out of first. Another 8-game winning streak, beginning May 10, put them back on top for three days. (They led Boston by percentage points during that spurt.) Some of the most memorable moments of the 1982 season happened during this streak.
The Twins and Tigers were tied 2-2 in the fourth inning at Tiger Stadium on May 14, when Lemon came up with one on and one out. He was hit on the left wrist by a fastball from the Twins’ Pete Redfern. He dropped to the ground, but immediately bounced back up. As catcher Tim Laudner looked around for the ball, the speedy Lemon made a beeline for Redfern. Years later, Laudner recalled,
"“He took off even before I noticed. I couldn’t catch Chet Lemon. I couldn’t catch Chet Lemon if I had a head start. I thought my job was to just wrap my arms around him so that he could not punch Pete Redfern when he was down.”"
A picture of Lemon pouncing on Redfern made the front page of the next morning’s Free Press. Lemon quickly took him down, and that set off the first of the game’s two brawls.
It almost looked like the second brawl was going to erupt in the tenth when Twins reliever Ron Davis came up and in on Herndon, who was able to avoid getting hit in the jaw. An angry Herndon had to be restrained by Sparky. After the game, Sparky was upset that Davis wasn’t ejected. He ranted,
"“The umpires told both sides after the first one that anymore beanballs and ‘you’re gone’. Well, they laid the rules down, and they’ve got to enforce ’em. You don’t let them throw a pitch there – not at the coconut. No sir. In the first fight, Davis and Herndon had squared off, and then he gets up and throws one right at the coconut.”"
The second brawl happened in the eleventh, when Davis almost got Enos Cabell in the coconut. Cabell promptly charged the mound. When the benches cleared, the usually mild-mannered Herndon went off. He can be seen going right after Davis, who looked like he had Cabell in a headlock. From there, Herndon was swinging wildly at anyone in a baby blue uniform that he could get a fist on, before going down and getting lost in a sea of bodies.
(That night is still remembered because of Tiger reliever Dave Rozema’s karate kick attempt in the second brawl, which resulted in a season-ending knee injury. Kirk Gibson, as intense as ever, was determined to “win this mother”. He walk-off homer won that mother.)
Lemon and Herndon each got a measure of revenge against the Twins two days later. Lemon’s solo home run in the fourth gave the Tigers a 6-5 lead. After the Twins tied it again, Herndon’s leadoff homer in the seventh broke the tie. That held up as the game-winner, and for Herndon, it turned out to be a prelude to something bigger.
The Oakland A’s were the Tigers’ next guests. Rickey Henderson led off the series opener on May 18 with a home run off Jack Morris. Lemon got the bottom of the first started by walking against Mike Norris. After advancing to second on a balk, he scored the tying run on a Cabell single.
Later in the first, with two on and two out, Herndon, who had recently been dropped to sixth in the lineup (after hitting mostly fourth or fifth), homered to give the Tigers a 4-1 lead. His two-run home run in the third, as play resumed after a 72-minute rain delay, increased the lead to 6-1.
The A’s had gotten a run back by the time Herndon stepped up again in the fifth. Norris was still in there. With a man on second, it might not have been a bad idea for A’s manager Billy Martin to either have Norris walk Herndon or just go to the bullpen. Instead, Norris pitched to Herndon, and Herndon made Oakland pay. He sent the pitch soaring to left field. Henderson’s attempt at a leaping catch was in vain.
Larry Herndon went into his home-run trot once again. He became the third Tiger to homer in four consecutive at-bats (following Hank Greenberg in 1938 and Charlie Maxwell in 1959). He was also the first Tiger to hit three in a game since Bill Freehan in 1971. Bill McGraw of the Free Press enthusiastically wrote,
"“The three Billyballs Larry Herndon dispatched to the left field stands…blasted off from home plate with very loud, super sharp, sugary cracks of the bat. From the initial points of contact, there was no doubt that any of the Mike Norris pitches would soon be out of sight.”"
The A’s were finally able to retire Herndon in the seventh. It was a pretty exciting evening at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull as the Tigers won 11-9. As Brian Bragg of the Free Press described,
"“After each of his homers Tuesday…the fans in left field gave Herndon rousing ovations – cheers that became louder and more sustained each time. But Herndon, never a demonstrable type, did nothing more each time, than to touch the bill of his cap and then begin his between innings warmup tosses.”"
Herndon, who wasn’t used to the spotlight, admitted that all the attention was “embarrassing”. He was appreciative of the ovations from Tigers fans, which included them chanting his name, and compared the night to a dream. He said that he was “just trying to see the ball and hit it hard”.
He followed up his home run hat trick by going 0 for 4 the next day. However, Herndon got hot again in the series finale against the A’s on May 18. Sparky bumped him back up to fifth in the lineup. Herndon singled in the first, after the Tigers scored twice, but was stranded.
With Kirk Gibson on and two out in the third, Herndon’s line drive to right got past a diving Dan Meyer. The ball was headed for the wall, and Herndon was headed for third. The RBI triple gave the Tigers a 3-0 lead. He singled and scored in a 5-run rally in the fourth, but the hit could’ve been ruled an error because Oakland shortstop Fred Stanley threw the ball into the dirt after fielding Herndon’s routine grounder.
Herndon added another triple in the sixth, but was stranded. He led off the eighth with a single, his fifth hit of the game, and scored on a Lance Parrish home run. The 11-3 Tigers win was their eighth in a row. The modest Herndon, who would be named AL Player of the Week for his heroics, preferred to talk about team instead of his own contributions to the Tigers’ winning ways. He said,
"“We’ve got a good team here. There are good people all around you. You see guys playing like this and you can’t help but play good yourself.”"
During that 8-game winning streak, Herndon, who played in all of them, dominated (.441/.457/1.059), with 5 HR, 3 triples, 11 RBI, and 8 runs scored. Lemon missed one game, but also hit well (.360/.500/.480) and added 6 walks to his home run and 7 runs.
The Tigers reclaimed first place on June 1 with a 2-1 victory over the Angels, nudging out the Red Sox (who lost 3-2 to the A’s). Herndon doubled and scored in the Tigers’ two-run second inning. They didn’t drop out of first until a 13-5 loss to the Brewers on June 13. That loss turned out to be the first of ten straight losses. The Tigers would not return to first place again that season.
June was also Lemon’s roughest month. He hit .175/.288/.286 and battled a sore left wrist and swollen right hand. By the end of the month, Sparky had dropped him from the leadoff spot to seventh in the lineup. Sparky felt Lemon had been pressing, and Lemon was happy to go along with the decision.
The 1982 Tigers, who had showed promise before swooning, finished fourth in the AL East with a 83-79 record, 12 games behind the Brewers.
Herndon, who put up some of the best numbers of his career, was one of the best hitters on the team. He led the Tigers in plate appearances (614), runs (92), hits (179), triples (13), RBI (88), batting average (.292), and total bases (295). His 23 home runs, which obliterated his previous career-high of 8, were second only to Lance Parrish’s 32. Herndon also finished behind Parrish in slugging percentage, .529 to .480. He contributed 21 doubles and 12 steals.
Lemon rebounded from his earlier struggles and had strong months in August and September to finish .266/.368/.447. It had been one of his weaker seasons, but there were some positives to be found. Lemon led the team in walks (56) and finished first among Tigers regulars in OBP (.368). He ended up with a slightly better OPS+ (123) than Herndon (121). Lemon also hit 19 home runs, tying his then-current career high.
As the summer was winding down, the Tigers expressed an interest in re-signing both Herndon and Lemon, who were among those that could become eligible for free agency in the offseason. On November 4, the day after Herndon turned 29, he and Lemon each signed new long-term contracts with the Tigers.
With both outfielders secured for the future, the Detroit Tigers could feel optimistic as 1983 approached.
(To be continued.)