How Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon Helped the Tigers Become Champions – Part 4

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: A detail of a Detroit Tigers hat and glove are seen during warm ups against the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: A detail of a Detroit Tigers hat and glove are seen during warm ups against the New York Yankees during Game Five of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 6, 2011 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

On the last day of Black History Month, let’s conclude our four-part series on how two outstanding African-American players – Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon – helped turn the Tigers into champions.

In the early 1980s, the Detroit Tigers had begun developing into a contending team. The acquisitions of outfielders Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon helped to solidify their status as up-and-comers. After a second place finish in 1983, the Tigers proved they were ready to win.

Baseball Digest  predicted that the 1984 Tigers would finish first in the AL East. Other publications like The Sporting News and Street & Smith’s picked the Tigers to finish second. Sports Illustrated  was much less convinced, pegging the Tigers as a fourth place team. The season began on April 3 in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

With one out in the third, Lemon tripled for the Tigers’ first hit of the season. Moments later, he scored their first run on a Howard Johnson double. Herndon added an RBI single in the fifth as the Tigers cruised to an 8-1 Opening Day victory. It was the beginning of a nine-game winning streak.

Lemon’s first home run, a 2-run shot in Chicago on April 7, provided Jack Morris with all the offense he’d really need on his way to a 4-0 no-hit triumph over the White Sox. It was an easy day in center for Lemon. He only had one putout (the first out of the second inning).

The Tigers went 18-2 in April. Lemon played in all 20 games, notching hits in 16 them (including a 4-hit day against the White Sox on April 22). He still reached base in two of his four hitless games. Only an 0 for 7 dud in a 19-inning loss to the Indians on April 27 kept his .333/.405/.627 line from being higher. Hitting mostly eighth, his 12 extra-base hits and 16 RBI added some nice punch to the bottom third of the lineup.

Both Lemon and the Tigers had an excellent month, but Lemon saw his hot start as part of a much bigger picture. He said,

"“The reason I’ve gotten off to a good start is because of this team. There’s so much talent that it makes you play well…Last year I sacrificed my average for power, but this year maybe I can enjoy both. I’ve been a notorious slow starter, especially in April because of the cold weather. But I hope this good start works for a strong finish.”"

The only thing that got in the Tigers way in April was lousy weather. Three straight games, two in Boston and one at home, were rained out. Lemon and the Tigers continued to roll through in May, winning seven straight at one point and later adding another nine-game winning streak. By the end of the month, it was shaping up to be a special season.

On May 24 in Anaheim, Lemon caught Brian Downing’s flyball to end a series finale against the Angels. The 5-1 victory was the Tigers’ 17th straight road win, which tied a major league record set by the 1916 New York Giants. It also broke an American League record set by the 1912 Washington Senators. The win gave the 1984 Detroit Tigers a win-loss record that will likely be remembered by Tigers fans forever: 35-5.

The Tigers were flying high, but then they experienced some turbulence in Seattle. The Mariners, who were under .500, swept the Tigers in three games in the Kingdome. Lemon’s only hit was a home run that gave the Tigers their only run in the series finale. Herndon fared a little better, notching three hits.

Herndon was having a down year. He finished April hitting .222/.325/.319, way below the .297/.341/.479 that he’d put together in his first two seasons in Detroit. Although he hit a little better in May, he finished the month with an 0 for 11 skid that included four strikeouts. He was still homerless (and wouldn’t hit his first until June 21). Because of Herndon’s struggles, the Tigers’ outfield situation changed in June.

Veteran left-handed hitter Ruppert Jones, who had joined the Tigers’ organization in April, was called up from Triple-A Evansville and debuted on June 6. From that point on, Herndon and Jones spent the bulk of the season platooning in left field, Jones occasionally spelling Lemon in center.

Chet Lemon during the 1985 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Chet Lemon during the 1985 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Although Herndon had outperformed Lemon in their first two years together in Detroit, it was the other way around in 1984. As the All-Star break approached, Lemon was among the league leaders in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and doubles. He was chosen by the fans to start in the All-Star Game in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Lemon finished second in outfield voting, between future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield of the Yankees and Reggie Jackson of the Angels.

The Tigers would be well represented in the All-Star Game. Second baseman Lou Whitaker and catcher Lance Parrish were also voted in as starters. Pitchers Jack Morris and Willie Hernandez, along with shortstop Alan Trammell, were chosen as reserves. Lemon was appreciative of the opportunity and said that he was looking forward to being there with all of his teammates.

In the game, Lemon singled off the Expos’ Charlie Lea in the top of the second, but was picked off first base to end the inning. In the fifth, Lemon was part of a memorable All-Star debut by 19-year old Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. Gooden struck out Parrish, Lemon, and the Mariners’ Alvin Davis. Boston’s Jim Rice pinch hit for Lemon to lead off the eighth. The National League won 3-1.

Lemon got off to a nice start in the second half with eight hits (including two doubles) and two walks in his first four games. His roll was temporarily stalled when he missed three games after jamming the middle finger on his left hand during one of his trademark head-first slides into first. Doctors had advised him to quit doing that earlier in the season after it was determined that the habit was contributing to some back problems he was experiencing. Lemon replied,

"“When you play as hard as I do and want to win as much as I do, you’re gonna have injuries. I’ve had them my whole career. You just have to learn to play with them.”"

Lemon enjoyed a triumphant return to the lineup on July 20, as the Tigers hosted the Rangers. He singled in the second, but wound up stranded on third. With the Tigers up 2-1, he led off the fourth with his 13th home run of the year. He added another single in the sixth, but was stranded at second. The pitcher in all three at-bats, future Tiger teammate Frank Tanana, was a guy that Lemon respected. He noted,

"“Tanana keeps you off-balance. He’s the worst guy in the world to bat against if you’re not patient. I was lucky to find the holes with a couple of my hits.”"

In that game, Lemon also contributed with his defense. The Tigers led 3-1 in the sixth. Rangers first baseman Pete O’Brien bounced one off the fence in right center. A hustling Lemon was able to field it smoothly. Getting the ball back into the infield quickly, he was able to hold O’Brien to a 400-foot single. Lemon remarked,

"“I’m not saying this because I made it, but I think that was a very important play. We were ahead by only two runs at the time, and they had their big RBI men, Larry Parrish and Buddy Bell, coming up, so a hit could’ve scored a man from second and cut the lead to 3-2.”"

The Tigers went through ups and downs in June (18-12), July (16-12), and August (16-15), but the worst moment of the season happened in Anaheim on August 26. Things had started pretty well that day. Lemon’s third inning grand slam (the only one of his career) was the highlight of a six-run rally. The Tigers continued to roar and took an 11-0 lead into the bottom of the sixth. That’s when a fun game took a dark turn.

Fred Lynn hit a high fly ball to center field. Lemon lost sight of it in the sunny and cloudless Sunday afternoon sky. He flipped his sunglasses up, hoping that would help. Lemon never saw the ball as it came down and hit him hard in the face, just above his right eye. Upon impact, his glasses went flying. He was cut badly and had to be carried off the field by a half-dozen teammates.

Lemon was rushed to the hospital. Thankfully, X-rays were negative, and he didn’t experience any blurred vision. Other than some swelling, the result was a dozen stitches. As the Tigers moved on to Seattle, Lemon traveled with them, but spent a couple days resting in a hotel room. He was able to pinch hit four days after the accident, but ended up missing a total of eight games. Lemon acknowledged,

"“The doctors said I was very fortunate that the ball hit me where it did. They said if I would have been a hair or two down lower by my eye, it could have been serious trouble.”"

In addition to the injury, August (.196/.265./.348) had been Lemon’s roughest month in 1984. Meanwhile, Herndon’s bat had quietly perked up. He put together a .355/.414/.613 line in August and reached base in 19 of the 20 games he appeared in.

Lemon returned to full-time action in Toronto on September 7, and his bases loaded walk in the eighth was the culmination of a game-tying four-run rally. In the tenth, he singled and scored on a Dave Bergman home run that gave the Tigers a 7-4 win. It was their 90th victory of the season. (Lemon had also scored on Bergman’s classic walk-off home run against the Blue Jays on June 6.) An excited Lemon said,

"“Man, I wouldn’t have missed this game for the world. Nobody can beat us when we got everybody out there playing together like we did tonight.”"

A moment that Tigers fans had been waiting for since 1972 finally happened on September 18.

With the magic number down to one, the Tigers sent rookie Randy O’Neal to the mound to face the Brewers in his first major league start. The kid was calm, cool, and collected as he threw seven shutout innings. Sparky let closer Willie Hernandez handle the last couple innings. Anticipation grew as the Tigers took the field for the bottom of the ninth, holding a 3-0 lead. Over 48,000 fans in Tiger Stadium were ready to celebrate.

The inning began with Lemon catching Doug Loman’s flyball for the first out. After Bobby Clark singled, Herndon caught Mark Brouhard’s flyball for the second out. As important as Hernandez had been to the Tigers throughout the season, it was only appropriate that he ended the game himself, striking out Jim Sundberg.

The Tigers were the 1984 American League East Champions. Amidst the celebration in the cramped, but jubilant Tigers locker room, Lemon took a moment to reflect on what he and his teammates had just accomplished. He said,

"“There were tough periods for us, but we managed to hold on. We were under the gun all season. Every town we went to, we’d pick up the paper and read ‘are we as real as our record?’ We battled. We showed we were.”"

The Tigers took on the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series, which began in Kansas City on October 2. Herndon led off the fourth and put a smooth swing on a Bud Black fastball. His home run to left was the first of three Tigers’ homers that night, as they cruised to an easy 8-1 win.

In true Herndon fashion, he didn’t talk to the press afterward, but his teammates were more than willing to talk about him. Darrell Evans, who’d gotten to know Herndon when they both played in San Francisco, said,

"“Larry’s one of those guys who does his job and leaves it at that, and he’s always been that way. He doesn’t make himself so obvious as others do, so maybe he isn’t as appreciated. But he’s had some big games for the Tigers, and I have a feeling he’s going to have a few more.”"

The Tigers won Game 2 in eleven innings, 5-3. The series then moved to Detroit, where the Tigers would have a chance to clinch the pennant in front of their hometown fans over the weekend.

Barbaro Garbey led off the second with a single, but Lemon’s grounder to third forced him at second. Evans singled Lemon to third. Marty Castillo hit a soft grounder to Royals shortstop Onix Concepcion, who made the toss to second baseman Frank White to retire Evans. A hustling Castillo narrowly beat White’s throw to first and avoided an inning-ending double play. That allowed Lemon to score the first run of the game.

Lemon’s run was his biggest contribution in the ALCS. He’d only hit .213/.240/.319 with no home runs and 10 strikeouts against the Royals in the regular season, and they held him hitless in 13 at-bats in the ALCS. Lemon’s run was enough in Game 3, however, as the Tigers clinched the pennant with a 1-0 win.

For the first time since 1968, the Detroit Tigers were in the World Series. Their opponents, the San Diego Padres, would host Game 1 on October 9. The Padres led 2-1 in the top of the fifth, when Herndon came up with Lance Parrish on second and two out. After taking Mark Thurmond’s first pitch for a called strike, Herndon watched as Thurmond missed on three straight pitches. The next pitch was one that Thurmond would lament. He said,

"“I wish I hadn’t thrown a fastball over the plate where he could extend his arms. I should’ve thrown a change or something else…Dan Quisenberry says that’s where offensive history is made – in the middle of the plate.”"

Herndon’s two-run homer to right gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead, which held up as the final score and gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead in the series.

The quiet Herndon was fully aware that reporters would be seeking him out after the game, and that was something he wanted to avoid. Instead, he left the ballpark without stopping by the locker room first, and he fled for the solitude of his hotel room. A clubhouse attendant took care of sending his street clothes to the Tigers’ hotel. That seemed to get a kick out of Lemon, who told the waiting media,

"“Fellows, if he hasn’t talked to you before, he’s not going to talk to you now just because he hit a home run. At least he’s not a hypocrite. He’s consistent.”"

Lemon, who finally got his first postseason hit (a sixth inning single), described Game 1 as “a dogfight”. The Padres put up a better fight in Game 2 and came away with a 5-3 win to send the World Series back to Detroit tied at a game apiece.

It was a festive Friday night at Tiger Stadium for Game 3 on October 12. The Tigers treated fans to an entertaining second inning rally. With one out, Lemon singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and went to third on Evans’ flyout to center. Castillo’s two-run homer put the Tigers on the board, and they kept going. Whitaker walked and scored on Trammell’s double. Gibson walked, and Parrish singled to load the bases for Herndon. His walk forced in Trammell with the Tigers’ fourth run of the evening.

The Tigers led 5-2 in the seventh when Lemon made his mark on the World Series with his defense. With a runner at third and two out, Willie Hernandez faced Padres catcher Terry Kennedy, who worked the count full. Lemon had moved in to play shallow, based on scouting reports that said Kennedy would just try to make contact with two strikes on him. Instead, Kennedy drove the ball deep to center.

The speedy Lemon was able to chase the ball down, but it wasn’t easy. He had to do a bit of spinning around to make the catch and almost lost his balance. It wasn’t smooth or pretty, but it was effective. In describing the adventure afterward, he said,

"“When he hit it so hard, and I was playing in so close, I was worried at first that I might not get back. I ran back as hard as I could, then turned to the right a little, which is why I stumbled a little as I came back to the left to make the catch.”"

Fans erupted in applause. Even the opposition gave Lemon his due. Padres reliver Rich “Goose” Gossage, watching from the bullpen, observed,

"“That catch of his didn’t surprise me. I think he’s the best center fielder in baseball. He’s always played with reckless abandon. I played with him in Chicago. Don’t hit it to center field – anywhere but there – when he’s out there. I’ve seen him make some fabulous catches. When you see a player like that every day, you realize how great he is.”"

The Tigers held on for a 5-2 win and then won Game 4 by a 4-2 score. The Tigers needed just one more win, and they got off to another quick start in Game 5. Lemon’s RBI single contributed to a three-run first inning rally. The Padres came back to tie the game in the fourth.

Kirk Gibson led off the bottom of the fifth with a single. With one out, Herndon and Lemon drew back to back walks to load the bases. The Tigers took the lead when the aggressive Gibson tagged up and scored on a Rusty Kuntz popfly that second baseman Alan Wiggins caught in shallow right field. The excitement in Tiger Stadium grew as the game drew closer to the end.

With the Tigers leading 8-4 with two out in the bottom of the ninth, future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was the Padres’ last hope. He lofted a Willie Hernandez pitch to left field. Herndon, playing back a bit with a runner on first, raced in and toward the foul line to make the catch. At 7:41pm on Sunday, October 14, 1984, the Detroit Tigers became World Champions.

Years later, Herndon had become much more comfortable talking about himself, and he described the thrilling moment that Tigers fans still fondly remember today. He reminisced,

"“Everything just slowed down and the ball was just floating in the air. I knew I just had to squeeze the ball in my glove and it was over. Luckily, I held on to it, and catching that last out was a very special moment. Nothing can compare to that, and looking back it was a wonderful moment because we had worked so hard as a team. It doesn’t get much better than that.”"

When the Tigers hired Sparky Anderson in June 1979, he boldly predicted that the Tigers would win a championship before his contract expired in 1984. That day, there’s no way that either White Sox outfielder Chet Lemon or Giants outfielder Larry Herndon could have guessed that they’d be two of the guys that would help make Sparky’s prediction come true.