A brief series about former Detroit Tigers players who died in 2020 continues with a remembrance of Tony Taylor, who wore the Olde English D for three seasons.
The Detroit Tigers tried to get second baseman Tony Taylor from the Phillies in a trade at the 1970 winter meetings. Detroit general manager Jim Campbell didn’t want to give up any of the pitchers that Philadelphia was asking for, which included John Hiller and Fred Scherman, the team’s two steadiest relievers that year. Campbell finally sealed a deal for Taylor in June 1971. This time, all he had to give up were two minor league pitchers, Carl Cavanaugh and Mike Fremuth. Neither reached the major leagues.
The Cuban-born Taylor debuted with the Cubs in 1958, and had been with the Phillies since early 1960. Primarily a second baseman with some experience at third and first, he had even started to play the outfield in 1970. Taylor was also a quality right-handed pinch-hitter. The Tigers were looking to strengthen their bench. Initially, Tigers manager Billy Martin planned to use Taylor all over the field, but Taylor’s time in Detroit was spent primarily in a platoon with left-handed hitting second baseman Dick McAuliffe. Martin was happy about Taylor’s arrival. He said,
"“He can hit. He makes us a little stronger. He’ll start at second base Sunday, and he’ll get two hits. Just wait and see.”"
Sunday was June 13. The Twins were in town. Taylor hit third, in between Mickey Stanley and Al Kaline. Taylor was exactly one year younger than Kaline and became the only teammate of Kaline’s to share a birthday with him. After Taylor arrived at Tiger Stadium, one of the first things he did was ask Kaline about the Twins’ starter that afternoon, Jim Kaat. Taylor, the longtime National Leaguer, had only faced Kaat in spring training games.
With the Tigers already down 1-0, Stanley singled in the bottom of the first. Taylor followed with a line drive single over second base. He would be forced out at second by Kaline, but a hard slide into Twins second baseman Rod Carew prevented a double play. The Tigers kept on rolling. Three more hits in the inning gave Detroit a 4-1 lead. Taylor singled in the fourth, making Martin’s two-hit prediction come true. While Kaline was up, Taylor was caught stealing to end the inning, though. He and Kaline led off the seventh with back-to-back singles, and both rolled home on Willie Horton’s three-run home run.
Before the game, Taylor and Tigers shortstop Eddie Brinkman only had a chance to practice their double play moves together once. In the game, they turned two Twin-killings against Minnesota, both of which looked “snazzy”, according to Curt Sylvester of the Detroit Free Press. Carew hit into each of them. On the first one, in the fifth inning, Taylor backhanded a hard-hit grounder behind second base. With his gloved hand, he flipped the ball to Brinkman to start the double play. Taylor said,
"“I had good position on the ball. They told me he’d hit straight away, so I was playing over toward second base.”"
The second double play was a game-ender. The Tigers won 9-5. Taylor’s Tiger debut went pretty well, and there was a Bat Day crowd of 52,178 on hand at Tiger Stadium to see it. His longtime Phillies teammate, the former Tiger pitcher Jim Bunning, had told him that Detroit “is the best town in baseball”. There were a few familiar faces to welcome Taylor into the Tigers clubhouse, guys that he had played winter ball with in Puerto Rico, including Stanley and Horton. He was feeling good as he continued to get acclimated to his new surroundings. Taylor remarked,
"“I was real nervous this morning. I told myself ‘don’t try too hard, just try to do the best that you can do’. As soon as I started taking ground balls in practice, I felt better.”"
The next night, Taylor didn’t get into the game until the bottom of the sixth. The Tigers had just tied the White Sox 3-3 on McAuliffe’s two-out single. The Sox went to the bullpen. Lefty Terry Forster came in to pitch to left-handed hitter Jim Northrup. Taylor pinch-hit for Northrup instead. He singled to right, but Aurelio Rodriguez struck out to end the Tigers’ threat. Taylor stayed in the game and took over at second base. The game moved on to the tenth inning. With two outs in the bottom half, Kaline walked. So did the next hitter, Ike Brown. That brought Taylor up. Another Chicago pitching change brought righty Steve Keyley in to face Taylor. Richard Dozer of the Chicago Tribune nicely detailed what happened next. He wrote,
"“Tony poked a soft line drive headed for the foul strip in right, and Jay Johnstone made a diving attempt to no avail. The ball fell a couple feet away from his reach and almost squarely on the chalk for a double, and the Tigers won 4-3.”"
Taylor generated some excitement on July 3 as a holiday weekend series at home began. For the first five innings, the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich and the Orioles’ Dave McNally were locked in a pitching duel. Lolich was in the midst of an excellent season. Taylor got the Tigers’ first hit of the game, a fourth inning single that ricocheted off McNally and into shallow left field. He was thrown out trying to stretch his single into a double, however.
In the sixth, Rodriguez singled with two outs. Taylor knocked a double into left-center to drive Rodriguez in with the game’s first run. The Orioles scored in the bottom of the eighth to re-tie it. Rodriguez led off the bottom half with a double. Taylor followed with his second RBI double of the game, this one to right field. The Tigers reclaimed their lead. Kaline fouled out to first baseman Boog Powell, and Taylor, who had tagged up, advanced to third. As Northrup stood in at the plate, Orioles reliever Eddie Watt uncorked a wild pitch. Taylor trotted home with an insurance run. The game ended with Mark Belanger popping out to Taylor. The Tigers won 3-1.
The old saying “good things come to those who wait” rang true for Taylor and the Tigers on July 30. The opposing Angels had right-handed pitcher Andy Messersmith going that night, so Taylor wasn’t in the starting lineup. Before the game could start, everyone had to wait out a two hour, 19 minute rain delay. At one point during the delay, a communications mix-up led Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell to announce that the game was being called off. Harwell left the ballpark. Listening to the radio on the drive home, he heard his partner Ray Lane announce that the game was a go. (Harwell got the year wrong, but he shared more of the story in his book Tuned To Baseball.) The first pitch was finally thrown at 10:17pm.
From the bench, Taylor watched as the Angels took an early 3-0 lead. The Tigers got one run back on a Gates Brown home run in the fourth. The game remained 3-1 going into the bottom of the eighth. Back-to-back singles from Bill Freehan and Kaline got things started for the Tigers. McAuliffe drew a one-out walk to load the bases. That was it for Messersmith.
Lefty Dave LaRoche was called in to face the next hitter, the left-handed hitting Dalton Jones. After a long night without any action, Taylor went in to pinch-hit and rocked a 1-2 pitch to left-center. His double cleared the bases, but Taylor was cut down trying to stretch it into a triple. It was still the game-winning hit in a nice 4-3 come-from-behind victory. For the Tigers that season, Taylor was 4-for-10 with five RBI as a pinch-hitter.
Taylor enjoyed his first 4-for-4 day as a Tiger on September 12. He came through with his biggest hit in the bottom of the third. The Red Sox had just taken a 1-0 lead on future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk’s first big league hit, a solo home run. Taylor hit a long fly ball, 415 feet to center, that was misplayed by both center fielder Reggie Smith and right fielder Billy Conigliaro. Clif Keane of the Boston Globe wrote a detailed account of the duo’s bungling – and the subsequent relay throw to the plate, which was also bad. It makes for humorous reading if you don’t like the Red Sox. It was an inside-the-park home run for Taylor. He was proud to note that it was the fourth of his career.
Boston bounced back to take a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Taylor led off the bottom of the fifth with a single. Kaline followed up with his 15th home run of the season. Detroit’s newfound 3-2 lead held up as the final score. Taylor, who even stole a base after one of his three singles, said he felt good all day. He commented,
"“I love to run, and I certainly got the exercise with that inside-the-park home run. Any day you get four hits, you’ve got to feel good.”"
Taylor hit .287/.335/.414 with a 108 OPS+ in 55 games after coming to Detroit. After the second-place Tigers’ 91-win season in 1971, manager Billy Martin was counting on Taylor to be one of the contributors to help get the team past the Orioles in the AL East in 1972. In spring training, Martin predicted that Taylor “should hit about .300” in 1972. Taylor would continue to platoon with McAuliffe. One thing that would change was Taylor’s spot in the batting order. He usually hit second the season before, but Martin put Taylor in the leadoff spot in 58 of his 61 starts in 1972. Al Kaline also appreciated what Taylor brought to the team. As “Mr. Tiger” looked ahead to the ’72 season, he talked about Taylor. Kaline said,
"“…Having Tony Taylor the whole year is going to have a tremendous influence on our club. He has helped Aurelio Rodriguez an awful lot. And his knowledge of the game has rubbed off on the other infielders…Tony doesn’t play every day, so his age is not a factor. You’d rather have a guy with age and experience doing what he’s doing than have some young kid and expect him to do it. You’d never know if he was going to do the job or not. If I was a manager, I’d love to have Tony Taylor on my team because you know he’s going to be ready to play when you call on him.”"
There would be no playing time for Taylor or any major leaguer right away. The MLB Players Association voted to strike on March 31. The strike, the result of a dispute between players and owners over a new pension agreement, lasted until April 13. Games that were missed during the strike were cancelled. Opening Day, originally scheduled for April 8, took place on April 15.
Taylor’s first hit of the season gave Detroit a lead that it wouldn’t cede. It was a two-run triple to left-center in the top of the second inning in Texas on April 25. The Tigers beat the Rangers 4-1. Taylor struggled at the plate for the next month. Coming into action on May 26, Taylor was hitting only .222, but three hits and two walks against the Yankees in an 8-2 Tigers win that night got him back on track. He also scored three runs. Red Foley of the New York Daily News thought Taylor “performed flawlessly”. Foley was appreciative of Taylor’s “intangibles” and the “little things” he contributed to the victory, including the particular way Taylor had tagged up on a fly ball in the first inning to put himself into scoring position.
From that point, Taylor became a steady contributor. He had raised his batting average up to .306 by the end of May. The Tigers climbed into first place in the AL East on May 31. They stayed on top of the division for all of June and most of July (although there were a few days when the Tigers and Orioles were tied for first). Taylor got into 26 games over those two months and collected a total of 25 hits.
The biggest hit during that stretch happened in Anaheim on June 17. The Tigers and Angels were tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth. Mickey Stanley singled and went to second on Eddie Brinkman’s sacrifice bunt. Pinch-hitter Gates Brown was intentionally walked. That brought Taylor up. He was 0-for-4 facing starter Rudy May. This time, he’d be facing reliever Lloyd Allen. Taylor singled up the middle, driving in Stanley. Brown was thrown out at third on the play, but Detroit had taken the lead. Oddly enough, after going hitless against a lefty, Taylor got his only hit of the night off a righty. In the end, the Tigers edged the Angels 3-2.
Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times seemed to enjoy pointing out that Allen was in the third grade when Taylor began his big league career. Newhan wasn’t knocking Taylor for being old, though. Writing about that crucial at-bat in the ninth, he acknowledged Taylor’s “reputation as a money player”. Glowing praise for Taylor continued at home. The Detroit Free Press‘ Joe Falls noted,
"“Not only has he been playing heady ball in the field, but he has been hitting 64 points over his lifetime average, and many of his hits have been coming in the clutch.”"
Per Baseball-Reference’s clutch stats, Taylor hit .326 in 53 late-and-close situations (Plate Appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck); hit .300 in 20 at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position; and hit .313 in 93 plate appearances in tie-game situations for the Tigers in 1972.
Taylor came through with a clutch hit in Chicago on July 7. The Tigers and White Sox were tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth. Tigers rookie Paul Jata drew a leadoff walk. Taylor was up. White Sox first baseman Dick Allen, a longtime teammate of Taylor’s in Philadelphia, thought that his friend would be laying down a bunt to move the runner up. Taylor swung away and connected. A high chopper bounced off the artificial turf and over Allen’s head. It stayed fair and rolled all the way into the corner. Taylor had himself a go-ahead triple. He later scored on an Aurelio Rodriguez single. In the ninth, Tony added an RBI single. The Tigers came out on top 6-4.
The Tigers had dropped out of first place for a spell in mid-August. The team wasn’t hitting. Even Taylor was going through a lull. His batting average had dropped from a peak of .339 on July 7 to .297, and a lack of walks dropped his on-base percentage from .392 to .342. In an effort to loosen the players up and shake things up for a bit, manager Billy Martin decided to build a batting order by having names picked out of a hat. That would be the lineup he’d use in the opener of a Sunday doubleheader at home against the Indians on August 13. Taylor, normally a leadoff hitter, was slotted fifth in the makeshift lineup, which was most notable for two out-of-place hitters. Norm Cash, a middle-of-the-order bat, was the first name out of the hat. He hit leadoff. Shortstop Eddie Brinkman, a defensive whiz who was hitting .205, wound up as the cleanup hitter.
Behind the solid pitching of future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, the Indians led the Tigers 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth. With two outs, Detroit struck. Willie Horton singled. Like a good cleanup hitter, Brinkman doubled him in to tie the game. Taylor singled Brinkman in. The 3-2 lead held up as the final score. Martin’s gimmick worked, thanks to Taylor’s hit. The Tigers went back to a more conventional lineup for the nightcap, but the Indians took that one 9-2.
The race for the AL East title was tight throughout September. Boston held sole possession of first place for 20 days that month, but Detroit, Baltimore, and New York all stayed within striking distance for much of that time. The Red Sox and Tigers spent three days tied for first. The Tigers held sole possession of first for three days and spent one day tied for first with the Orioles, who had first place to themselves for three days early in the month. The Yankees were the first team to fade from contention, followed shortly by the Orioles. The division was up for grabs between the Red Sox and Tigers.
On September 27, the Red Sox had a half-game lead over the Tigers. The Tigers hosted the Yankees, themselves just 2.5 games out at that point. The Red Sox had the Brewers at Fenway Park and won 7-5. The Tigers’ three-run eighth inning rally cut a Yankees lead down to 5-4, and Detroit kept the momentum rolling in the ninth. Brinkman and Horton each singled. With New York relief ace Sparky Lyle, a lefty, on the mound, Taylor pinch-hit for McAuliffe. United Press International’s Richard L. Shook wrote,
"“Taylor laid down the obvious sacrifice bunt – and beat it out when Lyle and third baseman Hal Lanier both acted like a skunk had been angry around it.”"
It was Taylor’s biggest pinch-hit of the season. It loaded the bases and kept the line moving for Al Kaline, whose sacrifice fly drove Brinkman in with the tying run. Duke Sims followed with a walk-off single. The Tigers beat the Yankees 6-5. In a jubilant Tigers clubhouse, Cash was among those congratulating Taylor on his “big league bunt”. Martin called Taylor’s bunt “one of the big plays” that propelled the Tigers to victory. He said that he had given Taylor the option to swing away or bunt for a hit. Taylor said,
"“I was trying to move the man down to third, and I was trying for a hit…and I was trying to make the third baseman come in…”"
The Tigers clinched the AL East title with a 3-1 win over the Red Sox at Tiger Stadium on October 3 in the season’s penultimate game. From there, the Tigers moved on to Oakland to face the A’s in the AL Championship Series. In 1972, the A’s won their second of five straight AL West titles. Taylor didn’t play in Game 1, which the A’s won 3-2 in 10 innings.
He made his postseason debut in Game 2. Martin’s plan of platooning Taylor and McAuliffe during the ALCS went out the window before Game 2 when Brinkman was ruled out for the rest of the series due to an injury. McAuliffe moved over to shortstop, his main position for the Tigers from 1962 through 1966. Taylor started the remaining games at second base. In Game 2, Oakland’s tough righty “Blue Moon” Odom gave up only three hits (none to Taylor), and he cruised to a 5-0 win over Detroit. The game is more remembered today for Bert Campaneris and the bat-throwing incident.
The series moved on to Tiger Stadium. Taylor grounded into three double plays in Game 3, but none hurt the Tigers, who won 3-0. In Game 4, Taylor finally broke through with his first postseason hit, a second inning double. He doubled again in the bottom of the ninth, with the game tied 1-1. He wasn’t able to score, however, and the game continued on. In a wild 10th inning, the A’s scored two runs to go up 3-1, but the Tigers clawed back with three runs to win 4-3. Taylor was in the on-deck circle when Jim Northrup delivered a walk-off single.
The Tigers took an early 1-0 lead in the decisive Game 5, but didn’t score again. Oakland took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Fans in Detroit had a glimmer of hope when Cash singled with one out. He was forced at second by Stanley. Taylor represented the Tigers’ last chance. He lofted a fly ball to center field, where George Hendrick was waiting to make the game-ending catch. The Oakland A’s won the American League pennant. Somberly, Taylor said,
"“I’m very, very upset because all year I believed I was gonna play in the World Series. Once, I had the chance (with the Phillies) in 1964…but this year I thought I was going to make it.”"
Taylor hit a respectable .303/.346/.404 with a 120 OPS+ in 78 games in 1972. Billy Martin’s prediction about Tony hitting .300 came true. Taylor returned for the 1973 season. His highlights that season were a home run in a 1-0 Tigers win at Fenway Park on May 17 and the RBI single in the top of the ninth in Chicago on August 24 that gave Detroit a 6-5 victory. The Tigers released Taylor in early December. On December 19, the day he turned 38, the Phillies signed him. Taylor played for Philadelphia through 1976.
Tony Taylor, a member of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and the Hispanic Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame, died on July 16, 2020 at the age of 84.