Detroit Tigers: Kirk Gibson’s Earliest Home Run Heroics

(Photo by: Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by: Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /

Kirk Gibson is well known for his stunning eighth-inning home run off Goose Gossage in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series, but hitting exciting homers was something that the Detroit Tigers slugger had developed a knack for earlier in his big league career.

Although Kirk Gibson only played one season of baseball at Michigan State University, the converted football player didn’t need much time to make an impact that is still felt today. The Spartan baseball program’s Offensive Player of the Year award is named after their 1978 first-team All-American. Gibson hit .390 and slugged .766 in 48 games. His 16 homers and 52 RBI set single-season school records (which have since been eclipsed). Before he left, he crushed the longest home run ever hit at Kobs Field in East Lansing (550 feet). That power potential had the Detroit Tigers’ brass salivating as they prepared for the June ’78 draft.

Three days before the draft, Gibson was invited to Tiger Stadium for a round of batting practice. He was given about 10 minutes to show what he could do. Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press reported that Gibson “put on quite a show…and belted ball after ball into the stands”. On draft day, the Tigers got their man with the 12th pick in the first round. After 143 games of minor league seasoning at two different levels, all under the watchful eye of skipper Jim Leyland, Gibson was called up to the Tigers in September 1979. He’d gotten his first taste of big-league life months earlier in spring training. On his first day in camp in Lakeland, Gibson took Dave Rozema, his future brother-in-law, deep during BP. All three of his hits in exhibition games were home runs.

“Rip-Roarin’ Rookie” (1979-80)

Gibson wasn’t so lucky the first time he faced a major league pitcher when it counted. On September 8 against the Yankees, he pinch-hit with two outs and a man on in the bottom of the ninth. The Tigers trailed 5-4, and Gibson represented the potential winning run. New York closer Goose Gossage, a future Hall of Famer, cast an intimidating figure on the mound. He struck out the fearless, but overmatched rookie on three pitches to end the game. It was the kind of learning experience that one files away in the back of the mind for future reference.

In his ninth game, at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on September 25, Gibson led off the top of the fourth against right-hander Steve Stone. The hungry Tiger got a pitch he liked and devoured it. The 400-foot home run to right field, the first of Gibson’s career, tied the game at 1-1. Detroit went on to win, 3-2. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson predicted that Gibson “will be the most exciting player in baseball in 1982”. It wouldn’t be the last time that Sparky raved about his young charge’s future, but Gibson didn’t seem as impressed. He told a United Press International reporter,

"“It was just a home run. I didn’t think about it. It does mean something, but it’s not like I said I was going to hit my first home run. I just try my best to help the team.”"

The following spring brought a new opportunity, but it also brought higher expectations. Center fielder Ron LeFlore had been traded away, and Anderson made plans to replace him by platooning the left-handed-hitting Gibson and the right-handed-hitting Dave Stegman. Sports Illustrated, sensing a star in the making, put Gibson (described as a “Rip-Roarin’ Rookie”) on the cover of its March 24, 1980 issue. In the article, Anderson shared a vision for his prized pupil that included 450 at-bats and 15 home runs against right-handed pitchers.

Gibson got his first chance to make everyone look smart on Opening Day in Kansas City. He was slotted in the two-hole behind leadoff hitter Lou Whitaker. Righty Dennis Leonard, who shared the American League lead in shutouts in 1979, was pitching for the Royals. He would not open the new season with another shutout. Gibson made sure of that by hitting the Detroit Tigers’ first home run of the 1980s. The details were pretty similar to his homer the previous September. This one was also a fourth-inning leadoff shot to right which tied a game at 1-1. Gibson broke the deadlock with the Royals in the sixth when he scored after notching his first big-league triple. Detroit cruised to a 5-1 victory.

Perhaps the Royals were doomed before the first pitch of the game had even been thrown. Anderson revealed afterwards that he had told Gibson to “show everyone his power tonight”. That was the equivalent of releasing an actual tiger from a cage. The predator was ready to hunt. Gibson commented,

"“I wasn’t scared, but I was a little over-anxious, real psyched up. When I heard the National Anthem, I got that feeling I used to get before a football game. I felt all tingly.”"

Down in Texas on April 22, Rozema and the Rangers’ Fergie Jenkins took turns putting zeroes up on the Arlington Stadium scoreboard through the first seven innings. Alan Trammell singled to lead off the eighth and advanced to second on Whitaker’s sacrifice bunt. That brought Gibson up. He’d already contributed in the field by running down two long fly balls to make a pair of warning-track catches. Jenkins tried to get a curveball by Gibson, but the young hitter got the better of the veteran pitcher. He sent Jenkins’ pitch flying over the left-field wall. The two-run home run was the extent of the scoring in the pitching duel. Gibson said,

"“The pitch was almost outside when it broke. I could see it coming. I was just looking for a base hit to try to score the run, and when I hit it, I thought it was going up the alley for extra bases. When I got to about second, I saw the umpire giving the home-run sign.”"

Jenkins was the first future Hall of Famer that Gibson homered against as a Tiger in regular-season competition. Dennis Eckersley (once), Don Sutton (once), Tom Seaver (twice), Bert Blyleven (four times), and Phil Niekro (four times) would later be added to the list. (As a National Leaguer, Gibson tagged Tom Glavine, Nolan Ryan, and John Smoltz.) The opposite-field homer off Jenkins may have been the result of a tip that Gibson picked up from another future Hall of Famer. He explained,

"“I read in one of the papers here that Carl Yastrzemski has been practicing his swing in a locker room in Boston by hitting a rolled-up sock. So before tonight’s game, I had (teammate) Milt Wilcox throwing me a sock ball so I could practice my swing.”"

Gibson homered at Tiger Stadium for the first time on May 13 against the A’s. His solo shot to right extended a Detroit lead to 4-1, and the Tigers held on for a 4-3 win. It was the third-round tripper that he enjoyed during a 10-game hitting streak. Unfortunately, Gibson’s season came to an abrupt end the following month due to a left wrist injury that would require surgery in August. He finished with nine home runs in 189 plate appearances covering 63 games.

Striking Back (1981)

The wrist healed in time for Gibson to appear in the Tigers’ 1981 Opening Day lineup. He hit sixth in Sparky Anderson’s batting order that afternoon. Anderson experimented by using Gibson as a leadoff hitter a few times early in the season. That paid off on May 7 in Oakland. For the first and only time as a Tiger, Gibson led off a game with a home run. (He did it once as a Dodger in 1989 and once as a Pirate in 1992.) The A’s came out on top, however, 5-3. It was Gibson’s third homer of the season, but it took quite some time before he hit his fourth. Another injury to his left wrist later in the month, unrelated to the previous season’s, knocked him out for about a couple of weeks.

Then the season ground to a halt on June 12 when the players went on strike. At the time, the Tigers were in fourth place in the AL East, but they were only 3 1/2 games out of first thanks to a hot streak that included 10 wins in their last 12 games. The season resumed on August 10 with a unique split-season format that gave every team a 0-0 won-loss record and a clean slate. Teams that were in first place when the strike happened were declared first-half division champs and would meet their second-half counterparts in an extra playoff round.

On August 16, the Yankees were the Tigers’ opponents in the first Sunday game at Tiger Stadium since the players returned. With lefty Dave Righetti on the mound for New York, Gibson began the afternoon watching from the dugout. He was pressed into service in the top of the eighth as a replacement for left fielder Rickey Peters, who had been ejected. Peters was the second man up in the bottom of the seventh, so there was no guarantee that Gibson would get a plate appearance. The Tigers trailed 4-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Two walks and a single led to a Detroit run. The comeback effort was on.

With one out, Gibson came to the plate for the first time in the game. He took right-hander Ron Davis’ first two pitches, fastballs that missed the strike zone. The third pitch looked much better, and Gibson demolished it. Much to the delight of George Kell and Al Kaline in the Tigers’ TV booth and the assembly of 21,077 Tigers fans in the stands, it was a no-doubter that landed in the upper-deck bleachers in right-center, approximately 450 feet from home plate. The dramatic walk-off home run, the first of Gibson’s career, gave the Tigers a thrilling 5-4 victory. Gibson remarked,

"“I told myself when I went up there (that) I’ve got three strikes to work with, and until I get to two strikes, I’m going to wait for my pitch…I just waited for a pitch inside. It was a fastball. I was bound and determined not to be outsmarted. I didn’t want to overswing, either. I can’t remember any home runs where I tried to kill the ball. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was gone…I guess it was just luck that everything happened the way it did.”"

The win was the third straight in an eventual nine-game winning streak. The Tigers roared to a 13-8 record in August, and Gibson’s mighty slash line of .462/.500/.677 led to the Detroit attack. Both he and the team cooled slightly in September, but they went into October in a virtual tie for the AL East second-half lead. With four games left to play, the Tigers were 28-20 (.583), and the Brewers were 29-21 (.580). It just so happened that those two teams were scheduled to tangle in the final series of the regular season in Milwaukee. Before that, however, the Tigers had to take care of business at home against the Orioles.

Baltimore got off to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, which they later doubled. Detroit finally got on the board with a pair of runs in the eighth. They might have scored a third if Gibson, who was on third base, hadn’t been tagged out at the plate on a fielder’s choice play. Still, it looked like the momentum had swung the Tigers’ way. In the bottom of the ninth, Lynn Jones singled with one out. Trammell bounced into what looked like a sure game-ending double play, but he was able to beat the relay throw to first. That extended the inning for Gibson, who was exactly the man that the 15,763 fans at Tiger Stadium wanted to see at the plate. His clutch homer against the Yankees in August was still top-of-mind. Teammate Steve Kemp recalled,

"“You tell me when you’ve heard 15,000 people make that much noise. They were awesome. I’ve never seen anything like it. It brings chills to you.”"

Gibson stepped in against lefty reliever Tippy Martinez. As the season progressed, Sparky Anderson had started letting the left-handed-hitting Gibson get more plate appearances against southpaws. That growing trust was about to pay off in a big way. Martinez fell behind in the count, 2-1. On the next pitch, Gibson unleashed a powerful swing and drove the ball high and deep to right field.

For the geography buffs, it was “headed northeast to Hamtramck” (according to Detroit Free Press columnist Mike Downey) and “in the direction of the Masonic Temple” (according to Freep beat writer Brian Bragg). The ball bounced off the ballpark roof near a light tower in right and dropped back onto the field. It was quite a blow, and it tied the game at 4-4. Ecstatic Tigers fans called for not one, but two curtain calls from Gibson, who obliged each time. Detroit’s hitting hero said,

"“I didn’t mind if it cleared the fence by an inch or a hundred feet. The big thing was that I hit it when we needed it, not how long it was.”"

The Tigers put two more runners on after Gibson’s home run, but couldn’t push either across the plate. The Orioles took a 5-4 lead in the top of the 10th inning. In the bottom half, Trammell popped to short with two on and two out to end the game while Gibson stood by in the on-deck circle. Detroit went to Milwaukee trailing in the standings by a mere half-game.

That was as close as the Tigers came to snaring the second-half division title. The Brewers took two out of three and advanced to the postseason. It had been a surprising and exciting run for a young, up-and-coming Detroit team, though. Gibson’s nine homers matched the number he hit the season before, but 1981 was an impressive season of growth – especially in the second half when he was the AL’s leading hitter. He finished at .328/.369/.479 overall with a 141 OPS+. The Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America selected him as the Tiger of the Year.

“Going To Win This Mother” (1982)

1982 didn’t start too smoothly for Gibson. In his first 10 games, he was stuck in a 3-for-35 slump. That futility carried over into a home game against the Royals on April 19. Through three plate appearances that evening, he didn’t have much to show other than a walk. When he came up again in the bottom of the eighth with one on, the Tigers were down 2-1. Dan Quisenberry, Kansas City’s closer was on the mound. Gibson was able to work the count full, but he was almost an easy out when he dribbled one toward first baseman Willie Aikens. Inexplicably, Aikens elected to let the ball roll foul, even though he could’ve fielded it and tagged Gibson.

With new life at the plate, Gibson dug in. Something clicked, and he belted Quisenberry’s next pitch into the upper-deck seats in right field. The 3-2 lead that Gibson gave the Tigers held up as the final score. Hitting a home run against the Royals’ submarine-style reliever wasn’t an easy thing to do back then. In his first 230 2/3 innings in the majors from 1979 through 1981, Quisenberry only yielded 11 longballs (that’s a very solid 0.4 home runs per nine innings). Gibson himself seemed surprised. He explained,

"“To tell the truth, I was thinking about going the other way (to left field). I don’t know what he was thinking, but the ball came inside and it was up a little – and I got it. That’s what happens. I’m trying to go the other way or up the middle, and I hit one down the line. I saw the ball start to curve, and I said ‘Don’t you dare go foul!’ It was a great feeling…it’s been hell.”"

Before the game, Gibson had taken extra batting practice. Hitting coach Gates Brown looked on as former Tigers catcher Bill Freehan threw to Gibson. Two writers who were also watching seemed to disagree on how it went. In the hometown Free Press, Bragg mentioned that the “batting stroke looked a little better” and that Gibson sent “several” of Freehan’s pitches into the seats. Mike Fish of the Kansas City Times wrote that Gibson complained about a “terrible swing”, wasted time, and the blisters that he obtained in the process. Fish also reported that Gibson went off on a profanity-laced tirade against an early-arriving Tiger Stadium usher who heckled the angry hitter for fouling off too many pitches. Unfortunately, Gibson was well known for his very ornery disposition in those days.

Sometimes, though, that fiery temperament of Gibson’s was a useful weapon when aimed at opponents. That was the case on a long Friday night against the Twins at Tiger Stadium on May 14. Tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 11th, Detroit had a man on with one out when Enos Cabell was brushed back by a pitch. Gibson was in the on-deck circle when Cabell charged the mound. Gibson’s football instincts kicked in, and the former MSU gridiron star laid into Twins catcher Sal Butera with the kind of block that would’ve made his old coaches in East Lansing proud. This second brawl of the game was more violent and much uglier than the one that happened in the fourth inning. Dave Rozema, who had become Gibson’s closest friend on the team, was seriously injured and had to be carried off on a stretcher.

After a 20-minute interruption, play finally resumed. Tom Brookens finished the ejected Cabell’s at-bat and lined out to right. Gibson, who was infuriated by a sucker punch thrown by Twins scrub Jesus Vega, hadn’t cooled down yet. He told teammate Mike Ivie that he was “going to win this mother right now”. That’s exactly what happened because when you provoke a viper, it’s going to strike. Gibson punished a Terry Felton pitch that landed in the lower deck in center field. The emotionally charged home run gave the Tigers a hard-fought 4-2 victory. In the Detroit clubhouse, a seething Gibson had some harsh words for Vega before addressing his walk-off homer (which was his fifth hit of the game). He said,

"“Everybody was battling for everybody, and we won it together. That’s the important thing. That fighting out there, that’s part of the game and it’s not something that you want to get into that often, but we did what we felt was right.”"

Things had been trending upward for Gibson and the Tigers. He was in the midst of a 12-game hitting streak that momentarily bumped his batting average up over .300, and the triumph over the Twins was the Tigers’ third straight in an eight-game winning streak. Fortunes soon changed for both the team and the player. After spending the first 12 days of June either leading the AL East or being tied for first place, Detroit stumbled into a 10-game losing streak. The Tigers weren’t a factor in the division race after that. In July, Gibson sprained his left wrist during batting practice. For the second time in three years, an injury prematurely ended his season. He finished with eight home runs.

Motor City Intensity (1983)

The doldrums continued into 1983 for Gibson. By the time he reached his birthday on May 28, the 26-year-old Tiger’s only home run of the season had been an inside-the-parker (the first of his career) in Toronto three days earlier. The lack of power and a batting average under .200 had caused fans to turn against Gibson. Boos frequently rained down upon him at Tiger Stadium.

He took a step toward silencing some critics with a tie-breaking solo homer in the bottom of the eighth against the Twins on May 29. It was the first time he’d cleared the fences since the previous June. The Tigers won, 7-6. Leading off the top of the 10th in Texas one week later, Gibson’s third hit of the game was his biggest. Rangers reliever John Butcher served up a meatball, and Gibson feasted. His home run to straightaway center, an estimated 459-foot monster, gave Detroit a 5-4 win.

Gibson’s next home run was his most memorable of the 1983 season (even if it was somewhat overshadowed by something else he did later in the game). June 14 marked the fourth anniversary of Sparky Anderson’s first game as the Tigers’ manager. If the mood was celebratory beforehand, the visiting Red Sox quashed that by jumping out to a 6-0 lead.

With one out in the bottom of the fourth, Gibson stepped in against Boston righty Mike Brown. On a 2-1 pitch, Gibson launched a rocket to right that just kept carrying. The impact was so jarring that Tigers radio announcer Paul Carey was momentarily discombobulated and inadvertently said the ball was headed for left field. It soared over Tiger Stadium’s right-field roof and didn’t stop until it landed on the roof of Brooks Lumber Company, located across the street on Trumbull Avenue.

It was the first time that anyone cleared the roof in right since then-Tiger Jason Thompson did it in 1977. Red Sox manager Ralph Houk was the Tigers’ skipper in ’77. He told United Press International reporter Richard L. Shook that he thought Gibson’s drive was longer than Thompson’s. The distance was originally estimated to be 540 feet. A subsequent measurement by Tigers officials reduced that to 523 feet. The Detroit Free Press broke down the math:

"They measured 360 feet from home plate to the base of the right-field wall; another 48 feet from in front of the stands to the back wall of the stadium; 100 feet across Trumbull to the Brooks Lumber Co.; then 15 feet onto the roof of the building."

Gibson’s blast cut a Boston lead to 6-1. He scored the Tigers’ second run in controversial fashion in the sixth inning. Lou Whitaker was on first base when Gibson ripped a double that ricocheted off center fielder Tony Armas’ glove and rolled to the wall. Two excellent relay throws nabbed Whitaker at the plate, but the speedy Gibson was hot on his teammate’s tail. In a case of incredibly bad timing, home plate umpire Larry Barnett stepped in front of catcher Rich Gedman to call Whitaker out. That’s when the hard-charging Gibson plowed into him. Amidst the chaos of the collision, it appeared to Barnett’s colleagues that Gedman had dropped the ball. Despite the catcher’s protests to the contrary. Gibson was ruled safe. Neither of his runs was enough, though, and the Red Sox won, 6-2. (Barnett was carried off the field on a stretcher but returned to action the next evening.)

In the end, 1983 was a bittersweet season for Gibson. The second-place Tigers won 92 games and established themselves as legit pennant contenders. For the first time in Gibson’s career, he reached triple digits in games played (128) and double figures in home runs (15), but his slash line dropped to a meager .227/.320/.414. The struggles at the plate and the fans’ adverse reactions had taken an ugly toll. Looking back, in his 1997 memoir Bottom of the Ninth, Gibson wrote

"I had hit rock bottom. I had suffered through a year when even the thought of going to Tiger Stadium made me sick, and though I didn’t have an answer that might end my misery, I knew that I could not go through another season like that."

Gibson may not have known it at the time, but a breakthrough was right around the corner. Everything that he’d gone through in his early years, including hard times and harder work, culminated on that memorable Sunday evening in October 1984 when Gibson successfully avenged the strikeout that Goose Gossage had dealt him in his big league debut.