Detroit Tigers From Around The World (Part One)
The Games of the XXXII Olympiad are underway in Tokyo. The spirit of international athletic competition inspired this look at some of the Detroit Tigers’ many players who came from different parts of the world.
Throughout Tigers history, dating back to the earliest days of the franchise, men from around the globe have journeyed to Detroit to pursue their baseball dreams. In part one of a two-part series, Motor City Bengals shines an international spotlight on the first Detroit Tigers player to come from each of these foreign lands.
Aruba: Gene Kingsale
Kingsale, who hails from Solito, became the first Aruban to play in the major leagues when he debuted with the Baltimore Orioles in 1996. In 2003, the 26-year-old won the Tigers’ center field job in spring training and was the team’s leadoff hitter on Opening Day. Of course, Detroit was not a breeding ground for successful baseball in ’03, and Kingsale’s in-game highlights were sparse. The high point was a home run off Roger Clemens of the New York Yankees, who was vying for his 300th win at Comerica Park on June 1. It was Kingsale’s only homer in a Detroit uniform, but it was also his only hit in the 17-inning game that the Yankees won, 10-9.
Off the field, Kingsale was knighted in Aruba while he was a member of the Tigers. Knights aren’t immune to injury, though, and a pulled groin derailed Sir Kingsale just a few days after taking “The Rocket” deep. He never returned to the big leagues. With MLB behind him, Kingsale began turning his attention to international competition. Aruba is one of four countries that comprise the Kingdom of the Netherlands. That gave Kingsale the opportunity to play for the Dutch national team, starting with the 2003 Baseball World Cup. He represented the Netherlands in both the the Olympics (2004 and ’08) and the World Baseball Classic (2006 and ’09).
Australia: Brad Thomas
Thomas was a seasoned globetrotter when he signed with Detroit in December 2009. One year after pitching for the 2000 Australian Olympic team in his hometown of Sydney, the left-hander reached the majors with the Minnesota Twins. He also spent a season in Canada with their Edmonton farm club. The Twins let Thomas go after the 2004 season, and he pitched in the Japan Pacific League and Korean Baseball Organization prior to his MLB return. Six games in the Venezuelan Winter League added to his international experience. Thomas continued his globetrotting ways after leaving the Tigers and added the Chinese Professional Baseball League and Australian Baseball League to his resume.
In 2010, Thomas was generally a middle reliever who pitched in lower leverage situations. In 49 appearances (69 1/3 innings) for the Tigers, he most frequently pitched in the sixth inning. He was only tasked with protecting six leads and entered eight games that were tied. On the surface, Thomas’ 6-2 record, 3.89 ERA, and 108 ERA+ seemed respectable enough. Below the surface, he turned in a 4.39 FIP and 1.529 WHIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.08, and he allowed 17 of his 35 inherited runners to score. After struggling through 11 innings in 2011, the major league portion of his career ended.
Canada: Pete LePine
John Hiller is the Tigers’ most distinguished Canadian-born player, but Louis Joseph LePine was the first to come from our neighbors to the north. He was born in Montreal in 1876. It’s unclear how he acquired the nickname Pete. LePine made his major league debut with the Tigers in July 1902 after being acquired from an independent team in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Woonsocket was his adopted hometown. It was also where future Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie came from, and LePine had been touted as Lajoie’s protégé.
The left-handed hitting LePine notched two hits (including a double), drove in two runs, walked twice, and scored twice in his first two games as the Tigers’ new first baseman. Detroit won both. They’d lost 10 of their last 11 before LePine came aboard. An left-hand injury then knocked him out of the lineup for a couple weeks. He struggled after returning and saw sporadic action in August. In September, the Tigers moved him to right field for what amounted to a tryout after full-timer Ducky Holmes quit the team. In one notable game in Chicago on September 20, White Sox righty Jimmy Callahan held LePine and his Tiger teammates hitless in the opener of a doubleheader. Until recent research suggested otherwise, that was thought to be the first no-hitter in American League history.
Colombia: Edgar Renteria
Renteria became a national hero in Colombia when his walk-off single in the 11th inning of Game 7 won a World Series for manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski. Of course, that happened in 1997 when Renteria was playing for the Florida Marlins. An October 2007 trade with the Atlanta Braves reunited the veteran shortstop with Leyland and Dombrowski in Detroit. The expectation was that the Barranquilla native would be a key contributor on a contending Tigers team. Renteria’s arrival, though, was met with derision from fans who rued that the cost included promising pitching prospect Jair Jurrjens.
There were a few highlights for Renteria in 2008. His grand slam off 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia on April 16 (part of a three-hit, five-RBI performance) sparked a 13-2 rout of the Cleveland Indians. Renteria finished a double shy of the cycle against the Seattle Mariners on May 20 and settled for a second single to cap off a four-hit, five-RBI evening. His bases-loaded, bases-clearing triple to Comerica Park’s vast center field was a huge moment in the Tigers’ 12-8 win. Another grand slam against the Indians on June 7 made the difference in a 8-4 victory. Renteria’s clutch two-run double in the bottom of the eighth on August 14 broke a 1-1 tie, and Detroit went on to beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 5-1.
Ultimately, neither Renteria nor the Tigers lived up to their pre-season expectations. Renteria put up one of his weaker seasons at the plate, and Detroit finished in last place. Meanwhile in Atlanta, Jurrjens finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting. The Tigers opted not to pick up the option for 2009 on Renteria’s contract, and the 32-year-old became a free agent.
Cuba: Ossie Alvarez
Alvarez debuted with the Washington Senators in 1958 and became a Tiger that November. He was part of a five-man trade with the Cleveland Indians that brought pitcher Don Mossi into the fold and ended Billy Martin’s playing days in Detroit. A shortstop by trade, Alvarez could also play second base and third base. The Bolondron native missed the first day of full-squad workouts in spring training, which caught the attention of Hal Middleworth from the Detroit Free Press. With unnecessary snark, Middlesworth wrote that “presumably, he lost his way somewhere between here and Havana”.
The 25-year-old Alvarez made the Tigers’ 1959 Opening Day roster. One of the infielders that he beat out was future National League MVP Maury Wills, an offseason acquisition who was returned to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Alvarez didn’t get a chance to use his glove in Detroit, however. He made only eight appearances. Six were as a pinch-runner, and two were as a pinch-hitter. Batting for future Hall of Famer Jim Bunning on April 23, Alvarez singled. It was his only hit as a Tiger. He was optioned out in early May and never got another shot in Detroit. Alvarez finished his playing career in the Mexican League, where he later became a manager.
Curacao: Randall Simon
These days, Curacao’s biggest export to Detroit is Jonathan Schoop. In the early days of the 21st century, it was first baseman/designated hitter Randall Simon. Both players are from Willemstad, the capital of Curacao. Originally signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, Simon was one the last cuts made before the Tigers broke camp in 2001. The 26-year-old was tied for the International League lead in hitting when Detroit called him up from Toledo in June. Simon soon hit his way into a regular spot in the starting lineup. By the end of the season, he’d become the Tigers’ cleanup hitter. It helped that Simon hit .397 with runners in scoring position, which led the team.
Simon, a left-handed hitter, was known for his free-swinging ways. That approach led to a breakthrough in 2002. He led the Tigers in home runs (19), RBI (82), batting average (.301), slugging percentage (.459), OPS (.779), and OPS+ (112). His strikeout rate of 5.9% (30 Ks in 506 plate appearances) was also the best on the team. The numbers may have been even better if manager Luis Pujols hadn’t slashed Simon’s playing time in September in order to audition rookie Eric Munson. Despite that, Simon was named Tiger of the Year by the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The Tigers didn’t see him a a long-term contributor, however, and Simon was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in November.
Czechoslovakia: Carl Linhart
Linhart was born in the village of Zborov in 1929, sixty-four years before Czechoslovakia split into the separate and independent countries of Czechia (also known as the Czech Republic) and Slovakia. Today, Zborov is located in Slovakia.
Linhart popped up on the Tigers’ radar while playing high school ball in Illinois, and they signed him in 1948. With Detroit’s Class-B farm club, the Durham Bulls in the Carolina League, Linhart hit .311/.437/.537 with 23 homers, 114 RBI, and 103 walks in 1949. He was 19-years-old. According to info found at Baseball-Reference.com, the (weighted) average age of the league’s pitchers was 25.5 years old. The Tigers added Linhart, a left-handed hitting outfielder, to their spring training roster in 1950. He played in Michigan that season, but it was with the Flint Arrows, the Tigers’ affiliate in the Class-A Central League. Detroit gave him another look in spring training in 1951, but he soon swapped his baseball uniform for a U.S. Air Force uniform and didn’t play that season.
His military service resulted in Linhart making his big league debut in 1952. Back then, a team could add a discharged serviceman to the active roster without him counting against the 25-man limit. The player had to stay on the roster for a minimum of 15 days. Linhart was discharged at the end of July and got into his first game as a Tiger on August 2. In the bottom of the eighth, he pinch-hit for future Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser with two on and one out in a game the Tigers trailed, 8-5, against the Red Sox. He grounded into an inning-ending double play. After being sent to the minors, Linhart returned in September for one appearance as a pinch-runner and one as a pinch-hitter. He remained in the organization through 1956, but never got another shot in Detroit.
Dominican Republic: Ozzie Virgil
The Virgil family emigrated from Monte Cristi and landed in the Bronx when Ozzie was a young lad. He didn’t play much baseball growing up, but picked up the game while serving in the U.S Marine Corps. Virgil debuted with the New York Giants in 1956 and became the first Dominican to play in the National League. The Tigers acquired him in 1958, but he wasn’t called up from the minors until June. Virgil, batting sixth as the starting third baseman, became the American League’s first Dominican player on June 6. He hit a ground-rule double in the eighth inning that day, which marked the beginning of an eight-game hitting streak.
Virgil made his home debut at Briggs Stadium against the Washington Senators on June 17. After Frank Bolling led off the bottom of the first with a home run, the right-handed hitting Virgil doubled down the third-base line. He led off the third with an infield single and came around to score on an Al Kaline home run. The Tigers kept rolling, and Virgil lined a single to center in his second at-bat of the seven-run inning. He added two more singles in the fifth and seventh to complete his five-for-five performance. In the latter inning, he tried to score from first on Harvey Kuenn’s double but was thrown out at the plate. The run wouldn’t have made a difference. The game was an easy 9-2 Detroit victory. The cheers from the 29,794 in attendance grew with each of Virgil’s at-bats, culminating in a standing ovation.
The rest of Virgil’s time in Detroit wasn’t as memorable, but his place in franchise history as the man who finally broke the color line is secure. Opening the door for countless players from the Dominican Republic to follow in his footsteps is also an important reason to remember him. When the Tigers began honoring former Hispanic and Latin American players in 2008 as part of the annual Fiesta Tigres celebration, Virgil was their first choice.
England: Al Shaw
Shaw was born in Burslem, a town located about 15 miles south of Manchester, in 1873. He played for the minor league incarnation of the Detroit Tigers in 1899 and 1900. In ’99, the team was a member of the Western League, which became known as the American League the following year. The AL gained its major league status in 1901, and Detroit was a charter member. After joining the Tigers in June during that inaugural big-league season, Shaw shared time behind the plate with Fritz Buelow, a fellow European.
Shaw’s biggest game in a Detroit uniform happened on June 18. His four hits (including his only big-league homer), four RBI, and two runs helped lead the Tigers to a 10-6 win over the Washington Senators. He also contributed to one of the franchise’s most significant but underrated historical victories. Detroit clobbered the Cleveland Blues, 21-0, on September 15. That is still the Tigers’ largest margin of victory in a shutout win. Shaw, who began the day as the starting catcher and ended it as the shortstop, scored four runs and drove in two others. Following his lone season in Detroit, he disappeared from the majors until 1907.
Germany: Fritz Buelow
Buelow was born in Berlin in 1876. He spent time with the minor league Detroit Tigers in 1898 and ’99. In 1901, Buelow returned to Detroit and became the first man to don the tools of ignorance for the city’s newly minted big league squad. On April 25, he was the Tigers’ starting catcher and batted eighth in the Opening Day lineup at Bennett Park. Trailing the original Milwaukee Brewers (a forerunner of today’s Baltimore Orioles) by nine runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Detroit offense erupted for 10 runs to claim a stunning 14-13 victory. Buelow, who singled earlier in the game, walked and scored a run in the ninth-inning comeback rally.
The Tigers and Buelow parted ways in 1904. He later spent time with the Cleveland Naps and St. Louis Browns and continued to play professionally through 1909. After his baseball career ended, he resided in Detroit for the remainder of his life and often attended Tigers games at Navin Field. When Buelow died in 1933, former Tiger pitcher Wish Egan remembered his old battery mate as “the best throwing catcher I ever saw”, citing Buelow’s graceful rhythm. Longtime team president Frank Navin credited Fritz for being “a wonderful help to young fellows coming along”.
Ireland: John O’Connell
O’Connell was born in Ireland – whereabouts unknown – in 1872. His major league career is an odd one. As an 18-year-old in 1891, he played in eight games for the Baltimore Orioles of the original American Association, which merged with the National League after the season. As a 30-year-old in 1902, he played in eight games in a six-day span for the Tigers. That was it. There was a lot of minor league ball in between, although many of his statistics have been lost to the sands of time. Prior to joining the Tigers, O’Connell played second base for the Cedar Rapids Rabbits of the Class-B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (often referred to as the “Three-I League”).
When the Rabbits’ season ended, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported that Jack, as he was also known, was heading home to Chicago. That was convenient for the Tigers, who suddenly needed a second baseman when Kid Gleason fell ill while the team was in town to play the White Sox. O’Connell was pressed into duty and played both ends of a doubleheader there on September 15. He stayed with the Tigers, whose road trip took them to St. Louis for three games with the Browns. Then, in a scheduling quirk, they went back to Chicago for another series. Once Gleason returned to the lineup on September 21, O’Connell’s services were no longer needed. His penultimate game in a Detroit uniform was the aforementioned Callahan no-hitter.
Italy: Reno Bertoia
Bertoia was born in San Vito al Tagliamento, approximately 89 kilometers northeast of Venice. His family moved to Windsor, Ontario when Reno was very young. As an amateur ballplayer, it wasn’t uncommon for him to cross the Canadian border into Detroit for games. The Tigers took notice and signed the 18-year-old in August 1953, luring him away from the University of Michigan. Bertoia was one of the “bonus babies”, players that teams had to keep on the big league roster for two years due to the size of their signing bonuses. Bertoia’s new teammate and first roommate on the road, Al Kaline, was in the same boat. The two fledgling Tigers developed a close friendship. When Reno died in 2011, Al remembered him as “a special person and one of the nicest people to be around”.
Bertoia was inducted into the Candian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, but his big league debut on September 22 at Briggs Stadium was rather inauspicious. In the top of the first, a St. Louis Browns runner spiked the Tigers’ rookie second baseman. In the bottom half, future Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, who was certainly old enough to be Bertoia’s father, struck the youngster out on three pitchers. Bertoia was removed from the game after the inning to get stitches. That was his only 1953 appearance. He continued to see action, mostly as a third baseman, for the Tigers through 1958, and again from 1961-62.
1957 was Bertoia’s best season in Detroit. He briefly led the AL in hitting in May, and for a period in June, he led AL third basemen in All-Star votes. (George Kell of the Orioles, the former Tiger and future Hall of Famer, won. AL manager Casey Stengel didn’t pick Reno as a reserve.) Bertoia’s RBI single in the 16th inning in Baltimore gave the Tigers a 2-1 victory on May 21. In the bottom of the ninth against the O’s on July 14, he doubled Kaline home with the game-tying run, and Detroit went on to a 7-6, 10-inning win. Facing the Washington Senators one week later, Bertoia singled home the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, which led to a 6-5 Tigers triumph in 10. In Chicago on August 10, his two-run homer in the eighth and two-run single in the ninth were key blows as the Tigers downed the White Sox, 6-4.