Detroit Tigers From Around The World (Part Two)
The Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo are drawing to a close. 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 the conclusion of a two-part series, Motor City Bengals shines the spotlight on the first Detroit Tigers player born in each of these international lands. (Click here for part one.)
Japan: Jeff McCurry
We begin with a curveball. You may have been expecting to read about Masao Kida, who debuted with the Tigers in 1999. McCurry made it to Detroit in 1996. He was born in Tokyo while his father, a Captain in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Japan. When the 26-year-old McCurry got into his first game on July 13, he was the 22nd pitcher the Tigers had used. At the time, that tied a franchise record for the most hurlers employed in a single season. (Those ’96 Tigers ended up burning through a total of 27 arms. This dubious record now belongs to the 2019 pitching staff and its 32 members.)
McCurry was summoned from the bullpen to get the last out in the top of the ninth on July 13. The Boston Red Sox led, 10-5, and threatened to add more. There were two runners aboard. McCurry got Jeff Frye to ground out back to the mound. That ended the inning, and it also ended the successful portion of McCurry’s time with the Tigers. In his next appearance, on July 16, the Milwaukee Brewers treated him so brutally that your humble narrator is too horrified to summarize the gory details. Let’s just say that the dude took one for the team. He never pitched for the Tigers again after that.
Mexico: Aurelio Rodriguez
Rodriguez is still fondly remembered by those who saw him play stellar defense at third base in Detroit from 1971-79. He was known for his quick reflexes and a throwing arm that was powerful and accurate. Nobody has played more games at the position for the Tigers (1,236) than Aurelio. His work at the hot corner in 1972 helped Detroit win the American League East title. Rodriguez led AL third basemen with 150 putouts and 348 assists that year and strung together a 48-game errorless streak from August 3 to September 23. In the division-clinching win against the Red Sox on October 3, he squelched a Boston threat and preserved a 3-1 Tigers lead when he dove to his left to snag Carlton Fisk’s line drive with two outs and a man on second in the top of the eighth.
During the Tigers’ rebuild later in the decade, Rodriguez’s steady fielding was a bright spot. He set a career high with 10 error-free chances in one game on July 11, 1975. Even in the 19-game losing streak that the ’75 team suffered through, he made only one error in 62 chances. In 1976, he led AL third basemen with a .978 fielding percentage and won his only AL Gold Glove award, despite missing all of September due to injury. That was the first time since 1959 that a third baseman other than Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles won it. Aurelio also contributed to the success that Mark Fidrych enjoyed in the “Year of the Bird”. Playing in 22 of Fidrych’s 29 starts in ’76, Rodriguez committed a lone error in 66 chances. Arguably, he deserved another Gold Glove in 1978, when he made only four errors all season and led AL third basemen with a .987 fielding percentage.
Detroit was where Rodriguez, who was born in Cananea, Sonora, made his name after arriving in the trade that shipped former ace Denny McLain to the Washington Senators. Rodriguez often returned to the city for visits after his baseball days were done. Sadly, Detroit was where the friendly fan-favorite lost his life on September 23, 2000. A day after participating in an autograph session at a baseball card show, he was killed after being struck by a car in a freak accident.
Netherlands: Bill Lelivelt
Lelivelt, a right-handed pitcher, was born in 1884 – exact whereabouts unknown. When he joined the Tigers in July 1909, he became the second member of his family to play in the big leagues. His younger brother Jack broke in with the Washington Senators nearly three weeks earlier, but the two Lelivelts never appeared in a game together. The Tigers acquired Bill from the Mobile Sea Gulls of the Southern Association in exchange for two players and cash. The total value of the $6,800 deal made it one of the bigger transactions in the majors that summer.
In his debut, Lelivelt went the distance against the New York Highlanders on July 19, but the Tigers lost 5-3. The headline in the next day’s Detroit Free Press proclaimed it to be a “Discouraging Day For Youth’s Ambition”. That was due to his teammates’ “loose fielding”. An arm injury kept Lelivelt out of action until August 27. When he took the mound in the seventh inning of a game the Tigers led 17-0, the rusty rookie gave up six runs on eight hits in his three innings of work. He didn’t pitch again until October, when he yielded only one run to the White Sox in eight combined innings during the last two games of the season. Both contests were in Chicago, Lelivelt’s adopted hometown. He was part of a Tigers squad that played a series of exhibition games in Cuba in November and December.
Nicaragua: Erasmo Ramirez
Had this piece been written prior to this past July 2, Nicaragua wouldn’t have been represented on this list. Ramirez, a right-handed pitcher from Rivas, made his Tigers debut that evening against the Chicago White Sox. Through August 5, the 31-year-old has pitched 18 2/3 innings with a 4.34 ERA, 3.32 FIP, and 1.125 WHIP. His biggest outing so far was against the Minnesota Twins on July 27. Ramirez took the mound to begin the bottom of the sixth. The Tigers were down 5-1. The three scoreless innings that he gave his team kept them in the game. That turned out to be huge when Detroit loaded the bases in the top of the ninth and cleared them on a grand slam from Eric Haase. The Tigers needed 11 innings to put the Twins away, but they escaped with a 6-5 win.
Ramirez was part of a fun moment in the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers on July 5. With a runner on first, he induced a grounder that shortstop Zack Short dove to his left to snare. Short shoveled the ball to second baseman Willi Castro to begin a 6-4-3 double play. It was a very nice play, and TV cameras caught Ramirez’s reaction. The look of unbridled amazement and joy on his face was relatable to every Tigers fan watching. It was an example of the zest that Erasmo plays with every time he takes the mound.
Norway: Jimmy Wiggs
Wiggs, a right-handed pitcher, was born in Trondheim in 1876. He joined the Tigers in September 1905 under a shroud of controversy. The Brooklyn Superbas of the National League had purchased his rights from a minor league team a season earlier, but Wiggs refused to report. He claimed that Brooklyn offered him less money that he’d been making in the minors. After failing an attempt to buy out his own contract, Wiggs opted to jump to an outlaw league. He was suspended by the National Commission, which was the major leagues’ three-man governing body prior to 1920. The Tigers had to receive permission from the Commission in order for Wiggs to play after acquiring him from another minor league team that had purchased his rights from Brooklyn. He actually made three appearances before he was reinstated.
In his Detroit debut, the second game of a doubleheader at Bennett Park on September 6, Wiggs got shelled. He started and lasted one inning. The Chicago White Sox scored eight runs off him on one hit and five walks. Five Tigers errors in the inning, including three by shortstop Charley O’Leary, made a bad situation worse. It was an ugly day all around for the Detroiters, who were no-hit in the 15-0 loss after dropping the opener, 2-0. Wiggs bounced back with a complete game and 10 strikeouts in a 3-1 win over the White Sox in the first game of a doubleheader in Chicago on September 10. He went 3-3 in seven starts in 1905. “Big Jim”, as he was known, made four appearances for the Tigers in 1906. At 6-foot-4, he was the tallest player on the team during his brief stay in Detroit.
Panama: Ben Oglivie
Oglivie began his big-league career with Boston. When the Tigers clinched the 1972 AL East Division title with a 3-1 victory over the second place Red Sox on October 3, he flew out to Al Kaline in right field to end the game. The Sox traded Oglivie to the Tigers for veteran second baseman Dick McAuliffe the following October. The 25-year-old from Colón began 1974 as Willie Horton’s backup in left field but saw his playing time increase after a knee injury ended Horton’s season in July. The high point for Oglivie was a pinch-hit, walk-off double against the Red Sox on May 10. The low point was the booing he received at Tiger Stadium on October 2 when he pinch-hit for Kaline, who had decided to exit his final game in the bottom of the fifth.
Rookie Dan Meyer won the left-field job in 1975, and Oglivie resumed a reserve role. When Meyer got hurt in July, Oglivie took over and hit well enough that Meyer was moved to first base upon returning. Benji played in 100 games for the first time and led the last-place Tigers with a .286 batting average. The left-handed hitter also finished second on the team in OBP (.319), SLG (.416), OPS (.735), and OPS+ (104). His future in Detroit was looking brighter. Then the Tigers signed veteran Alex Johnson in January 1976, and Johnson got the bulk of the starts in left field that season. Oglivie started in center field and hit leadoff on Opening Day, but that was a temporary situation. He ended up leading the Tigers with 43 pinch-hitting appearances . The tide finally turned in 1977. Oglivie made 114 starts in right field, including Opening Day. He responded with 118 hits, 24 doubles, 21 HR, and 61 RBI (all career highs at the time).
Just when it looked like he had established himself, the Tigers traded Oglivie to the Milwaukee Brewers for pitcher Jim Slaton in December. Milwaukee had actually tried to trade for Oglivie in 1975, but owner Bud Selig nixed the deal. Benji really blossomed with his new team. By 1980, he’d become an all-star, hitting 41 homers and driving in 118 runs. In 1982, his 34 homers and 102 RBI helped put the Brewers in the World Series. The Tigers found out the hard way just how much Oglivie’s power had developed after the trade. Twice, he hit three home runs in a game against Detroit (July 8, 1979 and June 20, 1982). Oglivie returned to the Tigers’ organization as the hitting coach for their Low-A farm team, the West Michigan Whitecaps, in 2011.
Puerto Rico: Julio Navarro
Navarro was born on Vieques, an island about eight miles east of mainland Puerto Rico. After his family moved to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he learned to play baseball. Later in life, he passed the love of the game on to his son, Jaime, who pitched 12 years in the majors. As a youngster, Julio developed a sidearm pitching style, which earned him the nickname “Whiplash”. The Tigers got the right-hander in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels early in the 1964 season. At the time, it was thought that Navarro was 28-years-old. When he died in 2018, it was revealed that he was born in 1934, not 1936.
After a handful of rough relief outings in May (14 earned runs on 16 hits – eight were home runs – in 12 1/3 innings), the Tigers sent Navarro to the minors. He was much more effective after being recalled in August. In his second chance, “Whiplash” yielded only one home run and was charged with just four earned runs in 28 2/3 innings through the end of the season. The difference was an increased use of his sinker, which had been recommended by teammate Billy Bruton. Navarro made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 1965, but another rough start led to another demotion by the end of May. Like the previous season, he pitched better after being recalled. In 1966, Navarro made only one appearance for the Tigers before being sent to the Red Sox to complete the deal that brought Earl Wilson to Detroit.
Russia: Eddie Ainsmith
Ainsmith was born in 1890. According to some sources online, Moscow was his birthplace. He spent the first nine years of his big league career catching for the Washington Senators, where his claim to fame was serving as future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s personal catcher. In January 1919, the Senators traded Ainsmith to the Red Sox, who promptly traded him to the Tigers. Joe S. Jackson of the Detroit Free Press reported that the Tigers were getting “one of the strongest men in baseball”. His first season in Detroit was solid. Ainsmith hit .276 with an OPS+ of 115 in 114 games. He also hit 12 triples, which is still a franchise single-season record for catchers. In 1920, Ainsmith’s playing time and productivity dwindled.
He may have begun to wear out his welcome in early 1921. After returning from a trip to the Orient in February, he wired team president Frank Navin to request $1,000 for knee surgery, then reported late to spring training. The Tigers released him in July. Ainsmith may have been a problematic individual. He was once described in a Free Press article as both “the life of the party” and a man who “can whip his weight in wildcats and requires little provocation to maul anybody”. In the 1925-26 offseason, he was the manager of an all-female baseball team that toured Japan. The tour was a financial flop, and Ainsmith eventually returned home while some of his players were still stranded overseas. One of them, a pitcher named Leona Kearns, was washed overboard when a massive wave crashed upon the ship she was on. Her body was never found.
Saudi Arabia: Alex Wilson
When Wilson was born in Dhahran in 1986, his father was employed as a geologist there. Alex went to high school in West Virginia and college in Texas. The Tigers picked up him up from the Red Sox as part of the Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes trade in December 2014. Wilson was a workhorse in the Detroit bullpen during his four seasons. In 246 appearances (264 2/3 innings), he put up a 3.20 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 1.164 WHIP, and 135 ERA+. Wilson led Tigers relievers in innings pitched in 2015 (67) and 2016 (73). His versatility was especially handy in 2015. Thanks to a three-inning stint as an opener on May 27 and an extra-inning appearance on June 30, he pitched at least once in every inning possible from the first through the 14th.
Wilson snagged 11 wins in relief and collected four saves as a Tiger. His first save came on July 30, 2015, which was the day closer Joakim Soria was traded away. That evening in Baltimore, manager Brad Ausmus called on Wilson to get a five-out save in the Tigers’ 9-8 win over the Orioles. One of Wilson’s best performances for Detroit was the game in which he got his first win. On May 21, 2015, at Comerica Park, Wilson took over in the 10th inning of a 5-5 tie with AJ Hinch’s Houston Astros. He got Jose Altuve to fly out to center, induced a weak infield pop out from Luis Valbuena, then struck out George Springer. With two outs in the 11th, Colby Rasmus hit a ground-rule double, but Wilson rebounded to strike out Marwin Gonzalez. Tigers catcher James McCann led off the bottom half with a walk-off home run, making a winner out of Wilson.
Sweden: Eric Erickson
Erickson was born in Vargarda, a town approximately 68 kilometers northeast of Gothenburg, in 1892. After a one-game cameo with the New York Giants in 1914, the right-handed pitcher joined the Tigers in 1916. He had a reputation for being a hard thrower, albeit one with control issues. Erickson made eight appearances in relief that season before being optioned to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in July. He stayed in the minors in 1917. Erickson made a dubious return to the Tigers on Opening Day in 1918. Called upon in the seventh inning to protect a 2-1 Detroit lead in Cleveland, he gave up five runs in the frame. Three hits and three walks, plus an error by shortstop Donie Bush, did him in. Erickson took the ‘L’ in the Indians’ 6-2 win.
He bounced back in Detroit’s home opener against the Indians six days later. A surprise choice to start, Erickson pitched a complete game in the Tigers’ 5-2 victory. He gave up 10 hits but held future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker hitless. Two of those at-bats were huge. In the top of the fifth, with the bases loaded and two outs, Speaker popped out to first base. In the ninth, with two on and two outs, Erickson got Speaker to hit into a game-ending force play. Eric completed eight of his nine starts in 1918. The longest, against the Washington Senators on May 24, went 16 innings. He struck out 10 and didn’t walk anybody. The game ended in a 2-2 tie, called on account of darkness. President Woodrow Wilson was in attendance for the first nine innings. Wilson presumably had more opportunities to watch Erickson after the Tigers traded him to the Senators in June 1919.
Taiwan: Fu-Te Ni
Ni’s two seasons in Detroit, 2009 and 2010, were covered in depth here last year after he surfaced in the Chinese Professional Baseball League.
Venezuela: Cesar Guiterrez
Gutierrez was born in Coro, the country’s second oldest city. The 26-year-old joined the Tigers in September 1969 after being acquired from the San Francisco Giants. Gutierrez only had 33 games of MLB experience under his belt when he arrived, but he and veteran Tom Tresh split the starting shortstop duties in that final month of the season. In 1970, Gutierrez won the gig in spring training when Tresh was cut three days before Opening Day. The man nicknamed “Coco” went 3-for-5 with a walk, two runs scored, and two RBI in the opener in Washington on April 6. He also started an inning-ending double play that got Mickey Lolich out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh. The Tigers beat the Senators, 5-0. The game that Gutierrez is remembered most for was the second game of a doubleheader in Cleveland on June 21.
Batting second, Gutierrez singled to right field in the first inning and later scored. When he came up in the third, the Tigers were down, 6-1. He singled to left, and Al Kaline followed with a two-run homer. Jim Northrup’s two-run bomb later in the inning cut the Indians’ lead to 6-5. Cesar led off the fifth with an infield single and wound up stranded on second base. Detroit trailed 8-5 in the seventh, but Gutierrez’s leadoff double to left and Northrup’s second two-run homer made it an 8-7 game. In the eighth, Cesar’s single to right drove Gates Brown in with the tying run. He notched another infield hit in the 10th, but didn’t score. The Tigers took the lead in the 12th on Mickey Stanley’s solo home run. “Coco” followed with a single to center, his seventh hit of the game, but he was caught stealing. In the bottom half, first baseman Kaline and shortstop Gutierrez turned a 3-6-3 double play to help the Tigers hold on for a 9-8 victory.
Gutierrez became the first player to go 7-for-7 since Wilbert Robertson of the National League’s Baltimore Orioles in 1892. He was also the first Tiger with seven hits in a game since Rocky Colavito went 7-for-10 in a 22-inning game in 1962. Coincidently, both men wore no. 7 as Tigers. “Coco” is still the most recent Tiger with a 7-hit performance. To put into perspective how unlikely his perfect day at the plate was, Gutierrez needed 49 plate appearances to collect his previous seven hits prior to this game. Afterward, he needed 43 plate appearances to get his next seven hits. “Sometimes you have to be lucky,” Cesar admitted. He hit .243/.275/.299 in 135 games as the Tigers’ regular shortstop in 1970, but he lost his job to newly-acquired Eddie Brinkman the following year.