Miguel Cabrera is the newest member of baseball’s vaunted ‘500 Home Run Club’. Two of the other men who clubbed that many homers also spent part of their careers in a Detroit Tigers uniform: Eddie Mathews and Gary Sheffield.
Sunday, August 22 will go down as one of the most exciting days of the Detroit Tigers’ 2021 season. In the top of the sixth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays, Miguel Cabrera sent a pitch from lefty Steven Matz sailing over the wall in right-center to become the 28th major leaguer to hit 500 home runs.
Miggy also became the third member of ‘the 500 Club’ who has played for the Tigers. The other two aren’t as closely associated with the team as Cabrera is. Eddie Mathews hit his 500th homer just before joining the Tigers, and Gary Sheffield hit his milestone shot shortly after leaving Detroit.
Before becoming a Tiger, Mathews made his name with the Milwaukee Braves. He actually debuted with the Braves in 1952 while they were still based in Boston and wrapped up his tenure with the team in 1966 after they moved to Atlanta. Mathews’ credentials were impressive. He crushed at least 40 home runs in four different seasons, and he led the National League twice. In Game 4 of the 1957 World Series, Mathews’ two-run, walk-off homer gave the Braves a 7-5 win over the New York Yankees.
It was that kind of big-game experience that the Tigers were looking for when they acquired the 35-year-old Mathews from the Houston Astros in August 1967. Detroit was in the midst of a tight, four-team battle for first place in the American League. For the majority of Mathews’ new teammates, it was the first time they’d been through the rigors of a pennant race. Norm Cash and Al Kaline were around in 1961 when the Tigers were contenders, and Cash had four pinch-hitting appearances for the Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series. Jerry Lumpe made it to the Fall Classic twice with the Yankees (both times against Mathews’ Braves). Dick Tracewski made it twice with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mathews was a welcome addition. Kaline commented,
"“It’s just good having him around. He gives class to our club. I only wish we had him 10 years ago. With those right-field seats of ours, he’d have hit 700 home runs.”"
A month before the trade, Mathews hit the 500th home run of his career against the San Francisco Giants’ Juan Marichal, a future Hall of Famer. The left-handed hitting Mathews arrived in Detroit with 503 homers to his name. On August 22, in the opener of a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins at Tiger Stadium, he hit number 504. Mathews led off the bottom of the eighth by depositing a Ron Kline pitch into the upper deck in right field. That gave the Tigers a 7-3 lead, which held up as the final score. Detroit took the nightcap, 2-1. Every win was important, and Mathews was happy to help. He said,
"“I feel like I’m 23 again. It’s good to get that first one out of the way…This is a comfortable place to hit. It’s got to help your confidence to know you don’t have to hit it a mile to get it out.”"
On September 6, the Tigers began the day 1 1/2 games out of first place. There was only a half-game separation in between each of the contenders, first place Minnesota, second place Boston, third place Chicago, and fourth place Detroit. The Tigers were hosting the Kansas City A’s in a doubleheader and led 1-0 after three and a half innings in the opener. Mathews homered off future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter to begin the fourth. The A’s scored a pair of runs in the fifth and another pair in the sixth to take a 4-2 lead.
The Tigers rallied in the seventh. Tommy Matchick singled. Dick McAuliffe and Kaline walked to load the bases for Willie Horton, who drove in two runs with a single. The game was once again tied. Mathews followed with his second home run of the game, a shot to right field off reliever Lew Krausse. That put Detroit up by a 6-4 score, and they went on to an 8-5 victory. The Tigers earned a big doubleheader sweep with a 6-3 win in the second game.
Minnesota lost that afternoon, Boston was idle, and Chicago won that evening. At the end of the day, all four teams found themselves in a virtual four-way tie at the top of the standings. A mere percentage point was the difference between the Twins and White Sox (each 78-61, .561) and the Tigers and Red Sox (each 79-62, .560). Mathews contributed six home runs to the Tigers’ 1967 pennant chase, which ended in disappointment on the final day of the regular season.
Mathews remained with the Tigers in 1968. In a limited role, he hit three longballs, including two in a game against the California Angels in Anaheim on May 27. The second one, the 512th of his career, moved him ahead of Hall of Famer Mel Ott on the all-time list. Neither one was enough to lead the Tigers past the Angels, who won, 7-6. Those were the last two home runs that Mathews hit in the big leagues.
In the ’68 World Series, Mathews pinch-hit for Don Wert in Game 2. He also started Game 4 at third base and played the whole game. In a total of four plate appearances against the St. Louis Cardinals, he singled and walked. The Tigers released Mathews at the end of October, and his playing days came to an end. He managed the Braves for three years, including 1973, a season in which future Tiger Darrell Evans hit 41 home runs. Mathews was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978.