The Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians played an early season doubleheader on April 23, 1944. The visiting Tigers, who began the day winless in their first four attempts, took the opener, 6-2. In the nightcap, they trailed, 3-1, heading into the bottom of the seventh.
That’s when catcher Hack Miller took over for starter Bob Swift. Miller, at that point, had only one inning of big-league experience. The 31-year-old rookie had caught the ninth inning in the Tigers’ second game of the season, four days earlier.
It was Miller’s 4-F status (unfit for military service) that made him available as teams continued to scramble to fill their World War II era rosters with able bodies. A veteran of six minor league seasons, Miller had most recently played semi-pro ball in his home state of Texas when Detroit picked him up in spring training.
In the top of the eighth in Cleveland, the right-handed hitting Miller stepped into the batter’s box for the first time as a major leaguer. The Tigers were still down by a pair, but there were two on with two outs. Miller hit a line drive into right field that Roy Cullenbine, who debuted with Detroit in 1938 and returned to the team in 1945, didn’t read off the bat very well. He then slipped while trying to field the ball, which rolled to the base of the right-field wall. Pinky Higgins and Jimmy Outlaw both scored. By the time Cullenbine’s throw reached the infield, Miller had already crossed the plate with the go-ahead run. His inside-the-park home run provided the margin of victory, and the 4-3 triumph gave the Tigers a doubleheader sweep.
Hal Newhouser, pitching in relief, was credited with the first of his 29 wins in what turned out to be an MVP season. Newhouser had experienced middling success amidst struggles in four full seasons with the Tigers prior to 1944. In his first start of the ’44 campaign, three days earlier, he didn’t make it out of the third inning. Years later, although he misremembered some details, Newhouser selected this game against the Indians as the one that turned his career around. In a 1961 Detroit Free Press column, the future Hall of Famer acknowledged Miller’s contribution and wrote,
"That victory gave me a terrific lift. It seemed to straighten me out. I began to get the ball over…I won seven straight games and was on my way to my greatest season. I’ll never forget it because it could have easily gone the other way."
Miller got into one more game for the Tigers in April before being sent to the minors. He returned for single appearances in both July and August that season. In the summer of 1945, he played in a pair of games for the eventual world champs, but that was enough for him to be rewarded with a World Series ring by the Detroit organization.
When the American League gained major-league status in 1901, the Detroit Tigers were charter members. On Opening Day, April 25, Pop Dillon became the first man to play first base for the team. The brand-new Tigers got off to a roaring start by sweeping a four-game series with the Milwaukee Brewers at Bennett Park in Detroit. Dillon contributed nine hits (including five doubles), walked twice, stole two bases, and scored seven runs in the series. Neither he nor any of his teammates hit a home run.
On April 29, the Tigers played as the road team for the very first time at Chicago’s South Side Park. The White Sox scored a run in the bottom of the first. Their 1-0 lead stayed intact through the first five innings. In the top of the sixth, Detroit’s Ducky Holmes reached safely on an error. That brought Dillon up. Reading the game coverage in a defunct Chicago newspaper called The Daily Inter Ocean makes one wish that video footage of Dillon’s at-bat existed. An uncredited scribe wrote,
"The way he smote the ball over the right-field fence carried the old-time fans back to the days of David and the Philistines."
Dillon’s blast of biblical proportions gave the Tigers a 2-1 lead. Kid Elberfeld followed with a solo homer to give Detroit an insurance run that came in handy. Pop, Kid, Ducky and the boys in the road grays beat the White Sox, 3-2, and ran their winning streak to five games.
Throughout the years, the Tigers have had some prolific home run hitters who were first basemen. Hank Greenberg, Norm Cash, Cecil Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera immediately spring to mind. Perhaps it’s fitting that the first home run in Detroit Tigers history was hit by a first baseman.