Join us for a blast from the Detroit Tigers’ past, made possible by Baseball-Reference.com’s random page generator.
There’s never a bad time to fall into a Baseball-Reference.com rabbit hole. With a plethora of information to absorb, a visit to one page can easily lead a curious web surfer to another page and then another, and so on and so forth. The B-R random page generator is a fun way to dig into baseball’s vast history. Just type “random” into the search box at the top of the home page and see what happens. That idea was the inspiration for this Detroit Tigers history piece.
Your humble narrator decided to see how long it would take for the random page generator to bring up any kind of Tigers content. On the fifth attempt, the box score and play-by-play log from a St. Louis Browns vs. Detroit Tigers game on September 30, 1948, popped up. Thankfully, it turned out to be an interesting one to write about.
This game, the wrap-up of a three-game series with the Browns, was also the Tigers’ home finale. The Thursday afternoon contest drew only 2,622 to Briggs Stadium. The combined attendance for the trio of games was just 7,918. The lowly Browns weren’t much of a draw. That season, they rarely drew crowds of over 10,000 to their own stadium, Sportsman’s Park, which they shared with the National League’s Cardinals.
Despite the low turnout for the St. Louis series, Detroit set a new season-attendance record of 1,743,035 in 1948. (The record for that ballpark would be broken four more times, culminating in 1984, when 2,704,794 made their way through Tiger Stadium’s turnstiles.) Attendance in Detroit in ’48 was boosted by the addition of lights at the stadium. Night baseball made its debut at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on June 15, and the Detroit Tigers hosted 14 games under the brand-new lights that summer.
The majority of the Tigers’ fanbase had already bid farewell to the team four days earlier, when 57,888 attended the last Sunday game on the home schedule. The first place Cleveland Indians provided the competition in that one, and the gathered throng saw a marquee pitching matchup between two future Hall of Famers, Hal Newhouser of the Tigers and Bob Feller of the Indians.
Tigers rookie left-hander Ted Gray, a Detroit native, drew the starting assignment against the Browns on September 30. He had pitched exclusively out of the bullpen until he joined the rotation on August 6. The 23-year-old’s best start was his first one, a 10-inning, complete game, 1-0 victory over the Washington Senators. Gray won his first five decisions but came into this game with a 5-2 record.
Detroit was playing without the services of two of its All-Stars. In late August, third baseman George Kell’s jaw was broken in two places when a bouncer off the bat of the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio hit him in the face. Kell was out for the rest of the season but came back strong in 1949 and won by the American League batting title. Center fielder Hoot Evers, who led the 1948 Tigers in hits (169), doubles (33), RBI (103), and batting average (.314), had been sidelined with pneumonia since September 19 and didn’t return to the team.
Gray quickly got himself into a jam. Bob Dillinger doubled, Paul Lehner singled, and future Tiger Jerry Priddy walked. With one out, Don Lund drove in a run on a fielder’s choice to put the Browns up, 1-0.
Lund was a Detroit native who excelled in both baseball and football at the University of Michigan. The NFL’s Chicago Bears made him their first-round pick in the 1945 draft, but Lund chose the diamond over the gridiron. He was primarily a corner outfielder. (St. Louis used him in right field in this particular game.) In January 1949, the Browns sold him to the Tigers. Lund played in the Detroit organization for six years, although he saw much more action with the team’s Triple-A affiliates in Toledo, then Buffalo, than he did with the Tigers.
After his playing days were done, Lund spent time as both a scout and a coach for the Tigers. He then returned to his alma mater as the head baseball coach for four seasons. The best player on Lund’s Michigan teams was future Detroit Tigers great Bill Freehan. In 1962, Detroit general manager Jim Campbell hired Lund as the franchise’s director of minor league operations. In that role, he helped build the core of the 1968 squad that won the World Series. Lund eventually returned to U-M again, where he served as the school’s associate athletic director for several years.
The top of the first ended when Gray retired Sam Dente, future Tiger Rick Porcello’s grandfather, on a fly ball to the outfield. (B-R’s play-by-play log didn’t include putout or assist details for this game, but that’s not uncommon for games from vintage eras.)
Leading off for the Detroit Tigers was shortstop Johnny Lipon. He debuted with Detroit as a 19-year-old in 1942, but then sacrificed the next three years of his career to join the U.S. Navy. The World War II veteran was in his first full season as a major leaguer in 1948. Through late July, Lipon had been the Tigers’ regular leadoff hitter. A slump dropped him down to seventh, but a productive month in the bottom third of the lineup sent him back to the top of the order.
Lipon drew a walk against Browns lefty Joe Ostrowski. He was erased when Neil Berry lined out to first baseman Hank Arft, who stepped on the bag to complete the unassisted double play. Pat Mullin flew out to end the frame. Arft walked to lead off the top of the second inning for St. Louis, then stole second base. Gray rebounded with a pair of strikeouts and induced an inning-ending groundout.
The Tigers got a single from Jimmy Outlaw in the bottom of the second, but nothing more. Gray tossed a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the third. Detroit began the home half with a pair of singles from battery mates Joe Ginsberg and Gray. Lipon moved the runners up with a sacrifice bunt.
A Pair of Lead Changes
That brought up Berry, the Tigers’ 26-year-old rookie second baseman. Berry, a native of Kalamazoo and a product of Western Michigan University, broke into pro ball in 1942. He then served in the Army Air Force for three years during WWII. On Opening Day in 1948, Berry made his big-league debut as the Tigers’ starting shortstop and leadoff hitter. Throughout the year, he served as a backup at both keystone positions. Berry came through with a huge single that drove in both Ginsberg and Gray to give the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
Both pitchers retired their opponents in order in the fourth inning. In the fifth, leadoff hitter Roy Partee reached safely on an Outlaw error and took second on Ostrowski’s sacrifice bunt. That turned the Browns’ lineup over for Dillinger, who singled Partee to third. However, Outlaw committed his second error of the inning on the play, which allowed Partee to score the tying run and sent Dillinger to third.
Outlaw had taken over third base duties for the Tigers after Kell’s season was cut short. Per coverage in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Outlaw’s first error in the inning happened when he lost Partee’s pop-up in the sun, and the second happened when he made a bad throw in an attempt to hold Dillinger at first.
Shoddy defense cost the Tigers a run, but then stellar defense saved a run. Per coverage in the Detroit Free Press, Lehner hit a low line drive that center fielder Johnny Groth caught on the run. Groth then made “a perfect peg” to throw Dillinger out at the plate after the runner tried to tag up and score. The inning-ending double play kept the game tied at 2-2. Groth’s leadoff single in the bottom of the sixth set the stage for a big inning.
The 22-year-old Groth was appearing in his third season with the Tigers but still had rookie eligibility. He was merely a September call-up in 1946, ’47, and ’48. It wasn’t until 1949 that Groth got a shot at playing full-time with the Tigers. He became a mainstay in the outfield for four seasons before moving on. After bouncing around the American League with stops in St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, and Kansas City, Groth returned to the Detroit Tigers late in his career and gave the team a veteran presence on the bench for parts of four more seasons.
The Tigers Strike Back
Groth was followed to the plate by Dick Wakefield, Detroit’s left fielder. Wakefield was talk of the town in 1943. The “bonus baby” from the University of Michigan had a huge rookie season for the Tigers that year, hitting .316/.377/.434 with a 130 OPS+. He also led the AL with 200 hits and 38 doubles and started in the All-Star Game. After missing a big chunk of the 1944 season while training to be a Navy pilot, Wakefield picked up where he left off upon being honorably discharged in July. His slash line of .355/.464/.576 and 190 OPS+ was impressive.
Wakefield was drafted the day after the season ended and rejoined the Navy. Unlike Hank Greenberg, Wakefield did not immediately return to the Tigers after the war ended. That meant that he missed out on playing in the 1945 World Series. Things were never the same for Wakefield in Detroit after that. Injuries and diminished skills robbed him of the stardom that he once seemed destined to achieve. The Tigers gave up on him and traded him after the 1949 season.
However, in the 1948 home finale, it was Wakefield who came up with the hit that turned the game around for the Tigers. His triple off the center-field fence drove Groth in with the go-ahead run. Outlaw made up for his earlier defensive miscues and doubled Wakefield home. Detroit led, 4-2. That was it for Ostrowski. The Browns made a pitching change and called upon right-hander Karl Drews.
Tigers rookie first baseman George Vico, who is listed by his nickname Sam on his Baseball-Reference page, was the first to face Drews. The 25-year-old was the first Detroit Tigers player to wear the famous No. 5 following Greenberg’s departure. Vico homered in his first big-league at-bat back on Opening Day, but the big left-handed hitter (6’4″, 200-pounds) didn’t become a threat at the plate like Hammerin’ Hank was. Vico, whose grounder resulted in the first out of the sixth inning, only lasted two seasons in Detroit.
Ginsberg, who made his major-league debut earlier in the month, knocked Outlaw in with a fly ball. It was the first career RBI for the 21-year-old, who was born in New York City but went to high school in Detroit. With the exceptions of 1949 and 1955, Ginsberg played in the majors until 1962. He made his final two appearances with the original New York Mets. In the last game that Ginsberg started behind the plate for those woeful Mets, his pitcher was Roger Craig, who is best remembered around here as the pitching coach of the 1984 Detroit Tigers.
Holding the Lead
Gray’s groundout ended the Tigers’ three-run, sixth-inning rally, but the southpaw returned to the mound in the seventh with a fresh 5-2 lead. He gave up a one-out single to Partee, then the Browns sent pinch-hitter Ned Garver to the plate in place of Drews.
Garver was also a pitcher, and he’d given St. Louis seven innings in a start against Detroit the day before. (Hal Newhouser pitched a 4-0 shutout and won his 20th game of the year.) For a pitcher, Garver was a decent hitter early on. In five seasons with St. Louis, he hit .258. After the Browns traded him to the Tigers in 1952, Garver didn’t hit as well. He only posted a .175 batting average in five seasons with Detroit. Hitting for Drews, Garver flew out.
Dillinger singled. It was the third hit of the game for the Browns’ leadoff man. He promptly stole second base. Dillinger had been a pesky foe not just for the Tigers that afternoon, but also for the entire American League that season. He led the AL in hits (207) and stolen bases (28) in 1948. Dillinger was stranded on second when Lehner grounded out.
The Browns sent a new pitcher, lefty Frank Biscan, to the mound for the bottom of the seventh. Lipon led off the inning with a single, and Berry’s sacrifice bunt moved him into scoring position. That brought up Pat Mullin, the Tigers’ right fielder. His double drove in Lipon, and the Tigers increased their lead to 6-2.
Mullin’s days in Detroit dated back to 1940, but like so many of his peers in that era, he put baseball aside to join the military. He spent WWII in the Army Air Force. 1948 was a career year for the 30-year-old Mullin. He led the Detroit Tigers in runs (91), triples (11), home runs (23), walks (77), slugging percentage (.504), on-base plus slugging (.889), OPS+ (133), and total bases (250). Among Tigers hitters that season, his 3.6 WAR was tops on the team. For his efforts, Mullin earned a spot on the AL All-Star team. He was the league’s starting right fielder and hit leadoff in the All-Star Game.
Mullin was the last Tiger to wear No. 6 before Al Kaline. Mullin’s final year in the big leagues, 1953, coincided with Kaline’s first, and the elder outfielder bestowed the uniform number upon the youngster. Mullin remained with the Detroit organization after his playing days were over. In 1959, he was the scout who recommended that the team sign Gates Brown, who was in a State Reformatory in Ohio at the time. When the Gator homered in his first major league at-bat in 1963, Mullin was the Tigers’ first base coach. (Brown became the first Detroit Tiger to achieve that feat since Mullin’s teammate Vico.)
Groth’s double knocked Mullin in to put the Tigers up, 7-2. Groth started all three games in this series against the Browns, and he was productive. In 12 at-bats, he collected seven hits (including two doubles and his first career home run), drove in five runs, and scored three. Of all the players who appeared in this game, Groth, who died at the age of 95 in August 2021, was the last surviving participant.
Sealing the Victory
Gray gave up only a single in a scoreless eighth inning. The Browns tried to put up one last fight in the ninth. Arft singled to get things started, but Partee flew out. Pinch-hitter Andy Anderson made a bid for an extra-base hit to right field, but the Free Press reported that Wakefield “came up with a great leaping catch” to deny him. The pesky Dillinger took one last shot at Gray and drew a walk, but Lehner flew out to end the game.
The Tigers’ rookie-laden lineup won 7-2. Gray went the distance for the third time in his 11 starts. He did a solid job of keeping the Browns at bay despite giving up seven hits and four walks. The lefty walked 72 hitters all season. Tigers pitchers in 1948 gave up the fewest free passes in the AL, 589. Gray’s four strikeouts gave him 60 for the season. Although he was far from the team leader in total strikeouts, Gray led his fellow moundsmen with 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He was part of a Detroit staff that struck out a combined 678, which led the league.
With the victory over the Browns, the Detroit Tigers improved to 76-75. They had seized control of fifth place in the AL back in early July and did not let go. However, an opportunity to affect the 1948 pennant race awaited manager Steve O’Neill’s Bengals. The team moved on to Cleveland for three games against a first place Indians team that held a 1 1/2 game lead over the Boston Red Sox.
The Tigers won the opener, 5-3, on October 1. The Red Sox were idle, and so the Indians’ lead was cut to a single game. The next day, Cleveland shut Detroit out, 8-0, but maintained its one-game lead when Boston beat New York, 5-1. On the last scheduled day of the regular season, October 3, the Red Sox beat the Yankees, 10-5.
Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Tigers and Indians went at it one last time. The pitching matchup was a rematch between Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller. “Rapid Robert” and his boys would’ve clinched the pennant with a win over “Prince Hal” and his boys. It didn’t work out that way. The Tigers surprised the Indians with a 7-1 trouncing. That left Cleveland and Boston tied for the AL lead with matching records of 96-58, forcing a one-game playoff set for October 4. (The Indians beat the Red Sox, 8-3, and defeated the Boston Braves in a six-game World Series.)
Detroit finished with a 78-76 record in 1948. The team’s home and road records were an identical 39-38.
The season finale in Cleveland was O’Neill’s last game at the helm of the Tigers. The manager who led the team to a world championship in 1945 was relieved of his duties in November. At the time, he ranked second on the franchise’s leaderboard for managerial wins. With 509, O’Neill was slotted in between Hughie Jennings (1,131) and Ty Cobb (479). Since then, he has been passed by Bucky Harris (516 covering two separate stints), Jim Leyland (700), and Sparky Anderson (1,331)
A randomly generated Baseball-Reference.com page was the impetus for this dive into Detroit Tigers history. According to your humble narrator’s browser history, 48 other pages on that website were perused during the process. It was a good B-R rabbit hole to fall into.