The World Series is nothing new for the Detroit Tigers. When Ty Cobb ruled the American League, the Tigers played in three straight World Series, 1907 through 1909 ... and lost all three. Ancient history.
Thanks to the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Athletics, it would be another 25 years before the Tigers reached the World Series, which remains the longest drought in franchise history. Not a by a lot, though; this year's trip is just their eighth since 1909. Below, the first part of our review of the Tigers' post-Cobb American League champions ...
1934: 101-53 (.656), +7.0
The Story: For 14 years, the American League's representative in the World Series had been the Yankees, A's, or Senators, so this was the first time in quite awhile that the pennant winner came from someplace inland. It had also been 25 years, or since the days of Ty Cobb, since the Tigers had won through to October. The club had lost 93 games as recently as 1931, but the club had been quickly rebuilt with the arrival or maturation of young pitchers Tommy Bridges, Elden Auker, and Schoolboy Rowe and first baseman Hank Greenberg.
The Tigers cinched things with two very good trades for future Hall of Famers, picking up veteran corner outfielder Goose Goslin from the Senators -- simultaneously improving themselves and taking a key piece away from the defending pennant winners -- and sending $100,000 and a token scrub to the A's for catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane, available due to what was basically Connie Mack's going out of business sale. An August waiver claim of three-time 20-game winner General Crowder from the Senators also paid off down the stretch.
The Yankees were in transition, with Babe Ruth in his last season and Joe DiMaggio still two seasons away. The two teams were tied as late as July 31, but the Tigers got hot at that point, playing at a .719 pace the rest of the way, while the Yankees were "only" .593 winners.
The Stars: Greenberg (.339/.404/.600 with a crazy 63 doubles) and second baseman Charlie Gehringer, the team's fourth future Cooperstown denizen, hit .356/.450/.517 with 50 doubles of his own. The whole club hit well, leading the league in batting average (.300 even) and on-base percentage, while finishing second in slugging. Cochrane hit only .320/.428/.412 with just two home runs. It was one of the worst seasons of his career, but he nonetheless won his second MVP award. On the mound, Rowe won 16 straight decisions, going 16-0 with one save (ERA 2.86) from June 15 through August 25.
The Scrubs: The pitching staff was weak after Rowe, Bridges, and Auker. Cochrane felt the need to start the veteran Crowder in the first game of the World Series, which greatly contributed to the Tigers losing in seven games. Imagine Jim Leyland opening the World Series with Rick Porcello and you'll get the idea.
Detroit Population: Roughly 1.6 million.
What Else Was Going On: The whole Great Depression thing was easing a bit, temporarily as it turned out, and the FBI shot John Dillinger in Chicago. The government also established the Securities Exchange Commission, which ended fraud in the stock market forever... right, Mr. Wilpon?
Possible relevance to the 2012 Tigers: Miguel Cabrera is Hank Greenberg, a right-handed slugger of triple-crown capabilities. (Hammerin' Hank never did win one, having never won a batting title -- he came close in 1940, having led the league in home runs and RBI, but Joe DiMaggio took the batting crown with a .352 average; Hank finished fifth at .340.) Baseball-Reference even lists Cabrera as Greenberg's top comp, albeit with a weak score. Greenberg hit quite well in the Series, but one man is almost never enough and it wasn't for the Tigers; though Gehringer also hit well, the rest of the lineup struggled.
1935: 93-58 (.616) +3.0
The Story: The Tigers and Yankees were the class of the league. No one else was close -- the third-place Indians finished 21 games back. In their first season without Ruth, the Yankees had only Lou Gehrig record a truly outstanding season on offense. The pitching was actually a bit deeper than Detroit's -- Crowder, 36, came back for an encore and was little more than a league-average innings eater, which meant that once again the staff boiled down to Bridges, Rowe, and Auker.
Detroit's offense was much better. Greenberg had another big year (.328/.411/.528 with 170 RBIs), Gehringer was again excellent (.330/.409/.502), and a journeyman outfielder named Pete Fox hit .321/.382/.513 and scored 116 runs. Overall, the Tigers led the league in almost every offensive category and scored 919 runs. On the pitching side, Bridges and his curveball lead the league in strikeouts. The Tigers were slow to get going, but in a month span between June 20 and July 20, they erased a seven-game deficit and climbed into first place. They rolled from then on. A .520 team over the first third of the season, they played at roughly a .660 pace over the final two thirds.
The Stars: Player-manager Cochrane's home run power seems to have vanished with the move from Shibe Park to Tigers stadium, but at 32 he rebounded to have the last big season before head injuries ended his playing career, hitting .319/.452/.450 (five home runs, 96 walks, 15 strikeouts). From a distance his work looks a bit like Joe Mauer's. No MVP award this time, though, as Greenberg took home the first of his two awards. Shortstop Billy Rogell, subsequently a longtime Detroit City Councilman, doesn't look like much in retrospect, but from 1933-1935 he hit .289/.374/.394 -- very solid offense for a shortstop at that moment, with excellent defense. Baseball-Reference has him contributing roughly 5.0 WAR each of those three years.
The Scrubs: Third baseman Marv Owen was the Brandon Inge of this era, hitting a career .275/.339/.367 at a time at which .300 averages weren't uncommon. In '35, center fielder Jo-Jo Moore's bat suffered an untimely demise as he crashed to .240/.348/.345. Cochrane led him off for half the season anyway.
Detroit Population: Not too different from the year before, probably.
What Else Was Going On: Social Security passed Congress and was signed into law. Louisiana governor/senator Huey Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge. Larry MacPhail of the Reds brought night baseball to the majors. Not long after, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in New York. The two probably weren't related, but MacPhail and alcohol did have a long and contentious relationship.
Possible relevance to the 2012 Tigers: The Cubs, the NL pennant winners, had a far more dominant pitching staff than did the Tigers, but it was the Tigers who won all the close games (including three one-run games) in the World Series. This year, one suspects that overall the reverse is true: the Giants have a slight offensive edge, while the Tigers have the deeper starting rotation. In a reversal of 1934, Greenberg didn't play much of a role -- his wrist was broken by a pitch in the second game. The Tigers won anyway.
1940: 90-64 (.584) +1.0
The Story: The Yankees had dominated baseball, winning four straight championships, and then went on dominating it after this year. They might have captured 1940 as well had Yankees manager Joe McCarthy not been loyal to veteran shortstop Frank Crosetti and sent out rookie Phil Rizzuto for one more year of seasoning. "Cro" hit .194/.299/.273 while leading off; meanwhile, Rizzuto was hitting .347 in the American Association. This miscalculation (this isn't a belated second-guess; McCarthy spent the rest of his life saying his hesitance to go with the kid had cost the team its fifth-straight pennant) opened up the AL just enough to make things interesting. The Yankees slumped early but climbed back into the race at midseason and spent the rest of the season dueling with the Tigers and Indians.
The Tigers played the last series of the season with the second-place Indians. They were up by two with three to play, so a win in the first game would clinch, while a loss opened up all kinds of disturbing possibilities. The Tigers' pitching staff was also shot; they needed to get things over with and rest. The Indians started Bob Feller. The Tigers responded with 30-year-old rookie Floyd Giebell, who had pitched all of nine innings that season. Both starters went the distance. Feller allowed only three hits (as well as eight walks) but one of them was a two-run home run by Rudy York. Giebell piched a six-hit shutout, the only shutout of his career, and the race was over.
The Stars: Greenberg, now 29, was excellent in his last full season before his enlistment in the military would take him away for most of five seasons, hitting .340/.433/.670 with 50 doubles and 41 home runs. York, now remembered as one of baseball's great alcoholics, hit .316/.410/.583 with 33 home runs. Gehringer was still productive at 37, hitting .313/.428/.447 in his final good season. The Tigers also received a strong performance from their center fielder, Bernie McCoskey, a second-year player who hit .340/.408/.491 and led the league in hits and triples. McCoskey might have had a Hall of Fame career had his career not been cut short by the war and a severe back injury. A collective shout-out should probably go to manager Del Baker's relievers -- there were no Mariano Riveras on hand, but with a thin starting rotation after the top three of Bridges, Rowe, and Bobo Newsom -- apparently the Tigers were always stretched for the back end of the rotation in those days -- Baker shied away from the complete game and set up something that resembles a modern bullpen.
The real star of the staff, though, was Newsom. Remembered today as an oft-traded buffoon, Newsom was a great pitcher at times; in 1940 he pitched 264 innings with a 2.83 ERA, the latter figure good for second in the league to Feller's 2.61. He went 21-5 and also finished second in strikeouts for the fifth season in a row -- it was tough to win a strikeout title with Feller in the league. Newsom had a way with words, and in the World Series against the Reds he had one of his best lines: Newsom had just started and won the first game of the World Series, when his father died suddenly. Newsom vowed he would win his next start for his dad and he did, pitching a three-hit shutout in Game 5. Before his start in the seventh game, he was asked if he was also going to win another one for his father. "No," he said thoughtfully, "I think I will win this one for Bobo."
The Scrubs: Well, Floyd Giebell, but that's really not fair. Dick Bartell wasn't a bad hitter for a shortstop of his day, with career rates of .284/.355/.391, but he was nearing the end in 1940 and had the worst season of his career, hitting .233/.335/.330. I also feel comfortable listing third baseman Pinky Higgins here, just because he was Pinky Higgins and deserves being listed anywhere there's the possibility of a negative connotation.
Detroit Population: Still holding steady around 1.6 million.
What Else Was Going On: World War II, at least in Europe, though until May some critics called it "The Phony War" because not much shooting was going on. Things got hot in May, though, and stayed that way for a very long time. The US instituted the first peacetime draft in history because it wasn't going to be peacetime much longer. Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term and won.
Possible relevance to the 2012 Tigers: Newsom was the Justin Verlander of 1940, and started three games in the World Series, but one-run games are merciless. The Reds also had a defense which was legendary in its day. The 2012 Tigers' defense is legendary also, but not for the same reasons.