Though the Detroit Tigers have had good teams throughout various eras in their history, they played in just three World Series between 1945 and 1984, and just one since. As Detroit looks for their first World Series title since that '84 season of Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson, here's a look at those three Fall Classic teams ...
1945: 88-65 (.575) +1.5
The Story: World War II was ending. The Germans surrendered in May, the Japanese in August. The formal surrender of the latter came on September 2, 1945, on the deck of the battleship Missouri. Douglas MacArthur accepted for the United States. When all the assembled dignitaries from both sides had finished signing the instrument of surrender, MacArthur said, "Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed." I always find that last sentence, "These proceedings are closed," chilling; intentionally or not, they seem to refer not just to the ceremony in Tokyo Bay, but to roughly six years of war in which, as Winston Churchill said, the lights went out all over the world and a long night of barbarism descended, unbroken even by a star of hope. Millions had died, but now we draw a line, close the door, move on.
And so, to baseball: As the hostilities subsided, the players started drifting back. Hank Greenberg returned on July 1. Unlike some players, who had spent the war on service baseball teams, Greenberg actually went to war, flying supplies over the Himalayas to our soldiers in China. As the first player to enlist, he had not swung a bat since 1941. Yet, the now-34-year-old picked up roughly where he had left off, hitting .311/.404/.544 with 20 doubles and 13 home runs in 78 games. Oddly enough, the Tigers had a .607 winning percentage without him, but only a .554 percentage with him. Nonetheless, Greenberg's routine was key; their only truly superior hitter prior to his arrival was the switch-hitting walk machine Roy Cullenbine; everyone else was just sort-of okay or worse. They likely were doomed to fade regardless, but might have faded right out of the picture without the return of the slugger.
On the pitching side, the Tigers had one of the most dominant wartime stars in lefty Hal Newhouser, who went 25-9 with a 1.81 ERA. Despite the reduced offensive environment of the war years, this was a truly great season; league average ERA was 3.90. He was backed by Al Benton and Dizzy Trout, both of whom had been in Del Baker's bullpen back in 1940. Late in the season they also got hard-throwing righty Virgil Trucks back from the service; he made one start and then, after nearly two years away, headed right into the World Series.
The race came down to the Tigers and the Washington Senators. The Senators had a truly bizarre team that year; they were competing for a pennant with a rotation of four knuckleball pitchers and a fifth starter who was so lacking in stature that he had heretofore been considered too short to play professionally. They had no power, hitting just 27 home runs all season and only one in their pitcher-friendly home park. Like the Tigers, they benefitted from getting one of their big prewar bats back in outfielder Buddy Lewis. He too had spent the war flying missions "over the hump" from India to China, and just like Greenberg, he picked up where had left off, hitting .333/.423/.465 in 69 games.
Wartime travel restrictions made for an odd schedule. The Senators wrapped their season a week ahead of the Tigers with a record of 87-67. At that same moment, the Tigers were 86-64 with four to play; if the Tigers lost all four, the Nats, as they were sometimes called, would win; if they went 1-3, the two teams would tie. It made for a strange finish, with one team playing and the other waiting around the radio to see if they would get to play on. The Tigers split the first two games, and another was rained out; between the rain and travel days, there was a four-day delay in the pennant race. On the last day of the season, the Tigers played the St. Louis Browns on the road for all the marbles; if they won, the rained-out game would be moot. If they lost, who knows what Baseball would have done -- sometimes they insisted that all games be played, other times they just said, "Tough cookies." This was the one game that Trucks started, and he held the Browns to one run in 5⅓ innings. Newhouser came on in relief but pitched poorly, and the Browns held a 3-2 lead going to the top of the ninth. The Tigers loaded the bases in front of Greenberg that inning, and he hit one out. These proceedings were indeed over.
The Stars: The team was a wartime mélange of has-beens and never-weres. It's worth talking about Cullenbine, who hit .277/.398/.451 with 18 home runs and 102 walks. That was a fairly typical year for him -- he was sort of the Nick Swisher of his time, except with even more patience. The Tigers front office looked at the walks and said he was lazy, preferring to work the count rather than get a hit. The pitching staff did carry two teenagers who would go on to greater things in the majors, lefty Billy Pierce, who would star with the White Sox, and Art Houtteman, who would have a couple of good years with the Tigers before moving to the Indians and becoming part of the fabled 1954 rotation.
The Scrubs: Skeeter Webb, the team's 35-year-old shortstop, was a good example of a player who would have been in the minors or retired had there not been a wartime personnel shortage. He hit .199/.254/.238 in 118 games, good for an OPS+ of 39. He was even worse in the World Series, hitting .185/.241/.185 in seven games against the Cubs. The Tigers' catcher was Paul Richards, who couldn't hit but would go on to be a great manager and general manager.
Detroit Population: About 1.8 million.
What Else Was Going On: FDR died in April. Robert Benchley died in November. George Patton died in December. The first atomic bombs were dropped. Mostly it was just the war, almost nine months of killing before it all wrapped up.
Possible relevance to the 2012 Tigers: Tigers manager Steve O'Neill managed for 14 seasons and generally got good results, but he must have been abusing cold and flu medicines during the World Series. He batted Webb leadoff in all seven games. He did pinch-hit for him three times (getting two outs and a reached-on-error), but why leadoff? Why not pinch-hit seven times? No doubt there's a lesson in here somewhere for Jim Leyland, probably about quitting cigarettes, or maybe quitting Omar Infante, I don't know.
1968: 103-59 (.636) +12
The Story: This is one of the really great teams, though you probably wouldn't have it in your top ten because of a few notable flaws, which we'll get to in a moment. There really isn't much of a story; the Tigers were the class of the league. In the early going they toyed with letting the Orioles slip ahead of them, but they went into first place for good on May 10 and never looked back. The attack, which led the league in home runs and runs scored, backed a strong pitching staff led by the last 30-game winner, Denny McLain.
Well, there is one legendary story worth telling. The one about the shortstops was famous in its day: Detroit shortstops just couldn't hit. The Tigers got all of .163/.233/.227 from the position, and even in the "Year of the Pitcher," that was miserable. The biggest culprit was Ray Oyler, who must have been very good defensively to play over 500 major league games with rates of .175/.258/.251. He was actually worse than that in 1968 -- his .135/.213/.186 rates equated to an OPS+ of 20.
While manager Mayo Smith was trying to figure out to do at short, he was confronted with the opposite problem in the outfield, where he had too many good players. The Tigers' great star was 33-year-old right fielder Al Kaline. On May 25, Kaline had suffered a broken arm after being hit by pitcher Lew Krausse of the A's. In his absence, Smith had moved center fielder Jim Northrup to right field and installed former reserve outfielder Mickey Stanley, 25, in center. Kaline returned after 37 games-worth of convalescence. Northrup had hit very well in Kaline's absence, so he wasn't going anywhere. Left field belonged to Willie Horton, Billy Martin's future tranquility coach. He was in the process of hitting .285/.352/.543 with 36 home runs, which was the 1968 equivalent of what Miguel Cabrera did this year (Baseball-Reference's neutralized batting tool suggests that if Horton had the same season in the Comerica Park of 2012, it would work out to .322/.393/.607 with 42 home runs), so he wasn't about to sit.
Kaline was locked out of the corners. The veteran had played a few seasons in center, but given his age, that really wasn't the first choice. Besides, Stanley had proved to be an excellent defensive center fielder as well as a league-average hitter. Kaline hit well when he returned, but nonetheless the future Hall of Famer often found himself on the bench. This was frustrating as all get out, because the defending world champion Cardinals had a hell of a pitching staff, and Smith didn't need to do them any favors by playing an automatic out at short.
The manager hit on a novel solution. He moved Stanley, who had never played a professional game in the infield, to shortstop. Northrup went back to center, and Kaline returned to right. The experiment was attempted at the very end of the season and worked well enough to be carried over into the World Series. Stanley didn't hurt Detroit any with his defense -- he made two errors, both in Detroit wins; the rest of the team made nine errors in an oddly butterfingered postseason -- and while he didn't hit much, (a) his .214 with a triple was better than anything Oyler would have done, and (b) Kaline hit .379 with two home runs.
The Stars: In addition to Horton and Kaline, catcher Bill Freehan contributed one of the best seasons of his career, hitting .263/.366/.454 with 25 home runs (again, these are 1968 statistics; today that would be a Buster Posey season). Second baseman Dick McAuliffe doesn't get a lot of mention among Tiger greats because the franchise also had Charlie Gehringer and Lou Whitaker, but like those two gentlemen, McAuliffe was a left-handed power-hitter in the middle infield. He didn't hit for a high average - given whe he played, he couldn't have -- but he spiked his .250 averages with up to 105 walks a season. We also can't leave out Norm Cash, whose .263/.329/.487 was roughly equivalent to Freehan's season. Special mention goes to pinch-hitter Gates Brown, who hit .370/.442/.685 in 104 plate appearances.
The bullpen had 25-year-old lefty John Hiller working as a swing-man. One of the great relievers, his 1973 remains the greatest relief season of all time -- but that was still in the future.
The Scrubs: Fourth starter Joe Sparma posted a 3.70 ERA, which looks decent now but was actually a Joe Blanton season. Third baseman Don Wert hit .200/.258/.299 in 150 games; the Tigers gave him two more seasons to get back on the beam before replacing him with Aurelio Rodriguez, who couldn't hit either but was a much better fielder.
Detroit Population: Down to about 1.5 million; Detroit lost about 20 percent of its population between 1950 and 1970.
What Else Was Going On: This year is as hard to sum up as 1945; it was one of the most tumultuous years in American history. The Vietnam War dragged on, and while the Tet Offensive turned out to be a win on the battlefield, it looked so bad as to harden antiwar sentiment at home. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. George Wallace and Curtis LeMay ran for the presidency on the segregation ‘n' nuke everybody ticket. The inner cities erupted in race riots after Dr. King's assassination -- some neighborhoods would never be the same. The Chicago Democratic convention erupted in riots. Anti-draft riots erupted in riots. Living in America that year must have felt like the ground was pulling out from under you. On the other hand, the music was really good.
Possible relevance to the 2012 Tigers: McLain got three starts in the Series and went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA. Sometimes even your Verlander can let you down.
1984: 104-58 (.642), +15
The Story: Sparky Anderson's "Bless You, Boys" team somehow seemed like a paradigm-changer at the time, although 30 years later it's hard to know what exactly it changed. The club was notable for two developments: it opened the season on a 35-5 tear; the pennant race was over before it began, and for years after managers would emphasize the importance of getting off to a good start. Eventually, the sense of urgency faded as the reality that there are a lot of ways to win a pennant race reasserted itself. The other supposed game-changer was southpaw reliever Willie Hernandez, who won both the Cy Young and MVP awards. Hernandez pitched 140⅓ innings out of the pen with a 1.92 ERA and converted all but his last save opportunity of the season (in his second-to-last appearance). Obviously, Hernandez seemed like an important milestone in the history of relief pitching at the time, but in retrospect he appears to have been a dinosaur, one of the last of the firemen who in just a few years would give way to the modern closer.
The Stars: Inevitably, we must begin with the double-play combination of Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. Trammell hit .314/.382/.468 and won the Gold Glove at short; injuries cost him 23 games, which kept him from getting much respect from MVP voters. On the other hand, defending MVP Cal Ripken was better than Trammell and everyone else in the league and barely got even an honorable mention. Center field featured defensive great Chet Lemon, who had one of his best offensive seasons at .287/.357/.495 (Lemon was always a guy you would look at and know he was about 95 percent a Hall of Famer, but you could never put your finger on what the missing five percent was). Right field belonged to Kirk Gibson, who hit .282/.363/.516 and just missed a 30-30 season with 27 home runs and 29 stolen bases. A young power-speed player named Howard Johnson had a solid season at third base, but Sparky didn't notice.
Catcher Lance Parrish and first baseman/designated hitter Darrell Evans were stars in other seasons, but weren't up to that level in 1984; Parrish did hit 33 home runs, but with a .287 on-base percentage.
Detroit's secret weapon was a deep bench stocked by outfielders Ruppert Jones (.284/.346/.516), Johnny Grubb (.267/.395/.432), and Rusty Kuntz (.286/.393/.414). The trio combined for about a starter's worth of PAs (621) and hit .279 with 22 home runs and 82 walks. With today's XXL bullpens, no team can maintain as deep a bench as the Tigers did that year.
On the pitching side, the Tigers had one of the deeper rotations among their World Series teams. Jack Morris won 19 games and pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox, but neither the season nor even the no-hitter were that special; the best starter, at least by ERA, was Dan Petry, a 25-year-old whose arm had only one more year on it before it would wilt under a heavy workload.
The Scrubs: The '84 Tigers didn't have a regular first baseman. Anderson split the position among Mientkiewicz type Dave Bergman, utilityman Barbaro Garbey, and Evans. Bergman hit well by his standards, Evans had one of the worst years of his career but still chipped in with walks and home runs, and Garbey didn't hit much overall, but did his part against left-handed pitching. Still, Tigers first basemen hit only .265/.344/.378 overall, a miserable showing in a league that had first basemen like Don Mattingly, Eddie Murray, and Kent Hrbek in their primes... The reason for the extensive playing time granted to utility infielder Tom Brookens in his ten years in Detroit will always remain a mystery.
Detroit Population: Roughly 1.1 million. Today, the city population is somewhere in the neighborhood of 700,000.
What Else Was Going On: Ronald Reagan was running for reelection, and though the result was a landslide in his favor, that wasn't a sure thing in the early going; the economy was going through a recession and Reagan was at one of the low points of his popularity. Then Democratic candidate Walter Mondale said, "Why, yes, I would raise taxes," and that was pretty much that, although Mondale got some notice for choosing Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. The irony here is that Reagan did raise taxes, by about $50 billion, that July. There was far too much talk about Nicaragua, the Contras, and the Sandinistas. George Orwell's most famous novel got a lot of mention, being that it was, in fact, finally 1984. Peter Ueberroth became commissioner of baseball.
Possible relevance to the 2012 Tigers: Well, this year's Tigers would like to do at least as well as their predecessors, who went 4-1 against the NL champion San Diego Padres. Otherwise, these are very different teams. The '84 Tigers lacked pure sluggers like Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera and emphasized the versatility both of their roster and of players like Gibson and Trammell. Neither club had a standout left-handed starter (the '84 team didn't give a start to a southpaw all year), but that didn't prove to matter much in the postseason.