When unlikely slugger Junior Felix led the Detroit Tigers to a home run record

Junior Felix hit 11 homers in a 25-game stretch for the Detroit Tigers in 1994.

Junior Felix hit 11 homers in a 25-game stretch for the Detroit Tigers in 1994.

When we think of the great Detroit Tigers’ teams of all-time, the 1994 club doesn’t come to mind.

When we think of great home run sluggers we don’t think of Junior Felix. Junior who?

But Junior and the ’94 Tigers did some home run hitting that not even the ’68 World Series champs, nor the ’84 Tigers’ team, nor any other Detroit squad has ever done. In fact, the ’94 Tigers tied a Major League Baseball record that hadn’t been equaled since before World War II. For 25 straight games, the team hit at least one home run, tying the MLB mark set by Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 Yankees.

Joe DiMaggio = Junior Felix? Are you kidding?

The ’94 Tigers didn’t do much of anything worth remembering. The pitching staff was terrible, most of their key stars were in the last phase of their careers, and the farm system was bone dry, which meant no young players were available to fill spots in the lineup. This sad mixture was what manager Sparky Anderson had to work with that season, and the team didn’t do much — other than hit home runs. The ’94 Tigers were in last place out of the gate and pretty much stayed there the whole season.

On May 25th in a game at Tiger Stadium against the Cleveland Indians, Mickey Tettleton launched a three-run homer in the first inning (off John Farrell, who now manages the Red Sox). Tettleton was in the last of his four seasons with Detroit, and he was one of Sparky’s favorite tools. The grey-haired skipper liked to play Mickey at any one of many positions: catcher, first base, the corner outfield spots, or DH. Tettleton was the master of the “Three True Outcomes” – he usually either walked, struck out, out, or homered. In ’94 he hit 17 homers for Sparky, and his great first half earned him a spot on the All-Star team, the only Detroit player to go to the midsummer classic.

On May 26th, Junior Felix hit his first homer of the season against the Angels at The Corner. Felix was one of the youngest players on the Tigers, a switch-hitting outfielder from the Dominican playing for his third team in three years. In January, Detroit had signed Felix as a free agent when no other team showed any interest in the journeyman outfielder. Though he never hit much at all in the big leagues and he didn’t play again after the ’94 season, Felix would be the player most responsible for the 25-game home run-hitting streak. He would hit the sole Detroit homer in six of the 25 games while he went on the hottest streak of his career. The next day, Danny Bautista homered, the next it was Kirk Gibson with a pair of dingers (Felix also with one of his own). The streak reached seven games in Baltimore when “Big Daddy” Cecil Fielder got into the act with a mammoth homer to left field against the O’s. On June 2, Lou Whitaker hit a homer against Baltimore to extend the streak to nine. The next evening back in Motown, the Bashing Bengals struck five deep blows, with Fielder (2), Felix, Tony Phillips, and Travis Fryman providing the home run strength. The next day it took until the 7th inning before the Tigers got their homer, this one coming off the bat of veteran Juan Samuel. On Sunday, Phillips got the suspense over early, hitting a leadoff homer to extend the streak to 12 games.

Alan Trammell had to keep the streak alive on June 6th win an 8th inning dinger off Boston’s Tony Fossas in Detroit’s 11-5 rout. The Tigers were now even at 27-27 and briefly had climbed out of the AL East cellar. It looked like the homer streak would end the next day when Roger Clemens was dominating the Detroit lineup, but Tettleton soared a high fly into the right field upper deck in the 7th. Sparky’s legions won their 4th straight on June 11 in Anaheim against the Angels, clawing their way to within 4 1/2 of first place, the closest they’d get all year. Tettleton and Felix again homered, and Gibby clubbed a pair of homers, the last one a grand slam in the 9th inning. The homer streak was at 18 games. Some were wondering if the Tigers could slug their way to the top of their division.

But for all the runs and home runs the ’94 team scored, their pitching staff gave up more. Four of Sparky’s starting pitchers had an ERA that season higher than 5 runs per game! When John Doherty, Bill Gullickson, Tim Belcher, and Mike Moore were on the mound, Detroit had to outslug the opponent to have a chance to win. Only lefty David Wells did a decent job for the club that season in the rotation, posting a 3.96 ERA in 16 starts.

The Tigers got a pair of 8th inning homers to extend the streak to 19 games (Fryman and light-hitting Chris Gomez); got a homer from the suddenly red-hit Felix to extend it to 20 games; then got homers from Felix in the next two contests. On June 18th at Tiger Stadium, Gomez, Trammell, and Tettleton belted homers in a game that Detroit won in walkoff fashion on a Trammell single in the 11th. Fittingly, it was “man of the hour” Felix who scored the winning run. The next day, a Sunday in Detroit, seldom-used Greg Gohr spun a nice game and shut down the Blue Jays. Tettleton made sure there was another home run for a 25th straight game, victimizing Juan Guzman with a high fly into the overhang in right field. The Tigers won the game 3-1, and tied the 1941 New York Yankees as the only teams to hit at least one homer in 25 straight games.

It was probably going to take a lights-out performance from an opposing pitcher to stop the streak, and that’s what happened. On Monday, June 20th, the Indians came into Detroit and right-hander Charles Nagy was on his game. He allowed just five hits and there wasn’t even a close call for a homer, as Detroit finally kept the ball in the yard for the first time in almost a month.

The streak details: 25 games played in 26 days, at least one homer in each game, the team record was 15-10. In all, the team hit 42 homers during the streak, with Felix leading the way with 11. It was the high point of Felix’s career, which was over after the ’94 season. For the year, which was abbreviated by a labor stoppage that cancelled the last 45 or so games and the World Series, Detroit finished 2nd in the American League with 161 homers, but they were only able to go 53-62 in the AL East, 18 games back.

A few years later, in 1997, the Texas Rangers broke the record when they homered in 27 games (future Tiger Pudge Rodriguez was part of that club). Since then, even though homer records have fell left and right, the ’94 Tigers mark remains as one of the top three in the history of the game. Back in an otherwise unspectacular 1994 season, the homer streak was the only thing of interest twenty years ago for Tigers’ fans.