It’s a record that will probably never be broken. Baseball is filled with hot starts, teams get out of the gate quick almost every year, and every few years a team comes along that wins 12 of 15 or has a record of 22-6 or something like that. But no one had ever seen what the Detroit Tigers did in 1984. That year the team won their first nine games, lost a game, then won seven in a row. A week later the Tigers started another seven-game winning streak, dropped a game, and promptly peeled off nine in a row. Their record stood at 35-5 on May 24, the best 40-game start in baseball history.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of 35-5. I spoke with several members of the ‘84 team and got their thoughts on that amazing seven-week ride that ended the division race practically before it even started. This oral history includes comments from the late Sparky Anderson and Dave Bergman from interviews I conducted while with the Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as comments pulled from The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and two books about the 1984 season by Sparky Anderson and Roger Craig.
JACK MORRIS: We felt we were good enough to win [the division] the year before, but we were young and didn’t play strong enough down the stretch. We were ready to get the ‘84 season going so we could prove how good we were.
ALAN TRAMMELL: I remember a lot of anticipation and excitement that spring in Lakeland. We were a young team and many of us had come up together, and we knew how to play.
TOM BROOKENS: Sparky [Anderson] had made men out of us, so to speak. We were a good team and we knew it.
DARRELL EVANS: I signed with the team in the winter and I knew it was a big thing, the Tigers didn’t sign free agents back then. I went over there to be a piece of a team that could win a championship.
SPARKY ANDERSON: I told Roger [Craig, pitching coach] that we would both be looking for a job if we didn’t win with the team we had. But we needed one thing, and I did something I rarely did, I went to the man [general manager Bill Lajoie] and begged him to get me a lefthanded reliever. We needed a guy who could pitch on back to back days, give us a chance.
On March 24, the Tigers traded catcher John Wockenfuss and outfielder Glenn Wilson to the Phillies for reliever Willie Hernandez and first baseman Dave Bergman. The deal was orchestrated by general manager Bill Lajoie at the urging of manager Sparky Anderson. Having observed his team for seven weeks in spring training, Anderson felt he needed two more pieces: a quality lefthanded reliever and a lefthanded bat off his bench. The Phillies were thrilled to acquire Wilson, an excellent young right fielder with a strong throwing arm. Wockenfuss was a popular veteran but a righthanded hitter. Anderson, remembering Hernandez from his days in the National League, was delighted with the trade.
MORRIS: Just before the end of camp they told us we got a relief pitcher from the Phillies, and Dave [Bergman] came over too. Sparky was thrilled we got a lefty like Willie [Hernandez].
LANCE PARRISH: That trade upset a few things, it meant a few guys who thought they made the team [were] not coming north. But I was excited the front office was making moves to make us better. I felt we could play with anyone.
DAVE ROZEMA: Getting Hernandez made our bullpen balanced, it gave us that great lefthander to go with Lopey [Aurelio Lopez]. And other guys down there [in the bullpen] could pitch too.
DAVE BERGMAN: I knew Sparky from the National League, when I played in Houston. Sparky talked to me a few times when the Reds came to the Astrodome. I think he knew I paid attention to the game. After the trade, when I got to Lakeland the traveling secretary brought me into the clubhouse to meet with Sparky. He told me there were two rules: be on time and come to the park ready to play. I was thrilled to be coming to the Tigers because everyone in the league was talking about their team.
RUSTY KUNTZ: It was my first camp with Detroit, I’d been with the Twins the year before, they were a young team. The Tigers were different, with Sparky and that coaching staff, it was the best coaching staff I ever played for. The team was very prepared.
BROOKENS: You want to get the season started, by the time you’ve been in Florida a few weeks you’re ready. Position players are ready, the pitchers might need more time. We were really ready to get to Minnesota to start the thing.
On Opening Night in Minnesota, the Tigers pounded the Twins 8-1 at the Metrodome as Morris tossed seven innings of one-run ball. Hernandez pitched a perfect ninth inning. The game was put out of reach when Evans hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning. The Tigers swept the short two-game series in Minnesota and traveled to Chicago to face the White Sox. On Friday, April 6, Hernandez recorded his first save to preserve Milt Wilcox’s 3-2 win. The Saturday afternoon game was broadcast nationally on NBC as the Game of the Week. Jack Morris started on three days rest and made history with a no-hitter, the earliest in baseball history.
WILCOX: It was a windy day in Chicago, early in the year, sort of cold. Jack wasn’t real comfortable out [on the mound] when the game started. He didn’t have his best stuff.
PARRISH: Jack’s split-finger fastball was dropping more than I’d ever seen it, but he had no idea how to keep it over the plate. But the hitters didn’t know where it was going either [and] he got through the first few innings with a lot of swings and misses on pitches I had to block in the dirt. Later in the game [he] walked the bases loaded because they started to lay off that pitch.
TRAMMELL: [Jack] walked the bases loaded in that game, people forget that. He got a double play and a strikeout. A lot of times when a great pitcher is against the ropes you have to get him right there, if you don’t he’ll bury you.
MORRIS: They didn’t hit a ball to Tram the entire game, he didn’t have an assist in that game. Isn’t that crazy? I walked six guys and struck out quite a few, and they hit a lot of balls back to me or down to first. Late in the game I think every out was hit back to the mound or to first. There weren’t any close calls.
PARRISH: Sparky put Dave Bergman in for defense late in the game and that was smart because the White Sox kept hitting the ball down to first and Dave was the best. He got them all, and they hit a lot of balls back to Jack, I remember he turned a double play from the mound. After the sixth or seventh, they weren’t getting good swings against Morris.
EVANS: Dave [Bergman] was great with the glove, we spent that year fighting over time at first base. In the no-hitter he made a lot of plays at the end of the game.
BERGMAN: It felt like every ball was hit to me at the end of that game. Jack was throwing everything on the ground, and one play was tricky, it was hit back to [the mound]. We got through it, that was a big thrill.
MORRIS: I think it was the sixth inning, I came back to the dugout in old Comiskey Park and there was this guy, a fan sitting right above the dugout. He yelled “Hey Morris, you got a no-hitter! Hey Morris!” And he did it again the next inning, and after the eighth inning I was sick of his shit, and when he hollered, I pointed and said, “Yeah I know, and watch me get it!”
PARRISH: We didn’t talk at all, no one talked to Jack. We didn’t talk to him under normal conditions when he pitched, he was in a mood on game days. In the ninth he had to face the middle of their lineup, Fisk and Luzinski and Baines I think. We thought we had Luzinski on strikes but he walked and then Jack threw that split-finger to Kittle, that’s all he threw as the game went on, and he couldn’t get at it. That was it.
BERGMAN: I remember sitting in the clubhouse at Comiskey Park and thinking that game would be a highlight of the season. I didn’t realize our whole season would be a highlight.
The Morris no-hitter on national TV was a big deal, but within a week the Tigers were gaining attention for something else: being undefeated. They swept the White Sox, went to Detroit to open their home season with two wins against the Rangers, and traveled east to play the Red Sox in Boston for their home opener. They outslugged the Red Sox, 13-9 and after several days of rain, beat the Royals back in Detroit on a walkoff in the tenth inning. The team was 9-0, but on April 19 they suffered their first loss when a rookie pitcher named Bret Saberhagen stymied them. Still, the Tigers did not flinch and proceeded to sweep the White Sox, Twins, and Rangers to improve to 16-1. A trend was emerging where every game a different player was stepping up to be that day’s hero.
BARBARO GARBEY: I came to the United States in 1980 on a raft from Cuba. I was signed by the Tigers and they were my family, my first family here. In 1984 I made the team but I didn’t know where I would play. I was an outfielder, then the Tigers tried to make me a third baseman because the team was always looking for a third baseman. I played first base, but I didn’t like that. Sparky told me to be ready every day and I listened, I came to the park ready to play every day.
LARRY HERNDON: We had a good team the year before, but we went north [in 1984] with some new guys, and all of them helped us out. All of them helped us immediately in April. Garbey and Rusty [Kuntz] and Rod Allen was with us when the season started, and Bergie and Darrell [Evans] were hot early.
TRAMMELL: Well, Garbey was a surprise, a great surprise, he was leading the league in hitting in April and I was second or third, and everywhere he played he got a few hits, every time he was in the lineup he seemed to help us.
ROD ALLEN: I couldn’t get in the lineup, I was hitting over .300 but I couldn’t get in the lineup. Everybody was hitting. I had played with Garbey in the minors and he was leading the league in batting, from coming here as a refugee from Cuba to leading the league in hitting. We were winning games with everybody pitching in.
PARRISH: One night it was Tram, another night HoJo [Howard Johnson] would get a big hit, and then I would get a big homer, and Gibby, and guys getting playing time like Barbaro Garbey and Rusty Kuntz. There was a game where Rusty scored from second base on a sacrifice fly. Garbey was hitting over .400 and Darrell Evans was hitting home runs every few days. No one wanted to face our lineup.
BERGMAN: I don’t know who Sparky made a deal with, but he had a knack for knowing when to play you. I didn’t start a lot of games in April, and Garbey and Darrell were hot. In May I got into the lineup against some righthanded pitching and had success. That happened all year.
KUNTZ: I can never thank Sparky enough because he made me in this game and 1984 was the coming out party for me, in a way. We had [Larry] Herndon, Chet [Lemon], and Gibby in our outfield and I didn’t know when I would play. But Sparky was smart, [he knew] he needed 25 guys, 25 guys to be ready to play, and he used his guys and he liked to use everybody right away. I think he got a kick out of pushing the right buttons.
DOUG BAIR: Something about ‘84 that goes unnoticed is how deep we were. A lot of great teams are built on a few superstars, but we had a lot of really good guys, and in our bullpen we had a number of guys who could have pitched anywhere. I had been a closer, and [Aurelio] Lopez was an All-Star closer, and Willie [Hernandez] came over, and later we had Sid Monge added to the bullpen, we were deep. Sparky was good at getting everyone involved. In the first few weeks when we got off to the hot start, he worked everyone in slowly. But the starters were pitching so well too, that we weren’t always needed.
MORRIS: I got off to the best start of my career, I was 10-1 or something in May and then [the media] started talking about 30 wins. Sparky put me out there on three days rest or would skip a start. It was different back then. Then I started to fight with the media and I was stubborn when I was young. It never helped me, and Sparky wished I would change, but I was bullheaded.
ROGER CRAIG: The staff we had [in 1984] knew how to pitch, they all attacked the strike zone. Morris and Petry were hard throwers and went right after them. Wilcox was a gamer, he was a bulldog on the mound. I didn’t have to do much with them, the most work I did was handling egos.
BROOKENS: Me and Howard Johnson and Marty Castillo could all play third, and Darrell [Evans] played there too. Garbey would get time there too, we had all these guys who could play there and I was trying to figure out where I was going to play, and Sparky always took care of me. That year he went with the hot hand.
BERGMAN: I prided myself in being prepared every day and [be] in shape to play if I was needed. I think that’s why Sparky and I got along so well. I played nine years for him and they were the most successful years of my career. I never had any problems with playing time because we were such a talented team. We had four or five guys on the bench who had been starters, and we all jelled very well that season.
PARRISH: During that 35-5 start it seemed like we scored in the first inning every game, we were jumping out to an early lead with Lou [Whitaker] and Tram at the top of the order. Then Gibby had a big year, he could hit a home run into the upper deck [or] he could steal you a base. I was just lucky to clean up and drive those guys in when I could. I had one of my best years, but a lot of our guys did. But Tram was probably the heart of it all, he was rolling and we rolled.
TRAMMELL: I had two tough years there [in 1981 and 1982] and then in ‘83 I went to Gator [hitting coach Gates Brown] and we talked about changing my approach. Gator worked with me to close my stance, so my back was to the pitcher and I tucked the left shoulder in. It helped me stay back and work on hitting the outside pitch the other way. That was the All-Star break in ‘83 and I hit something like .375 and took that momentum into ‘84.
BERGMAN: Whitaker was the most naturally gifted player I ever played with. You have to realize, he didn’t take extra batting practice, he didn’t even want to know the hit-and-run signs, he liked to go onto the field and play. He was one of the fastest guys on the team, he could pull a fastball into right field [at Tiger Stadium]. I don’t think I ever saw him make a bad throw, he was the perfect second baseman. Lou and Tram at the top of the order gave us a first inning advantage.
On April 29, righthander Dan Petry nearly matched Morris when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Tiger Stadium against the Indians. With two outs he allowed a double to George Vukovich and settled for his third victory of the season. Two days later, Milt Wilcox improved to 3-0 when he went eight innings to defeat the Red Sox. Throughout the year, Petry and Wilcox lined up behind Morris to form baseball’s best pitching trio. Morris would won 19, Petry 18, and Wilcox won a career-high 17 even though he was pitching the entire season in excruciating pain. Early in the season, Wilcox made an unselfish decision that impacted his career.
WILCOX: By 1984 my shoulder was finished, I was in pain every time I threw the ball. For a few days after it was impossible for me to lift my arm. In May I met with the team doctor and we decided to shoot my shoulder full with cortisone shots before my starts. My arm was numb, but I was able to throw without pain and I pitched more than I probably ever had early in the year, I was lucky to be able to pitch well. And my teammates scored a lot of runs for me that year, every start I felt like they were going to get me 6 or 7 runs.
ANDERSON: Milt had pitched for me in Cincinnati but he was a different pitcher when I had him in Detroit. He learned the split-finger and he was a smart pitcher. He gave me everything that year, he wanted to be a champion.
PETRY: The three of us wanted to push each other and that year we tried to top each other. I was the young guy still even though I had been around since 1980. I was starting to feel very confident in all my pitches. Jack and I threw some of the same pitches, we had basically the same thing, but we went back-to-back and teams had trouble with us. It didn’t matter who was starting during that 35-5 stretch, we were winning.
BAIR: Every day that we went to the ballpark we felt like we were going to win. Someone was going to step up, and it felt like every time you’d look up and Lou would be on base and Trammell would hit him over to third, and then Gibby or Lance would drive them in and we’d be up.
TRAMMELL: The confidence grew every day. You’re 9-0, then we were 18-2 and then we didn’t think anyone could beat us. It felt like we would never lose.
ALLEN: Teams didn’t want to face us, everything was going our way. We were just rolling over everyone.
DAVE ROZEMA: I started a game against the White Sox and we had only one loss and it was like three weeks into the season, and Lou hit a home run to lead off the game and it was just like, ‘Well we’re going to win again.” No one thought we’d lose.
BAIR: I know Wilcox was pitching hurt but we had Jack and Peaches [Dan Petry] and Juan Berenguar might have had the best arm on our team. He was our fourth starter and he didn’t get a lot of starts early. He could throw 98 out of the bullpen.
On May 12 the Tigers hosted the Angels for the Saturday Game of the Week at Tiger Stadium. Chet Lemon, the happy-go-lucky popular center fielder, staked the Tigers to a lead when he stole third base in the second inning and scampered home when the throw sailed down the left field line. Two innings later Lemon drove in Garbey with an RBI-single off Tommy John. But Juan Berenguar surrendered a two-run homer to Reggie Jackson and the Angels came back to beat the Tigers handing them their fifth loss against 26 wins. Tiger Stadium was packed with nearly 40,000 fans and even though their team lost, there was excitement late in the game when Sparky Anderson argued a call and was tossed from the game. Anderson’s ejection was a spectacular performance, he tossed his hat and stomped around the umpires before finally exiting the field to grand applause. The next day the game was rained out and on Monday the Tigers opened a series against the Mariners, followed by three against the A’s. Sparky started Morris and Wilcox on three days, relying on his top starters to squash the competition. The offense was firing on all cylinders: the Tigers outscored the M’s and A’s 40-21 as they swept both three-game series. The team seemed unstoppable and fans at Tiger Stadium were starting to do something that got the ballpark rocking in a new way.
PARRISH: There was a game against the Mariners when we scored a bunch of runs in the first inning, we knocked their pitcher out. We were up big. [This game was May 16th and Detroit scored five runs in the first off Matt Young, sending nine batters to the plate] In the top of the second inning the fans started The Wave, it started in center field in the bleachers. We had great fans in Detroit, the best ones were probably out in the bleachers. The Wave just started to sweep around the park. The bleacher fans were the best, one time they stopped selling beer in the bleachers because the front office got upset that the fans out there were chanting things they thought were inappropriate. The fans in Detroit were enthusiastic.
TRAMMELL: The Wave became a big thing, I hadn’t seen it before. I think someone told me it started in college football somewhere and someone started it in Detroit when we were in the middle of our streak.
ROZEMA: My favorite was when they would do [The Wave] in the upper deck and the lower deck, but in opposite directions.
BROOKENS: I don’t think that ballpark had ever seen so much action, it rocked when they did The Wave.
EVANS: There was a big energy in Tiger Stadium when The Wave was going. Other teams would stop and watch it. Sometimes it really rattled the other team.
ANDERSON: I always say this: the fans in Detroit are the best in sports. You just have to do one thing: play hard. If you play hard they will support you as long as you wear that uniform.
WILCOX: The best fans I ever played for were in Detroit. They loved their team, and I still see them and they talk about ‘84. The fans want to tell you what it meant to them, and they know all the details. That year everyone wanted to come to Tiger Stadium to see our team.
GARBEY: I never heard that much noise and never heard it again [when The Wave was going at Tiger Stadium]. Some of our regular [season] games were as loud as the playoffs.
On May 21 the Tigers were 32-5 when they got on a plane to go to California for their first west coast road trip of the season. Trammell was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the national media attention was intensifying. The team was in Anaheim to face the Angels when Sparky Anderson visited a cafe to have breakfast. His team was at the top of baseball, but there were still reasons to be humble, something he was reminded of on the first morning in southern California. While Sparky was at his table he was approached by an old friend he hadn’t seen since his years growing up in southern California. He and Sparky shared a few words and caught up with what the man had going on in his life. Finally, the man looked at the Tigers’ manager and said ‘So, Sparky what are you doing now?”
Detroit swept the Angels and ran their winning streak to nine games, and set a record with their 17th straight win on the road. Their season record was 35-5, the best 40-game start in history. The previous mark of 33 wins had been held by the 1928 Yankees and 1939 Yankees, both of whom went on to win the World Series. The Tigers were 8 ½ games ahead of Toronto in the American League East which seems like a lot, but the Jays were actually off to a pretty good start of their own. The Jays would later trim the lead to 3 ½ games, but even before that, Sparky was worried that the fast start would prove to be too much of a burden for his team. But his worries were unfounded and Detroit went on to a franchise-record 104 wins and added seven more in the postseason as they dominated the Royals in the playoffs and the Padres to win the World Series. Game Five of the ‘84 Series was a thrilling victory at Tiger Stadium with an epic home run by Kirk Gibson to clinch the Series. It was the final exclamation point on an historic season. But the opening paragraph of that season was the amazing 35-5 start, something that we’ll probably never see again.
ANDERSON: When we were [35 and 5] we were on top of the world. That’s when I was scared. I knew we had to win it, because if we didn’t win it all, the fans would have run me out of Detroit. I wouldn’t have blamed them.
ROZEMA: Every time a team wins a bunch of games to start a season I sort of sit up and look, then they start losing, and I realize no one is ever going to match what the ‘84 team did.
BROOKENS: How can you explain what [has to] happen to win 35 of 40? It doesn’t happen in the middle of the season, so to do it at the start is even more amazing.
PARRISH: I think 35-5 sent a message to the league.
TRAMMELL: It felt great to win, it gave us confidence, and we needed it, because Toronto was a good team. We played some important games later that year, and in the playoffs we were able to step it up and play at another level. We only lost one game in the playoffs, we really rolled in October like we had in April and May.
BERGMAN: The 35-5 was too perfect, you knew it couldn’t last, but I honestly wasn’t sure a few times. Maybe we could win 125 games?! But we came back to the pack and had to beat Toronto to finish them off. The hot start was a blessing and also a challenge. It challenged us to live up to that record, and we met that challenge and every challenge in ‘84.
HOWARD JOHNSON: I was a young player and I didn’t realize what that season was until later. You don’t know it when you’re going through it. I was trying to earn respect and get playing time, and I didn’t really look at it until years later, to understand what that start meant. It’s something no team will ever do again.
HERNDON: It was magic, it’s something no other team will probably do. The game is different, it’s a lot harder now, and I don’t know if any team could do it again.
MORRIS: The 1972 Dolphins have that tradition [where] they pop champagne when the last undefeated team loses. I might be the only one who thinks that way about ‘84 – when a team is hot to start the season I check the standings – ‘Are they on pace with us?’ And then they start losing a few and drop off. If you think about it, you have to win almost nine out of ten games for two months.
BILL SCHERRER: I started the season with the Reds and was traded to Detroit in late August, the trade deadline. [Before that] we all watched the Tigers early when they were on that streak, and every game it was W W W W W… Everyone was talking about them, if they’d win 120 games. They had all those great young players, and then I get traded there and it was the best thing that happened to me.
PETRY: I made Michigan my home and I meet fans all the time and they talk about two things: the ‘84 World Series and 35-5. It’s something that’s attached to our team.