April starts don’t always mean much in October

Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, and Lance Parrish celebrate after Gibsob hit a two-run homer in a game in April of 1984.

Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, and Lance Parrish celebrate after Gibson hit a two-run homer in a game in April of 1984.

How important to the Tigers is a fast start in April to securing a place in the World Series? To use history as a guide, it’s important, but not always critically so. Of the 11 Tigers teams to make it all the way to the Fall Classic, only four of them – the 1909, 1945, 1968, and 1984 squads – were in first place at the start of play on May 1. However, of those four teams, all but the ’09 club wound up winning the Series, and even that team took Pittsburgh to the limit before dropping the seventh game at Bennett Park.

Curiously, one of the worst Aprils ever by a Tigers team was the ’35 squad. The defending American League champs dropped 9 of their first 11 games and finished the month at 5-9. They stood in sixth place, five games off the pace. By late July, however, they had overhauled the Yankees for the top spot and stayed there. That ’35 team, featuring the G-Men trio of Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Goose Goslin, and managed by catcher Mickey Cochrane, went on to defeat the Cubs in the World Series for the Tigers’ first championship.

Another squad, the 1908 Tigers, had an equally dismal start, ending April in last place with a 3-9 record. That club rebounded to seize a second straight flag by the narrowest of margins: a half-game. However, they were beaten soundly by the Cubs for the second straight year in the World Series.

The 1968 edition of the Tigers lost their opener, then reeled off nine straight victories. By the end of April they were in first with a 12-5 mark, up by a game. For the next several days, Detroit and Baltimore kept swapping the top spot. Finally, on May 10, Denny McLain won his fifth of an eventual 31 games that season. The Tigers’ 12-1 thrashing of Washington that afternoon finally put them in first place to stay. Mayo Smith’s squad went on to beat St. Louis in one of the great comebacks in World Series history.

The 1984 Tigers, of course, are famous for being the first major-league team of the 20th century to spend the entire season in first place. The team’s record start included an 18-2 mark in April, then grew to a phenomenal 35-5 on May 24 before the ungodly pace started to slow a little. The Tigers plowed through the post-season just as easily, but Sparky Anderson admitted he wasn’t able to relax until the last out of the World Series had been recorded. All that fast start meant to the white-haired skipper was that he and the team had nowhere to go but down, that if they somehow failed to bring home a championship after all the ballyhoo and expectations, the ’84 Tigers would go down in history as one of the colossal disappointments in big-league history. But thankfully for Sparky, and for the Tiger faithful, that did not occur.

In each of Jim Leyland’s World Series seasons in Detroit, the Tigers have ended April in second place. In 2006 they were 16-9, a game and a half out, and last year they were a mediocre 11-11, but still just a single game behind. Each time the club made it through the qualifying rounds of the playoffs, only to get embarrassed in late October. The Cardinals beat the Tiges in five games in ’06, and San Francisco swept them last year.

The one start that is always overlooked is that of the 1911 Tigers, an offensive powerhouse featuring Ty Cobb and Wahoo Sam Crawford in their prime. This was the Tigers’ last season at Bennett Park, and Hughie Jennings’ boys bounded out of the gate with a 13-2 record by the end of April. Their record could easily have been 15 straight wins to open the season, as their two losses were by a single run. On May 9, the streaking Tigers clobbered New York, 10-0, to run their record to 21-2, eight games ahead of the pack. But the club slowly fell back to earth, winning just five more games than they lost the rest of the season. By summer’s end they had finished a distant second to the Philadelphia A’s.

Numbers and trends are fun to fool around with, but ultimately, a win in June or September counts exactly as much as a victory in April when tabulating the final regular-season standings. And no matter how those 11 World Series-bound Tiger clubs performed in April, it’s a fact that seven of them lost to their National League opponents in October, proving once again that it’s not how you start that counts, but how you finish.