There’s little mystery as to the greatest center fielder in Tiger history, but what about the rest of the top five?
#5. Curtis Granderson (2004-2009)
The hard-swinging Granderson spent six seasons in a Tiger uniform, four of them as the starting center fielder. The only real knock on Granderson was his high strikeout totals, but other than that, the young outfielder was a five-tool player for the Bengals. In 2007 he collected at least 20 doubles, triples, and home runs, something only five players had ever done in baseball history. He also swiped 26 bases that season. Perfect for Comerica Park’s cavernous outfield gaps, Granderson twice led the American League in triples. In his final season as a Tiger he hit 30 homers from the leadoff spot.
#4. Ron LeFlore (1974-1979)
For six seasons, Detroit-born LeFlore was an exciting catalyst at the top of the Tiger lineup. He was an All-Star in 1976 when he had a 30-game hitting streak and batted .316. The next season he hit .325 and produced 212 hits. More than just a singles hitter, LeFlore had good power, averaging over 30 doubles per season and slugging 16 homers in 1977. He was the Tigers’ best basestealer since Ty Cobb, swiping 78, 68, and 58 bases in his three top seasons for Detroit. The Tigers traded him after the 1979 season because Sparky Anderson recognized him for the clubhouse cancer that he was. His off the field problems, including drug addiction, forced him out of baseball three years later.
#3. Mickey Stanley (1964-1978)
Fan favorite Mickey Stanley was never great at any one thing, but he was good at everything. Probably the best athlete on the Tigers in the 1960s, which was one of the reasons manager Mayo Smith asked Stanley to play shortstop in the 1968 World Series. Stanley played well at the new position, making a couple of meaningless errors but otherwise performing brilliantly. Stanley won four Gold Gloves in center field, setting records for most consecutive games and chances without an error. He had an accurate arm, got a great jump on the ball, and had decent speed.
#2 .Chet Lemon (1982-1990)
For most of the 1980s, any ball hit in the air to center field was pretty much gobbled up by Chet Lemon. A huge fan favorite, Lemon was a good ballplayer despite some idiosyncracies (like sliding head first into first base and making frequent boneheaded baserunning mistakes). When he came to the Tigers from the White Sox, the right-handed hitting Lemon was a line drive, high average hitter. In Tiger Stadium he began swinging for the fences, popping as many as 24. He had his best overall season for Detroit in 1984 when he hit .287 with 20 homers, 34 doubles, 76 RBI and was an All-Star.
#1. Ty Cobb (1905-1925)
What can you say about Ty Cobb that hasn’t been said already? When he retired he owned nearly ever batting record in the book. He was a ferocious competitor driven to succeed. He played baseball with an unyielding passion that was unmatched in his time or since. A master with the bat, Cobb could flat-out hit. From the age of 23 to 26, a span of four seasons, Cobb batted .402, and at the age of 35 he batted .401! Cobb won 12 batting titles, and led the league in slugging eight times. He was far from just a singles hitter – he had more than 1,100 extra-base hits in his career. Once when he was challenged to hit home runs, he belted five in a two-game stretch and then went back to hitting his normal way. He was such a great baserunner that one sportswriter said of him that he had “brains in his feet.” Cobb led the league in steals six times and probably led the league in daring baserunning every year. He would score from second on a flyball out, he’d go from first to third on a groundout, and he swiped home 54 times! Four times in his career he stoled second, third, and home in the same inning. He received more votes for the Hall of Fame than Babe Ruth. He is simply the greatest Tiger of them all.