The Detroit Tigers have a long history in the American League. They’ve won 11 pennants since 1901, four World Series titles, and their overall win total ranks third among the eight original AL franchises (behind only the Yankees and Red Sox). They also brag some of the greatest players in history and they’ve won more batting titles than any other team by a wide margin. But things could have gone another way. If not for a few critical decisions Tiger history could have been much different. These are the five moves that altered the history of the Tigers more than any others.
#5 — Building Navin Field
When Frank Navin assumed majority control of the Tigers in 1908 the team was successful on the field but they were far from being a top franchise in major league baseball. Detroit was a small market and relatively new to the game compared with New York, Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago. But Navin was a keen businessman who saw the potential in Detroit’s fledgling auto industry and he staked his small fortune on baseball being a profitable business in the city. After the 1911 season he tore down Bennett Park, an old an inadequate stadium. In its place he funded and built a concrete and steel park that was the most state of the art in the sport at the time. Navin Field had a seating capacity of 23,000 and the Detroit owner invested in his team to make sure the product on the field was exciting enough to draw fans to fill it. He was notorious for his contract squabbles with stars like Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford but he paid them well enough to keep them in Detroit and in the 1920s and 1930s he expanded his ballpark, keeping it one of the finest venues in the game. The construction of Navin Field at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in 1912 was a pivotal signal that Detroit baseball was going to be a serious business in the city and it set the tone for the franchise which has always had a strong sense of history and a connection to their fans.
#4 — Mayo moves Stanley to shortstop for the ’68 Series
Of the five moves on this list, this one is the least far-reaching, but it had a tremendous short-term impact because without this daring move the Tigers don’t win their third title. As the ’68 season wound down the Tigers were comfortably ahead in the American League but they had a problem — they had four good outfielders and only three spots to play them in. Veteran Al Kaline had missed part of the season due to an injury and while he was out the trio of Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley performed brilliantly. But there was no way that manager Mayo Smith was going to keep Kaline on the bench in the World Series so he had to do something. His decision was to move Stanley, one of the best athletes in the game, from center to shortstop, replacing the weak-hitting Ray Oyler. As a result, he would be able to get the bats of Kaline, Northrup, and Horton into his lineup. Stanley had never played shortstop professionally, so Smith played him there in a trial in the last few days of the regular season. Satisfied with what he saw, Mayo played Mickey at short in the Series against the favored Cardinals, the defending champions. The move proved to be brilliant — Kaline led the Tigers in hitting, Horton made a great defensive play in Game Five that turned the series around, and Northrup hit a clutch grand slam in Game Six. Meanwhile, Stanley handled himself well at short, making only a few harmless errors. Detroit stunned the Cardinals in seven games and won the World Series title, their first since 1945. If not for Smith’s gutsy move, the talented core of Tigers who jelled in the 1960s would have never won a title.
#3 — Hiring of Sparky Anderson
The Tigers had a new manager for the 1979 season and he was a “company man” with decades of experience in the game. Their young team was over .500 in mid-June and not playing all that poorly. There were plenty of signs that the Tigers were building a decent team for the future. So why change managers in mid-stream? Well, because one of the game’s best skippers was available and if Detroit didn’t get him, another team was poised to snatch him up. Sparky Anderson was only 44 years old in 1979 but he’d already built a very impressive resume of work. In nine seasons as manager of the Reds, Sparky led Cincinnati to four pennants, two world series titles, and he’d proven that he could maneuver a big league clubhouse and guide teams to success. Inexplicably he had been fired by the Reds after the ’78 season because he had the bad fortune of finishing in second place for the second straight season. Sitting on the sidelines, Sparky was observing the baseball landscape from his home in southern California when he received a call from the Chicago Cubs, who wanted badly to hire him to manage their team. Detroit broadcaster George Kell, a friend of Sparky’s, caught wind of the Cubs plans and alerted Tiger general manager Jim Campbell. Within 48 hours the Tigers had offered Sparky a five-year contract to become their manager immediately. Sparky agreed, rebuffed the Cubs, and flew to Detroit to take over the young Bengals. Campbell’s bold and decisive decision to remove Les Moss and hire Sparky dramatically altered the course of Tiger history. Sparky brought a swagger and a pedigree that changed the culture of the Detroit franchise. Within 18 months it was obvious who was in charge, as Sparky sent several popular players packing and replaced them with his own type of players, usually youngsters who came up through the rich Detroit farm system. In 1984 the team won the World Series and they were a winning team for the first decade of Sparky’s tenure with the Tigers.
#2 — Mickey Cochrane brings his winning pedigree to Detroit
In the early 1930s the Tigers were a team without a rudder. They had some good players. They had a good ballpark. They were in a city that was sports crazy. But they had no idea how to be winners. The Detorit Tigers had never won a World Series and they hadn’t even snagged a pennant in nearly 25 years. After the 1933 season, owner Frank Navin fired his manager and set out to find a replacement who could teach his young Tigers how to win. But he found it difficult to lure the best managerial candidates to Detroit. He toyed with the idea of hiring Babe Ruth to manage his club in what would have been more of a publicity stunt than anything else, but thankfully the Babe was in Hawaii on vacation and unavailable when Navin wanted to make him an offer. A few weeks later the Detorit owner came up with a remarkable deal — he sent ho-hum catcher Johnny Pasek and $100,000 to the Athletics for Mickey Cochrane, the all-star catcher who had helped guide Connie Mack’s team to three straight pennants from 1929-31. Mack was once again selling off the valuable parts of his team to keep himself solvent, and he was more than willing to take a large lump of money and some no-name ballplayer for Cochrane. But Navin didn’t just want a great catcher, he installed Cochrane as his player/manager and gave “Black Mike” the power to handle the team on the field in any way he wanted. To say that Cochrane’s arrival changed everything for the Tigers is a gross understatement. Cochrane could handle a pitching staff, he knew how to position his defense against the league he knew so well, and he was a disciplinarian who received the respect of his players who looked up to him for his experience. The Tigers rolled to the pennant in ’34 but lost the World Series. The following year they won the Series and were the best team in baseball. The rest of the 1930s and much of the 1940s was a continuation of the groundwork set down by Cochrane after he became a Tiger.
#1 — Trade for Miguel Cabrera
Other than the 1934-45 stretch when the team won four pennants and two world championships, the current era is the most successful in franchise history. Detroit has finished in first place in each of the last four seasons (2011-14) and won four playoff series over that stretch, also winning the pennant in 2012. They have been one of the game’s best teams every year during that stretch and at the same time they’ve had some of the best players in the game. At the top of that list of great players is Miguel Cabrera, a two-time Most Valuable Player who also won the triple crown in 2012. Miggy is baseball’s best pure hitter, and a surefire future Hall of Famer. He rightfully deserves a place with Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, and Hank Greenberg on the Tigers “Mt. Rushmore”. It’s easy to forget that Detroit practically stole Cabrera from the Marlins after the 2007 season in an eight-player trade. Can you remember who the Tigers gave up to get Cabrera? I’ll save you the trouble — it was no one worth missing. Cabrera transformed the Tigers into a perennial contender and he’s helped make the players around him better. Without Miggy the history of the Tigers in the first few years of the 21st century would be much less exciting. The Cabrera Era Tigers have yet to win a world Series (its harder to win it today than it ever has been), but they are in the hunt every year and baseball is relevant in Detroit again and seems like it will be for years and years to come.