Frank Tanana: One of Detroit’s Greatest High School Athletes of All Time

When Frank Tanana was 17-years-old, he had the world at his fingertips.

After four years at Detroit’s Catholic Central High, the high school senior was a sought-after recruit in two sports: baseball and basketball. More than 100 schools offered Tanana a basketball scholarship, including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Tanana informally selected Duke University, but after he was drafted as the 13th overall pick by the California Angels in the 1971 amateur draft, he signed a professional contract to play baseball. He had the game in his genes.

Tanana’s father, Frank Sr., played five years in the Cleveland Indians minor league system. Both Frank’s were also standouts on the court: as a left-handed forward/guard, Frank Jr. starred for Catholic Central, scoring more than 2,500 points in his prep career. Tanana’s father led Detroit St. Andrew to two state basketball championships in the 1950s. But baseball was the family passion.

“Even as a kid, baseball was my top priority,” Tanana told reporters when he was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. “When Dad came home from the minor leagues, he played a lot of softball, so I always seemed to be around some kind of ball park.”

Tanana shot through up the Angels organization rapidly. In 47 minor league games, the teenage southpaw was 24-8. But more impressively, he blew away opposing batters with his frightening fastball. In 349 innings in the minors, Tanana fanned 328 batters. Armed with a fastball clocked in excess of 100 miles per hour, Tanana was in Anaheim as a major leaguer as a 19-year old as a September call-up in 1973. The next season he won 14 games and the year after that he led the American League with 269 K’s. Considering his teammate in the California rotation was Nolan Ryan, it was quite an accomplishment for the Detroiter to lead the loop in that category. Ryan and Tanana, each pumping their heaters over 100 MPH, were a formidable duo for eight seasons for the Halos. Tanana was an All-Star every year from 1976-1978, and he won an ERA title and tossed seven shutouts in 1977, his best overall season.

An injury to his golden left shoulder robbed Tanana of his famous fastball, but he re-engineered himself to become a crafty pitcher and went on to win 240 games in the big leagues despite the loss of velocity. By the time his hometown Tigers acquired him during the 1985 season, Tanana’s fastball was topping out at 88 MPH, but he had one of the best curveballs in the league and learned to locate his pitches brilliantly. He won between 10 and 15 games in seven of his eight years as a Tiger. In 1987 his 1-0 shutout on the final day of the season clinched the American League east title for the Tigers.

Most importantly to Tanana was the fact that his Dad was able to watch him pitch in Tiger Stadium during his tint with the club.

“Having my Dad be able to be there was wonderful,” Tanana explained. “I owed so much to him, and I felt like I was giving back.”

Tanana finished up his career with brief stints in New York with the Mets and Yankees, before retiring in 1993. He won 102 games for the Angels and 96 for the Tigers (having actually pitched more games for his hometown club). He was inducted into both the Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. Since his retirement, Tanana has been a frequent visitor to Tigers Fantasy Camps in Lakeland, Florida. He’s a devout Christian who spends much of his time and celebrity to helping others.

Tanana still has his roots in the Detroit area, more than 40 years after delighting fans with his exploits as a teenage high school athlete in the city.

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