Harry Heilmann: A Tiger Legend on the Field and in the Broadcast Booth

Even though Kirk Gibson was my favorite Tiger post 1968, it still amazes me that Detroit fans put him on the All-Time Tiger team in 1999 at the expense of outfielder Harry Heilmann, one of the greatest right handed sluggers in American League history.

I am sure it was mainly because many fans probably would have asked, “who the hell is Harry Heilmann?”

It just goes to show that as time passes on, even legends eventually can become nearly forgotten unless their history is passed down to succeeding generations of sports fans.

It is in that spirit that I offer you, Harry Edwin Heilmann.

Raised in San Francisco, Heilmann first arrived in Detroit with Cobb’s Tigers in 1914 but it was just for a cup of coffee as he was sent down to the minors for further seasoning. He was brought up again in 1916 and within a year he would replace Wahoo Sam Crawford in right field. Those were big shoes to fill considering Crawford was one of the steadiest hitters in baseball and a future Hall of Famer. Heilmann missed half of the ’18 campaign serving on a submarine in the U.S. Navy. The following year he finished with an impressive .320 average. But it wasn’t until the Roaring Twenties that Heilmann would become one of the games most feared hitters, and earn the nickname, “Ol’Slug.”

During the twenties Heilmann captured four American League batting crowns in 1921, 1923, 1925, and 1927. (The Yankees Murderers Row be damned.) In ’23 Heilmann batted .403 and in ’27 he batted .398, just missing the .400 mark by two hits.( He and Ted Williams (.401 in ’41)are the last two hitters in the American League to bat over .400. Through the 1920’s Heilmann led all American League hitters with a .364 batting average. In 1999, Heilmann ranked number 54 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

Following the 1929 season, Heilmann was sold to Cincinnati where he would finish his career in 1932 playing in only 15 games as arthritis in his wrists finally took its toll. He retired with a lifetime batting average of .342.

Yet Heilmann was destined to return to Detroit where he would start a second career as he became a beloved baseball announcer for Tiger fans from 1934 to 1950.

According to Curt Smith, the author of “Voices of the Game”, Heilmann was rough when he started announcing and often used slang but he took lessons in English and elocution, and “worked at it as hard as he had hitting.” While Ty Tyson broadcast games on WWJ radio to local listeners, outstate Michigan fans tuned into Heilmann on WXYZ radio. Heilmann’s broadcasts were filled with stories from his heyday and his down home style became popular with fans. When a ball was going out for a home run, Heilmann would say, “Trouble, trouble.”

In 1950 Heilmann retired from the booth after being stricken with cancer. On the eve of the 1951 All Star game in Detroit he passed away at age 56. At the midsummer’s classic, there was a moment of silence in his honor as members of the American and National Leagues stood down the baselines with their heads bowed.

It has been reported that on his deathbed, his former teammate and manager Ty Cobb told him that he was going to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Cobb led the campaign to induct him and the following summer Heilmann was finally enshrined in Cooperstown, an honor that should have been bestowed much earlier.

3 replies on “Harry Heilmann: A Tiger Legend on the Field and in the Broadcast Booth

  • Ray George

    I am a native Detroiter and a baseball historian….I had an article in the Detroit News concerning Detroit’s snub of Harry Heilmann…a spot on Channel 20 news and received an email from Dave Dombrowski (To no avail) I would love to see “Harry” get his just honor THE 2ND HIGHEST LIFETIME BATTING AVERAGE FOR A RIGHTHANDED HITTER IN MAJOR LEAGUE HISTORY….and no one in Detroit knows who he is !!!!!!!!!
    email me if you can Bill….thanks for the posting.
    Ray (Los Angeles)

  • john hibbard

    i was born in detroit in 1949.

    my mother loved the tigers and heilmann as the announcer. she spoke of him often.

    her favorite story was that heilmann did a small amount of broadcasting for the tigers in 1950. she said on his first broadcast that summer, he started with expressing his gladness at being at the stadium and his first words were: ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is paradise’. what a great man!!

    tell ray that even though i am not in detroit and though i dont recall hearing heilmann (though i am sure i did as an infant) that my memory of him is vivid due to my mother’s joy from his announcing for so many years.

    i hope he gets the attention and credit he deserves.

  • Daniel Heilmann

    I am Harry Heilmann’s Great Grand Nephew Daniel. I am so Proud of Him and his Accomplishments in Baseball and Life. I can’t believe that they Never mention him in San Francisco since He Graduated from Saint Francis High School, and there were no Major League Team’s West of the Mississippi at the time he started his Career. He was one of My Cobb’s only friends in life. Cobb took him under his wing and Harry beat Cobb, Ruth, and the other Great Players of the 20s. He still has One of the Highest Life Time Batting Averages. But still I have not ever heard anything about him in the Modern Day. I think that’s a SHAME.

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