It was Sunday, October 2, 1927, a day after the University of Michigan had christened the new Michigan Stadium (which boasted a seating capacity of 84,401) with a 33-0 victory over Ohio Wesleyan. Now, on the final day of the American League baseball season, the batting championship was still up for grabs. It would ultimately be decided in a hitting display for the ages.
The 25-year-old Simmons, a budding star on manager Connie Mack’s squad, was a machine at the plate, having led the league with 253 hits his sophomore campaign of 1925, while driving in over 100 runs in each of his four seasons. Heilmann had previously won three batting titles, all in odd-numbered years (.394 in 1921, .403 in 1923, and .393 in 1925).
On July 24, Simmons had suffered a groin pull sliding into second base. At the time, he was the league’s leading hitter at .393. He was out of action until September 6, but after an 0-3 game, it was feared he had come back too soon, and he was shut down for another week. Upon his return, Simmons quickly picked up where he’d left off, and in fact was even better. From September 15th to October 1 (the next-to-last day of the season), he banged the ball at a .404 clip.
Heilmann, meanwhile, had been unstoppable. The same day that Simmons went down with his injury in July, Heilmann was “only” hitting .364. In August, however, he went on a rampage that has to rank among the most amazing single months in baseball history. In 28 games, he tallied 49 hits in 97 at-bats, for a mind-boggling .505 average. He also walked 19 times, and, incredibly, struck out only once. His on-base percentage was .814.
Both the Athletics and Tigers had been eliminated from the pennant race long ago, as the New York Yankees steamrolled to the American League pennant. The slugging feats of Babe Ruth had captivated the nation for much of the summer of 1927. On September 30th, he broke his own single-season home run record when he socked his 60th at Yankee Stadium off Washington’s Tom Zachary. But there was still this American League batting title to be decided, and as the morning of October 2nd dawned, Simmons was on top, at .392, with Heilmann breathing down his neck at .391. Would Simmons hang on to win his first crown, or would Heilmann continue his streak of batting titles in odd-years?
The Athletics squared off at Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators, who sent young Paul Hopkins to the mound, in his first (and last) big league start. Detroit, meanwhile, was at home, facing the Cleveland Indians in a doubleheader.
For Simmons, it proved to be a zero-sum game. He managed two hits in five at-bats, finishing the day the same as he’d started, at .392.
At Navin Field in Detroit, the right-handed-hitting Heilmann would have to face two right-handed pitchers in Hopkins and Garland Buckeye.
It didn’t make any difference.
In the first half of the twin-bill, Heilmann calmly went out and had one of the best games of his life: 5 at-bats, 4 hits, 2 doubles, one home run, six RBIs. When the dust settled on the Tigers 11-5 victory, he had beaten out Simmons for the title, .395 to .392. There was no reason for him to play the second game; he could have sat to protect his lead and gone home for the winter a happy man. However, he insisted on being in the lineup, and got a big cheer from the home crowd as he ran out to his position in right field to start the game. Against Buckeye, Heilmann went 3-4, with another double and a home run, and 3 RBIs, as Detroit prevailed 5-4. When the pressure was on, Heilmann had had a spectacular day at the plate.
Indeed, it was a truly remarkable season for the 32-year-old fan favorite. It was his fourth and final batting crown (again in an odd-numbered year!). One more hit over the course of the summer, and he would have had his second .400 season. It was also his fourth season of 200 or more hits, he scored 106 runs, banged out 50 doubles, and knocked in 120. He struck out only 16 times, a career-low. His OPS (on-base average plus slugging average) was 1.091. His second-half numbers said it all: .457 BA, .526 OBP, .730 Slugging %, and 1.256 OPS. All season long, Heilmann had been on fire at Navin Field, where he hit .434. He proved to be a true catalyst for the Tigers: In the 77 games they won, he hit .471 and drove in 82 runs; in their 62 loses, he drove in only 35 runs and hit .296 (Detroit also tied twice; with Heilmann getting 5 hits in 9 at-bats.).
Among modern-day ballplayers (post-1900), Heilmann’s lifetime batting average was second only to Rogers Hornsby among right-handed hitters (.358 to .342). Heilmann was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1952, a year after his death.