In 1982, two years before the magic, the Tigers went north from spring training with two new outfielders. Neither of the outfielders was a product of the farm system, they were both outsiders. They each had something to prove with their new team.
Fans didn’t know what to expect when they saw the names of Larry Herndon and Chet Lemon in a Tiger lineup for the first time in ’82. Initially, Sparky Anderson used Lemon as a leadoff hitter and played him in right field. Center field belonged to young Kirk Gibson, the muscle-bound thoroughbred from Michigan State. Herndon hit fifth and played left field.
Sparky got that figured out, he realized Chester Earl Lemon was perfectly equipped to run down fly balls in the wide expanse of center field at Tiger Stadium. Herndon’s bat earned him the #3 spot in the Detroit lineup, and in his first two seasons as a member of the team, quiet Larry was arguably the best offensive player on the club.
Lemon was an All-Star in 1984, and Herndon saved his best for the postseason. He hit two home runs, one in Game One of the AL Playoffs against the Royals, and the other a game-deciding two-run shot in Game One of the World Series in San Diego. Herndon hit his share of key homers in a Tiger uniform, and perhaps fittingly, it was he who caught the final out of the ’84 World Series, sprinting in for a catch in shallow left field at The Corner to end Game Five.
This is the second article that looks at members of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers. I hope you enjoy these profiles. Please leave comments below to share your memories of that team and these players.
All smiles: Chet the Jet in center
When Steve Kemp was traded to the White Sox after the 1981 season, most Tiger fans were outraged. Kemp was a lunch-pail sort of guy with a five o’clock shadow and a ferocious swing that endeared him to Detroit faithful. Usually, Kemp drove in about 90-100 runs, but the Tiger front office noticed something that most fans didn’t: Kemp’s bat had slowed. In return for their RBI-man, the Tigers received Chet Lemon, a center fielder born to play in spacious Tiger Stadium’s middle pasture. Over the next nine seasons, Chester won over Tiger fans with his stellar defense, headfirst slides into first base, extra-base power, and especially his bright, wide smile. Lemon was a joy to the fans, his teammates, and his manager.
“I won’t worry about nothing in center field as long as that guy’s out there,” Sparky Anderson said during the height of the 1980s when Lemon was roaming the Tiger Stadium outfield. Lemon ran down almost everything that was hit into center and often balls that were sent to right and left too. He also acclimated himself to the home ballpark, and he hit 20 homers in 1984 when the Bengals won the World Series, the same season he was an All-Star starter.
Lemon earned a reputation as somewhat of a free spirit among his teammates. Chet loved to laugh, smile, and play pranks in the clubhouse. According to one source, Lemon was usually the highest-fined member of the team in kangaroo court. Some of those fines stemmed from strange plays on the field. Lemon was a notoriously poor baserunner, normally making a few boneheaded plays on the base paths each season. While his speed and instincts were an asset on the glove side, he thought too much of his legs when he was on base.
There were three idiosyncratic things Lemon became known for. First, was his penchant for being hit by a pitched ball. The right-handed hitter stood very close to the plate and in his normal stance he floated his hands out over the strike zone. Four times he led the American League in being plunked, and he was hit 151 times in all during his career.
Second, he was famous for sliding headfirst into first base. Usually 10-12 times a season, “Chet The Jet” could be seen hurling himself face first into the bag in a cloud of infield dirt. I don’t think he was ever safe, but Lemon was convinced the tactic got him to the bag quicker.
Lastly, Lemon employed the use of a raggedy baseball glove that he used for so many years that it had patches and holes in it. Lemon insisted on using the glove, choosing to repair it to good standing each spring and carefully protecting it. The leather mitt served him well: Chet caught more fly balls than any other outfielder in the game three times, setting an American League record for putouts in 1977. Somehow, despite his amazing range and sure hands, Lemon never won a Gold Glove Award.
It didn’t take long for Detroit fans to latch on to Chet. By his second season, in 1983 (when he swatted a career-high 24 homers), Lemon had earned a legion of fans who liked to seat themselves in the upper deck bleachers in Tiger Stadium. Few players in the history of the franchise have enjoyed a more intimate relationship with their fans than #34.
By 1990, Lemon was slowing and the Tigers were too. He played his final game for Detroit on October 3. No one knew other than Chet that it would be his final game. In that contest at Yankee Stadium, Lemon had three hits, one of them a double. As if to say goodbye in style, the 35-year old slid head first into second for that double, popping to his feet with a smile for his teammates.
Quiet Larry: the Unappreciated Career of Larry Herndon
During his seven seasons as a Detroit Tiger, Larry Herndon said very little. He was famous for being quiet, rarely giving interviews. But his bat did more than enough talking for him, and he delivered several big hits, including one of the most important home runs in Tiger history.
Originally drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, Herndon was tall and lean with long legs and a lengthy stride. He was built much like an NFL defensive back, displaying an impressive athletic quality. He had a quick bat and was known as a talented fly chaser in the outfield during his National league days, spent with the Cardinals and Giants. Detroit nabbed him in the 1981 off-season, intent on slotting him into an outfield that featured Chet Lemon and Kirk Gibson. Herndon was expected to provide defensive range and some speed at the plate. He ended up being the team’s best hitter for the next two seasons.
In his first season as a Tiger, Herndon made an immediate impression, hitting .350 in May. That month he hit home runs in four straight plate appearances, tying a major league record. For the season the right-handed hitter batted .292 while leading the team in runs, hits, triples, and runs batted in. He also swiped 12 bases and established himself as Sparky Anderson’s number three hitter. The following year he improved on nearly all of his numbers, batting .302 with 20 homers, 182 hits, and 92 RBIs.
In 1984 he split time in left field with Ruppert Jones and others. As the Tigers roared from the gate to take a stranglehold on the race, Herndon struggled. But in the last two months of the season he hit over .350, setting himself up for dramatics in the post-season.
In Game One of the playoffs against the Kansas City Royals, Herndon launched a solo homer in the fourth inning to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead that they never surrendered. His victim was Buddy Black, a lefthander. Herndon was especially effective against southpaws. In Game One of the World Series in San Diego against the Padres, Herndon hit a deep homer to right field off lefty Mark Thurmond that plated two runs and gave the Tigers a 3-2 lead that Jack Morris never relinquished. A few days later, it was Herndon who sprinted in to catch the final out of the Series in left field at Tiger Stadium as Detroit won the title to cap one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history.
But Herndon was far from done as a Tiger hero. Though his playing time diminished after ’84, he was still effective. In 1987, with the Tigers on their way to the best record in baseball, Herndon hit .324 with nine homers and 47 RBIs in a platoon role.
On the final day of the ’87 season, with the Tigers holding a one-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays, whom they were facing in Tiger Stadium, Herndon delivered the biggest hit of his career. Getting the start against Toronto’s ace lefty Jimmy Key, Herndon hit a line drive homer into the left field stands in the second inning to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead. It was one of only three hits off Key that day, but it was enough. Frank Tanana pitched a shutout and the Tigers won 1-0 to clinch the division in dramatic fashion.
As he had in 1984, Herndon performed well in the postseason in 1987, hitting .333 with two RBIs in three games against the Minnesota Twins. It was his final appearance in the postseason, however. 1988 proved to be his final season, as he struggled offensively. On September 16 he hit his final major league homer. He retired with a .274 career average, 107 homers, and more than 1,300 hits. But though he was a popular player in Detroit and central in many important moments in franchise history, Herndon had a low profile as a player.
“Hondo just came to the park and played,” recalls teammate Rod Allen.
Despite his quiet nature between the lines, Herndon had an excellent rapport with his teammates and the organization. In 1992 he became a coach under Sparky, a post he held with the big league club for seven seasons. Though Herndon never said much or demanded attention, his place in Tiger history is secure.
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