The 10 most important injuries in Detroit Tigers’ history

Al Kaline tumbles while making a catch in 1962.

Al Kaline tumbles while making a catch in 1962.

The bell had yet to sound for the 2014 season when the Detroit Tigers were dealt a blow with a serious injury to shortstop Jose Iglesias. It remains to be seen how much the loss of Iglesias will hurt the team, but so far, judging by the no-range roulette at the shortstop position, it isn’t going very well, though the team is still in first place.

How have injuries played a part in the history of the Tigers? I looked back through history to find the injuries I feel were the most “important” and made the biggest impact on the franchise. I tried to measure their impact on pennant races, and in a few cases I identified injuries that curtailed a player’s career. Let me know below in the comments section if you think I missed a pivotal injury.

#10. Joel Zumaya, 2007-2010
You name the bizarre injury, Zumaya probably had it. He hurt his shoulder while carrying an air conditioner unit. He hurt his hand and wrist from playing too many video games. He suffered the run-of-the-mill elbow and shoulder maladies too. The hard-throwing relief pitcher (he was clocked once at 106-MPH) was being groomed as the next closer for the Tigers after his great rookie season in 2006 as a setup man. How different could things have been had “Zoom-Zoom” stayed healthy? At 29 years old this season. Zumaya could have been in the middle of a fine career as one of baseball’s most feared closers.

#9. Mark Fidrych, 1977-1980
The maladies of The Bird are well-chronicled, his “what if” is one of the most intriguing in Tigers’ history. After his thrilling rookie campaign in ’76, Fidrych made only 27 starts in the big leagues over the next four seasons. He was no flash in the pan: in ’77 in 11 starts he was the same ol’ Bird, and he made the All-Star team for a second year before his right arm went sore. The Tigers weren’t a very good team during this era, they were young and learning, but had Fidrych been at the top of their rotation, they might have won a bit more, and who knows how many more games the floppy-haired idol could have won? Later, when medical expertise improved in the mid-1980s it was revealed that Fidrych had almost tore his rotator cuff completely through. Unless that had been surgically repaired, he was never going to pitch effectively.

#8. Kirk Gibson, 1986
It was early in the season and the Tigers were in Boston facing the Red Sox on April 22, 1986. Gibson drew a walk and was on first base taking a big lead when opposing pitcher Roger Clemens fired a throw to first base to keep him close. Gibby lunged back to the bag feet first and grimaced in pain – he had severely twisted his ankle and injured his foot. Gibson had been off to his best start ever, hitting .359 with two doubles, a triple, two homers, and 7 RBI in 12 games. He missed nearly two months, and by the time he came back the Tigers were 10 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. In many ways, this injury epitomized the frustrating two seasons following the ’84 championship, when a Detroit dynasty failed to materialize.

#7. Victor Martinez, 2012
Sure, the Tigers made the World Series without VMart, but could they have won the whole shebang with him in their lineup in 2012? The only reason Mike Ilitch paid to bring Prince Fielder to Motown was the injury to Martinez (which occurred in the offseason to his hip), so the question is: would Detroit have won just as much and more with VMart as opposed to Prince? According to advanced statistical analysis, Fielder was worth 5 extra wins in ’12. Martinez had been good for 3 extra wins in 2011 and added about 2 extra wins in 2013 when he came back. But, it’s not as simple as a switch of these two players: it’s likely Detroit wins the AL Central in 2012 even if they don’t add Fielder and VMart is healthy. Then, it’s a matter of whether Martinez would have delivered some extra punch in the postseason. Prince hit .173 with just one extra-base hit (a HR) in the postseason in 2012. Martinez has fared much, much better in the postseason during his career. In 2013, Martinez hit .405 with 5 extra-base hits in 11 postseason games. One wonders if a healthy Martinez could have made a difference for the Tigers in the 2012 World Series (Fielder was 1-for-14 in the Fall Classic).

#6. Mickey Cochrane, 1936
This one may not qualify as an “baseball injury,” but it did serve as a setback. After the Tigers won the World Series in 1935, team owner Frank Navin promoted Cochrane to general manager in addition to his role as player/manager. The stress of the added responsibility was too much for “Black Mike” and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He hardly played at all after May, and the Tigers failed to repeat as league champions. However, there was another injury that season that was more crushing than the loss of Cochrane, but more on that below.

#5. Mickey Cochrane, 1937
The Tigers were 2 1/2 games out on May 25, 1937, when they lost not only their catcher, but their manager in one of the scariest incidents to ever occur on a baseball diamond. Cochrane was facing Bump Hadley of the Yankees when he was struck in the head by a fastball. Witnesses stated that Cochrane crumpled to the ground like a bag of cement. “It looked like he didn’t even see the pitch coming,” teammate Pete Fox said. Cochrane was unconscious, hovered in serious condition with poor vital signs, and was even given last rights by a priest. He spent a week in a New York hospital before making a partial recovery. X-rays revealed his skull had been fractured, and Cochrane suffered from health issues the remainder of his life due to what was likely a high-grade concussion. He regularly dealt with nausea, double vision, vertigo, and fits of depression. Cochrane never played again, had to leave the team in ’37 as manager, and then retired from managing part way into the ’38 season. The loss of his leadership was a great blow to the Tigers, who had a very good team and contended for pennants several times over the next few seasons.

#4. Lou Whitaker, 1988
The Tigers were in first place by a game on the morning of September 4, 1988, clinging to the lead over the Boston Red Sox. After a Saturday game at Tiger Stadium, Sweet Lou attended a party with his wife in suburban Detroit. That’s when he did something silly that probably cost the Tigers a trip to the playoffs. “We were doing a fast dance and I did the splits. The first time, nothing happened. The second time I went down, I heard something pop,” Whitaker explained. He had torn cartilage in his right knee and would not play again that season. Detroit lost the division by one game.

#3. Alan Trammell, 1988
The 1988 season was a case of close but no cigar for the Tigers, unfortunately in large part due to a pair of injuries to baseball’s best double play combo. Trammell – who nearly won (and should have won) the MVP Award in 1987  – was having another fine season in ’88 and was leading the Tigers to possibly a second consecutive division title. Without Kirk Gibson (who exited via free agency after ’87), Trammell was the main man in the middle of the Detroit lineup in 1988. The shortstop was hitting .330 with 10 homers and 40 RBI in late June when he suffered an injury to his right shoulder. The Tigers were in first place, two games up in the AL East when he was shelved. Tram missed 15 games and when he came back Sparky & Crew were still perched in first place, but in early September, Trammell was sidelined again with more problems with his shoulder and missed  a week, which was crucial. Detroit was in a dogfight with the Red Sox for first place, Trammell was never healthy as the season wound up, and the Tigers finished one game back. With a healthy Trammell all season it’s almost certain the Tigers would have won the division crown again in ’88.

#2. Hank Greenberg, 1936
It was the early stages of the ’36 season and the Tigers barely had a chance to start their defense of the AL pennant when Greenberg went down on April 29th in the team’s 12th game. Greenberg was playing first base when Senators’ baserunner Jake Powell collided with him and broke his wrist. Some considered it a dirty play, since Powell was known for his animosity toward Jews and blacks. Greenberg was red-hot at the time of the injury and he was lost for the season. The Yankees ended up winning the pennant, but Detroit may have made it a race with Hammerin’ Hank in the lineup.

#1. Al Kaline, 1962
Kaline was still only 27 in 1962 as he began his 9th full season in a Tigers’ uniform. In late May, he was off to one of the hottest starts of his career, batting .336 with 13 homers and 38 RBI through Detroit’s first 36 games. He was pacing the league in hits as well as the three triple crown categories. He wasn’t just having a good season, he was having an MVP-type season. Then, on May 26 in a Saturday game at old Yankee Stadium, fate dealt Kaline a bad deal as he made a spectacular play in the outfield. Elston Howard hit a line drive to right field in the 9th inning with the tying run on base. Kaline dove to make an amazing catch to end the game in victory for the Tigers, but he broke his collarbone in the process. The Line missed two months, returning in late July, but he was still hampered by the injury and fell off at the plate. Detroit was 19-17, 3 games out of first at the time of the injury to Kaline, they went 26-31 without him and were 11 games out when he returned. Kaline suffered several crucial injuries in his career: in 1959 he fractured his cheekbone; in 1965 he broke ribs and also had surgery on his foot; in ’67 he broke a finger; in 1968 he missed time due to a broken arm and a bruised thigh. In all, Kaline probably missed 240 or so games due to injury in his career, which most likely cost him 250+ hits and 30-35 home runs. None of his injuries hurt the Tigers more than this one in ’62, when he was off to a remarkable start and the team was in the hunt.

8 replies on “The 10 most important injuries in Detroit Tigers’ history

  • Charley Clapp

    Your comments about mark Fidrych are not accurate. In Spring Training in 1977 Fidrych blew out his knee shagging flies during batting practice. He was only 20 years old. The Tigers rushed him back too early and while he pitched effectively for a while he altered his delivery because of the knee injury and injured his shoulder. The Tigers were an awful team in 1977 and needed butts in the seats….. Its really tragic when you think of it. In my hierarchy of TIgers Injuries I rank this as #1. Just think of the 1980s…… A healthy Fidrych would have been in his prime-late 20s. The Bird, Morris, Petry, WIlcox—we would have had the best pitching staff in baseball and won more World Series……

    Reply
  • Rick

    Dan, when I saw the headline of your piece I said where does Al Kaline’s collarbone rank? I had it at #2 and if my memory is right I believe he had one or two other significant injuries on that very date in other year’s? The broken finger of 68 was after striking out against Lew Krause of the A’s. For me the #1 although I guess, alleged injury not mentioned was Denny McLain’s mysterious injury in late 67. I believe more then any other injury in Tiger history that cost them the pennant. We can talk about any injury in the “playoff” year’s but that was a straight ticket to the World Series. Hard to believe Denny wouldn’t have won 2 games down the stretch. One last thing. Mr. Kaline’s nickname of “line”. Didn’t that have to do with his salary that no one crossed that line? Keep up the great work it’s always a joy to read your writing’s about Detroit sports

    Reply
  • KalineCountry Ron

    In 1967, Kaline struck out iirc against Sam McDowell, came back to the Tigers dugout and slammed his bat into the rack and it banged back into and fracturing his finger. 5/6 weeks without Al imo cost the Tigers the pennant that year as his bat, glove, arm would have won more than 1 game for them.
    In 1968, Kaline had his arm broken by a Lew Krausse fastball. The a’s were an assholish bunch and had been head hunting with Northrup/Willie as well. Tigers and a’s had a couple of fights, of course Al missed significant time again.
    The 1962 game ending catch that day in May, I was a HS soph and the second time I let out an F bomb in front of my dad. The first was when they traded Jim Bunning.
    I was really frustrated that Al had this freak injury, especially with his great start to the season. 1962 was the year Kaline would have hit 40 plus homeruns. If not for those injuries in other seasons of 2/3 to 5 weeks, Al would have had 4 or 5 years of 30 or more homeruns and a few more 100 rbi and runs seasons.

    Reply
  • Dan Holmes

    Thanks for your comment, Charley. You are correct, Fidrych originally injured his knee in the spring of 1977. MY comment on him here did not go into a lot of detail, though I’ve written a lot about that elsewhere. Fidrych did come back from the knee injury and he pitched brilliantly in 1977, well enough to earn a selection to the All-Star Game again. Then, just before the break, he suffered the injury to his arm. Whether the arm injury was caused by knee injury is unclear. Fidrych himself never knew, and the doctors certainly never did either. He did tear his rotator cuff almost in two, but when that occurred and why will likely never be known. I would theorize based on seeing his game logs and reading many accounts from that time, as well as the several biographies of Fidrych, that he seriously injured the arm for the first time in June of 1977. That was when he stopped pitching like The Bird, and he also discussed the pain in his arm, a pain he did not have ever before.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  • Randy

    What about Ron Hiller (if I even have the first name correct)? He was the Tigers closer and suffered a heart attack either in spring training or in the off season. Anyone remember Hiller?

    Reply
  • Dan Holmes

    Randy,

    John Hiller suffered a heart attack in January of 1971 and missed nearly a year-and-a-half. He was back for the second half of 1972 and in 1973 he had an incredible season, setting a new MLB record with 38 saves.

    I chose injuries that I felt were very important to pennant races and also the history of the team (losses like Cochrane, Fidrych, and Zumaya that ended their careers). While Hiller’s injury and comeback are noteworthy and amazing in many aspects, I felt it didn’t warrant inclusion on this list. It should be an honorable mention though, for sure.

    Thanks for reading!

    Dan

    Reply
  • Julie Wasek

    Hey Dan, I was at a Tigers game in summer, 1983. I think I remember Lou Whitaker, dis-locate his shoulder. Did that happen? Thanks so much for the topic!

    Reply
  • SportsFan0000

    Detroit Tigers Ownership, Front Office, Management ruined Mark Fidrych’s career.
    To sell tickets and put “butts in the seats”, ownership committed baseball malpractice by having rookie sensation pitcher Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, IN HIS ROOKIE MAJOR LEAGUE YEAR pitch 250 innings as a starter including 17 COMPLETE GAMES!? Fidrych was never given the proper medical examinations, xrays etc by the Tigers medical staff. Later, it was found out that Fidrych had been pitching with a completely torn rotator cuff. Fidrych pitched from 1976-1980. Tommy John surgery was invented in 1974. In 1974, 12 Tommy John surgeries were performed. If Fidrych had received proper medical diagnosis and treatment, then his torn rotator cuff could have been surgicially repaired. It never was. It ended his career. The knee injury in Spring Training did not cause his shoulder injury. His shoulder injury was caused by over use and over work in his rookie season (250 innings and 17 complete games pitched) That is why teams are so careful today with young starters and have instituted pitch counts and innings limits. Why destroy your teams’ most valuable assets for gains for just one season?!

    Reply

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