The World War II era were lean years for baseball, with most of the top stars in uniform and their places taken by an assortment of draft rejects, minor leaguers, and old-timers. By 1945 the situation was so bad that the St. Louis Browns were fielding a one-armed outfielder and one sportswriter was describing the play as resembling “the fat men against the skinny men at the company picnic.”
“Goddamn, we were lucky to get nine men to put on the field sometimes,” Doc Cramer, the Tigers’ 40-year-old starting center fielder in 1945, reflected once in his old age. “We had guys on the field, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell you who they were right now.”
Stepping out of the mists of Cramer’s amnesia, however, was a veteran right-handed pitcher named Jim Tobin, who the Tigers purchased in early August for $7,500 from the Boston Braves. At the time Tobin joined Detroit he’d become well-known for two things over his nine seasons in the National League: his “flutter ball” and his bat. He put both on display in his first game in a Tigers uniform.
On August 11, 1945, the Tigers were clinging to a one-game lead in the standings when they hosted a doubleheader with the New York Yankees. There were 53,189 fans packed into Briggs Stadium, a testament to a red-hot pennant race and a city swollen with defense plant workers hungry to spend their factory wages.
In the ninth inning of the opener, with the score knotted at six runs apiece, Tobin replaced Les Mueller on the mound. The Yankees got the American League’s first look at the veteran National Leaguer’s knuckleball, with which he had pitched back-to-back no-hitters the previous season for the Braves. The first, against Brooklyn, went the regulation nine innings while the second, in the nightcap of a double bill with the Phillies, went five innings before being called on account of darkness.
Tobin held the Yanks in check for three innings, surrendering just a pair of hits. The score was still 6-6 when he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat as a Tiger. Jim “Milkman” Turner knew of Tobin’s reputation with a club in his hand. Three years earlier, on May 13, 1942 against the Cubs, Tobin became the first big-league pitcher to clout three home runs in a game.
Now, facing Turner with two on and one out, Tobin took a toehold. The New York righty tried to pump a fastball past him. Instead, Tobin turned on it and drove it towards left field—up and over the screen and into a knot of jubilant fans. Bob Swift and Bobby Maier, who scored ahead of Tobin, stood at the plate waiting to congratulate the grinning newcomer, who got credit for the 9-6 victory and the game-winning walk-off home run.
Hal Newhouser won the second game and the Tigers were in first place to stay for the rest of the summer, though they needed another dramatic home run—this one a ninth-inning grand slam by Hank Greenberg on the last day of the season—to sew up the pennant.
After a couple of ineffective starts, Tobin was used largely in relief the rest of the way. He also was used as a pinch-hitter. He wound up with a 4-5 record in Detroit and hit one final round-tripper, giving him 17 for his career.
Tobin pitched three innings of relief in the Series opener in Detroit, which the Cubs won. It was the last big-league appearance for Tobin, a native Californian who elected to finish his professional career with several seasons in the Pacific Coast League, closer to home. However, the man who started his Tigers career with a bang left it with a ring, as Detroit went on to win the last World Series of the World War II era in seven games.