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, as he delivered several big hits, including one of the most important home runs in Tigers history.
Originally drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, Herndon was tall and lean with long legs and a lengthy stride. 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 San Francisco Giants. General Manager Jim Campbell nabbed him in the 1981 off-season, intent on slotting him into an outfield that featured center fielder Chet Lemon and right fielder 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 hit .292 while leading the team in runs, hits, triples, and RBI. He also swiped 12 bases and solidified himself as Sparky Anderson’s #3 hitter in front of Lance Parrish. The following year he improved on nearly all his numbers, batting .302 with 20 homers, 182 hits, and 92 RBI.
In 1984, the Memphis native who grew up in Mississippi, split time in left field with Ruppert Jones and others. As the Tigers roared from the gate to take a strangehold on the AL East race, Herndon struggled. But in the last two months of the season he hit over .350, setting himself up for some 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. His victim was Buddy Black, a left-hander. Hewrndon was especially effective against southpaws, Then, 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. It was Herndon who caught the final out of the Series in left field in Game Five as the Tigers won their first title in 16 seasons.
But Herndon was far from done as a Tiger hero. Though his playing time diminished after ’84, he was still effective, largely against lefties. In 1987, with the Tigers reloaded and on their way to the best record in baseball, Herndon hit .324 with nine homers and 47 RBI in a platoon role. On the final day of the 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. Tiger starter Frank Tanana pitched a shutout and the Tigers won the division on the final day of the season.
As he had in 1984, Herndon performed well in the post-season in 1987, hitting .333 with two RBI in three games against the Minnesota Twins. It was his final appearance in the post-season, however. 1988 proved to be his final season, as he struggled offensively. On September 16 he hit his final major league homer, off a lefty – Baltimore’s Jeff Ballard. 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 was 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. Later, he coached in the minor leagues for the team, having truly become a Tiger for life. He’s a frequent guest at Tiger Fantasy Camp, and one of the most popular among fans. Though not much is ever heard from or about Herndon, his place in Tiger history is secure.