Ranking the Detroit Tigers greatest teams


Which team was the greatest in the history of the Detroit Tigers? Who would win a series between the ’68 Detroit Tigers and the ’84 Detroit Tigers? How great was the 1935 World Championship team? What about young Ty Cobb and his club that won not one, not two, but three straight pennants?

Here’s my ranking of the ten best Tiger teams of all-time. I’m sure it will prompt debate, because it’ll surprise all of you.

10. 1961 Tigers

101-61, second place
Manager: Bob Scheffing

Why they were great: Firepower. This ’61 Tigers offense ranks among the most fearsome in franchise history. The heart of the order featured Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito, and Norm Cash, each of them smoking the ball that season. In a season where the Yankees duo of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris got most of the headlines for their slugging, those three Tigers were nearly as good. The team won 101 games, the second-highest total in franchise history to that point.

9. 1987 Tigers

98-64, first place
Manager: Sparky Anderson

Why they were great: They never gave up. The lineup had a core unit built around cleanup man Alan Trammell, the clutch Kirk Gibson, spark plug leadoff man Lou Whitaker, slugger Darrell Evans, and rookie catcher Matt Nokes. The staff had Jack Morris, Walt Terrell, Frank Tanana, young Jeff Robinson, and late-season acquisition Doyle Alexander. In May they were 11-19 and seemed buried, but Sparky knew his veteran club had talent. Gradually they gained steam, and from July on they seemed to win two of three or three of four in practically every series to hunt down the Blue Jays. The seven games played between Toronto and Detroit in the last 10 days of the season are some of the most dramatic in franchise history, and each contest was decided by one run. Yes, they lost in the playoffs, but they posted baseball’s best record and had a wonderful season.

8. 1945 Tigers

88-65, World Champions
Manager: Steve O’Neill

Why they were great: Prince Hal. Quite simply, the Tigers had the best pitcher in baseball in the person of Hal Newhouser. In the final season where baseball’s rosters were ravaged by WWII, Newhouser was a man among boys, winning 25 games and winning a second straight MVP award. The Tigers were not a great team, but in a mediocre landscape they had just enough hitting to edge the Senators for the pennant. Ever the workhorse, the lefthanded Newhouser pitched three complete game victories in the last nine days of the season, and Hank Greenberg came back in the summer to solidify the lineup. Still, this club had a tough time beating the Cubs in the World Series, and because of the relative lack of competition that year and their struggle in the Fall Classic, they come in at #8, the lowest of Detroit’s four championship teams.

7. 2006 Tigers

95-67, second place and wild card winner, won pennant
Manager: Jim Leyland

Why they were great: A magical postseason run. The ’06 Tigers were beloved by Detroit fans because what they did was so unexpected. First-year manager Jim Leyland was supposed to bring calm leadership to the young club, but they weren’t supposed to play so well. The Tigers romped out to a big lead and had baseball’s best record at the break. The team was well-balanced with veteran bats (Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez), young pitching (Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya), and unlikely heroes (Chris Shelton, Carlos Guillen). The Tigers blew their lead and lost the division on the final day of the regular season, but then just when it looked like the Cinderella season was going to end, they beat the Yankees and swept the A’s to win the pennant. Even a dissappointing five-game loss in the Fall Classic did nothing to take the shine off this magical season.

6. 2013 Tigers

93-69, first place
Manager: Jim Leyland

Why they were great: Dominant starting pitching. Yes, this team also had a very good offense (they ranked second in the league in runs scored and had MVP Miguel Cabrera in his prime), but the pitching staff nearly carried this club to the World Series. They are the reason this team rates ahead of the 2012 team, which did win the pennant. Justin Verlander, Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez (who led the AL in ERA), Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello went 75-40 and started all but six of the Tigers’ games. The quintet led the Tigers to set a record for strikeouts, with 1,428 whiffs. In the first round of the playoffs, Verlander crushed the A’s in Game Five, pitching eight shutout innings while allowing only two hits. In the next three games (in the ALCS against Boston) Detroit starters combined for 21 innings while surrendering just seven hits and striking out 35 while allowing two runs. Nevertheless, due to poor pitching by the bullpen, Detroit lost two of those three games and eventually succumbed in six games. But, this club was maybe ten inches away from being up 2-0 on the Red Sox in Boston, if not for a near-miss catch by Torii Hunter on what ended up being a grand slam in the eighth inning of Game Two. The Red SOx went on to win the World Series easily, and I’m confident that had the bullpen not blown game two, the Tigers go on to hoist the trophy as baseball’s world champions.

5. 1934 Tigers

101-53, pennant winners
Manager: Mickey Cochrane

Why they were great: Star power. The G-Men of Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, and Goose Goslin, each in the Hall of Fame. They also had a Hall of Famer in catcher/manager Mickey Cochrane, and stars on the pitching staff with Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges). This team set a franchise record with 101 wins, winning 14 consecutive games (also a team record) in late summer to bury the Yankees. They could have won the World Series, but instead fell in seven hard-fought games to a talented St. Louis team, and because of that, they rate here at #5.

4. 1909 Tigers

98-54, pennant winner
Manager: Hughie Jennings

Why they were great: Action on the base paths. Baseball’s greatest deadball era offense was sparked by Ty Cobb and Wahoo Sam Crawford, two outfielders who could barely tolerate one another. Despite the friction between the veteran Crawford and 22-year old batting champ Cobb, the lineup was masterful at performing the hit-and-run, double steal, and squeeze play, humming along to a lead-leading run total. This time, the club also had their best pitching staff of that era, finishing third in the AL in ERA. The hurlers were led by Wabash George Mullin, who won 29 games, and the three Ed’s: Willett, Summers, and Killian. The ’09 Tigers became the first AL team to win three consecutive pennants, but once again lost in the Fall Classic, this time to the Pirates in seven games.

3. 1968 Tigers

103-59, World Champions
Manager: Mayo Smith

Why they were great: A come-from-behind, never-say-die attitude. The ’68 Tigers came from behind 39 times to win in 1968 and they had 17 walkoff wins at Tiger Stadium. This team had stars all over the diamond: catcher Bill Freehan, first baseman Norm Cash, second baseman Dick McAuliffe, left fielder Willie Horton, outfielder Jim Northrup, right fielder Al Kaline, pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown, and the pitchers Denny McLain (31 wins), Mickey Lolich (three big victories in the Fall Classic), and Earl Wilson. The NL champion Cardinals were very, very good, but the Tigers proved their greatness by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win the title. Their play, more than any other team on this list, unified the city of Detroit.

2. 1935 Tigers

93-58, world Champions
Manager: Mickey Cochrane

Why they were great: Experience. The regular season in ’35 wasn’t as dominating as the previous year, but the Tigers took control of the pennant race in July and August when they went 43-15 to hurdle past the Yankees. The team led the AL in runs and nearly every important offensive category while finishing second in ERA. As the first Detroit team to win the World Series, this team will always deserve a special place in franchise history. They rate just a little below the top team on my list.

1. 1984 Tigers

104-58, World Champions
Manager: Sparky Anderson

Why they were great: Wire-to-wire. The Tigers roared to a 35-5 record, the best start in baseball history, and never looked back. The team was built on a foundation of stars in their prime: Whitaker, Trammell, Gibson, Lance Parrish, Chet Lemon, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and Willie Hernandez. After that amazing start, the pressure was on the team, but they didn’t wilt, winning eight of their nine postseason games to easily win the franchise’s fourth championship. The Tigers led the AL in 25 categories, including runs and fewest runs allowed. They set a franchise record for wins despite not having anything to play for over the last two weeks of the season. The ’84 Tigers are considered to be one of the best teams in baseball history.

Why are the ’84 Tigers better than the ’68 Tigers? It comes down to pitching depth and dominance. The ’84 team went 35-5, won 69 of their first 100 games (one off the all-time record), then after coasting to the division title, turned it on in the postseason by sweeping the overmatched Royals. After that, in the ‘1984 World Series, the Tigers played like a team obsessed with being one of the greatest in baseball history: they scored in the first inning in four of the five games, knocked out the San Diego starter within the first three innings in four of the games, and only trailed for a total of four innings in the entire Fall Classic. For sheer dominance in one year, the ’84 Tigers rate among the greatest teams in baseball history. The ’68 team was more dramatic, coming from behind often to win, including in the World Series. But the ’84 team had a slight edge in personnel, posting a deeper pitching staff and a more balanced offensive attack.

Why are the ’84 Detroit Tigers better than the 1935 team? The ’35 Tigers didn’t have as great a regular season as the ’84 team did. The ’35 team had just as many stars (four future Hall of Famers), and their pitching staff is one of the best in franchise history (four pitchers with at least 16 wins), but the ’84 Tigers established themselves as the best team in baseball from opening day to the final game of the Fall Classic. The 1935 Tigers were 7 1/2 games behind the Yankees on June 20th and had to get red-hot to win the pennant. They went 64-32 from that point on to pull away, but the ’84 Tigers led from wire-to-wire, the third team in baseball history to do so. A seven-game series between the ’35 Tigers and ’84 Tigers would be epic: Schoolboy Rowe vs Jack Morris; the submarine pitcher Elden Auker facing tough Kirk Gibson in a batter/pitcher duel; the G-Men versus Whitaker and Trammell. But ultimately, I think the ’84 Tigers would come out on top.

What do yo think? Tell me your opinion in the comments section below.