The 3,500 people who packed the Shrine of the Little Flower on July 12, 1951, to see Harry Heilmann off was larger than some of the crowds that had seen “Ol’ Slug” play at Navin Field over the years. “Names like Babe Ruth and Harry Heilmann will live forever,” eulogized the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin. “They made a contribution to the boys of our nation that diplomats and bumbling politicians never could have.”
A solid 6-1, 200-pound product of San Francisco’s sandlots, the popular and fun-loving Heilmann had made his debut in the Tigers’ outfield in 1914. Heilmann ran like a man trying to extract himself from wet cement. However, he was a blistering line-drive hitter. After several subpar seasons, the big right-handed batter heeded Ty Cobb’s advice to move his feet closer together and hold his bat far down on the handle, the barrel resting against his shoulder. Heilmann responded with his first .300 seasons in 1919 and 1920.
In 1921, Heilmann outhit the old master himself, .394 to .389, to win the first of four batting championships during the decade. He won additional crowns in 1923 (.403), 1925 (.393), and 1927 (.398). After 15 seasons in Detroit, he ended his career in Cincinnati in 1932 with the Redlegs. Arthritis was a contributing factor to his retirement. Heilmann’s lack of speed probably shaved a good 8 to 10 points off his .342 career average and likely cost him three .400 seasons. He was a marvel with the bat but couldn’t run for a lick.
After an insurance business he started was wiped out in the Great Depression, Heilmann began his broadcasting career with station WXYZ in 1934. Droll and articulate, with a cigarette dangling from his nicotine-stained fingertips, Heilmann loved to spin yarns about the fabled names he had played with and against: Cobb, Ruth, Wahoo Sam and Shoeless Joe. By 1951, a couple of generations of Detroiters had grown up watching Heilmann slug the ball or listening to his voice. But as baseball people began arriving in Detroit during that July’s All-Star break, they learned that “Ol’ Slug,” who’d been ailing for months, was fading fast.
George Kell was one of three Tigers representing the American League in the midsummer classic in ’51, which the National League won, 8-3, on July 10.
“I remember the night before the All-Star Game, there was a banquet honoring the all-time Tiger team,” Kell recalled. “I was fortunate enough to have been chosen. Ty Cobb was there, along with others like Gehringer and Greenberg. The only one missing that night was Harry Heilmann, who was in the hospital battling cancer. The next morning we learned he had passed away the night of the banquet. He was 56.
“I knew Heilmann very well. He influenced my broadcasting career more than anybody. At spring training in 1950, he had a show on WJR that was broadcast from Lakeland, Florida. He asked me if I would join him on those broadcasts to answer questions from the fans. In the spring of 1951 when he became ill, I did the show myself. It was my first broadcasting experience.”
Heilmann was buried in the family plot at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan. Tigers owner Frank Navin rests in the same graveyard. “Mr. Navin gives me contracts on a two-year basis,” Heilmann once explained when asked about his propensity for winning batting titles every other year. “I always bear down real hard when a new contract is coming up.”
Heilmann’s .342 career batting mark remains one of the highest by any right-handed hitter in baseball history. He was selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1952, six months after his death. Though he is often overlooked among the all-time legends of the game, in 1999 The Sporting News ranked Heilmann #54 on their 100 Greatest Baseball Players list.