As he stood on the mound, Vern Ruhle peered in at his catcher Bill Freehan. One more out to go, and the Detroit Tigers would have a victory. At the plate was the Yankees’ Thurman Munson. Ruhle went into his windup and threw. Munson grounded the ball to shortstop Gene Michael, who threw to first baseman Jack Pierce for the last out of the game. The final score was Detroit 3, New York 0. Ruhle had tossed a complete-game six hitter, with no walks. A job well done before 11,244 at Shea Stadium (The Yankees were playing in the Mets’ stadium in Queens while The House That Ruth Built was undergoing a two-year renovation.).
The date was July 28, 1975. The victory was the 18th in the last 27 games for the Tigers, including a recent 9-game win streak. But they were still in last place in the American League East. The next day, they went back to their losing ways, falling to the Yanks 4-2.
It was the start of an historic 19-game losing streak.
From July 29th to August 15th, the Detroit Tigers did not win a game. They very nearly tied the American League record for consecutive losses, which at the time was 20, established by three teams (the 1906 Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Athletics of 1916 and 1943). But on the evening of Saturday, August 16th, the Tigers finally pulled out a victory, blasting the California Angels 8-0 at the Big “A” in Anaheim. Ray Bare pitched a complete-game two-hit gem, while Freehan and shortstop Tom Veryzer each drove in three runs.
The 19 consecutive losses established a new franchise record that stands to this day. It’s a record the team never wants to beat.
There wasn’t one overriding factor that led to the ’75 streak. Some days, they got decent pitching, but the hitting and fielding let them down. Other days, the hitting and fielding were solid, but the pitching was bad. And then there were days when they struggled in all facets of the game.
At one point during the streak, a reporter asked manager Ralph Houk if he’d considered drawing the lineup out of a hat, in an attempt to change the team’s luck, if nothing else. It was a stunt that Billy Martin, Houk’s predecessor, had once pulled. “When you do something like that, it’s a sign of panic,” Houk replied. “And we haven’t reached that point yet.”
The Tigers that year were a mix of young, inexperienced players like Leon Roberts, Ron LeFlore, Dan Meyer, Fernando Arroyo, and Veryzer, along with aging remnants of the 1968 World Series team in Freehan, Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Mickey Lolich, and Gates Brown. Part of the Tigers’ problems stemmed from a double dose of misfortune leading up to the losing streak: In their game on July 25th, relief ace John Hiller suffered an injury that shelved him for the rest of the season. In the same game, centerfielder Stanley, who went 4-4, injured his thumb sliding into second, and was also lost for the remainder of 1975.
Hiller’s absence hit especially hard. “The funny thing is,” Houk pointed out, “if you look back at the games we lost, we were in most all of them until the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings.” Yes, losing your key man out of the bullpen will do that, Ralph.
Mickey Lolich lost the 14th game in the streak, which broke the previous Tiger record of 13 consecutive losses. “From World Series hero to losing pitcher in the 14th game of a losing streak,” the lefty lamented. “I guess it has come down to this. It gets discouraging. What can I say? It’s just a shame. It’s depressing. Losing is always depressing. It’s hard to smile and joke and kid around. Every place I go, everybody asks what’s wrong with this team. Why can’t we win? Nobody has a good word to say. It’s always something degrading, something negative.”
Early in the streak, the Tigers were swept in a five-game series in Fenway Park, when the Red Sox pulled out two wins in their final at-bats. Of the 19 losses, three went into extra innings. And in four games from August 8th to the 11th Detroit scored a total of one run, and was shut out three consecutive times. It had gotten so bad that Tiger General Manager Jim Campbell received phone calls from seven rival GM’s consoling him on the losing streak.
The Tigers finished dead last in 1975 with a miserable record of 57-102, but still managed to attract 1,058,836 customers to Tiger Stadium (in those days, a million fans was a realistic goal for many teams).
“You know, I’ve been with winners all my life,” said first base coach Dick Tracewski, “and this is probably the club I’ll always remember.”
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