Victor Martinez has only been a Tiger for a few months, but he already has something in common with Hall of Famer Al Kaline: both were just 17 years old when they signed their first baseball contract. While Kaline was plucked from the sandlots of Baltimore by a Tiger scout, Martinez was a hopeful teenager in a small town in Venezuela when the Cleveland Indians found him in 1996. Since then, Martinez has matured into a top-notch big league catcher, earning four All-Star selections at the position. Know that he’s wearing the Olde English “D” he is poised to become the latest in an impressive list of Tiger catching greats.
The Tigers have had nine All-Star catchers in their history, with at least one in every decade except the 1950s. The first Tiger All-Star catcher was Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, who made two All-Star appearances before a beanball ended his playing career suddenly. Cochrane is the dean of Tiger catching greats, having posted a .320 career average with the Athletics and Detroit. As player/manager, Cochrane guided the Tigers to their first World Series title in 1935. An impressive list of backstops have followed in his footsteps in Detroit.
Following Cochrane there was Rudy York, who had remarkable power at the plate. York later moved to first base after Hank Greenberg’s retirement. By that time, Birdie Tebbets was behind the mask for the Bengals. Tebbetts wasn’t a power hitter or any sort of hitter at all, really. But he was considered one of the finest defensive catchers of the 1940s and he was named to four All-Star teams. He later managed for many years in the major leagues and enjoyed a long career in the game as a manager, coach, scout, and executive.
Bill Freehan emerged as the best catcher in the American League in the 1960s. Tall and muscular with big hands, Freehan was alike a boulder behind the plate: immovable and solid. He earned 10 consecutive All-Star nods from 1964-1973, and added another in 1975. Many consider him the greatest catcher in franchise history among those who spent the majority of their career in the Tiger uniform.
Freehan was a mentor to the player who succeeded him as an All-Star Tiger backstop. Lance Parrish looked more like a linebacker than a ballplayer, but he had a tremendous career in Detroit. He made the All-Star team six times in seven seasons between 1980-1986, also winning several Silver Slugger Awards and Gold Gloves. He may have had the strongest throwing arm of any Tiger catcher. After he was let go via free agency following the 1986 season, Matt Nokes quickly filled the gap. A left-handed hitter with a quick, compact swing, Nokes belted 32 homers as a rookie in 1987.
But Nokes burned out fast, and after he was dealt away, Detroit acquired Mickey Tettleton from the Orioles. Like Martinez, Tettleton was a switch-hitter with power. Tettleton spent four seasons with Detroit, earning two Silver Sluggers and one All-Star birth. He averaged 28 homers, 83 RBI, and 107 walks per season for the Tigers before leaving via the free agency route.
Once again Detroit had a hole at catcher, a void they didn’t really fill until 1999 when Brad Ausmus arrived. Ausmus was perhaps the best overall defensive catcher the Tigers had on their roster since Freehan. Ausmus was adept at throwing out baserunners, handling pitchers, blocking the plate, and calling a game. He was an All-Star in 1999. Ausmus won three Gold Gloves during his 18-year major league career.
The Tigers made a huge splash when they signed Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez to a free agent deal in 2004. Already a 10-time All-Star, Rodriguez had also won the AL MVP Award in 1999 and toted away nine Gold Gloves. He was fresh off a season with Florida in which he had helped carry the Marlins to their second World Series title. In Detroit he faced an uphill battle, joining a club that had lost 119 games in 2003. Pudge gave the Tigers legitimacy on and off the field. He hit .334 with 19 homers that first season, and two years later he was a key part of the Tigers pennant-winning team. He was an All-Star in each of his four full seasons in Detroit.
Pudge was traded to the Yankees in 2009, and since then the team has been searching for some offensive punch behind the dish. Martinez was brought in to fix that problem. He won’t catch every day, but his presence gives the Tigers another star at the position, and possibly the 10th All-Star catcher in franchise history.