The Tigers’ Ten Greatest Games
September 14, 1968: The 30th Win
Of Denny McLain’s improbable 31 wins in 1968, none was more thrilling than his milestone victory that made him baseball’s first 30-game winner in 34 years—and the last to date—before a Tiger Stadium crowd of 44,000.
The opposing Oakland A’s initiated the scoring in the fourth inning when Reggie Jackson, in his first full major league season, launched a two-run homer. The Tigers quickly responded with three runs of their own thanks to a Norm Cash blast that helped knock Oakland starter Pat Dobson out of the game. But the A’s tied it in the fifth and took the lead in the sixth when Jackson smacked his second homer on the day. McLain settled in and only allowed one baserunner (later erased on a double play) the rest of the way, but the Tigers could not mount any sort of offensive—until the bottom of the ninth.
Al Kaline pinch-hit for McLain, walked, moved to third base two batters later on a Mickey Stanley single and then scored the tying run when Oakland first baseman Danny Cater made a throwing error on Jim Northrup’s ground ball—with Stanley moving to third as the winning run. The final 90 feet was made easy for Stanley when Willie Horton singled him home, giving McLain—the pitcher of record—his 30th win. The 24-year old jumped so high for joy at Horton’s walk-off single that he hit his head against the concrete ceiling of the Tiger dugout; dazed but unfazed, he emerged onto the field in celebration and was mobbed by teammates.
In a passing of the baton of sorts, McLain was personally congratulated afterward by Dizzy Dean, baseball’s previous 30-game winner (from 1934) who attended the game.
September 30, 1945: Hank’s Heroic Rescue
Less than a month after the end of World War II, baseball fans were thirsting for normalcy to return to the game. Most players serving in the military would have to wait until 1946 to take the field, while a few were allowed back in the majors before the end of the 1945 season. Fortunately for Tiger fans, one of the early returnees would be Hank Greenberg.
The tall, fearsome slugger who’d been out of baseball since even before the events of Pearl Harbor had returned midway through the 1945 season and, despite a home run in his first game back, struggled through the summer to return to form. But by early August he was locked back in, hitting .362 over his final 49 games of the year. Yet he saved his clutch heroics for the very last day of the regular season, a scheduled doubleheader at St. Louis against the Browns.
Virgil Trucks, released from the Navy just three days earlier and making his first appearance in two years, started for Detroit and held down the Browns, allowing a run on three hits through five-plus innings. He left the game with a slim 2-1 lead, relieved by Hal Newhouser—the MVP ace making only his fourth appearance out of the bullpen all year long. But Newhouser lost the lead, as the Browns batted around for single runs in both the seventh and eighth innings to take a 3-2 lead.
St. Louis starter Nels Potter had kept the Tigers relatively quiet for eight innings, but he found immediate trouble in the top of the ninth by allowing runners at second and third with one out; he decided to intentionally walk Doc Cramer to load the bases—and face Greenberg. The calculated risk brought no reward; Greenberg drove a deep line drive that nestled itself over the fence near the left-field foul pole for a grand slam and a 6-3 lead. Al Benton pitched a scoreless ninth to preserve the win (credited to Newhouser for his 25th victory on the year); the second game was cancelled due to bad weather and irrelevance as the Tigers clinched the pennant with Greenberg’s slam. Detroit went on to the World Series, where it collected its second-ever championship over the Chicago Cubs.
May 18, 1912: The Replacements
Three days after controversial legend Ty Cobb jumped the stands in New York and beat up a handicapped heckler who had been viciously riding the Tiger superstar—leading to an indefinite suspension—he nevertheless took the field for the team’s next game at Philadelphia against the A’s. When umpires told him to leave, he did—followed en masse by every one of his teammates. In full anticipation of this showdown—and faced with a $5,000 per-game fine in the event of a forfeit—the Tigers had collected together a local rag-tag group of semipro (or worse) players, and told them to take the field as replacements for the striking regulars.
While Tiger management expected the scenario, the pick-up players didn’t—believing they were being used as a bluff to force the regulars back out. Suddenly, there they were on the Shibe Park field in front of a capacity crowd of 20,000, taking on the defending American League champion A’s and their “$100,000 Infield” while they were being given $10 per person. On the mound, the Tigers gave Al Travers—a Jesuit priest who had never pitched before—$25 to start the game and another $25 to finish it. Eight innings later, Travers collected but experienced the ultimate baptism by fire; he allowed 24 runs (14 of them earned) on 26 hits and seven walks, as the A’s coasted to an expected 24-2 rout. No pitcher in major league history, before or since, has given up more hits or runs in a nine-inning game.
Among the other Tigers for a day were Billy Maharg, a local boxer who would forge more baseball infamy in 1919 as a go-between in the Black Sox Scandal (he was the first insider to take the story public); third baseman Ed Irwin, who began and finished his big league career with two triples in three at-bats; and Tiger coaches Joe Sugden and Deacon McGuire, helping to give whatever sage they possibly could to the amateurs.
Many in the crowd had a laugh at the expense of the replacement Tigers, but others fumed that they had paid top dollar to essentially witness a travesty and demanded their money back. As for Cobb and the other true Tigers, an agreement was hashed out with AL czar Ban Johnson that resulted in a ten-day suspension for Cobb and $100 fines for the striking players, who returned. None of the replacements ever appeared in another major league game.
October 7, 1935: One For the Boss
The Tigers entered the 1935 season having never won a World Series; they had lost the year before to St. Louis in an acrimonious seven-game affair, and long before had memorably lost three straight Fall Classics from 1907-09. But the Tigers, repeating as AL pennant winners, entered Game Six of the 1935 Series against the Cubs with a 3-2 game lead and a chance to finally stand atop the championship podium for owner Frank Navin, who had been a part of the team since 1902 and had run the franchise since 1908—but also was suffering from recent health issues. Game Six would not be for the faint of heart, especially one like Navin’s.
Detroit took the early lead when Pete Fox hit a two-out double in the first inning to bring home catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane. The Cubs tied it in the third but the Tigers took the lead back on another small one-run rally in the fourth. A half-inning later, Chicago thundered ahead for the first time when second baseman Billy Herman launched a two-run homer to make it a 3-2 game. In the sixth, the Tigers tightened things up once more when Marv Owen singled in Billy Rogell, who had doubled with two outs.
Now tied, both teams continued in vain to scratch ahead. Tension truly took hold for the Detroit home crowd when the Cubs’ Stan Hack tripled to lead off the ninth inning against starter Tommy Bridges—but the Tigers kept him from scoring, thanks to a strikeout, a comebacker to the pitcher and a fly out to keep the game even. In the bottom of the ninth, Cochrane singled with one out, and after Charlie Gehringer moved him to second on a grounder, Goose Goslin—the veteran outfielder playing his second year in a Tiger uniform—produced the walk-off hit by singling home Cochrane to win the game and the series, 4-3.
At age 64, Navin finally realized his dream of a world championship. A month later, he was gone—the victim of a fatal heart attack.
June 2, 2010: The Imperfect Game
There had been nine previous occasions in major league history where a pitcher was one out away from a perfect game—and couldn’t get it. Armando Galarraga, an average pitcher in his fourth big league season, found out in the most ironic of ways that the 27th out was the toughest to earn—because he did earn it, only to have history stolen away from him by umpire Jim Joyce.
Making his third start of the year, Galarraga was flawlessly sailing along against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park before 17,000 fans who soon realized they could be witnessing history. They’d see it, but with a controversial twist. With three outs to go for the perfecto, Galarraga started the ninth inning by giving up a deep fly ball to Mark Grudzielanek that was sensationally caught by rookie center fielder Austin Jackson. Mark Redmond grounded out, leaving only Jason Donald standing between Galarraga and baseball’s 18th perfect game (and third within a month, after Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay). Turns out there was another obstacle: Joyce, the umpire.
Donald’s grounder was fielded by first baseman Miguel Cabrera and flipped to Galaragga, covering at first base and apparently beating Donald by a half-step. At least, that’s the way everyone saw it—except Joyce, who inexplicably ruled Donald safe. Galarraga rolled his head back and stared smilingly at Joyce in response, then finished off the one-hit shutout. Afterward, Joyce saw a replay of Donald’s grounder and, heartbroken, admitted he blew the call.
The postmortem had an upbeat tone to it. Galarraga didn’t go nuclear over losing the perfecto; in fact, he showed great forgiveness for Joyce and embraced him the next day on the field. Such compassion earned him accolades from far and near well after the event had taken place.
October 14, 1984: Bless You Boys
Rarely has a season been scripted so perfectly for a major league team. The 1984 Tigers bolted out to an electrifying 35-5 start for veteran manager Sparky Anderson, coasted to the AL East title, swept Kansas City in the ALCS and found the San Diego Padres to be no problem in the World Series. The final nail into the Padres’ coffin would be hammered down in Game Five.
Highlighted by a two-run Kirk Gibson home run, Detroit stormed out to a 3-0 lead on Padre starter Mark Thurmond, who retired only one of six batters before being removed from the game. Tiger starter Dan Petry was far from his best as well, allowing the Padres to even the score in the fourth inning before making his own exit to the showers. But back came Detroit; the Tigers retook the lead in the fifth when Gibson singled and scored on a sacrifice fly, added another run in the seventh when Lance Parrish homered, then broke it open in the eighth when they notched three runs on just one hit: Gibson’s second homer of the day. Pitching the final two innings in relief, AL MVP and Cy Young winner Willie (later Guillermo) Hernandez wasn’t sharp but kept the Padres well at bay to secure the Tigers’ fourth-ever championship.
Unfortunately, the postgame euphoria around Tiger Stadium turned into celebration riots—an oxymoronic thought—that resulted in one death, 82 injuries and 41 arrests.
September 27, 1940: Silencing the Crybabies
The Tigers had rampaged through September, winning 17 of 22 games to move from third place towards a terrific opportunity to win the AL pennant at Cleveland against the second-place Indians, entrenched in deep internal (yet very public) turmoil over manager Ossie Vitt, who many Indian players had grown to despise; hence they were labeled “crybabies” by both Cleveland fans and media.
Nevertheless, Detroit had a difficult assignment to start the three-game series by taking on supersonic star pitcher Bob Feller; fixing the rotation in a way to almost concede defeat to Feller but also to set up favorable matchups for the other two games, Tiger manager Del Baker decided to go with 30-year-old Floyd Giebell—making only the second start of his major league career after producing an unflattering 15-17 record for Triple-A Buffalo.
Before a large, raucous crowd at Cleveland Stadium that had grown so overzealous that one Tiger coach fell unconscious when a crate full of food and beer fell upon his head (how it got there, who knows), Giebell matched Feller zero for zero through the first three innings; in the fourth, the ice was broken—against Feller. Rudy York, in the midst of his most impressive year, cracked his 33rd home run after a Charlie Gehringer walk to give the Tigers a 2-0 advantage. That was the only damage Detroit could pin on Feller—but it was all they would need. The Indians and their fans kept waiting for Giebell to become human and begin self-destructing. That moment never came. Giebell finished as strong as he started, firing a six-hit shutout while striking out six to wrap the AL pennant up for Detroit with two games to spare; he would never win another major league game.
October 10, 1968: The Other Pitcher
The 1968 World Series was heavily advertised as a showdown between baseball’s two most dominant pitchers during the regular season: 30-game winner McLain against St. Louis’ Bob Gibson, owner of a 1.12 ERA—the majors’ lowest since the deadball era. But thankfully for Detroit, Mickey Lolich crashed the duel.
The 28-year-old southpaw, whose 17-9 record had paled alongside McLain’s, had come to the rescue once already in the series when he outdueled Gibson to keep the Cardinals from clinching the series in five games. After the Tigers rolled in Game Six, 13-1, to force the rubber match, Lolich took the mound again to the chagrin of the Cardinals, who in general had problems hitting lefties. For six innings, Lolich and Gibson exchanged zeroes on the scoreboard, and Lolich really zapped the sting out of a Cardinal rally in the sixth when he picked off both Lou Brock and Curt Flood on the basepaths. For the hometown Cardinal fans, the missed opportunity led to a sense of dread in the air—and sure enough, the Tigers responded in the seventh against Gibson with three runs—capped by a two-run Jim Northrup triple that was misplayed by Flood in center field. After another rally in the ninth, the Cardinals finally got to Lolich in the bottom half of the inning, but the solo run was too little, too late for St. Louis, and the Tigers won their first world title in 34 years behind Lolich, who was the victor in three of their four triumphs.
April 25, 1901: A Heck of a Start
In their very first game, the Tigers managed to do what no other team has since done through the next 100-plus years: Come from nine or more runs down in the ninth inning to win. They managed the unbelievable at Bennett Field before 10,023 fans checking out American League baseball for the first time and were in for quite a treat.
At first, it didn’t appear the infant Tigers were ready for prime time; they trailed the Milwaukee Brewers (soon to be known as the St. Louis Browns) 7-0 after three innings, and after closing the deficit to four runs midway through, collapsed in the late innings—seven errors didn’t help—to trail 13-4 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Frank Dillon started the rally with his third double of the game, and when he showed up again at the plate—with the tying and winning runs on base—Dillon delivered with yet another two-base hit, setting another AL standard that has also yet to be surpassed, and stunning the Brewers with a 14-13 thriller that must have left those left in the stands believing that this league was going to be a heck of a lot of fun.
October 14, 2006: O, Ordonez!
In 2003, even the most optimistic Detroit fan would have been pessimistic to believe that the Tigers could improve from their league-record 119 losses of that season to the AL pennant in just three years. But utter fantasy became shocking reality as the Tigers secured their ninth AL flag thanks to Magglio Ordonez, himself completing a revival from an injury-riddled, mid-career crisis.
After winning the first three games of the ALCS against Oakland, the Tigers returned to Comerica Park in an attempt to finish the sweep—but fell behind 3-0 after four innings. The Tigers pulled to within one in the fifth, then tied it off the bat of Ordonez an inning later when he nailed a leadoff solo shot off starter Dan Haren, who was given a trip to the showers immediately afterward. Both teams squandered bases-loaded opportunities over the next few innings, and the game remained tied in the bottom of the ninth when the A’s sent closer Huston Street to the mound in the hopes of sending the game to extra innings. He got the first two Tigers out, but then gave up consecutive singles to bring up Ordonez—who launched a no-doubt-about-it drive into the left-field bleachers, wrapping up the sweep and sending the sellout crowd and those watching from nearby rooftops into celebratory delirium.
Detroit Tigers Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Tigers, decade by decade.
The Tigers' Ten Greatest Hitters: A list of the ten greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Tigers' Ten Greatest Pitchers: A list of the ten greatest pitchers based on their productivity and efficiency.
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