In reviewing the history of the Detroit Tigers, I often think about the best seasons to be a Tigers fan. So, I am writing a series of posts listing the top 20 seasons in Tigers history. There is no specific formula for determining the best seasons, but there are some criteria which I consider carefully. Playoff appearances, especially those leading to world championships are, of course, important. Team dominance as measured by winning percentage and run differential also carries a lot of weight.
While most of the teams on the list did win a lot of games, this is
not simply a ranking of the best teams statistically. Sometimes, a
non-winning season stands out because of great individual achievements
or because the team was unique in some way. I wanted every decade to
be represented and since the Tigers have had a couple of poor decades,
this was a challenge. However, the Tigers have managed to put
together at least one campaign each decade which was memorable even if
it was not a great year in terms of wins and losses and some of those
seasons will also be included.
The entire list of 20 seasons can be found here.
With the city of Detroit being hit especially hard by the great depression of the 1930s, fans turned to sports as a source of hope and good news. The Tigers were not doing their part winning just 75 games and suffering their 24th consecutive season without a pennant in 1933. Tigers owner Frank Navin attempted to jump start the team by acquiring two future Hall of Famers - catcher Mickey Cochrane (who would also be the manager) and outfielder Goose Goslin. It worked out quite well.
The Tigers had arguably the best regular season in franchise history going 101-53 and finishing seven games ahead of the second-place Yankees. Their .656 winning percentage and 957 runs scored are team records and their 250 run differential was second only to the 1935 squad. After an ordinary 21-18 start, the Tigers went 80-35 from June through September to run away with the pennant. This included a 14-game winning streak in August.
Their league leading offense finished more than 100 runs ahead of the second highest run-scoring team. They didn't have great home run power but led the league in batting average (.300), on-base percentage (.376) and doubles (349). Black Mike Cochrane led the team in the dugout and on the field and was the league MVP.. He batted .320/.411/.412 with a 117 OPS+ and was an excellent catcher.
Detroit had one of the best infields ever with first baseman Hank Greenberg, second baseman Charlie Gehringer, shortstop Billy Rogell and third baseman Marv Owen combining for 25 WAR. They also accumulated 462 RBI with all of them knocking in at least 96. Gehringer led the league with 134 runs scored, finished second in batting (.356), OBP (.450) and doubles (50). Greenberg batted .339 with an amazing 63 doubles and a 156 OPS+.
Unlike many of their previous teams, the Tigers had strong pitching to go with their productive offense. They finished second in the league to the Yankees with a 4.06 ERA. Schoolboy Rowe won 24 games, including 16 in a row and posted a 128 ERA+. Tommy Bridges had a 120 ERA+ in 275 innings and finished second in the AL with 151 strikeouts. Those two led a deep staff which included efficiently used swing men Eldon Auker and Firpo Marberry.
In the World Series, the Tigers faced the St. Louis Cardinals famous Gas House Gang, a cast of characters including pitching brothers Dizzy and Paul Dean, outfielder Duck Medwick and infielders Pepper Martin and Leo Durocher. The two teams split the first four games of the series. The Tigers took game five as Gehringer homered and Bridges out dueled Dizzy Dean. The Tigers were up three games to two heading back to Detroit.
The Cardinals tied the series at three with a 4-3 win in game six. Paul Dean helped his own cause with a go ahead single in the seventh.
The Cardinals then routed the Tigers 11-0 in game seven, a contest most remembered for an ugly incident. It all started when Medwick slid unnecessarily hard into third baseman Owen. The Tigers did not retaliate, but the fans did showering Medwick with garbage when he took his position in left field. Medwick eventually had to be removed from the game, but the Cardinals were already well on their way to a world championship.
Game seven was a a rough ending to an otherwise outstanding season, but the Tigers would get another opportunity in 1935.
Some of data for this article were gathered from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org