Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tigers Finally Meet Giants in World Series

Since the first Word Series in 1903, the Tigers have won 11 American League Pennants and the Giants 19 National League Pennants.  Yet, the two teams had never met in baseball's championship until this year.  The Tigers have played the Chicago Cubs four times, the Cardinals thrice and the Padres, Pirates and Reds once each.  The Giants have battled the Yankees seven times, the Athletics four times, the Senators twice and Angels, Indians, Rangers, Red Sox and White Sox once each.  

I was curious to know how close these two storied franchises had come to meeting the past 108 years.  I discovered that they came closest to facing off on three occasions - 1908, 1934 and 1987.

Much like the 1972 team, the 1908 Tigers won by a mere half game due to some odd scheduling.  The Bengals had a rain out that did not have to be made up and wound up playing one less game than the second place Cleveland Naps (named after team captain Nap Lajoie).  The Tigers clinched the pennant on the final day of the season thanks to a two-hit shutout by right hander Wild Bill Donovan.  The final records are shown below:

Detroit 90-63
Cleveland 90-64
Chicago 88-64

After the season, it was ruled that postponed games potentially impacting a pennant race would have to be made up in the future.

Meanwhile, the Giants were tied for first late in the season with the Chicago Cubs when the the famous Merkle Boner occurred on September 23.  New York had apparently broken a tie in the bottom of the ninth when Al Birdwell singled home Moose McCormick. However, 19-year old first baseman Fred Merkle, who had been on first base, left the base path to join the celebration and never touched second.  Amid the chaos of fans running on to the field, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved the ball from the outfield and touched second for a force out.

With fans all over the field and growing darkness in the days before stadium lights, the umpires declared that the game would end in a tie.  It was later agreed that if the season ended in a tie between the two teams, they would play another game to decide the pennant.  As fate would have it, the two teams finished with identical 98-55 records forcing a one game playoffon October 8 which the Cubs won 4-2.  Chicago then went on to defeat Detroit in the 1908 World Series in five games.

In 1934, 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).  Player/manager 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.

The Giants had won the pennant in 1933, and had a lot of confidence entering 1934.  The season opened with manager Bill Terry's rhetorical question: "Is Brooklyn still in the league?"  It may have been taken out of context, but it fueled the growing New York rivalry.

As it turned out, the Giants were in first place most of the season on the strength of a league-leading 36 homers by slugger Mel Ott and a 2.30 ERA in over 300 innings by left-hander Carl Hubbell.  Ultimately, they stumbled at the end losing their last five games and finishing two games behind St. Louis. New York's last two losses came at the hands of - you guessed it - the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Cardinals, of course went on to defeat the Tigers in a seven-game World Series.

More recently, the Tigers and Giants almost met in 1987.  The end of the regular season that year may have the most fun I've had watching the Tigers in my 44 years as a fan.  The Tigers were just a half game back with 11 games to play entering a four-game series with first-place Blue Jays.  Toronto won the first three games of the series, all by one-run margins.  That left the Tigers 3 1/2 games back and it was looking bleak.

The Tigers were down 1-0 in game four and the season seemed to be pretty much over.  Then outfielder Kirk Gibson blasted a dramatic game-tying solo homer in the ninth.  The Tigers went on to win 3-2  with Gibson getting a game-winning single in the top of the 13th inning.  There was now a ray of hope for the Tigers.

The Bengals then took just two games in a four-game series versus the Orioles.  Fortunately, the Blue Jays were swept by Brewers at the same time. That left the Tigers one game back prior to a season-ending three-game series versus  the Blue Jays.

The Tigers took the first game 4-3 behind the pitching of late-season acquisition Doyle Alexander and closer Mike Henneman and home runs by shortstop Alan Trammell and outfielder Scott Lusader.  The two teams were now tied for first.

The Tigers then moved into sole possession of first-place by winning the second game 3-2 in 12 innings.  They got nine strong innings from right-hander Jack Morris and three innings of scoreless relief from Henneman.  Trammell knocked in the game winner with a single in the bottom of the 12th.

The Tigers clinched the division title on the final day of the season when Frank Tanana out dueled Jimmy Key 1-0 in a battle of southpaws. The Tigers scored their only run on a solo homer by Larry Herndon in the first inning.  After seven games between the top two teams, ALL decided by one run, the Tigers finished on top.

The Tigers seemingly used up all their energy in winning the division though.  The Twins easily eliminated them in the playoffs four games to one.

The Giants won the National League West Division in 1987 by six games over the Reds.  This earned them a trip to the playoffs versus the Cardinals.   San Francisco took a three games to two advantage over the Cardinals after five games.  The Giants had scored four runs in the fourth inning to take the lead in game five which they eventually won.  They seemed to have momentum on their side at that point, but then suddenly stopped scoring.  The Cardinals staff held them scoreless for the last 23 innings of the series and St. Louis defeated San Francisco four games to three.

So, three times in three very different eras, the the Tigers almost had a World Series with the Giants but it never actually happened.  Now, more than a century after their first near miss in 1908, they are finally going to meet in baseball's fall classic.  

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