Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Top Ten Black Tiger Players of All Time
This is another in a long list of reasons why I think the Prince Fielder signing is great for the city of Detroit. The past several seasons I’ve joked that the Tigers had something against black ballplayers that couldn’t play center field. A friend of mine from the Detroit area who is raising a black child told me a while back that her son wasn’t very interested in baseball since none of the players he saw on TV were African-American. And in a city where 82% of the residents are black (according to the 2010 Census), having a black superstar player can be nothing but a good thing for the community.
As a supposedly politically correct society, race is not supposed to matter. But how many black folks do you see wearing Brandon Inge jerseys? Hopefully the presence of a star of the magnitude of Fielder will start making the black youth of Detroit start appreciating baseball again. Because the landscape of the game today would not be the same without the contributions of the black players of yesterday.
I know that DNR doesn’t seem like the place you’d expect to read a serious piece on Black History Month. After all, I’m rarely serious, I’m far from black, and I’m not much of a history buff. But today, in honor of the month and the Fielder signing, I thought I’d take a look at the top ten African-American players in Tigers history since Larry Doby broke the Detroit color barrier with 18 appearances for the Tigers in 1959. These ratings are subjective and I’m doing them in a combination of the player’s talent and his significance to Tigers history.
10. Dmitri Young, 1B & OF, 2002-2006
Best Tiger Season: 2003, .297 Avg, 29 HR, 85 RBI, 144 OPS+
Known as “Da Meat Hook”, Dmitri was one of the few bright spots on some terrible Tiger teams of the 2000’s. His infectious smile and power at the plate made him an immediate favorite to myself and many of the Tiger faithful. Later in life, he has battled injuries and personal demons, but I’ll always remember him rounding the bases, flipping his batting helmet off, and showing his tattoos off for the camera before breaking out in a gigantic grin in the dugout.
9. Tony Phillips, IF & OF, 1990-1994
Best Tiger Season: 1993, .313 Avg, 7 HR, 57 RBI, 130 OPS+
“Tony the Tiger” is the best leadoff hitter I’ve ever seen in the Old English D. The guy was an on base machine with a career high OBP of .443 in the 1993 season. Can you imagine a leadoff guy like that today in front of Fielder and Miguel Cabrera? The hot-headed Phillips played second, short, third, DH, and all three outfield positions for the Tigers and did it without complaint, as long as he was in the lineup. He retired after the 1999 season as one of, if not the most underrated players of all time, in my opinion.
8. Larry Herndon, OF, 1982-1988
Best Tiger Season: 1983, .302 Avg, 20 HR, 92 RBI, 129 OPS+
Herndon was the quiet, overlooked guy on the great 80’s teams in Detroit. But he always made an impact. He hit the game winning home run in Game 1 of the 1984 World Series, as well as a solo homer in the 1-0 victory over the Blue Jays in 1987 that clinched the AL East title. He later went on to be the hitting coach for the Tigers and is still a coach for them down in Lakeland.
7. Curtis Granderson, OF, 2004-2009
Best Tiger Season: 2007, .302 Avg, 23 HR, 74 RBI, 135 OPS+
In 2006, Granderson beat out Nook Logan to win the starting center field job and no one expected him to develop into the star that he became. In 2007, he became one of four players in history to hit 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homers, and steal 20 bases in the same season. And Grandy’s value to the community couldn’t be measured with his tireless charity work in the Detroit area. His trade to the Yankees after the 2009 season still stings to many Tiger fans as he’s developed into one of the top power hitters in baseball while in New York.
6. Earl Wilson, SP, 1966-1970
Best Tiger Season: 1967, 22-11, 3.27 ERA, 184 K
Wilson was a key part of the famous 1968 Tigers team, though Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich dominated the headlines out of the rotation. Still, Earl won 13 games that year with a 2.85 ERA to follow up on his great 1967 season. After retiring in 1970, Wilson remained active in the Detroit community up until his death in 2005 due to a heart attack.
5. Chet Lemon, OF, 1982-1990
Best Tiger Season: 1984, .287 Avg, 20 HR, 76 RBI, 134 OPS+
Chester was a fixture on the great 80’s Tigers providing a solid bat, a gold glove in center, and a steady presence in the clubhouse. He had over 400 putouts in the outfield in five different seasons, an AL record. He was also second in all of baseball to Don Baylor in getting hit by a pitch in the 80’s. And what I remember most about Lemon was his all-out hustle on the field, whether it be laying out for a baseball in center or diving into first base. After overcoming severe health problems after his playing days were over, Lemon now coaches two successful AAU teams in Florida.
4. Gates Brown, PH, 1963-1975
Best Tiger Season: 1968, .370 Avg, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 234 OPS+
If there’s a greater pinch hitter in Tiger history, I’m not sure who he is. “Gator” played his entire 13 year career in Detroit, never playing regularly due to not being much of a defensive player, but sticking around due to his ability to deliver the clutch hit, especially during the magical 1968 campaign. Brown went on to be the hitting coach for the Tigers, including during the famous 1984 season. One of the nicest guys off the field, I’ve heard plenty of fun Gates Brown stories over the years. The following is my favorite.
On August 7, 1968, Brown wasn’t in the starting lineup so he decided to get two hot dogs from the clubhouse. As he grabbed the dogs, he was called upon to pinch hit. Not wanting to get caught eating, he stuffed the hot dogs into his jersey and went up to the dish. Says Brown, "I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate. But this was one time I didn't want to get a hit. I'll be damned if I didn't smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second—head first, no less. I was safe with a double. But when I stood up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me. The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy."
3. Cecil Fielder, 1B, 1990-1996
Best Tiger Season: 1990, .277 Avg, 51 HR, 132 RBI, 167 OPS+
When the Tigers took a chance on “Big Daddy” after his season in Japan in 1989, no one really knew what to expect from the one time Blue Jay. But Cecil became the first man since George Foster in 1977 to hit over 50 homers in a season and the city of Detroit fell in love with him. Fielder would hit 245 homers in less than 7 full seasons as a Tiger and became the hero to a new generation of fans that didn’t grow up in the 80’s glory years of the Tigers. Prince has a lot to live up to on his new ballclub as his old man remains an icon in the minds of people like myself that grew up in Cecil’s time in the D.
2. Lou Whitaker, 2B, 1977-1995
Best Tiger Season: 1983, .320 Avg, 12 HR, 72 RBI, 133 OPS+
Five All-Star Games. Three Gold Gloves. Four Silver Slugger awards. One World Championship. Zero Hall of Fame consideration. Such is the story of “Sweet” Lou, one of the most beloved players in history to Tiger fans, yet seemingly anonymous to the rest of the baseball world. For 19 seasons, Whitaker and Alan Trammell thrilled Tiger fans as perhaps the greatest double play combo in baseball history. Since his retirement in 1995, no Tiger has wore his #1 jersey and I remain hopeful that the team retires his number in the near future.
1. Willie Horton, OF & DH, 1963-1977
Best Tiger Season: 1968, .285 Avg, 36 HR, 85 RBI, 164 OPS+
The youngest of twenty-one (yes, 21) children of James and Lillian Horton, Willie went from winning a city championship with Detroit Northwestern High in 1959 to a World Series championship with the Tigers in 1968. An icon to this day in the D, Horton hit double-digit homers in 12 separate seasons and more than one homer in a game thirty times. Despite his on the field heroics, he is possibly more fondly remembered for his off-the-field ones. During the 1967 Detroit 12th Street riot, he tried bravely to restore peace, standing in his Tiger uniform on a car in the middle of the chaos, pleading for calm. However, despite his impassioned pleas, the city burned for five more days.
After his playing days were over, the four time All-Star had his number 23 retired and a statue built in Comerica Park in his honor. Since 2003, he has served as Special Assistant to Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski.
For more information about these players and other notable blacks in Tigers history, click here to check out the African-American Heritage page at the mothership.