This is the first article in a series that looks at the five best players at each position for the Detroit Tigers. In this installment are catchers and managers.
The Detroit Tigers are one of the most stable franchises in baseball. While they have had some ownership changes through the years, several were sons taking over after fathers passed away. The team has also had just two stadiums and is the only original American League team that has never moved or changed its name.
The Tigers were one of the original teams when Ban Johnson purchased the Western League in the mid-1890s, and the future Hall of Fame executive wanted the team to move to New York. However, he was thwarted by owners James Burns and George Stallings, a former player who would eventually be known for managing the “Miracle Braves” to the championship in 1914.
Burns and Stallings sold the team to insurance company executive Samuel Angus, who lost money on the team from the outset and tasked his bookkeeper, Frank Navin, with finding a new owner. Navin had a deal in place with William Clyman Yawkey, but the lumber tycoon died before a deal could get done. Instead, Navin sold to Yawkey’s son, William Hoover Yawkey.
While the changes in ownership were taking place, the Tigers became a contender thanks to a lineup that produced without hitting home runs and a pitching staff that kept their opponents off balance. Detroit won three straight American League pennants from 1907-09 but fell in the World Series each time.
Navin used his postseason bonuses to buy a controlling stake in the team from Yawkey in 1908, and he kept control of the Tigers with a tight wallet for the next 27 years. Yawkey stayed on as a hands-off owner until his death in 1919 due to the Spanish flu. He left $40 million to his nephew and adopted son, Tom, who would use that money, plus what Navin gave him to take full ownership of the Tigers, to purchase the Red Sox in 1933.
After their early success, Detroit didn’t reach the World Series again for another quarter century. In 1915, the Tigers became the first American League team to win 100 games but not the pennant, when they fell 2½ games behind the Red Sox. The string of mediocrity ended in 1934, when the Tigers advanced to the World Series and fell to the Cardinals in seven games. They won their first championship the following year when they beat the Cubs. Six weeks after his team won the title, Navin had a heart attack while horseback riding, fell off the horse and died.
Ownership fell to Walter Briggs Sr., who a purchased a 25 percent stake in the Tigers in 1919 and eventually was a 50-50 owner. After Navin’s death, Briggs paid $1 million to his heirs to take full control of the team. However, Briggs wasn’t always a joy to have around. He was a noted racist who refused to bring in black players, and the Tigers did not have any until after his death in 1952.
Walter (Spike) Briggs Jr. tried to keep control of the Tigers, but despite his efforts, his three sisters and the family trust succeeded in selling the team in 1956 to the highest bid, which was made by radio executives John Fetzer and Fred Knorr. Fetzer bought out Knorr five years later and held onto the team until 1983.
The Tigers had modest success on the field during this time. They lost the 1940 World Series to the Reds in seven games, then beat the Cubs again five years later. After three second place finishes over the next two decades Detroit avenged the 1934 loss by beating St. Louis in the 1968 World Series. The Tigers also fell to the Athletics in the 1972 American League Championship Series.
Fetzer sold the club to Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan in 1983, and during his nine years of control, the Tigers won their third championship over the Padres in dominating fashion in 1984. Detroit fell to Minnesota in the ALCS three years later and had three second place finishes in the decade.
In 1992, the Tigers transferred from one pizza king to another when Monaghan sold the team to Little Caesar’s founder Mike Ilitch, who was a former minor league player in the Detroit farm system. After a knee injury forced him to end his playing career, Ilitch and his wife opened their first pizza restaurant in 1959. Ilitch, who also owned the NHL’s Red Wings, passed away in 2017, and his son, Christopher, now is the owner.
The Tigers have had more bad seasons than good during Ilitch family ownership. They lost to the Cardinals in the 2006 World Series and got swept by the Giants in 2012. On the flip side, Detroit set a team record with 109 losses in 1996 and then set an American League record with a 43-119 mark in 2003 (which required winning five of their final six games to avoid setting a modern baseball record for futility). The Tigers also lost 114 games in 2019 but have been working their way toward respectability in recent years.
The Best Catchers and Managers in Detroit Tigers History
Honorable Mentions – Charles “Boss” Schmidt played with Detroit for six seasons (1906-11), and he was the starter when the Tigers went to the World Series three straight years. His best season was 1908, when he hit .265 and set career highs with 111 hits and 38 runs batted in. Schmidt played 477 games with Detroit, amassing 360 hits and 124 RBIs. He had seven hits in 14 postseason games and drove in five runs, with four coming in Game 2 of the 1909 World Series.
Oscar Stanage was Schmidt’s backup in Detroit’s third World Series appearance, and he went on to play 13 seasons with the Tigers (1909-20 and 25). He set career highs with a .264 average, 133 hits and 51 RBIs in 1911. Stanage totaled 819 hits, eight home runs and 328 RBIs in 1,095 games. He also had a two-run single in Game 4 of the 1909 World Series.
Follow Stanage as starter was Johnny Bassler, who posted a .300 or higher average in four of seven seasons with Detroit (1921-27). His best season was 1924, when he batted .346 with 131 hits and 68 runs batted in, which were all career highs. Overall, he batted .308 with 690 hits and 313 RBIs in 767 games.
From three catchers who played long ago to a recent one. Alex Avila earned All-Star and silver slugger recognition in 2011, when he set career highs with a .295 average, 63 runs, 137 hits, 33 doubles, 19 home runs and 82 runs batted in. Overall, he had 564 hits, 77 homers and 134 RBIs in 760 games over eight seasons (2009-15 and 17). Avila had 16 hits, six runs, three homers and seven RBIs in 34 postseason games for the Tigers, and he went 1-for-7 in the 2012 World Series.
5. George “Birdie” Tebbetts – He was a two-time All-Star who led the American League in assists by a catcher three times in nine seasons with Detroit (1936-42 and 46-47), and he might have been even better had he not lost three more years due to military service during World Ward II. His best season offensively was 1940, when he batted .296 with 112 hits and 45 RBIs in 111 games. Overall, Tebbetts had 535 hits, 16 home runs and 254 RBIs in 646 games. He went 0-for-11 in the 1940 World Series.
4. Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane – Although he only spent four seasons with the Tigers (1934-37), he excelled as a player-manager, making two All-Star Game appearances and leading Detroit to the World Series in consecutive years. Cochrane was an MVP with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1928, and he won the award again with the Tigers in 1934 after batting .340 with 140 hits and 75 runs batted in.
The two-time fielding champion hit better than .300 three times and batted .313 overall with 218 runs scored, 335 hits, 11 home runs and 150 RBIs in 315 games. He also had 13 hits, five runs scored and two RBIs in 13 World Series games. However, he was hit in the head by the Yankees’ Bump Hadley early in the 1937 season. The pitch fractured his skull in three places and ended his career as a player. Cochrane was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947 and died in 1962.
3. Ivan Rodriguez – He spent five years with Detroit (2004-08) and came to the Motor City after winning the World Series with the Marlins in 2003, which included him being named MVP of the National League Championship Series.
Rodriguez was a four-time All-Star, a three-time gold glove winner and also won a silver slugger. The 1999 American League MVP as a member of the Rangers had his best season with the Tigers in 2004, when he hit .334 with 176 hits, 19 home runs and 86 runs batted in. He batted .298 with Detroit and totaled 300 runs, 709 hits, 62 homers and 300 RBIs in 611 games.
“Pudge” Had six runs, eight hits, a home runs and five RBIs in 13 postseason games with the Tigers, and he went 3-for-19 in the 2006 World Series loss to the Cardinals. Rodriguez was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2017.
2. Lance Parrish – He was a solid all-around catcher and one of the best in the league during his prime. Parrish spent 10 seasons with the Tigers (1977-86), earning six All-Star selections, five silver sluggers and three gold gloves. He had six seasons with at least 20 home runs, six with more than 100 hits and five in which he drove in at least 80 runs.
Parrish broke Yogi Berra’s single season home run record by a catcher when he hit 32 in 1982 (Carlton Fisk beat the mark a season later). In 1983, Parrish had his best offensive season, hitting .269 with 27 home runs and setting career highs with 80 runs scored, 163 hits, 42 double and 114 runs batted in. Overall, he had 577 runs, 1,124 hits, 201 doubles, 212 home runs (ninth in team history) and 700 RBIs in 760 games. “Big Wheel” had eight hits, four runs, two home runs and five RBIs during the 1984 playoffs, and he homered in the World Series victory over the Padres.
1. Bill Freehan – He was arguably the best catcher in the first decade of the “expansion era” earning 11 All-Star selections (including 10 in a row) and five gold gloves during his 15-year career spent entirely with Detroit (1961 and 63-76). In addition to his offensive production, stellar fielding and pitch-calling, he also had a knack for getting on base, crowding the plate with his stance and leading the league in hit by pitches three times.
Freehan ranks tenth in franchise history with 200 home runs, and he had 706 runs, 1,591 hits, 241 doubles and 758 RBIs in 1,774 games. He had five hits, two runs scored, a homer and three RBIs in 10 career postseason games but went just 2-for-24 with two RBIs in the 1968 World Series loss to the Cardinals.
He authored a book called Behind the Mask, which detailed the 1968 season. The book was controversial because Freehan alleged that manager Mayo Smith allowed star pitcher Denny McLain special privileges. Smith was fired and McLain was traded after the 1970 season. When he retired, Freehan held the record for most chances, putouts and fielding percentage by a catcher. He passed away in 2021 after a bout with Alzheimer’s disease.
Honorable Mentions – Bob Scheffing went 210-173 in parts of three seasons with the Tigers (1961-63). He led the Tigers to a 101-61 mark in 1961 but they finished eight games behind the talented Yankees. Scheffing was fired early in the 1963 season.
While Billy Martin was best known for his rivalry with owner George Steinbrenner as manager of the Yankees, he led the Tigers to a 248-204 record in parts of three seasons (1971-73). After finishing second in the A.L. East with 91 wins his first year, Martin led the Tigers to the playoffs, falling to a powerful Athletics team in 1972.
Brad Ausmus went 314-332 and led the Tigers to their most recent playoff appearance after posting a 90-72 record and falling in the Division Series. Detroit’s only other winning season in his four-year tenure (2014-17) was 2016, when the team finished eight games behind the pennant-winning Indians.
Not only was Ty Cobb the greatest player in franchise history, but he was a pretty good manager, too. He amassed a 479-444 record in six seasons (1921-26), which includes a second-place finish (16 games behind the Yankees in 1923) and two times in third place.
Stanley “Bucky” Harris went 516-557, and his win total ranks fourth in franchise history. However, he had only three winning seasons out of seven in his two stints as manager (1929-33 and 55-56) and the Tigers never finished higher than fifth under his watch. Harris had his most successful time with Washington, leading the Senators (later the Twins) to back-to-back pennants and a World Series title in 1924. He also led the Yankees to a championship in 1947.
Although teams platoon players all the time, very few times do they platoon managers with any success (see the Cubs and their “College of Coaches” in the early 1960s). Del Baker was part of a successful pairing with another person on this list in the late 1930s. He managed two games after Bucky Harris was fired at the end of the 1933 season, then split time on the bench with Mickey Cochrane each year from 1936-38.
Once Cochrane suffered a broken skull and its affects after being hit in the head with a pitch, Baker took over by himself in 1939 and lasted four more seasons. Under his watch, the Tigers won 90 games in 1940 and went to the World Series, but they lost to the Reds in seven games. Over parts of eight seasons (1933, 36, 37, 38 and 39-42), Baker had a 417-355 record.
Mayo Smith went 363-285 during his four-year run with the Tigers (1967-70), which included a pennant and two second-place finishes. Despite rumors of favoritism in the dugout, Smith led Detroit to 103 wins in 1968 and a World Series victory against St. Louis.
5. Steve O’Neill took over for Baker and led the Tigers to a winning record in each of his six seasons at the helm (1943-48). In 1944, Detroit won 88 games and finished a game behind the St. Louis Browns in the standings. The following year, the Tigers duplicated their win total then beat the Cubs in a seven-game World Series that saw the “Curse of the Billy Goat” come into play. Overall, O’Neill went 509-414 during his tenure.
4. Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane – He came to the Tigers from the Athletics after the team got a little too successful and players began asking for raises, with owner and manager Connie Mack responding by trading his high-priced veterans. Cochrane paid immediate dividends as a player-manager, leading Detroit to a 101-53 record and the American League pennant. Although the Tigers fell to the Cardinals in seven games, they went 93-58 the following year and beat the Cubs for their first championship.
Cochrane had general manager added to his list of duties and he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the stress of his new responsibilities. Detroit dropped to second place in each of the next two seasons. When his playing career ended after getting hit in the head by a pitch in 1937, he returned to the bench the following year but failed to have the same success he did when he was still playing, so he was fired and never managed in the major leagues again.
Cochrane ran a baseball team for the Navy outside of Chicago during World War II but had very little role in baseball after his time with the Tigers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1947 and passed away due to lymphatic cancer in 1962.
3. Jim Leyland – Although he may be best known for his time with the Pirates in the 1980s and ’90s, he was the most successful manager in terms of playoff appearances in Tigers history. He took over a team that had struggled under former star shortstop Alan Trammell and led them to the World Series in 2006. Leyland coaxed winning seasons from the Detroit club in six of his eight seasons at the helm (2006-13).
Leyland ended his Tigers tenure with two trips to the ALCS sandwiched around another World Series visit in 2012 that resulted in a sweep at the hands of the Giants. Overall, he went 700-597 and led Detroit to three 90-win seasons.
2. Hugh Jennings – About 100 years before Leyland, the Tigers had their first run of success at the end of their first decade in existence. Jennings was at the end of an 18-year playing career spent mostly with the National League’s Baltimore Orioles franchise in the 1890s. By the time he got to Detroit in 1907, he was relegated to being a pinch hitter and backup first baseman.
The all-time Major League leader in getting hit by a pitch (he led the league five straight years and had 287 in total) worked wonders with as a field boss, leading the Tigers to 90 wins and a World Series berth in each of his first three seasons. Although Detroit lost all three times, Jennings became one of the most respected managers in baseball.
The Tigers had a winning record in 10 of Jennings’ 14 seasons in the dugout (1907-20), and they won 100 games in 1915, only to fall short of the Red Sox in the pennant race, making them the first American League team to win that many games without going to the World Series. Jennings finished with a 1,131-972 record with Detroit. He briefly managed the Giants in two separate stints in the mid-1920s and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Old Timers Committee in 1945.
1. George “Sparky” Anderson – Very few managers have had such successful runs with multiple teams. After leading the Reds to four pennants and two World Series titles in nine years, Anderson took over the Tigers in the early part of the 1979 season.
Over 17 seasons with Detroit (1979-95), Anderson led his team to 11 winning seasons, a pair of division titles and two more second-place finishes. In 1984, the Tigers put together one of the greatest seasons in recent baseball history, setting a franchise record with 104 wins then running over the Royals and Padres to claim their first championship in 16 years.
Three years later, Detroit went 98-64 to win the division but fell to the Twins in the ALCS. Anderson won Manager of the Year awards in both of those playoff seasons and led the American League in the 1985 All-Star Game. After finishing one game behind the Red Sox in 1988, the Tigers went on a steady decline until Anderson left following the 1995 season.
Anderson went 1,331-1,248 with Detroit and his 2,194 career wins rank sixth on the all-time list. He is one of only two managers to lead a team in each league to a championship He was joined by Tony La Russa, who won a title with the Athletics in 1988 and the Cardinals in 2006 (either team in the 2006 could have gotten its manager that honor, since Leyland had won the World Series with the Marlins in 1997 and was trying to win with the Tigers). Anderson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 2000 and passed away in 2010 after battling dementia.
Detroit Tigers Catchers and Managers
Detroit Tigers First and Third Basemen and Designated Hitters – coming soon
Detroit Tigers Second Basemen and Shortstops – coming soon
Detroit Tigers Outfielders – coming soon
Detroit Tigers Pitchers – coming soon
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Cleveland Guardians Second Basemen and Shortstops
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Baltimore Orioles First and Third Basemen
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Baltimore Orioles Outfielders and Designated Hitters
Baltimore Orioles Pitchers
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Arizona Diamondbacks First and Third Basemen
Arizona Diamondbacks Second Basemen and Shortstops
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