The Detroit Tigers Baseball Club, Inc. operates a Major League Baseball team that is a charter member of the American League, making it one of the longest-lived in the game. The team's many historical highlights include the tenures of legendary players Ty Cobb, active from 1905-26, as well as Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer in the 1930s and 1940s, Al Kaline and Willie Horton in the 1960s and 1970s, and Lou Whitaker, Allen Trammell, and Cecil Fielder in the 1980s and 1990s, along with World Series wins in 1934, 1945, 1968, and 1984. In 2000. the team began play at a new stadium in downtown Detroit named Comerica Park. The Tigers have been owned since 1992 by Mike Ilitch, founder and owner of Little Caesar Enterprises, Inc. and owner of the National Hockey League Detroit Red Wings.
The birth of the Detroit Tigers dates to 1901, when baseball entrepreneur Ban Johnson sought teams around the United States to participate in his newly-created American League. Using as their basis nine players from Detroit's existing Western League team, County Sheriff James Burns and manager George "Tweedy" Stallings formed the Tigers, who took their moniker from a nickname Stallings' previous team had been given by a local sportswriter. In addition to the nine carry-overs, additional players were obtained from disbanded National League teams (the N.L. having recently shrunk from 12 to eight clubs).
April 25, 1901 was the day of the new team's first contest, and Detroit's Bennett Park saw an overflow crowd of more than 10,000 witness the Tigers' 14-13 victory over Milwaukee. At first the Tigers had no permanent home, playing weekday and Saturday games at Bennett Park and Sunday contests at Burns Park, as city laws prevented games on Sunday and Burns Park was located just outside the city limits. The team's first season ended with a respectable fourth-place finish, but manager Stallings was subsequently ousted, reportedly due to clashes with co-owner Burns. Burns himself soon joined his manager when he was forced by Ban Johnson to sell the team to insurance man Samuel F. Angus. Like Burns, Angus was required to cede a controlling 51 percent share of Tiger stock to Johnson, as were all American League owners during these early years.
With new manager Frank Dwyer in place, the 1902 season was less successful, seeing the team reach a seventh place finish. Dwyer soon gave way to another new manager, and over the next several years the Tigers were led by new men each season. In 1905, the struggling team acquired a player who would later make baseball history--one Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb. Playing on a minor league team in Augusta, Georgia, where the Tigers prepared for the season at their spring training camp, Cobb's skill and highly aggressive style caught the attention of manager Bill Armour, who arranged for his acquisition in exchange for a pitcher and $750 in cash.
Early 1900s: Navin and Jennings Lead the Tigers to Success
Like that of his predecessors, owner Samuel Angus' tenure was a brief one, and by 1907 the team's presidency and ownership were in the hands of Frank Navin, who had joined the organization in 1902 as bookkeeper and had moved up the ladder by steadily acquiring ownership shares. The manager seat's game of musical chairs was ended in 1907 when ex-Baltimore Oriole Hugh Jennings took the job. The team began to click under Jennings, and with the legendary Cobb now in full flower the Tigers won the American League pennant in 1907, 1908, and 1909, though they fell short of a World Series victory against the opposing National League teams. Cobb led the league in batting, runs batted in, and total hits each of these years, and the entire Tiger roster had the highest combined batting average in the league.
The excellence of the Cobb-era Tigers sparked growing fan interest, and the team's home games were often sold out. An expansion of Bennett Park in 1911 proved to be only a temporary measure, and in 1912 it was torn down and a new 23,000-seat facility, Navin Field, built on the same site. That same year the baseball season was marred by an incident in which the volatile Cobb ran into the stands and beat up a spectator who had been taunting him. After the umpire ordered Cobb off the field, the rest of the team also left the diamond, and then decided to go on strike. Unable to convince them to return, the Tigers were forced to play a game against Philadelphia with a pick-up team, getting trounced 24-2. The next game was cancelled, and then management convinced the players to return, though they were each fined and Cobb was suspended for ten games.
Ty Cobb consistently led the league in batting during these years, topping the mythical .400 batting average mark in both 1911 and 1912. He went on strike in 1913 after his request for a raise was turned down, eventually settling for $12,000, $3,000 less than he had asked for. Despite Cobb's stellar play, by the end of the 1910's the team was in a prolonged slump, and manager Jennings was dismissed after the 1920 season. His replacement was one of the few people who could get along with the aggressive, hot-tempered Ty Cobb--Cobb himself. Though the star was able to hold his personality in check well enough to manage his players, there was still plenty of tension on the field, and Cobb's long record of violent behavior continued unabated with incidents such as a post-game fight with an umpire that led to another suspension.
Nevertheless, Cobb was able to motivate his team to success, and the Tigers played well under his tenure, nearly winning the pennant again in 1924, a year that saw attendance top 1 million for the first time. He finally left the team in November of 1926 and played his final two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics. During the 1920s the Tigers had been helped by strong batters such as Harry Heilmann, but were hindered by a dearth of good pitchers and several bad trade deals in which future stars were bartered away for less stellar performers.
The 1930s: First World Series Win
After Cobb's departure the team saw several more changes of managers as its success in the standings remained erratic. Things got better in 1934 when the Tigers purchased Mickey Cochrane from Philadelphia for $100,000 to manage and play catcher, after attempts to hire Yankee legend Babe Ruth had failed. An intense competitor like Cobb, Cochrane was also a better "people person" and proved an instant success, leading the Tigers to a pennant win in 1934 and a pennant and a World Series win in 1935. Among the legendary players who contributed to the team's success in this era were pitcher "Schoolboy" Rowe and sluggers "Goose" Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, and Hank Greenberg, the latter one of the rare Jewish major leaguers, a full decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for blacks.
The success of the 1934-35 seasons brought record revenues for the team, with attendance again topping a million during the latter year. Owner Frank Navin was only briefly able to appreciate his team's championship status, however, dying at the age of 64 in November 1935. Upon his death his partner, William Briggs, took over sole ownership of the Tigers. Briggs soon set about expanding the stadium, and by 1938 it had a capacity of 53,000, more than double the original figure.
The team's 1935 championship season was followed by several less successful ones, and in 1938 Cochrane was relieved of his job in mid-season and replaced with Del Baker. The team's energy seemed to be revived, and the 1940s started off on a high note with another pennant win. The war years were difficult ones for the Tigers, however, with many players inducted into the armed forces, including sluggers Gehringer and two-time American League Most Valuable Player Greenberg, who served overseas from 1941 through 1945. Greenberg's return in July of 1945 brought the team back up to nearly full strength, and it was the war veteran who put another pennant win on ice by blasting a grand slam home run with two outs in the ninth inning of the next-to-last game of the season. That year the team brought home its second World Series trophy, though it would be the last one for more than two decades.
The postwar years were ones of great fan interest, with an average of 1.6 million tickets sold each year between 1945 and 1950. The Tigers gave up their status as one of the two remaining major league teams to play home games exclusively in daylight when Briggs Stadium (as it was now known) hosted its first night game on June 15, 1948 under electric lights.
The team went through a difficult period during the 1950s. 1952 saw the Tigers' worst season ever, with only 50 wins and 104 losses, and also the death of Walter Briggs, Sr. His son, Walter Jr. ("Spike"), took over the team's presidency, but four years later the Briggs family sold the team for $5.5 million to a group of 11 radio and television executives led by John Fetzer and Fred Knorr. The Tigers continued to struggle, however, and after a number of personnel and management changes John Fetzer bought out his partners to claim sole ownership, and also renamed the team's home Tiger Stadium.
A Return to Form in the 1960s
The 1960s proved to be a considerably better decade for baseball in Detroit than the previous one had been. With the team rallying under new manager Mayo Smith, 1968 proved to be "The Year of the Tiger" in Detroit, as the team won the pennant and then the World Series. Among the many highlights of the year were league Most Valuable Player Denny McLain's 31 pitching wins (the first time since 1934 any pitcher had topped 30). The Tigers won 103 games, a team record, and saw attendance hit two million for the first time ever. Stars of the team, in addition to McClain, included sluggers Al Kaline and Willie Horton, as well as key Series pitcher Mickey Lolich.
In 1969, Major League Baseball expanded, adding four new ball clubs and creating two divisions in each league, necessitating a post-season playoff series to determine the pennant winner. Detroit was placed in the Eastern division, which was a tough one that featured top competitors New York and Boston, as well as Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Expectations were high in the wake of the World Series victory, but Detroit could not get on track and finished 19 games out of first place. 1970 was even worse, with the team failing to make even a .500 won-lost percentage. The Tigers subsequently traded self-destructing pitching star Denny McLain and several others. McLain was seemingly his own worst enemy, having endured suspensions during the season for gambling, pouring ice water on two reporters, and carrying a handgun.
The downward spiraling Tigers again sought a new manager, hiring Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin after the 1970 season to replace Mayo Smith. The scrappy Martin put some spark back in the team, and it won the division in 1972, though losing the playoffs to Oakland. However, a year later Martin, too, was dismissed after one too many disagreements with Tiger higher-ups. Once again the manager's chair became a musical one, as the Tigers sought a leader who could bring consistent victories, but the team found itself enduring several last-place seasons. The year 1976 saw a new pitcher with an unorthodox style ignite fan interest, though the team's final standings were second to last. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych won 19 games for the team while talking to the ball, shaping the pitcher's mound with his hands, and performing other antics. At the end of the decade the team finally found a manager who would stick around when George "Sparky" Anderson was installed in the dugout.
The 1980s saw dramatic changes take place in the world of baseball. The influence of big television broadcasting contracts, among other things, gave professional players a sense that they were being underpaid, and the "free agent" market for top players changed the dynamic of the game forever, as star athletes no longer stayed with a team at the behest of management, but moved wherever the most money could be had. In June 1981, the players went on strike and the season was suspended for 50 days, with 53 Tiger games ultimately cancelled.
Ownership Changes in the 1980s
At the end of the 1983 season, John Fetzer sold the Tigers to Dominoes Pizza magnate and rabid Tiger fan Tom Monaghan for an estimated $43 million. The well-heeled Ann Arbor, Michigan, pizza maker soon outbid several other suitors for the services of free agent infielder Darrell Evans, the first time the financially conservative Tigers had taken such a step. Monaghan's tenure began with a season that saw the Tigers lead their division from opening day onward, racking up a record 104 wins. The team's momentum continued with a playoffs sweep and then a 4-to-1 win in the World Series over San Diego. The 1984 season also brought the Tigers record attendance of 2,704,794.
The team could not quite keep the momentum going, however, and despite a division win in 1987, by 1989 they were in last place, with just 59 wins versus 103 losses. After the season was over, Monaghan again brought out his checkbook and won the services of several free agents, including slugger Cecil Fielder. The post-season break also saw changes in the front office, when long-time Tiger president Jim Campbell left his post to assume the board chairmanship, and recently retired University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was appointed to the top job. He was immediately faced with problems when the players, making threatening noises, were locked out by the owners during spring training. The issues were resolved a few weeks later, forcing a late start to the pre-season exhibition game schedule. The season was an improvement, though the Tigers still posted a losing record.
New acquisition Fielder earned his keep, belting 51 home runs and accounting for 132 runs batted in, the best in both categories in the major leagues that year. The 1990s saw the Tigers continuing to struggle on the field. In August 1992, another Michigan pizza franchiser, Mike Ilitch of Little Caesar's, stepped in to buy the team from Monaghan for an estimated $85 million. Monaghan's decision to sell was caused in part by his clashes with Detroit officials over his intentions to move the Tigers out of the downtown area. Ilitch, who had played baseball for a Tiger farm team in the 1950s, already owned the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which he had built into one of the National Hockey League's most profitable franchises. Tigers president Bo Schembechler, who had never meshed well with the team's organization, also departed at this time. A major P.R. gaffe of the new regime was the decision to ask long-time Tiger radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell to retire, allegedly to bring a more updated sound to the team's broadcasts. The fans howled with disgust, and the genial, southern-accented Harwell was soon brought back to the microphone.
In 1994, the continually expanding major leagues were subdivided into three divisions per league, with the Tigers shifted to the five-team Central. Another player strike cut off the team's season at 115 games, and baseball's annual World Series was cancelled for the first time since it had begun in 1905. The Tigers were still stumbling, finishing last in their division during the shortened year, before a diminishing fan base that yielded the worst attendance figures in the major leagues. The once optimistic Ilitch now seemed disheartened, stating, "I think if I had known the shape baseball was in specifically ... I don't think I would have bought the club."
The strike continued throughout the off-season and into the start of the 1995 baseball schedule. Manager Sparky Anderson took a leave of absence as the team scrambled to find players from their farm teams to fill in, only returning after the players and owners agreed to "no settlement," but to play ball. It would be his last season with the team--his 17 years comprising the longest tenure of any manager in Tiger history. He was replaced by the young and relatively inexperienced Buddy Bell.
Seeking a New Stadium in the 1990s
In 1995, the team appointed a new president and chief executive officer, John McHale Jr., who soon began working hard to line up funding for construction of a new ballpark to replace the outdated Tiger Stadium. The team's longtime home, which had been sold to the city for $1 in 1978, was one of the oldest stadiums still in use, and had none of the fancy skyboxes and luxury amenities favored by corporations for entertaining. Many previous replacement efforts had failed, including Monaghan's, but this time Ilitch offered more of his own money for the project, and the deal was approved. After securing assistance from both the city and the state of Michigan, construction on the new stadium was started in downtown Detroit, on Woodward Avenue near the lavishly restored Fox theater, also owned by Ilitch.
While the stadium deal was being negotiated, the Tigers were still mired in the league cellar. During the mid-1990s, players shuffled in and out of the lineup with great regularity, another factor that contributed to a downturn in fan interest. The Tigers, like all major league teams, had a "farm system" of associated minor-league teams which served to develop young players and provide backups in case of injuries. In 1996, the team signed an affiliation agreement with the Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Whitecaps, who were enjoying great popularity. The Whitecaps would be the Tigers' first Michigan-based farm team in more than 40 years. Other Tiger-affiliated teams at this time included the "Triple-A" league Toledo Mud Hens (just across the border in Ohio, and closer to Detroit than Grand Rapids), the Jamestown, New York-based Jammers, the Jacksonville, Florida, Suns, and two Lakeland, Florida-based teams called the Tigers who played in different leagues (Lakeland having served as the Tigers' spring training location since 1934).
In 1999, the Tigers became a part of Ilitch Holdings, Inc., as Mike Ilitch restructured his financial empire. At season's end he hired another new manager, luring seasoned leader Phil Garner from Milwaukee with an estimated $1 million offer. He replaced former Tiger star Lance Parrish, a first-time manager who had taken Buddy Bell's place in September of 1998.
In 2000, the team made the transition to Comerica Park, whose name reflected a sponsorship agreement with a Detroit-based banking corporation. The first season in the $361 million stadium was another disappointing one, with the Tigers finishing below .500 yet again, 16 games out of first place. Ticket sales were given a boost by the move, however, jumping from just over 2 million the year before to more than 2.5 million.
Shortly after the next season began, team president and CEO John McHale, Jr. left to join the Tampa Devil Rays, and Ilitch took over his roles. A replacement was named in November, when Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski was appointed to head the organization. Shortly after he assumed control, the Tigers announced an across-the-board decrease in ticket prices, with the cheapest seats (only 319 of which were available) going for $5, and most priced between $20 and $30. Some prices now included free drinks and hot dogs or pizza slices, or coupons good for rides on the stadium's carousel and Ferris wheel. The team also appointed 1960s legends Al Kaline and Willie Horton to jobs helping with spring training and with the Tigers' minor league teams. The Tigers' centennial year of 2001 was another frustrating one, ending with a .391 won-lost percentage, next-to-last in the American League central division.
After 100 years in operation, The Detroit Tigers were looking to the future with a new stadium and general manager, and hopes for rebuilding the team into a pennant contender once again. With sports fan and downtown Detroit booster Mike Ilitch behind it, the ball club's recent lack of success would hopefully soon give way to a return to fighting trim.
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