Detroit Tigers –Decade Record: 789-820, 1 Division Title
Somewhere flanked between the aging nucleus of the dominant 1968 Tiger team that won 103 games and a World Championship, and the building of the young nucleus of a team that would win 104 games and a World Championship in 1984, were the Detroit Tigers of the 1970s. Detroit also had the misfortune of playing in perhaps the decade’s strongest division, the American League East, where in 5 of 10 seasons at least one team won 100 games.
The old guard was led by Hall of Famer Al Kaline (399 lifetime home runs and 3,007 hits) and fellow outfielders Mickey Stanley (’70 and ’73 Gold Glove), sluggers Willie Horton, and Jim Northrup, plus first baseman Norm Cash (377 lifetime homers), All-Star catcher Bill Freehan, and longtime left-handed ace Mickey Lolich. After a disappointing 1970, the club traded Denny McClain, a former 31 win pitcher who had been suspended for gambling and drug use, to Washington for third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez (’76 Gold Glove) shortstop Ed Brinkman (’72 Gold Glove), and pitcher Joe Coleman. They hired fiery Billy Martin as their manager and the club won 91 games in 1971, only to finish 12 behind the powerful Baltimore Orioles. Lolich enjoyed a season for the ages, going 25-12 with 308 strikeouts, while Coleman went 20-9 with 236 Ks. They formed one of the games best 1-2 tandems in the early 70s – Lolich reeled off 200+ strikeouts 6 straight years from 1969-74 and Coleman did it 3 straight times from ’71-’73, and each topped 20+ wins twice.
In 1972 the club went 86-71 and won the division by 1/2 game over Boston but were upended by Oakland in 5 games. The bizarre playoff series saw the normally mild mannered Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris, who had been running wild on Detroit, hurl his bat at pitcher Lerrin LaGrow after taking a pitch off his kneecap. The A’s felt Billy Martin had ordered LaGrow to throw at Campy. Oakland won the series in Game 5 2-1 after tying the game on a Reggie Jackson steal of home.
The ’73 Detroit club was nearly as strong, winning 85 games, but Martin was fired in September and the veteran squad was broken up for good. The rebuilding began with two consecutive last place finishes, including a disastrous 57-102 1975.
Detroit enjoyed a revival of sorts in 1976 as flakey rookie pitcher Mark ‘the Bird’ Fidrych became a national phenomenon, starting the All-Star game and capturing Rookie of the Year Honors with 19 wins, and a 2.34 ERA. Fidrych was joined on that starting All-Star team by center fielder Ron Leflore (a former heroin addict discovered in a prison baseball league) and Rusty Staub, who had been acquired from the Mets in exchange for Mickey Lolich and drove in 318 runs for Detroit from ’76-78. It took until 1978 for the Tigers to return to their winning ways behind Leflore’s league-leading 68 stolen bases and 126 runs, Staub’s 121 RBI, and the freshman double play tandom of SS Alex Trammell and Rookie of the Year 2B Lou Whitaker. Amazingly Detroit’s 86 wins were only good for 5th place in a crowded AL East that saw 4 teams win over 90 games. But another nucleus was being built with Trammell and Whitaker, who played together for 1,918 games, plus 23 year olds catcher Lance Parrish and pitcher Jack Morris. All four would rank among the very top players at their positions for the next 10-15 years.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: