Which Tiger team is the greatest of all time?

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

A historical look at Detroit Tigers’ pennant winning teams, and how the 2012 team measures up.

The Detroit Tigers have won the American League pennant 11 times in the 112 year history of the league. The club was one of eight charter franchises when the league was founded in 1901, and is one of four (Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland are the others) that remains in the same city through the present season. The Tigers are the oldest continuous same-name, same-city franchise in the American League.

The Tigers played at what was then called Bennett Park, at the corner of Michigan Ave and Trumbull in the Corktown district. Although the site was renamed Navin Park, Briggs Stadium, and Tiger Stadium, the Tigers continued to play at that location until Comerica park opened in 2000.

The Tigers have played 17,500 games, with a winning percentage of .507. They’ve won eleven pennants and have four World Series titles, in 1935, 1945, 1968, and 1984. The current 27 year world championship drought is the second longest in franchise history. Only the first 34 32 years (since the WS began in 1903) without a title was longer.

As far as American League pennant winners, the Tigers have had some legendary teams. Detroit won it’s first three pennants in 1907, 1908 and 1909, led by Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Wahoo Sam Crawford, pitcher George Mullin, and player/ manager Hughie Jennings. Those teams never won the World Series, falling twice to the Chicago Cubs and once to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Of the three teams, the 1909 squad was the most accomplished, as they finished with a 98- 54 record and a .645 winning percentage, and they took the Pirates to a seventh game in the World Series. Cobb led the team with a .377 batting average, 9 home runs (all inside the park), 107 RBI, and 76 stolen bases. Cobb won the triple crown that season.

No Tiger team since has won three consecutive pennants. Cobb was one of the greatest players in major league history and most would agree the greatest Tiger player of all time, but the lack of a World Series title will deny this great Tiger squad from consideration as the greatest Tiger team ever.

Another group of Tigers won consecutive American League pennants in 1934 and 1935. The 1934 Tigers posted the highest winning percentage of any Tiger team in history (.656) with a record of 101- 53, but they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in seven games. The Tigers were led by Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, pitchers Tommy Bridges and Scholboy Rowe, and player manager Mickey Cochrane, who was the league’s MVP that season.

1935 Tigers. The Tigers finally broke through to win their first World Series title in 1935. This time, Greenberg was the league’s MVP, leading the league with 36 homers and 170 RBI. The Tigers defeated the Chicago Cubs 4 games to 2 in the World Series, getting revenge for 1907 and 1908, and the Cubbies haven’t won a World championship since.

The 1934- 35 Tigers, if you can combine multiple seasons, have a legitimate claim as the All Time greatest Tiger teams, with the most Hall of Fame players, the greatest regular season winning percentage, and a World Series title, but let’s continue.

Most of the same group returned five years later, in 1940, without Cochrane, to win the pennant, only to lose game seven of the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds by a 2- 1 score. The team won 90 games, and a rookie pitcher named Hal Newhouser arrived on the scene.

1945 Tigers. Hank Greenberg returned from World War II in 1945, and the Tigers again won the pennant and again defeated the Cubs in the World Series, this time in seven games. Greenberg was the only .300 hitter, playing in 78 games, and they didn’t have a player with 20 home runs, nor 100 RBI, nor ten steals, nor any other stand out performances at the plate.

This group was led by the greatest Tiger pitcher, Newhouser, who went 25- 9 with an ERA of 1.81, an ERA+ of 195, a WHIP of 1.11, and was the league’s MVP for the second consecutive season. Prince Hal lost game one of the World Series, but rebounded to win games five and seven to give the Tigers their second world championship.

On paper, I don’t think that the 1945 Tigers compare favorably with the group from ten years earlier because they had fewer individual stars and the team won just 88 games during the regular season. But that flag still flies, and they’ve carved their names into history as World champions.

1968 Tigers. It was 23 years later that the Tigers again won the American League pennant. Denny McLain won a modern day record 31 games, the team won 103 games, and Mickey Lolich tallied three complete game victories as the Tigers came from being down 3 games to one, to beat the St Louis Cardinals in seven games and win the World Series.

While Al Kaline, aka "Mr. Tiger" was the only regular Tiger to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame (Ed Matthews was briefly a Tiger in ‘68 also), any baseball fan that recalls that season will recognize the legendary status of McLain, Lolich, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, and Willie Horton. This season goes down in baseball history as "The year of the pitcher", led by McLain who won the league’s MVP.

This was a time of turmoil in America, with images of a war in Viet Nam and riots the previous summer in the streets of Detroit, as the Tigers came up just one game short of Boston in 1967. Horton and Kaline were not only leaders of the team, but leaders in the community. To this Tiger fan, the boys of the summer of 1968 are the team that every other team will have to measure up to if they want to be known as the greatest of all time. They won the pennant by 12 games, and had a knack for comeback victories. Most of the same group returned to the post season one more time, winning the east division in 1972, but lost to the Oakland A’s and fell short of a second pennant.

The 1984 Tigers left no doubt as to which team was the best in baseball that season, leading the American league from wire to wire for the first time since 1927. After a 35- 5 start, blowing away any challengers and winning a franchise record 104 games, the Tigers swept away the Kansas City Royals in three straight and disposed of the San Diego Padres in five games to capture the team’s fourth and most recent World Series title.

The fact that the ‘84 Tigers do not have any players in the Hall of Fame is a travesty that should be corrected. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell have career statistics that are better than a majority of Hall of Fame second basemen and shortstops, respectively. Jack Morris has three World Championships with three different teams, was the winningest pitcher of his time and has career stats, with the exception of a 3.90 ERA, that compare favorably with other Hall of Fame pitchers.

This Tiger team relentlessly pummeled opponents, often bolting out to early leads, while their pitching staff kept opposing lineups in check. Willie Hernandez slammed the door every time he was called upon, pitching 140 innings in relief, and was voted the league’s MVP as well as the Cy Young winner.

In terms of sheer dominance for one season, the 1984 Tigers will go down as the greatest Tiger team ever. The same group returned to the post season in 1987, staging a historic comeback to win the East division, but lost to the Twins in the ALCS, beginning what would be a quarter century of futility that ended with the firing of legendary Alan Trammell and his coaching staff.

The 2006 Tigers ended the drought by unexpectedly surging onto the baseball scene, upsetting the Yankees in four games and sweeping the Oakland A’s in the ALCS, only to lose the World Series to the Cardinals in five games. This Tiger squad was one of the most enjoyable to watch, as they far exceeded all expectations.

This Tiger team didn’t boast any league leaders in their lineup. Carlos Guillen, Ivan Rodriguez, and Magglio Ordonez led a group of very good players, while crafty veteran Kenny Rogers and a rookie named Justin Verlander won 17 games apiece.

The 2006 Tigers will not be finalists in the greatest Tiger team discussion because they first lost their division and entered the playoffs as a wild card team despite winning 95 games, and secondly let the World Series slip away in the end. But at the time of writing, this is likely the team that is most fondly remembered by any Tiger fan under 30 years of age

The 2012 Tigers entered the season with sky high expectations, but struggled to win their division. However, they won 88 games with a winning percentage that is lower than any of the previous ten Tiger pennant winners, and they have advanced to the World Series. The roster has changed completely since 2006, with Verlander being the only major hold over.

Perhaps it’s all too new, and maybe we just can’t see the forest through the trees. This is only the third Tiger team in history, and the first since 1935 to make consecutive post season appearances. They are just the fifth team in MLB history to sweep a seven game series never trailing in any game. This Tiger rotation is having a historically good post season.

This team does have great players. As Kurt Mensching wrote in the Detroit News, we are fortunate to witness probably the best combination of one of the greatest pitchers in Justin Verlander and one of the greatest hitters in Miguel Cabrera on the same team. No previous Tiger team could boast such a lethal combination. Cabrera is the Tigers only triple crown winner since Ty Cobb.

We don’t yet know whether other Tigers will have hall of fame careers on the current team. We don’t yet know if they will even win a World Championship, but they are on the threshold of doing just that. In my opinion, these Tigers will have to come back for more in order to be considered in the discussion for the greatest Tiger team ever, about on par with the 1945 team. Should they prevail in the fall classic, that will automatically punch their ticket to the top five Tiger teams of all time. It’s all about winning the World Championship.

Honorable mention:
Two Tiger teams deserve a mention for their great seasons, although they did not win a pennant.

The 1915 Tigers posted the second highest winning percentage in franchise history (.654) and won 100 of 154 games, but finished second to Boston, who won 101.

The 1961 Tigers won 101 games but finished second to a great Yankee squad that won 109 games. These Tigers featured Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Jim Bunning, and rookie Norm Cash won the batting title, hitting .361.

Tigers A.L. Pennant Winners: 1907,1908, 1909, 1934, 1935, 1940, 1945, 1968, 1984, 2006, 2012

Tigers World Champions: 1935, 1945, 1968, 1984....... 2012?

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