Tigers' history of stick swingers began with Gates, continues with V-Mart

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you like the DH or not, this much is true: it takes a special dude to be good at it.

Of the cast of characters that made up the 1968 Tigers, few, if any, were more opinionated than Jim Northrup.

Outfielder Northrup, a.k.a. "Fox" for his prematurely grey hair, was a baseball writer's dream, because you didn't interview him---you listened to him.

Often, you didn't even need to ask him a question.

Northrup, who passed away in 2011, had a take on everything. I found that out several times, in the instances where he and I chatted between 1998 and 2007, in person and on the phone.

Northrup was a rabble rouser who often found himself at odds with team management for his unfiltered words.

He hated playing for Billy Martin, who Northrup felt took all the credit for the wins and blamed all his players for the losses. Yet Northrup adored Earl Weaver, who Fox played for at the end of his career.

Northrup nearly killed Denny McLain on a team flight because he caught McLain cheating at cards (big surprise, I know). Teammates had to pull Northrup off McLain, who was being strangled by the outfielder's forearm.

When Norm Cash was unceremoniously released in 1974, Northrup didn't like the way the news was delivered to the affable first baseman and one of Fox's favorite teammates of all-time. So Northrup stormed into manager Ralph Houk's office and laid into Houk. The next day, the Tigers sold Northrup to Montreal.

Northrup didn't care for Gene Mauch, the Expos manager, either.

Fox didn't have anything good to say about former teammate Jim Price, even telling me that Price's autism awareness campaign and website were scams.

I saw Northrup's face turn beet red with anger as he demonstratively told me that Curt Flood would never have caught Northrup's triple in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series---whether Flood stumbled (which he did) or not.

"Everyone says that I got a triple because Flood tripped over his own feet," Northrup said, wagging his finger at me. "Well, let me tell you---there's no bleeping way that Flood would have caught that! Willie Mays wouldn't have caught it! I hit a frozen G**damn rope!"

Yes, sir!

Northrup said he wanted interleague play as early as the 1970s, but Tigers GM Jim Campbell told him there already was interleague play.

"It's called spring training games," Northrup said Campbell told him.

Hardly any of the above was stated with the benefit of a question by me. Usually, when Northrup and I talked, all I needed to do was say, "So, how's it going, Fox?"

Then, I made sure my recorder was on.

Northrup wasn't fond of the designated hitter rule (I'm not either), but he did speak wistfully about the DH.

"If the DH rule came into being a decade earlier, Gator Brown would have been the best DH of all-time," Northrup told me.

It would seem that if there was ever a match made in heaven, the designated hitter rule and Gates Brown would have been that couple.

Brown wasn't much of an outfielder. The Tigers stuck him in left field and closed their eyes on the days they dared let Gates wear a glove. He patrolled left field like he was playing on a water bed.

But Gates could hit, and never did he do that better than in 1968, when Brown unleashed one huge pinch-hit after another, single-handedly winning several games all by himself.

In one doubleheader against the Red Sox at Tiger Stadium in ‘68, Brown walked the Tigers off with a win in both games---one with a single, the other with a home run.

Northrup's assertion that Brown would have been one of the game's greatest DHs has a ring of truth to it. As it was, the DH debuted in 1973, just two years before Brown retired, so Gates didn't get a chance to really take advantage of the rule. But Gates, nonetheless, goes down in Tigers history as the team's first-ever DH (April 7, 1973 in Cleveland).

It takes a special cat to thrive as a designated hitter. The reasons why are the very reasons why some hitters---some very good hitters at that---have openly said that they wouldn't be good DHs.

There's the down time between at-bats, for one. And there's the feeling of emasculation some players have if they can't wear a glove as well as swing a bat.

Victor Martinez, the Tigers DH of today, hasn't come out against being just a hitter, but he also doesn't hide his giddiness when he thinks about catching.

And with interleague play occurring more than just in Grapefruit League games, as Jim Campbell once tried to reason with Jim Northrup, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has indicated that Martinez will don the catching gear several times this season.

"Victor was thrilled with it," Ausmus said of Martinez's willingness to catch, when spring training began.

Still, there was a visual that played out on Opening Day that spoke volumes about being a DH.

Martinez had slugged a solo homer to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead at Comerica Park. He hit the dugout and received the usual fist bumps, slaps on the shoulder and other congrats from his teammates. When those were over, Martinez headed for the stairs and disappeared from the FSD camera's view, headed for the clubhouse---his services not needed again for a while.

And that's what some players detest and can't deal with when it comes to being a DH---all the down time.

I don't care for the designated hitter rule, but I also accept its place, and therefore it wouldn't bother me if a pure DH was ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Edgar Martinez comes to mind, though Edgar may not quite have the numbers for Cooperstown.

Victor Martinez is not a pure DH; his fielding days were many, and are still occurring, though certainly not as often.

The Tigers, in the 41 years that the DH has been in effect, have never really had a fixed DH for any length of time. But it should be noted that Willie Horton had one of his best seasons---and the healthiest, by far---when he served as strictly a DH for every Tigers game in 1975.

Further, Horton won Designated Hitter of the Year with Seattle in 1979. He was 36 years old, his days of leather long gone.

Victor Martinez is beginning his third season as the Tigers' full-time DH. He embraces the role, but he also looks longingly at his catcher's mitt and chest protector.

We are four decades into the designated hitter rule, and still we don't have a player whose prowess at being predominantly a DH has been good enough for Hall of Fame consideration.

It could be that it's hard to find guys who are willing to relegate themselves to just swinging a stick. That might tell you something about the rule itself.

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