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Top Tigers Countdown #47: Jim Northrup

Northrup was a member of the Tigers' loaded outfield in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Leon Halip

Jim Northrup never appeared in an All-Star game. He did not win a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, or a batting title. He never finished in the top 10 of MVP voting in a single season, and only had one top-15 tally. Despite the lack of hardware, he was a mainstay in the Tigers' lineup in the late 1960s and early 1970 and a key contributor on the 1968 championship team. For this, he earned the #47 spot in our countdown.

1964 12 0 0 1 .083 .083 .167 .108 -41 -0.2
1965 233 2 16 1 .205 .253 .315 .255 59 -1.0
1966 461 16 58 4 .265 .322 .465 .343 122 2.8
1967 542 10 61 7 .271 .332 .392 .325 111 2.9
1968 643 21 90 4 .264 .324 .447 .349 131 5.3
1969 602 25 66 4 .295 .358 .508 .388 140 5.2
1970 576 24 80 3 .262 .343 .458 .355 116 1.8
1971 524 16 71 7 .270 .355 .442 .357 122 1.8
1972 469 8 42 4 .261 .324 .362 .313 101 1.1
1973 447 12 44 4 .307 .366 .465 .370 129 2.3
1974* 485 14 53 0 .243 .308 .373 .310 89 0.1
1975** 221 5 29 0 .273 .348 .418 .350 122 0.8
Career 5215 153 610 39 .267 .333 .429 .342 116 23.0

*Played for the Tigers, Montreal Expos, and Baltimore Orioles in 1974.
**Played for the Baltimore Orioles in 1975.

James Thomas Northrup was born on November 24th, 1939 in Breckenridge, Michigan. He lettered in five sports at Alma College: football, basketball, baseball, track, and golf. He signed with the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1960, turning down offers from the Chicago Bears and New York Titans of the NFL. He made his professional debut with the Duluth-Superior Dukes in 1961, but was demoted to the Tigers' Class D affiliate after hitting .222 in his first 16 games. The pattern repeated itself in 1962 when he hit .244 in 23 games for the Class A Knoxville Smokies. After a demotion back to Duluth, he hit .324/.434/.514. He hit over .300 in his next two minor league seasons, earning a late season call-up to Detroit in 1964.

"My hero was Ted Williams. I'm a left-hander, so I admired Ted. But I grew up knowing I would make the major leagues."

Northrup didn't fare well in his five game big league sampling in 1964. He appeared in five games and had just one hit -- a double off Orioles right-hander Milt Pappas -- in 12 plate appearances. Despite his poor showing, he made the team out of Spring Training in 1965, appearing in 32 games in April and May before losing his starting job to Willie Horton. The two had polar opposite seasons, with Horton hitting .273/.340/.490 while Northrup struggled his way to a .568 OPS and 60 OPS+.

After 1965, Northrup posted eight consecutive seasons with an OPS+ above 100 across 440 plate appearances or more. He also hit double digit home runs in seven of those eight seasons, no small feat in one of the most offensively starved eras in major league history. As the Tigers' primary right fielder in 1966 -- Al Kaline spent most of the season in center -- Northrup hit .265/.322/.465 with 16 home runs and 58 RBI. His power numbers dropped the next season, but he upped his batting average to .271. The Tigers finished the year with a 91-71 record, one game behind the first place Boston Red Sox. Northrup was a big part of the Tigers' September surge, amassing an .851 OPS in his last 25 games.

Northrup's best season, according to WAR, came during the Tigers' 1968 championship run. He put up 5.3 WAR -- the only time in his career he finished with at least a full win in both offensive and defensive components -- and finished 13th in the AL MVP voting. He led the team with 90 RBI and hit 21 home runs, four of which were grand slams.

"I always told Mickey, 'If you'd have been a shortstop instead of a center fielder, you'd have made a hell of a lot more money!'"-Northrup, on his teammate's position change late in the 1968 season.

In addition to his excellent regular season numbers, Northrup saved his biggest heroics for the classic seven game World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. He was part of the now famous roster decision by manager Mayo Smith, moving to center field when Gold Glover Mickey Stanley was put at shortstop. The move was an attempt to bolster the offense, allowing Northrup, Horton, and Kaline to get at-bats. Northrup hit his fifth grand slam of the season in Game 6, a 13-1 Tigers romp. The 0.001 WPA he tallied with that blast paled in comparison to the 0.338 WPA he had in Game 7. Northrup broke a scoreless tie in the top of the seventh, belting a two run triple over Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood's head. He scored on the next play, a double by Bill Freehan, and the Tigers cruised to a 4-1 victory to win their third championship.

Northrup's best offensive season came the next year when he hit .295/.358/.508 with a career-high 25 home runs. His 5.2 WAR led all Tigers position players, and his 140 wRC+ and 136 OPS+ were both career bests. The defending champions won 90 games, but finished a whopping 19 games behind the AL champion Baltimore Orioles, who won three consecutive pennants from 1969 to 1971. Northrup hit another 40 home runs across the next two seasons, narrowly missing an .800 OPS with a .266/.349/.451 line in 1100 plate appearances.

Northrup had his worst full season with the Tigers in 1972, hitting .261/.324/.362 with eight home runs and 42 RBI in 469 plate appearances. His .686 OPS ranked among the bottom 25% of major league outfielders that year, but was still judged to be a slightly-above-average offensive performance by both OPS+ and wRC+. He went 5-for-14 with a pair of walks in the ALCS that season, but did not record an extra base hit. Northrup earned his way back into the Tigers' good graces with an .832 OPS in 1973, but was traded to the Montreal Expos in August of 1974. He was sold to the Baltimore Orioles later that year, where he finished his career.

After his career, Northrup worked as a color analyst alongside Larry Osterman on PASS. He retired in 1994, only to see his health deteriorate soon after. Northrup suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer's disease, and passed away from a seizure in 2011.

As the lede points out, Northrup was not a superstar by any means. He recorded a pair of 5.0 WAR seasons, but never recorded another 3.0 WAR season in his career. He was an above average hitter for a number of years, however, and hit for enough power to rank 19th in franchise history with 145 home runs. His 22.1 WAR sits 25th among position players in team history.