It has been a long wait for Fred Hutchinson. No, not for the man himself; unfortunately, Mr. Hutchinson has been dead for over 50 years. Hutchinson's name debuted in our top Tigers countdown poll at #34, when the legendary Schoolboy Rowe was profiled. While this was largely due to a lack of familiarity, part of Hutchinson's long wait has to due with missed potential. He had an excellent peak with the Tigers from 1946 to 1951, but missed four full years of action during World War II.
What would have happened had he played those seasons? Would we mention 'Hutch' among the very best pitchers in franchise history? His place in Tigers lore is already etched in stone, but timing potentially limited him from etching his place in bronze -- you know, of the outfield statue variety -- as one of the very best players in Tigers history.
Frederick Charles Hutchinson was born on August 12th, 1919 in Seattle, Washington. He starred at nearby Franklin High School, then the University of Washington. Despite pitching in the remote Pacific Northwest, Hutch became a hot commodity when he went 25-7 with a 2.48 ERA for the Seattle Rainiers in 1938. Hutchinson was part of a stellar Rainiers rotation that also contained future big leaguers Dick Barrett, Paul "Pop" Gregory, and Boom-Boom Peck. The Tigers out-bid the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago Cubs for Hutchinson's services, and called him up to the big leagues in 1939.
It was a disaster. Hutchinson walked five batters and allowed eight runs in his major league debut, and failed to get out of the first inning. The Tigers lost to the Yankees 22-2 in a game that was much more notable than the circumstances suggested. After 2,130 consecutive games played, the Yankees' scored 22 runs without the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig, in the lineup. Gehrig had played his final career game two days earlier, going 0-for-4 in a loss to the Washington Senators.
The Yankees would go on to compile a 106-45 regular season record and sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. The Tigers, meanwhile, won 81 games and finished in fifth place. Hutchinson continued to struggle with his command, walking 51 batters in 12 starts. Including his debut start, Hutch had five outings with five walks or more that season. He finished the year with a 5.21 ERA and 1.74 WHIP in 84 2/3 innings.
Things did not improve in 1940. Hutchinson went 3-7 with a 5.68 ERA in 76 innings split between the rotation and the bullpen. He cut his walk rate considerably, but continued to give up far too much hard contact. He allowed six home runs on the season and one in the World Series, which the Tigers lost to the Reds. The home run was a solo shot by Reds starter Bucky Walters, who won a pair of games for the Reds in that year's Fall Classic. Hutchinson, on the other hand, was no hero, and many speculated that a move to the outfield was in his future.
Hutchinson got back on track in the minors in 1941, but a return to the majors would have to wait. Hutchinson joined the Navy in 1942 and spent most of the next four years playing for military teams -- many of which contained a roster full of MLB talent -- at various U.S. naval bases. He pitched and played the outfield, but expressed interest in giving pitching one more shot.
Things clicked this time around. Hutchinson returned to the Tigers and joined fellow greats Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout, and Virgil Trucks in the starting rotation. Hutch won 14 games for the defending champions, allowing a 3.09 ERA in 207 innings. He finished the season with 4.7 WAR, third on the team behind Trucks and Newhouser, who narrowly missed out on a third consecutive MVP award that year.
This was just the start of an incredible run for Hutchinson. From 1946 to 1951, Hutchinson went 87-57 with a 3.52 ERA, 118 ERA+, and 1.24 WHIP in over 1200 innings. He threw at least 188 innings every year, and led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio four times. He walked just 302 batters in six seasons, or just over two per nine innings. He made one All-Star appearance in 1951 and earned a couple of MVP votes in 1947.
Pitching wasn't Hutchinson's only skill, though. He was a career .263/.334/.326 hitter, with four home runs and 83 RBI in 734 plate appearances. His .316 wOBA is fifth among Tigers pitchers with at least 100 career plate appearances, and he ranks second with 5.4 offensive WAR. He was even better during the prime of his career, hitting .278/.355/.349 from 1946 to 1950. His .705 OPS isn't as impressive as one from a pitcher in today's game -- the 1940s and '50s were quite hitter friendly -- but he still ranked among the best-hitting pitchers in baseball.
Above all, Hutchinson was known as a fiery competitor. As Clay Eals of the SABR Bio Project notes, Hutch did not take kindly to losing.
Tenacity became Hutch's identity and his "angry scowl," as Emmett Watson labeled it, a fearsome calling card. After a bad outing, the dozen light bulbs lining the narrow tunnel to the Briggs Stadium clubhouse fell victim to his fists. He unleashed similar fury at other ballparks. "I always know how Hutch did when we follow Detroit into a town," Yankees catcher Yogi Berra classically observed. "If we got stools in the dressing room, I know he won. If we got kindling, he lost."
Hutchinson's arm started to fail him in 1952, but his mind did not. He was hired as the Tigers' manager in July, replacing Red Rolfe. Hutch would guide the Tigers for three seasons, the first two as a player-manager. He earned the respect of his players for his no-nonsense style. A young Al Kaline praised Hutchinson, calling him "an up-front type guy."
After a year back in Seattle with the Rainiers, Hutchinson managed the St. Louis Cardinals from 1956 to 1958. He was fired after a disappointing finish to the '58 season, but was hired by the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1959. The Redlegs had fired future Tigers manager Mayo Smith just 80 games into his tenure, but Hutchinson did not fare any better down the stretch. However, things turned around two years later when Hutchinson guided the team -- now called the Reds again -- to 93 wins and the NL pennant. The Reds won 98 games the next season and 86 in 1963, but did not return to the playoffs.
The Reds maintained a winning record in 1964, but Hutchinson's health was starting to fail him. A smoker since his days with the Navy, Hutchinson developed lung cancer. He briefly stepped down as the team's manager midway through the season, and passed away shortly after the season on November 12th. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center was established in Seattle shortly after his death, and continues to raise money for research to this day.
A legendary figure in Seattle as one of the city's first baseball superstars, Hutchinson's legacy lives on. He was honored by the Mariners when they opened Safeco Field in 1999, and is considered one of the best baseball players to ever come out of the Pacific Northwest. Hutchinson's place in Tigers history is also special; he ranks 15th among Tigers pitchers with 24.6 career WAR, and his 95 wins are 21st. His 113 ERA+ is tied for seventh among Tigers pitchers with at least 1,400 career innings pitched.