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The legendary history of Harry Heilmann

The Tigers utility man was a legitimate hero.

Tiger Stadium Photo by Ezra Shaw/Gettyimages

You could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the name Harry Heilmann. Though the Hall of Famer spent 15 seasons with the Tigers and won four batting titles, he was also on the roster from 1914-1929, not the era most modern fans would be able to name the greats from without a little head-scratching first.

Heilmann doesn’t have a retired number on the wall. (In fact, in Heilmann’s day, they didn’t wear numbers. Major League Baseball only started to introduce numbers in 1916 with the Indians, then 1923 with the Cardinals. It wasn’t until the mid-30s that most teams used numbers on their uniforms.) He may not be well known today, but Heilmann is a deeply interesting part of the Tigers past.

Harry Heilmann never wanted to be a baseball player. His older brother Walter was the one with all the grand dreams, and was actually on his way towards a potential baseball career when he drowned on June 3, 1908. The sailboat he was on with three friends capsized and Walter drowned swimming to shore, while his three friends were rescued.

It was almost entirely by chance that Heilmann became a ball player. At the age of 18, Harry was working as a bookkeeper fro a San Francisco-based biscuit company, when a friend asked him to fill in for him at a baseball game. As it was a semi-professional game, Heilmann even earned a stipend for his day of play: a whopping $10. What Heilmann couldn’t have known was that his performance that day — capped off by an 11th inning game-winning double — was good enough to get him spotted by a pro scout, and he was subsequently signed by the Portland Beavers. (Let this be a lesson to you next time a friend asks you to fill in for their beer league). It was during his play with the Beavers that he was brought to Detroit Tigers owner Frank Lavin, who acquired Heilmann from the Portland club in 1913.

Heilmann, who was given the nickname “Slug,” performed well enough with the Tigers (and did some minor league stints in San Francisco in between, because apparently it was cool to just send your young players to any team who wanted them sometimes). But Slug endeared himself immensely to the public following an evening in the summer of 1916. On July 25, a car backed off a dock and into the Detroit River with five people inside. Heilmann, who had been driving by at the time, got out of his car and dove into the river to save Leroy Steadman, Lydia Johnson, and Harry Draper from drowning. Whether he was reminded of his own brother’s untimely death in the moment, or simply reacting to seeing a woman in danger, it’s impossible to know. Tragically another woman, Gertrude Steadman and her daughter Helen were not saved in time. The following day, Heilmann received a hero’s welcome with a standing ovation at the Tigers game.

This act of heroism certainly helped endear him to Tigers fans when his number weren’t at their best. But things were about to change for Heilmann. In 1919 Ty Cobb became the Tigers player-manager, and according to history he was finally willing to give his peers advice, which included helping Heilmann hit. And boy, did he help. Starting in 1919 we can see a steep climb in Heilmann’s numbers, including 1921 when he hit .394, 1923 when he hit .403, 1925 when he hit .393, and 1927 when he hit .398. (His career line was .342/.410/.520 with a .930 OPS) Take a quick gander at his numbers.

He spent the final two seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, but arthritis was starting to take its toll on old Slug, who skipped the entire 1931 season, then made a brief appearance in 1932 before deciding it was time to retire.

From 1934 through 1950, Heilmann was the play-by-play guy for the Tigers radio broadcasts, and only quit that when lung cancer forced him to. He died a year later on July 9, 1951. Before Heilmann died, his old manager and peer Ty Cobb tried to get him elected to the Hall of Fame, but it came too late. Heilmann passed in July of 1951, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in January 1952.

On the 102nd anniversary of his standing ovation at Navin Field, we remember the incredible career of Harry Heilmann.

Thanks to Tigers History on Twitter for drawing our attention to this amazing story.

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