It was Aristotle, who knew plenty about a lot of things, who said, “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
In sports that’s very true. Way to go Aristotle!
This season the Detroit Pistons are putting that axiom to good use on the hardcourt as they bring along rookie big man Andre Drummond. The 6’10 behemoth with dazzling basketball skills is only 19 years old. But armed with a very specific strategy on how to use Drummond, the Pistons are seeing wonderful results from the big fella. He’s averaging nearly 8 points and 8 rebounds in about 20 minutes off the bench for coach Lawrence Frank.
With such success as a professional athlete at an age when most of his peers are hoping their professor gives them a good grade on their math test or texting that cute girl they’ve liked since junior high school, Drummond joins the ranks of some other greats who starred in Detroit.
Ty Cobb was 18 years old in 1905 when his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers. When he traveled north from his native Georgia to join the Tigers it was Ty’s first trip north of the Mason/Dixon Line. Talk about a greenhorn!
Cobb went on to a pretty fine career, and though he was green at the age of 18, at the age of 19 he hit .300 for the first time and the next year as a “veteran” at the age of 20, he won the batting title.
More than three decades later, the Tigers promoted 18-year old Hal Newhouser to the big leagues in 1939. This was just a few years after the Cleveland Indians found a teenage phenom named Bob Feller in the corn fields of Iowa. Newhouser wasn’t as polished as Feller was as a teen, but he had been wowing folks with his fastball in Texas. It took a few years for Hal to become a good big leaguer (it almost always does for pitchers), but he eventually grew into his nickname – “Prince Hal” – and dominated the league on his way to the Hall of Fame.
In Gordie Howe’s time it was not uncommon for fresh-faced hockey players to advance to the National Hockey League straight from high school. But few adjusted to the speed and physical play of the NHL as naturally as Gordie. In 1946 he debuted with the Detroit Red Wings as an 18-year old. Big and confident even at that ripe age, Howe made his presence known fairly quickly.
A few years later, the Tigers inked 18-year old Al Kaline to a deal on the night of his high school prom. Within a few weeks, Kaline was on the Detroit bench, learning how to be a major league ballplayer from manager Fred Hutchinson (who debuted as a 19-year old with the Tigs the same year Newhouser came up) and veterans like Pat Mullin, who was in the final season of a 10-year career. Kaline was a skinny teenager who didn’t even look like he needed to shave. But talent won out and within a year he was in the starting lineup, and like Cobb, he won a batting title in his second full season.
Fast forward several years and we arrive at Tommy Hearns, who at the tender age of 19 fought and won his first professional bout on November 25, 1977. Facing a palooka named Jerome Hill, Tommy scored a knock out in the second round. It’s one thing to put on a uniform and play pro ball or hockey as a teenager, but it says a lot about the character of a young man when he will climb into a ring and face punches when he’s barely out of high school.
Let’s not forget Alan Trammell, who at age 19 made his major league debut for the Tigers at the tail end of the 1977 season, just a few weeks before Hearns answered the bell for the first time. If anyone epitomized Aristotle’s saying, it was Trammell. A natural athlete, Trammell worked as hard as anyone to hone his craft as a shortstop and a big league hitter. He took thousands and thousands of groundballs, practiced his throwing motion, and built himself into a player who rarely made mistakes on the diamond. The result was a 20-year career in the major leagues, all with the Tigers.
But easily the greatest teenage athlete in the history of Detroit sports is Steve Yzerman, who laced on skates for the Red Wings in 1983 at the age of 18. The Wings originally wanted Yzerman to spend a year working on his game with one of their farm clubs, but after one practice with the regulars, it was evident that Stevie Y was special. The Canadian teen went on to slap through 39 goals as a rookie and became the first 18-year old to play in an NHL All-Star Game. At that early age, Yzerman was the best player on the Red Wings and obviously the future of the franchise. He was named team captain two years later and spent two decades in that role, winning three Stanley Cup titles and setting scoring records.
Obviously, Drummond isn’t in Yzerman’s superstar class as a teen, but he has a bright future. His development, and how much he learns from the lessons of youth and the good habits formed from it, will go a long way to determining the success of the Pistons in coming years.