Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame slugger who has the highest career batting average of any right-handed hitter in history, was once asked what he did in the winter when he couldn’t play baseball.
“I sit at the window, look outside, and wait for spring,” the Rajah said.
Here we are about seven weeks weeks from spring, and eight weeks from opening day of the baseball season, and though much of Michigan and the northern states are blanketed with snow, we can dream of baseball, can’t we?
Over the next few days I’ll look at some of the greatest feats in Detroit Tigers history. I’ll start with hitting streaks. There was something about hitting streaks that fascinated me as a kid when I started to follow baseball in the mid-1970s. A hit a day, day-after-day, against all sorts of pitching in different ballparks and cities, it seemed pretty amazing. Someone kept track of this stuff! That was pretty cool too. Maybe I was impressed because I found it nearly impossible to hit any pitch thrown by any of my uncles in the backyard. Hitting was difficult! You mean some of these guys are getting a hit every day?
It’s no surprise that most of the longest hitting streaks in Tigers history belong to the greatest players to ever wear the uniform. Ty Cobb, who hit .367 for his career (!), had three streaks of 25 games or more, including two of 35+. In 1911, the season that was Cobb’s magnum opus, Ty hit in 40 consecutive games, at the time the longest streak in American League history. More than 100 years later, Cobb’s 40-game streak has been surpassed only three times and it ranks sixth in baseball history.
A look under the hood shows that Cobb was “in the zone” for nearly six weeks during that 40-game streak in 1911. Starting on May 15 and running through July 2, Ty hit .476 and scored 40 runs in the 40 games. Talk about being red-hot.
Just a few feet to the left of The Georgia Peach in the Detroit outfield for more than 15 seasons was Wahoo Sam Crawford, who put together two streaks of at least 20 games. A little fella named Kid Gleason, a fidgety infielder with a hot temper, banged out two 20-gamers in 1901, the first official season that Detroit was in the AL.
There are certain characteristics that help certain batters enjoy long hitting streaks. Being a free-swinger, someone who isn’t afraid to expand the strike zone a little and go after just about any pitch even if it’s off the plate, that helps. Also, most batters who get long hitting streaks make good contact, they don’t strike out very often. They usually don’t walk much. It also helps to be fast. Cobb, Ron LeFlore, Pete Fox, and Gee Walker were all speedy baserunners who made the list below of Tigers with 20-game streaks.
LeFlore was famous for swinging at pitches above his shoulders, in the dirt, and a foot outside. He didn’t discriminate. If it was round and bound for the catcher’s mitt, he would hack at it. In ’76, LeFlore earned a spot in the starting lineup and started hitting in the first game he started. Five weeks later he had his 30-game streak, and two years later he putted together a 27-gamer.
Often times, a hitting streak helps the team go on a winning streak. In ’34, Goose Goslin hit in 30 straight in May and June (he drove in 24 runs over that span), helping lead the Tigs to their first pennant in 25 years. The following summer, Fox had his 29-gamer as the Tigers again won the pennant. In 1984, Alan Trammell enjoyed a 20-game streak in August, amid the Tigers great season that culminated in a World Series title. In 1987, when Trammell was moved into the cleanup spot, he had a 21-game hitting streak (in which he hit .436) and practically carried the Tigers to the AL East title.
Cobb, Crawford, Goslin, Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, and Al Kaline are all on this list and also in the Hall of Fame. Many others were great players, but sometimes a player strings together a hitting streak unexpectedly. In 1901, when Gleason had a pair of 20-game hitting streaks, he hit just .274, and was a career .261 hitter. In 1931, John Stone surprised many with his 25-game streak (in which he was really, really on fire), since he was a journeyman outfielder and not considered a dangerous hitter.
You never know who might get hot and add their name to the list of Tigers who have hit in 20 consecutive games. The last was Miguel Cabrera (no surprise) in 2010, but in 2012 the longest streak belonged to Prince Fielder (14 games).