Six Tigers hit homers in their first big league at-bat

Gene Lamont hit four home runs in parts of five seasons with the Detroit Tigers in the 1970s.

Gene Lamont hit four home runs in parts of five seasons with the Detroit Tigers in the 1970s.

Through the 2013 season, there have been a total of 113 players who have hit a home run in their first at-bat in the majors leagues. Joe Harrington, an infielder with the Boston Beaneaters, is generally believed to be the first to do it, in an 1895 game. How many Detroit Tigers have accomplished the feat? The answer is six. Here is a look:

Hack Miller: April 23, 1944. Miller was from Celeste, Texas. He went to college at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, as well as the University of North Texas. As a 31-year old in 1944, he had spent the last six years in the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Browns’ organizations. A stocky, slugging catcher, 5’11” and 215 pounds, he could hit for power as well as a high average, as evidenced by his 27 bombs and .361 mark for the Lubbock Hubbers in 1938.

The Tigers signed him before the 1944 season, “principally for bull-pen purposes,” according to The Sporting News. Miller got into his first game with Detroit on April 19 in St. Louis, as a defensive replacement, but did not get an at-bat. His next game action was four days later, in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Miller was again a defensive replacement. In the top of the eighth inning, with Al Smith on the mound, he came up to bat for the first time in the big leagues. The Tigers were trailing 3-1, but had two runners on. True to his name, Hack drilled a three-run home run, putting the Bengals on top. They went on to win the game by a score of 4-3. Miller would bat four more times in 1944, with no hits.

He played two games for the Tigers in 1945, with three singles in four at-bats. He was on the Tigers World Series roster against the Chicago Cubs, but didn’t get into a game. That was the end of his major league career. He became a player-manager for five more years in the minor leagues before calling it quits. He passed away in Dallas in 1966 at age 53.

George “Sam” Vico: April 20, 1948. Vico was the son of Serbian immigrants, born August 9, 1923 in San Fernando, California. The Tigers signed him as a 17-year-old out of San Fernando High School in 1941. He served in the Navy for three years during World War II.

It wasn’t until 1948 that he finally made the Tigers roster out of spring training. He played in his first big league game on Opening Day at Comiskey Park. Leading off the third inning for Detroit, he homered on the first pitch he saw from Joe Haynes to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.

Vico had a solid rookie season as the Tigers first baseman, hitting .267 in 144 games, with eight homers. He struggled in 1949, however, coming in at a .190 clip. He spent some time with the Toledo Mud Hens, the Tigers’ minor league affiliate, before Detroit eventually traded him to Seattle in the Pacific Coast League in 1950. He spent the next seven seasons in the PCL, playing for various teams.

Interestingly, Vico also had a small, uncredited part in the 1949 baseball film, The Stratton Story. His role was known merely as “Detroit Baseball Player.” He died in Redondo Beach, California, in 1994.

Gates Brown: June 19, 1963. Since The Gator would go on to forge a long career with the Tigers as one of the greatest pinch-hitters in baseball history, it is only fitting that his first major-league at-bat came off the bench.

After starting the season with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs, where he hit .258 with 13 homers, Brown got called up by Detroit in time for a game at Boston’s Fenway Park. Tiger starter Don Mossi had struggled early, giving up four runs in four innings. Manager Chuck Dressen sent Brown up to bat for the pitcher to lead off the fifth. Against Bob Heffner, The Gator launched a towering 400-foot drive well beyond the bullpen in right field.

Gates Brown was one of only 17 players (through the 2013 season) to begin their big league career with a pinch-hit home run. But he wasn’t the last Tiger to do it…

Bill Roman: September 30, 1964. He was born in Detroit, attended Cooley High, and attended the University of Michigan. So it had to be a big thrill when the tall, strapping first-baseman made his major league debut with his hometown club.

It was at Yankee Stadium. These were the Bronx Bombers of Mantle and Maris, on their way to another American League pennant. Jim Bouton took the hill for New York. By the top of the seventh inning, it was blowout, with the Tigers trailing 9-4. The pitcher, Fred Gladding, was scheduled to bat, but Roman was inserted as a pinch-hitter. Bouton served up a fastball which Roman pulled deep to right field, for his first and only career home run. He would play 24 games for the Tigers in 1964 and ’65, with a .143 average.

Gene Lamont: September 2, 1970. Lamont, from Rockford, Illinois, was a first-round pick (the 13th player chosen overall) by the Detroit Tigers in the 1965 Major League Baseball June Amateur draft. Other players chosen in the top 20 that year included Rick Monday (the first overall), Billy Conigliaro, Ray Fosse, Bernie Carbo, and future Tiger Joe Coleman.

Before joining the big leagues, Lamont was never much of a hitter in the minors, although he was a steady receiver. In 1966, he first met his baseball doppelganger, a young Jim Leyland, while both were playing for the Rocky Mount (North Carolina) Leafs of the Carolina League. By 1970, after hitting .265 for Toledo, the 23-year-old Lamont got a call-up to the Tigers in September. Manager Mayo Smith inserted Lamont into the starting lineup for the second game of a meaningless doubleheader at Fenway Park. Lamont led off the third and homered to right off Boston hurler Cal Koonce. Lamont’s blast accounted for the lone Tiger run in a 10-1 drubbing.

Lamont shuttled back and forth between Detroit and the minors for many years, before retiring in 1977 with a .233 lifetime average with the Tigers. Of course, he then began a long career as a big league manager, and has been a coach with the Tigers for many years.

Reggie Sanders: September 1, 1974. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, who attended high school in Los Angeles, Sanders was chosen by Charlie Finley’s Oakland Athletics in the 2nd round of the 1968 amateur draft. A first baseman, he had some good home run years in the minors, although he hardly ever walked and had a low batting average.

The Tigers picked him up in 1972 in a trade for Mike Kilkenny. In August of 1974, the Tigers released longtime fan favorite Norm Cash, and wanted to get a good look at Sanders, a possible replacement at first base. Sanders’s first game for Detroit was at Tiger Stadium, against Catfish Hunter, who would go on to win 25 games that summer. Home runs by Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando put the A’s on top 3-0. With one out in the second, Sanders came to the plate for the first time. His home run off Catfish put the Tigers on the board, but they would go on to lose the game 5-3.

Sanders played first nearly every day the rest of September, hitting .273 with 3 home runs in 26 games. But in the spring of ’75, the Tigers traded him to Atlanta. He also went on to play in the Baltimore and Chicago White Sox minor league system, before finishing out his career in the Mexican League in the late ‘70’s. Sanders passed away in 2002.

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About Scott Ferkovich

Scott Ferkovich was the editor of Tigers By the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. His next book, Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, will be published by McFarland in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.