’84 Tigers had the best start in the history of the game

In May of 1984 the Detroit Tigers were on top of the baseball world and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In May of 1984 the Detroit Tigers were on top of the baseball world and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

According to an old baseball axiom, you cannot win a pennant with a good start to the season, but you sure as heck can lose one. The vast majority of the time, that axiom rings true.

Yet, every once in a while, a team comes along that proves the first part of that axiom to be fallible. The best example can be found 30 years ago in the form of the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who somehow won 35 of their first 40 games to put a stranglehold on the American League East. That torrid start put the Tigers in the enviable position of having to win only 50 per cent of their remaining games to finish the season with 96 wins. And when you’re as good as the 1984 Tigers were, playing only .500 ball over such an extended stretch is an unreasonably low expectation.

Heading into the 1984 season, Sparky Anderson’s Tigers were regarded as a solid team, a likely contender in a balanced division. Anderson especially liked his middle of the diamond, headlined by the double-play combination of Sweet Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell and buttressed by the presence of Lance Parrish behind the plate and the underrated Chet Lemon in center field. “If any team’s as good up the middle,” Anderson told Sports Illustrated, “I haven’t seen it.”

Clearly, the Tigers were a good team, and the favorite to win the American League East in some circles. Yet, no one could have forecast them beginning the season by throttling their opponents over the first quarter of the season. In baseball, it’s awfully hard to predict a runaway, and there was little indication that the Tigers were capable of such. So how did it happen? Let’s take a look.

First off, the Tigers solidified an already capable team during the spring by making two shrewd acquisitions, one before the start of the season and one after. The first pickup came via a relatively quiet but highly significant four-player trade with the Phillies: the Tigers sent the enigmatic Glenn Wilson and backup catcher John Wockenfuss to Philadelphia for Dave Bergman and Willie Hernandez.

At the time, the trade executed by GM Bill Lajoie seemed curious and confusing. Of the four players involved in the swap, Wilson had the highest ceiling; a onetime first round draft choice, he had the potential to hit 30 home runs and owned the prototypical right fielder’s throwing arm. Wockenfuss, despite being a backup, was a versatile and popular player who had been with the Tigers since 1974.

Tigers fans wondered about the identities of the two players coming to the Motor City. Hernandez had pitched well for the Phillies in 1983, but posted only seven saves and had generally been a mediocre reliever, not to mention a onetime failure with the pitching-poor Cubs. In the meantime, Bergman was the consummate journeyman, a onetime top prospect with the Yankees who had settled into a run-of-the-mill career as a slap-hitting first baseman. No one knew it at the time, but the trade would strengthen the Tigers at two positions, first base and the bullpen, while giving them a future American League MVP.

The second acquisition occurred on April 10, just one week after the start of the season. The Tigers signed veteran outfielder Ruppert Jones, who had been unemployed since departing the Padres as a free agent. Jones would provide the Tigers with a valuable left-handed bat who would team with Larry Herndon in left while giving Lemon some backup support in center field. For the season, Jones would put up a slugging percentage of .516, tying for the best mark on the team.

Without Jones, but with both Bergman and Hernandez in uniform, the Tigers opened the season on April 3 with a game at the Metrodome against the homestanding Twins. Detroit’s Opening Day lineup featured the following players: Bergman at first (where he succeeded the unsigned Enos Cabell and allowed Darrell Evans to concentrate on DH duties); Whitaker at second; Trammell at short; Howard Johnson (the winner of a hard-fought spring training competition) at third base, an outfield of Herndon, Lemon, and Kirk Gibson from left to right; Parrish behind the plate; and the venerable Evans in the DH role. With Lemon batting eighth and Johnson ninth, the Tigers’ lineup looked stacked—as deep as it had been in years.

It also didn’t hurt having Jack Morris on the Opening Day mound against the Twins. Morris easily outduelled Twins right-hander Albert Williams, pitching seven strong innings and winning an 8-1 runaway. Aurelio Lopez and Hernandez (who would soon become the newly anointed relief ace) each chipped in with a scoreless inning of relief to seal the victory.

The top four Tigers in the batting order set the tone for the game, combining for six hits, including two apiece by Trammell and Whitaker and a home run by Evans in his Detroit debut.

Two days later, the Tigers finished off a season-opening sweep of the Twins with a 7-3 victory. Dan Petry, equipped with a newly developed split-fingered fastball, pitched seven strong innings, giving up only two earned runs. Offensively, Trammell paced the attack with four hits, including his first home run of the season. Gibson also added a home run, while batting out of the No. 8 position against left-hander Frank Viola.

The Tigers quickly turned the two-game start into a five-game winning streak. They swept a three-game weekend set against the White Sox, highlighted by Jack Morris’ no-hitter on the NBC Game of the Week. Despite allowing a smattering of six walks, Morris completely shut down a powerful Chicago lineup featuring Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, Greg Luzinski, and Ron Kittle. Morris’ first career no-hitter overshadowed a home run by Lemon, the big offensive blow in a 4-0 win at the old Comiskey Park.

After a 7-3 win over the White Sox on Sunday afternoon, the Tigers headed back to Detroit to play their home opener. The change in venue did nothing to alter the Tigers’ winning ways, as they posted a workmanlike 4-1 victory in front of the Detroit faithful. Petry was brilliant at Tiger Stadium, allowing four hits and three walks in pitching a complete game victory over the Rangers.

Two days later, Morris was not as overpowering as he had been in pitching the Saturday afternoon no-hitter, but he was still efficient. He did allow two runs, but both were unearned, in a seven-inning effort that brought about a 9-4 victory. Even with Anderson using role players like Barbaro Garbey at first base and Rod Allen at DH, the Tigers still mustered a 12-hit attack. Garbey picked up two hits, Allen added two, and mainstays Lemon, Trammell, and Whitaker each swatted home runs in a dominant offensive performance.

Now 7-0 to start the season, the Tigers headed right back on the road, this time to play the Red Sox. Rain washed out the two weekend games at Fenway Park, but the Tigers managed to outlast the Red Sox in a Friday night slugfest. The Tigers scored eight runs in the top of the first, an inning that was marked by a statistical oddity. As the Tigers batted around, Parrish made all three of the outs, striking out and hitting into a double play.

The 8-0 lead seemed insurmountable, but the Red Sox immediately rallied for five runs in the bottom half of the frame. Milt Wilcox did not survive the inning, giving up all five runs before departing with two outs. But on came long reliever extraordinaire Doug Bair, who allowed only one run over four and a third innings, striking out five along the way. In many ways, it was the Tigers’ ugliest win of the new season, but it kept them undefeated at 8-0.

On Monday, the Tigers made it nine wins as they returned to Tiger Stadium. It took extra effort—10 innings to be exact—before the Tigers could seal the victory. Trammell led off the 10th with a single against reliever Joe Beckwith and moved to second on Dave Bergman’s bunt. Parrish then hit a grounder to second, pushing Trammell to third. Herndon followed with a groundball to second base, but it was botched by the Gold Glover Frank White, allowing Herndon to reach and permitting Trammell to score the game-winning run. The unearned run made a victor of Hernandez in relief.

The win streak did not end until the following day, when Bret Saberhagen bested Petry, with relief support from Dan Quisenberry. Still, the 9-0 start gave Tigers fans every indication that they would be watching something special throughout the summer of ‘84.

With the nine-game winning streak halted, any concerns that the Tigers might let down were quickly allayed. The Tigers responded by winning their next seven games, including sweeps of the White Sox, Twins, and Rangers. The Tigers did not lose their second game of the season until April 27, and even that took a monumental effort by the opposition. The Indians needed 19 innings to win, as they scored four runs against the last man on the Tiger staff, long reliever Glenn Abbott.

Once again, the Tigers did not allow the effects of a loss to linger. They won their next three, all blowouts, before finally losing back-to-back games for the first time that spring. The two losses to the Red Sox soon gave way to another winning streak, beginning with a three-game sweep of the Indians. In a Friday night victory at Cleveland‘s Municipal Stadium, Lemon robbed Carmelo Castillo by leaping above the fence at the 395-foot mark and snaring what seemed like a certain home run.

Plays like that had Anderson reaching for the ultimate in historical comparisons. “I never saw [Willie] Mays in his prime,” Anderson told Sports Illustrated, “and I’ll accept the word of those who did that he was probably the greatest, but I’ve never seen a better center fielder defensively than Chester Lemon. If the ball hits the grass out there, it either means he wasn’t playing or it was just plain uncatchable.”

As a team, the Tigers put the hammerlock on opponents with their gloves, rarely committing errors while running second in the league in double plays. “We’ve caught everything,” Anderson said breathlessly. By the end of the series with the Tribe, the Tigers also led the American League lead in batting average (.291) and ERA (2.58). “We’ve pitched good and we’ve hit,” said Sparky. “There’s nothing freaky about our record. We’re 22-4 because we ought to be.”

Four games later, the Tigers made it 26-4. Morris highlighted the streak by winning his sixth game in seven decisions, a complete game effort that lowered his ERA to 1.85.

The streak finally ended on May 12, when the Tigers and No. 5 starter Juan Berenguer dropped a 4-2 decision to the California Angels. That loss marked merely the fifth defeat of the season, a remarkably low total given that the season was nearly six weeks old.

As well as the Tigers had played till that point, they were primed for another stretch of nonstop winning. Proceeding to lay waste to the American League West, the Tigers swept three games against the Mariners, three against the A’s, and three more against the Angels, the last win coming courtesy of Morris’ ninth win. Even beyond Morris, the Tigers’ pitching was exemplary, allowing more than four runs only once during a nine-game winning streak that matched their nine-game start to the season in April.

At 35-5, good for a winning percentage of .875, the Tigers had established themselves as the best team in the game, far and away and without question. They had built up a lead of eight and a half games, a good lead but one that would have been even larger if not for the presence of the highly capable Blue Jays.

So when you hear about teams today getting off to good starts, they all pale in comparison to what the Tigers of 1984 were able to do. Imagine winning 87 per cent of your games, covering a span of 40 games, or roughly a quarter of a season. That kind of accomplishment might not happen again in our lifetimes.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.