1984 was a special year for Tigers’ fans, and the 1984 Detroit Tigers’ team is considered one of the best single-season teams in the history of baseball. That ’84 team was red-hot out of the gate, winning 35 of their first 40 and never really looking back as they stormed to the World Series title.
But the ’84 Tigers may have been hot for a long time, but they weren’t the hottest team the Tigers have ever had. And no, it wasn’t the ’68 Tigers or the 2006 Tigers (who ran out to a sizable lead early in the season), or the current 2014 Tigers (who were 27-13 after 40 games). No, the hottest team in Detroit Tigers’ history was in action 80 years ago, and they were so good for so long that they nearly made it look effortless. The 1934 Tigers were white-hot, hotter-than-hot, too-hot-to-handle-and-too-cold-too-hold, if you will.
1934 was the first year that Mickey Cochrane was in Detroit, and talk about making a first impression! The new Tigers’ catcher/manager came over from Philadelphia in a deal that cost Detroit owner Frank Navin a player and $300,000. Cochrane had been part of a great team with the A’s, helping lead them to three straight pennants from 1929-31, while playing great baseball behind the plate and hitting over .300 regularly. He was the unquestioned leader of that team and the finest catcher in the game. From the first day he slipped on a Detroit uniform, Black Mike instilled a winning attitude in his players. It took hold immediately.
“You wanted to win for him,” shortstop Billy Rogell said, “he hated to lose.”
The Tigers had a gifted team, with Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Rogell, and Marv Owen in the infield. The outfield featured Goose Goslin, Pete Fox, Gee Walker, and Jo-Jo White. The pitching staff was stacked too, with Tommy Bridges, Elden Auker, Firpo Marberry, and a fresh-faced young right-hander from Texas named Schoolboy Rowe. With Cochrane crouched behind the plate, Rowe blossomed in his second season, winning 24 games, including 16 decisions in a row.
“I just tossed ’em to Mickey and we won a lot of ballgames,” Rowe said. With Cochrane in charge, Detroit’s pitching staff finished second in the league in ERA.
The Tigers got off to a good start in 1934, winning six of their first eight games. But after they were swept in a two-game series by the New York Yankees and split a four-game set with the Boston Red Sox in early May, they were 9-9. The Yanks and defending league champion Senators were expected to be their main rivals for pennant honors, but Cochrane felt his team was better than either of them. Detroit had what New York and Washington didn’t have — a balanced team. The Tigers could pitch, hit, run the bases, and field the ball. There were no weaknesses in their lineup.
In a rematch with the Yankees later in May, the Tigers took two of three at Navin Field. Then they started rolling, winning 16 of 17 series through mid-July. They weren’t just winning, they were churning out W’s. From May to September they won at a .700 clip, distancing themselves from the rest of the American League as they won 70 games out of 100. They were tearing apart their competition and driving the city of Detroit baseball crazy. And it wasn’t just that they were winning, it was the way the Tigers were winning that summer.
Want to win a lot of games in one month? One way to accomplish that is to have your entire lineup red-hot with the bat. In August of ’34, Cochrane hit .442 with 28 RBI and 42 hits. And Black Mike didn’t even play himself every day – he took 8 games off that month! Meanwhile, leadoff man Jo-Jo White hit .383 with 44 hits and 10 stolen bases while getting on base 50% of the time. While White and Cochrane were getting on base, Hank Greenberg was driving them in. The tall first baseman hit .347 with 41 hits and 25 RBI in August, with 13 doubles and six home runs. Billy Rogell tied White for the team lead with 44 hits for the month, hitting .358 with 29 runs scored and 18 RBI of his own. Charlie Gehringer was his steady self, hitting .320 and banging out 40 hits, giving the Tigers five players with at least 40 hits in August. With Goose Goslin (38 hits) and Marv Owen (35 hits), the Detroit lineup was nearly unstoppable in August of ’34. As a result, the team averaged 7.3 runs per game, and when you do that, you’re going to win a lot of games. Even the pitchers got into the act – Schoolboy Rowe hit .346 in his 8 starts that month, driving in 5 runs.
Rowe was the biggest beneficiary of the offense that summer, going 6-1 in August despite a mediocre 3.82 ERA in 8 starts. Rowe was 18-2 in June/July/August, anchoring a pitching staff that included little Tommy Bridges, submariner Elden Auker, and swingman Firpo Marberry, who came out of the bullpen for Cochrane 19 times too. Overall, the Detroit staff ranked second in the league in pitching, but it was Rowe (24-8 in 45 games), Bridges (22-11 with 23 complete games), Auker (15 wins, 10 complete games and 25 appearances in relief), and Marberry who shouldered most of the load.
By early September the pennant race was all but sewn up. The Tigers won six straight at home against the Senators and Yankees in mid-September to clinch the flag, their first in 25 years. Cochrane had done it, infusing his team with a winning attitude and grit that was missing before his arrival. They came up short on the postseason, falling to the Cardinals in seven games, but their regular season exploits shouldn’t be forgotten. For several weeks that summer in 1934, the Tigers were as hot as any team has ever been, burying opponents under a barrage of runs while stifling them with great pitching. They were one of the greatest teams in franchise history.