What’s worse: having a miserable season and finishing out of contention, or being in first place late in the year only to blow it?
Most Tigers’ fans would probably take the near miss, even if it means some heartache. Fortunately, in the long history of the Detroit Tigers there have been few seasons in which the team lost a late season lead.
That’s probably not comforting to current fans of the team because twice in the last decade the Tigers have squandered leads late in the season. The first time they still made the playoffs, thanks to the wildcard, but the second time they were out of luck.
Here’s a look at the eight Tiger teams who were in first place in September but failed to finish in first.
1916 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 18
On May 24th, the Tigers were in seventh place, 8 1/2 games behind the Indians. Then the club went 19-4 to climb their way into the fight in a wide open American League. There were only a few games separating the Tigers, Indians, Senators, Yankees, and Red Sox as the summer grew warmer. Detroit put themselves in a hole again when they went 14-21 in over five weeks in June and July, falling back to sixth place, but only seven games out. A torrid stretch in August and early September helped Ty Cobb and crew leapfrog their rivals and on September 17th after a walkoff 6-5 10-inning win over the Athletics at Navin Field, the Bengals were alone in first place, one game ahead of the Red Sox and and 1 1/2 ahead of the White Sox.
But the BoSox swept a three-game series in Detroit behind the arms of Carl Mays, Dutch Leonard, and Babe Ruth to push ahead of the pack. The Tigers’ pitching staff fell apart down the stretch, allowing six runs per game in the last two weeks as the team went 4-11 and finished in third, 4 1/2 back of Boston. It was the last time a Cobb team was in the hunt so late in the year.
1944 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 30
This was an odd season in many ways. Of course, the world was at war in 1944, and most of the stars and regular professional ballplayers were in military uniform. The game was not that great on the field, but the pennant race in the AL was thrilling. Still, on the morning of August 1, the Tigers were 48-50 and 8 1/2 games out of first place, with five teams ahead of them.
Of all the teams in baseball, the St. Louis Browns lost the fewest players to the war, so as a result they were one of the most talented teams in the league. Still, they would have to withstand a furious late-season push by the Tigers, who had the game’s best pitcher (still in action), Hal Newhouser. Prince Hal went 5-2 with two saves in August as the Tigers went 19-8 and climbed to within three games. The Yankees were only two game behind the Browns.
Then in September the Tigers got hot behind Newhouser and Dizzy Trout, a one-two punch no other team could match. In mid-September the team played three doubleheaders in one week, with Newhouser and Trout starting five of the six games, and Detroit winning four times. A sweep of the Indians on the 17th vaulted the Bengals into first. It seemed the Tigers would stay there, winning 12 of 14, but they couldn’t shake the Browns, who also kept pace.
Unfortunately the two teams were not scheduled to play each other down the stretch. The Tigers had four against the Senators at Briggs Stadium while the Browns hosted the Yankees for four in St. Louis. The Tigers held a half-game lead but after splitting a doubleheader on Friday while St. Louis swept two from the Yanks, the team were knotted atop the standings. Both clubs won on Saturday, Newhouser winning his 29th of the year. But on Sunday Trout was unable to hold off the Senators and the Tigers lost 4-1. Meanwhile, the Browns rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Yankees, capturing their first (and only pennant).
Detroit would get Hank Greenberg back midway through the next season and in ’45 the pennant would be theirs. But losing the pennant on the last day in ’44 hurt.
1950 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 21
Unlike the earlier teams on this list, the ’50 Tigers got off to a good start. They found themselves in first place and up by 4 1/2 games in mid-July. However, the Yankees, perennial league powerhouse, were lurking. Still, the Tigers swept the Yanks at Briggs Stadium in August and built a 3 1/2 game lead as late as August 21st.
Newhouser once again was a catalyst, the veteran southpaw winning five of six starts and saving another out of the bullpen. Trout and Fred Hutchinson were also stalwarts on the mound. The offense was explosive, led by reigning batting champion George Kell, who hit .340, Hoot Evers, Vic Wertz, Johnny Groth, Johnny Lipon, and Jerry Priddy. All six of those players scored at least 95 runs while Kell, Evers, and Wertz topped 100 RBIs.
When the Tigers defeated the Yanks on September 15th they held a half-game edge in the standings with Boston coming to Detroit for two games. Unfortunately, the BoSox had a lot to play for too — they were only 1 1/2 games behind the Tigers. Boston won both games, but the Tigers swept the hapless A’s to climb back into a first place tie with the Yankees on the 21st.
The pivotal games of the pennant race took place in Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie where the Tigers failed to win any of the three games against the Tribe. The first loss was famously impacted by a forest fire that may (or may not) have caused Detroit catcher Aaron Robinson to misplay a ball in a walkoff win for the Indians and ace Bob Feller. The Tigers then proceeded to lose the last two games to Cleveland’s “other” aces, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon. When Lemon beat them six days later to open the season-ending weekend series, the Tigers were eliminated with two games to play. They finished with 95 victories, which was only good for second place, three games behind the Yankees, who were in the midst of a five-year stranglehold on the pennant.
1967 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 18
Despite winning 101 games in 1961, the Tigers did not experience anything close to a pennant race between 1950 and 1966. The ’67 season brought a heart-wrenching race that involved not two, not three, but four teams into the final weekend.
The ’67 Tigers were the best team in the American League, packed with talent that included Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Dick McAuliffe, Jim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley. On the pitching side they boasted 22-game winner Earl Wilson, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, and Joe Sparma among the starters. The bullpen was one of the best they ever had: Fred Gladding, Mike Marshall, Dave Wickersham, Hank Aguirre, and Pat Dobson. There was also a young lefty named John Hiller who had an excellent season out of the pen.
Despite the obvious talent, the ’67 team started the season in lackluster form. On July 1st they were only 38-33, but fortunately that was good enough for second place. At the end of that month they were in third place, four games out. It would take a hot August to get them into contention, and that’s what Kaline and crew did, going 21-14 in August.
But the standings were mind-boggling. On September 6th after they swept a twinbill against the A’s, the Tigers were in tie for first place with three other teams: the white Sox, Red Sox, and Twins. Most observers thought the logjam would clear up, but it didn’t. On September 18th the four teams were separated by a half-game. Only ten games remained for most of the teams and the scheduling was complicated by the need for doubleheaders caused by early-season rainouts.
In the season’s final weekend the Tigers had to play two doubleheaders at home against the Angels. They were in third place, but only 1/2 game out. The White Sox were in the worst position, one game back and playing the Senators. The Twins and Red Sox were tied atop the standings and they were facing each other to end the season. As a result, if Detroit could win all four of their games against the Angels, the flag would be theirs.
On Saturday the Tigers won the opener on shutout by Lolich, but Wilson was unable to protect a three-run lead in the second game and the Angels won. Meanwhile the White Sox lost, eliminating them from contention. Boston beat Minnesota at Fenway. The standings: Red Sox 91-70, Twins 91-70, Tigers 90-70. The Twins and Red Sox would play one game on Sunday, the loser being eliminated. If the Tigers could win both of their games, they’d finish in a tie with whoever won at Fenway.
On Sunday in front of a packed crowd at Tiger Stadium, the Tigers beat the Halos 6-4 behind Sparma in the opening game of the doubleheader. Meanwhile, the Red Sox beat the Twins in Boston. All Detroit needed was a win in the second game of the doubleheader to force a one-game playoff at Tiger Stadium for the pennant. McLain was on the hill and he surrendered a home run in the second to open the scoring, but the Tigers plated three in the bottom of the inning on a two-run homer by Northrup and a triple by McAuliffe. It looked like a day when the Detroit bats would outslug the opponents. But McLain and the bullpen were off that day, and the Angels knocked McLain out in the third and proceeded to batter Hiller and Marshall to build a a five-run lead. The Tigers scratched back and had the tying run at the plate in the ninth, but McAuliffe grounded into a double play (only his second of the season) to end the game and the pennant race. The Tigers lost 8-5.
The following season the Tigers would leave no doubt, running away with the pennant and winning 103 games.
“We knew we were the best team [in 1967],” Kaline said later, “and the following year we wanted to prove it.”
1981 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 29
The ’81 season was split by a players’ strike that kept the game off the field for two months, as a result MLB ruled that the season would be carved into two halves, with a first-half and second-half “pennant race.” As a result, when the Tigers returned from the unpopular labor stoppage on August 10th it was with a clean slate. The team had been 30-26 in the first half.
With such a short second season, there was a real chance for a team to get red-hot for a stretch behind an impact player. In 1981 that player for the Tigers was Kirk Gibson, who emerged for the first time as a force. Gibby hit .375 after the players returned from the strike, in 49 games. He had 30 runs batted in, scored 30 runs, and stole 13 bases. He was in the middle of nearly everything positive for the team.
The Tigers rival for supremacy in the second half was the Milwaukee Brewers, and as September wore on it became apparent that six games between the two young teams in the last ten days would decide it. In the next-to-last weekend of the season, Milwaukee took two of three at Tiger Stadium to increase their lead to 1 1/2 games. But once the two teams squared off for the last three games of the year the margin was a single game.
The Brewers won on Friday at County Stadium to clinch a tie, but the Tigers could still take the last two games and force a one-game playoff. On Saturday in a nationally televised game, Jack Morris took the ball for Sparky Anderson. Morris had established himself that season as one of the better starters in the AL. He pitched with guts that day, taking a 1-0 lead into the 8th. But the Brewers pushed two tuns across and Rollie Fingers finished the game to secure the pennant. The young Tigers were not quite ready to be a playoff team, but they soon would be.
1988 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 4
After ’87 when they clinched the division title on the last day of the season, 1988 gets overlooked. This was essentially the same team, except for one big difference — Kirk Gibson had left via free agency for the Dodgers. His clutch play was missed.
The Tigers used a hot June to move into first place and they stayed there, through the All-Star break, and into September. It looked they would win their third division title in five years and solidify themselves as one of the teams of the 1980s. Their lead actually even grew to three games as late as August 18th. But the Red Sox had other plans.
Boston fired manager John McNamara in July and replaced him with career minor league manager Joe Morgan (not the former member of the Big Red Machine). Under Morgan the Sox responded immediately, winning their first twelve under their new manager and 19 of 20. All that effort put them in a tie with Sparky Anderson and his Tigers. But Detroit pushed ahead a little, and was in first place as the calendar changed to September. That’s when things fell apart: Detroit was swept in a four-game set by the Brewers, lost two of three to the Jays, and then lost four straight in New York, three of them in heartbreaking walkoff fashion. They were in first place for the last time on September 4th, but fell six games behind the surging Red Sox.
Some meaningless wins in the last two weeks of the season brought the Tigers to within a game of Boston in the final standings, but they’d been eliminated with three games left.
This was the last time Sparky Anderson had a club in first place as late as September.
2006 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Sep 30
No one expected what happened in 2006, a season that began with a new manager and a lot of new faces on the roster. But Jim Leyland and Justin Verlander (and Chris Shelton and Craig Monroe and Kenny Rogers and Joel Zumaya and Pudge Rodriguez, etc.) had other plans. The team rolled out to an amazing start, the best since the ’84 team, and at the 100-game mark on July 25th they were 67-33, only two games behind the pace of ’84. Detroit held a 10-game lead on August 7th when they were forty games over .500 at 76-36. It appeared that the team might break the franchise record for wins, and 100-wins seemed a certainty.
But what’s that they say about counting your chickens before they’re hatched?
The Tigers came back to earth, and on September 1st their lead in the AL Central had been trimmed to 4 1/2 games over the White Sox. But it would be the Twins who would spoil the fun for Leyland and Co. and snatch the division crown. Detroit went 14-22 to finish the season and on the final weekend they were swept by the Royals at home to finish second, one game behind the Twins. Fortunately their 95 wins were good enough for a wild card spot and a week or so later Magglio Ordonez hit a majestic home run to win the pennant. So, this one hurt for a brief moment, but ultimately the season was a great success.
2009 Tigers: Last Day in First Place, Oct 5
Game 163. That’s really all we need to say. The Tigers climbed into first place on May 10th and stayed there, building a cushion as large as seven games (on September 6th), but then they lost nine of twelve and let the Twins in the race.
They were up two games going in to the final weekend and only needed to win two of three from the White Sox to clinch, but lost the first two while the Twins won to tie them entering the final game of the regular season schedule. Justin Verlander came up big, defeating the White Sox 5-3 to force a Game 163 in Minnesota.
In Game 163, rookie Rick Porcello pitched brilliantly, but the game went to extra innings after Zach Miner failed to hold a lead. Detroit went ahead in the tenth, but Fernando Rodney could not close out the game, allowing the Twins to tie it. Brandon Inge appeared to be hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the 12th but the home plate umpire failed to call it, and the Tigers could not score. Minnesota won the game in their half to send the Tigers home.
The ’09 Tigers were in first place for 164 days, but they blew a big lead and lost a heartbreaking one-game playoff. That one really hurt.