Tigers’ second-half charge in 1987 was fueled by “Mad Dog” Bill Madlock

Bill Madlock was a key player in the second half of the 1987 season for the Detroit Tigers, who caught the Blue Jays and won the AL East division title.

Sometimes we only get a glimpse of a once-great player. That can certainly be said of Bill Madlock and his brief tenure with the Detroit Tigers.

One of the best pure hitters of the 1970s and eighties, Madlock won four batting titles over the course of his 15-year career. He spent most of his time playing with the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and Pittsburgh Pirates, and didn’t make it to Detroit until 1987, which happened to be his final season in the big leagues. Even at an advanced age, and with diminished skills, Madlock managed to have an impact, making me wonder why his big league career—both in Detroit and overall—did not endure for at least another season or two.

Because of his relatively brief stay in Detroit, Madlock appeared on only one Topps card as a Tiger. It was his final card, a Topps Traded card issued later in the season, and part of the memorable 1987 set with the wood borders and some terrific action photography. The card of Madlock is one of the better offerings in the set. Taken during an overcast afternoon game during the ’87 season, the photo shows the stocky, muscular Madlock standing firmly in the batter’s box, as he eyes an unknown pitcher. The backdrop of Tiger Stadium is quite evident, with that familiar blue frame surrounding the Tigers’ dugout, where several players (who are too blurry to identity) are watching the proceedings. It’s a classic Tiger Stadium photograph, one of so many that highlighted Tigers cards during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. For some reason, cards always looked better against the backdrop of Tiger Stadium—and the Madlock card is no different.

Madlock journey to Detroit was long and twisting. It began more than a decade and a half earlier, when the Washington Senators selected him in the fifth round of the January 1970 draft. He would never make it to Washington, if only because the franchise relocated to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season. After some difficulties in his early years in the Senators’ system, Madlock eventually emerged as a top hitting prospect for the newly minted Texas Rangers. Just a year after the Rangers debuted in Arlington, Madlock made his debut for the franchise. Called up in September, Madlock hit a cool .351 in a 21-game looksee.

Some within the Rangers’ organization projected him as the team’s third baseman of the future, but the quest for established pitching derailed that plan. After the 1973 season, the Rangers made a short-sighted deal, sending Madlock to the Cubs for veteran right-hander Ferguson Jenkins. Madlock was only 22 at the time of the trade, while Jenkins was already 30, so for a young, building team like the Rangers, the deal made little sense.

Ever since the decline of Ron Santo, traded way to the crosstown White Sox, the Cubs had been searching for a successor at third base. They found just that in Madlock, who immediately took over third base at Wrigley Field. As a fielder, Madlock was only adequate, but he could hit like few other third basemen of the day. After batting .313 in his first season with the Cubs, Madlock secured his first batting title with a.354 mark in 1975, followed by another batting title in 1976.

As well as Madlock hit for the Cubs, he also showed a tendency to lose his temper. During a late season game in 1974, he brawled with St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons, in response to an inside fastball from histrionic Redbirds reliever Al Hrabosky. In 1975, he was hit with fines on three different occasions—all in response to angry words exchanged with National League umpires. Then came a major incident in May of 1976, when he charged the mound and landed a punch against San Francisco pitcher Jim Barr, part of a nasty bench-clearing brawl at Candlestick Park. Thanks to all of these flashes of temper, Madlock earned the nickname of “Mad Dog.”

Then came the spring of 1977, and a shocking development. Unable to reach a contract agreement with Madlock, and facing the real possibility that they would lose him to free agency in October, the Cubs decided to cut bait. They traded Madlock to the San Francisco Giants for aging outfielder Bobby Murcer and unproven third baseman Steve Ontiveros. The trade seemed questionable; Murcer had struggled during his years in San Francisco, and while still a good player, appeared to be in decline. Why trade a young star for an aging veteran, one who was five years older than Madlock? While it was understandable that the Cubs wanted to acquire something for Madlock prior to free agency, it seemed like they could have done better on the trade market.

Now in San Francisco, Madlock promptly signed a new five-year contract worth a total of $1.3 million. For two seasons, Madlock maintained a .300 batting average, but he didn’t hit with the same ferocity or power that he had shown in Chicago. In an interview with The Sporting News, Madlock blamed the falloff on the cold, windy weather of Candlestick Park. “I’m just not going to hit as well at Candlestick Park as I did at Wrigley Field,” Madlock told Giants beat writer Nick Peters. “A lot of balls I hit in the gap get held up by the wind at Candlestick, and you just don’t feel as comfortable batting in cold, windy weather as you do when it’s warm.”

In 1978, Madlock lost his temper again, this time with teammate John “The Count” Montefusco. The infielder and pitcher brawled after Madlock interrupted a media interview with The Count. The fight was a sign of a tumultuous season to come. Although Madlock hit decently, manager Joe Altobelli shifted him from third base to second base. It was a questionable decision to move Madlock, already a stiff defender at third base, to second, where he clearly lacked the needed range and the ability to turn the double play.

In 1979, tensions with the media and with ownership seemed to affect Madlock’s play. He also became involved in another fight, this time with Atlanta Braves right-hander Bo McLaughlin. With his batting average an uncharacteristic .261, Madlock became trade fodder. On June 28, after the trading deadline, the Giants were able to sneak Madlock through waivers and then trade him, infielder Lenny Randle, and lefty Dave Roberts to the Pirates for a package of three young pitchers: Ed Whitson, Al Holland, and Fred Breining.

His arrival in the Steel City rejuvenated Madlock’s career. To make room for Madlock at third base, the Pirates reconfigured their infield, shifting Phil Garner to second base, which had become a problem area in Pittsburgh. The move weakened the Pirates’ defense somewhat, but strengthened the lineup immeasurably. Over the next 85 games, Madlock batted .328, drawing 34 walks against only 22 strikeouts.

Prior to Madlock’s debut with the Cubs, the Pirates found themselves six and a half games out of the National League East. Over the balance of the season, the Pirates won 61 out of 91 to take the division. With Madlock rounding out the new-look lineup, and lending support to an offense that already featured Willie Stargell, Bill Robinson, and Dave Parker, the Pirates not only won the East but followed it with a playoff knockout of the Cincinnati Reds.

Playing in his first World Series, Madlock responded to the challenge. In seven games against the vaunted pitching staff of the Baltimore Orioles, Madlock hit .375, drew five walks, and drove home three runs, helping the Pirates pull off a stunning comeback from a three-game-to-one deficit. Just like that, Madlock had his first World Series ring.

In 1980, Madlock and the Pirates experienced a letdown. An incident on May 1 represented the low water mark. That’s when Madlock pushed his glove into the face of umpire Jerry Crawford during a disagreement. The incident resulted in a 15-game suspension and volumes of criticism from sportswriters and broadcasters around the country. Madlock’s temper had reached its most volatile point.

Madlock bounced back with a .341-campaign in 1981, good enough to win another batting title, albeit during a strike-shortened season. Madlock continued to maul National League pitching over each of the next two seasons, hitting .319 with 19 home runs in 1982 and claiming his fourth batting title in 1983.

In 1984, injuries and age began to take their toll on the 33-year-old Madlock. Limited to just over 100 games because of season-ending surgery on his shoulder, his batting average sunk to .253 with only four home runs, by far the worst numbers of his career. His hitting continued to lag at the start of 1985. With the Pirates now a losing team, the franchise having been badly affected by the Pittsburgh drug trials, Madlock became trade bait. On August 31, the Pirates dealt him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three players to be named later, two of which turned out to be Sid Bream and RJ Reynolds.

Madlock helped the Dodgers win the National League West. In 34 games, he batted .360, once again reinvigorated by a change of scenery that placed him on a winning team. Madlock continued his rampage in the postseason, hitting .333 with three home runs against St. Louis. Unfortunately, Madlock received little support from the rest of the Dodgers’ lineup, as LA dropped the Championship Series, four games to two.

The Dodgers brought Madlock back for the 1986 season. Playing third base on a regular basis, he batted a respectable .280 with 10 home runs, but also missed significant time because of two stints on the disabled list. He was now 35, and clearly not the player of his prime years. After a bad start to the 1987 season, Madlock asked for and received his release.

After about a week of unemployment, the Tigers signed him as a free agent. It was the only place that Madlock wanted to play. “I asked for the release because it was going bad in LA. I was in a situation where I wasn’t going to play,” Madlock told the Boston Globe. “I felt things could move quickly with Detroit; I didn’t consider any other team. Sparky [Anderson] knows what kind of player I am.”

Familiar with Madlock from his own days in the National League, Anderson skillfully employed his new acquisition as a part-time DH and platoon player at the infield corners. Playing first base in his Tigers debut, Madlock hit a two-run homer and a single. For the season, Madlock batted .279 with the Tigers, hitting 11 home runs and lifting his OPS to .811. The strong second half coincided with another division title for Detroit, allowing Madlock to return to the postseason for the third time.

Madlock appeared in only one playoff game against Minnesota, going hitless in five at-bats. That turned out to be his major league swansong. Though he appeared capable of helping someone as a role player in 1988, Madlock found little interest on the free agent market. Perhaps some teams felt that his hothead would make a bad fit for a bench player, someone who would have to be satisfied with part-time play. Finding options in the major leagues unappealing, Madlock chose to make a better financial deal for himself in the Japanese Leagues, signing with the Chiba Lotte Orions. He played one fairly productive season in Japan before retiring.

Since his playing days have ended, Madlock’s life has been pockmarked by difficulties. Aside from a brief stint as Tigers batting coach in 2001-02 and some time working for Major League Baseball, he has mostly remained out of Organized Baseball. His former agent made shady investments on his behalf, resulting in a dispute with the IRS and prompting Madlock to sue the agent. At one point, Madlock was arrested and fined for passing a series of bad checks. And then earlier this month, tragedy struck Madlock when one of his sons, Doug, passed away.

Clearly, it has not been easy for Madlock. But I will always have fond memories of his short, compact swing, and the damage that it did to opposing pitchers. The man could hit. Sadly, Tigers fans saw the benefits of Madlock’s ability for only one season. It’s a shame that it didn’t last longer.

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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.