From time to time, baseball writers will come up their own versions of an all-Thanksgiving team, one that usually has player names (or nicknames) that we can associate with the national holiday. So under that guideline, a team for the Detroit Tigers would invariably feature someone like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
I’d like to try something a little different. Rather than play word association with turkeys and pilgrims and the like, I’ll take a more personal approach. These are the Detroit Tigers players for which I am most thankful, those players in Tigers history whom I appreciate the most. These are the players who not only entertained me (and many others), but also those who made the experience of following the Tigers that much richer and more exhilarating.
These players are not necessarily All-Stars or all-time greats (though some of them are), but all of them succeeded in having an impact on me, either through their on-field ability, their colorful and comic natures, and sometimes both. So, position by position, let’s assemble my all-Thanksgiving Tigers team.
First Base: For me, this selection is the easiest. It’s Norm Cash, my favorite Tiger of all time. Not only did Cash put up consistent power numbers during the 1960s, but he carved out a most memorable niche as a prankster, humorist, and good ole country boy. In perhaps his most famous stunt, he tried to take an at-bat against Nolan Ryan while using the wooden leg of a table, only to be told by umpire Ron Luciano that the table leg didn’t qualify as legal lumber. On another occasion, he wore his trademark windshield wiper glasses to the plate, once tried to steal third base during a rain delay, and carried around with him a “Swiss cheese” bat, complete with three holes in it. “Storming Norman” was one of a kind, never to be matched since.
Second Base: Nicknamed “Muggsy,” he was in many ways the heart and soul of the 1968 Tigers. Dick McAuliffe was also one of the most underrated middle infielders of the 1960s, a player who hit with power, drew walks, and manned second base with a combination of silk and toughness. He also owned one of the most unusual batting stances in Tigers history. Not only did McAuliffe hold his hands high above his head but he directly faced the pitcher during his windup, making it the most wide open stance of all time. It’s a wonder that McAuliffe could hit at all with that stance, but he made it all work for more than a decade in Detroit.
Shortstop: This is another easy choice. Alan Trammell was one of the game’s three best shortstops of the 1980s, along with Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ozzie Smith. He also helped form baseball’s best double play combinations of the past 40 years; he and Lou Whitaker were seemingly joined at the hip for more than a decade and a half. But it is Trammell’s penchant for clutch hitting that will always stand out with me. Of all the Tigers, he was the one that I would have preferred to be at bat with the game on the line. As a fan of the New York Yankees, I remember Trammell making life miserable for them throughout the 1980s, delivering clutch hit after clutch hit, particularly at Tiger Stadium. Trammell did all of this with understated class and humility, and without a hint of arrogance. Simply put, he was the kind of player who became impossible to dislike, and so easy to admire and emulate.
Third Base: While it was tempting for me to select the fine-fielding Aurelio Rodriguez, I’ll go for the more obscure player here, and a colorful character to boot. Ike Brown, one of the last players to transition from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues, made himself a favorite with his ability to play most any position, his hell-bent-for-leather style of play, and for his off-the-field persona. Nicknamed “Showboat,” Brown wore elaborate suits and alligator shoes, making him one of the best dressers on the team. His positive attitude remained steadfast, right up until to the day that he died in 200. As his roommate Gator Brown once said, Ike’s first words of each morning were always the same. “It’s a beautiful day.” Rain or shine, Showboat meant it.
Left Field: Along with Cash, this one is the easiest of choices. Who could it be, other than the great Willie Horton? Sure, he was a tough slugger who hit with consistent power for nearly 20 years, but his character stood out even more impressively. We tend to glorify ballplayers as heroes, even when they’re not, but Horton certainly deserved such a billing. As the riots intensified in downtown Detroit during the summer of 1967, Horton made his way to the streets while wearing his full Tigers uniform and implored the rioters to stop the violence. Horton wasn’t able to quell the rioting by himself, but his efforts represented genuine courage and a devotion to the community. It wasn’t just a grandstanding gesture, but a sincere effort to make a difference. If only more athletes, baseball players or otherwise, could be like Willie Horton.
Center Field: For me this was the toughest choice. Chet Lemon, Mickey Stanley, and Curtis Granderson all received consideration, for a variety of reasons, ranging from their baseball talents to their personalities. But I’ll go with a sleeper choice in Elliott Maddox, who played a relatively brief time in Detroit before enjoying his prime years elsewhere. Of course, it helps that I once had the chance to meet Maddox; he came to Cooperstown as part of a Jewish Baseball Weekend in 2004. (And yes, Maddox is Jewish.) As a center fielder, Maddox was beautiful to watch; he glided after fly balls, covered the outfield gap to gap, and threw with the arm strength of a right fielder. More importantly, Maddox also showed courage. In the fall of 1969, Maddox reported to the Instructional League, only to find out that the team’s black players would have to stay in a separate hotel in segregated Clearwater, FL. Maddox confronted Jim Campbell about the situation—this was 1969, for crying out loud—forcing the GM to come up with a resolution. Campbell did, putting the entire team up at a Clearwater motel. In forcing necessary change, Maddox exemplified clubhouse leadership—all the while doing so at the age of 21.
Right Field: While it would be tempting to select an all-time great like Al Kaline, I’ll take a lesser known player, a journeyman who managed to make an impact in a short period of time. That player would be Champ Summers, a veteran of nearly a full year’s service in Vietnam, where he suffered a concussion and a broken nose when his truck drove over a landmine. Summers managed to come back from such a nightmare and enroll at Southern Illinois University, where as a walk-on baseball player he completed the transition to college star. After bouncing around with Oakland and Cincinnati, Summers found a temporary home in Detroit from 1979 to 1981. Employing him as a platoon DH and right fielder, Sparky Anderson watched a determined Summers mash right-handed pitching for two seasons. It was the culmination of a career filled with so many roadblocks and setbacks. I mean, how could you not appreciate a player who overcame the horrors of war and generally bad baseball odds to become a contributing major league star?
Catcher: For some reason, I’ve always had a fondness for Matt Nokes, a left-handed hitter with a pretty swing and light tower power. Throw him a fastball low and in, and Nokes could do damage like no other hitter of his era. Nokes certainly had his problems on the defensive side of the ball, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Nokes worked hard at his fielding and his catching, and for a short time made himself a passable catcher in New York. At his best, Nokes was fun to watch with a bat in his hand, never more so than in 1987 when he enjoyed the kind of fairytale season that led the Tigers to the Eastern Division title. For that one summer, it was like having Yogi Berra behind the plate in Motown.
Designated Hitter: His departure from Detroit came with some acrimony, but for a time, Steve Kemp embodied the blue collar work ethic of the city. Right from the start, Kemp was an overachiever. As a walk-on freshman at USC, Kemp seemed overmatched; he was skinny, couldn’t field, and couldn’t throw. Cutting a swath with a remarkable work ethic, Kemp made himself into a prospect—and the first pick of the 1976 amateur draft. With his disciplined approach and willingness to hit pitches to the opposite field, Kemp emerged as a dangerous hitter. He was also fun to watch, especially the way that he sometimes swung so hard that he twisted himself into the ground. After the Tigers rewarded him with a huge contract, Kemp took criticism for being overpaid, and eventually left town because of his impending free agency. In retrospect, I wish he would have played his entire career in Detroit. He was an all-out grinder and a good, solid player, one who remains underrated all these years later.
Pinch-Hitter/Backup: Who else could this choice be but “The Gator,” the inimitable Gates Brown? It’s harder to find a better backstory than the one connected to Brown, who spent some time in prison as a teenager before eventually climbing his way to the major leagues. Built more like a fullback than an outfielder, Brown became popular with both his teammates and fans, thanks largely to his outgoing personality and positive nature. He once broke up what could have become a nasty fight between teammates Jim Northrup and Denny McLain, essentially ordering Northrup to back down and not injure the ace right-hander, who was in the midst of his 31-win season. Brown loved to eat, too, as evidenced by that wonderful 1968 story in which he slid into second base while holding a hot dog in his back pocket. He also featured a wonderful sense of humor, along with a willingness to poke fun at himself. As Brown once said in his later years while reflecting on what he did in high school, “I took a little English, a little math, some science, a few hubcaps, and some wheel covers.” That was Gates Brown.
Starting Pitcher: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych makes the grade, not because of his nickname but because of the wonder that he brought to the game in 1976. Baseball was a serious game back then, but Fidrych made it fun with his on-field antics and pantomimes, including his broad leaps over the foul line, his appreciative clapping toward teammates, and his habit for talking to the ball. With him, it was never about showing up the opposition, but simply expressing himself in a positive, if unusual, way. Fidrych was genuine, too; his performance didn’t involve staged choreography, but always came about because of superstition and nervous energy. Beginning with his national television appearance on June 28 against the New York Yankees, Fidrych took the country by storm and never gave it back. He became the dominant story of the 1976 season—and almost singlehandedly made baseball cool again.
Relief Pitcher: For me, this choice was an easy one: John Hiller. No Tiger ever made a more remarkable comeback than Hiller, who nearly died from successive heart attacks in January of 1971, but somehow climbed itself back onto the roster within the next year and a half. Through hard work, persistence and perseverance, Hiller not only made it back to Detroit—but reached the peak of his career. By 1973, he had become the American League’s elite relief pitcher, the winner of both the Fireman of the Year and the Comeback Player of the Year. And he did all of this without a dominating fastball or trick pitch, but simply by mixing in a good fastball with an effective change-up and curve. Very good pitcher. Better man.
In my mind, these are the players who have made following the Tigers a more intriguing experience. I saw every one of them play, at least briefly, or in some cases for the duration of their careers. Sadly, a number of them are gone now (Cash, McAuliffe, the Browns, Summers and Fidrych), sacrificed to the passage of time, but they all remain memorable and distinctive. As a fan of the game, I am thankful for each and every one of them.