The 10 Most Underrated Detroit Athletes of All-Time

Left to right: Lou Whitaker, Leonard Thompson, and Vinnie Johnson.

Overrated, underrated…it’s subjective right? One man’s overrated is another’s underrated. Or it can be. But some players we can all agree on when it comes to being underrated, can’t we?

Here’s my choice for the ten most underrated Detroit athletes of all-time.

10. Reed Larson

For ten seasons from 1976 to 1985, Larson was one of the best defencemen in the NHL, featuring a slap shot that was one of the hardest in the league. But while Larson was valued by his teammates and coaches as a key part of the team, his career went under the radar because the Wings rarely made the playoffs and other higher-scoring players grabbed the headlines. Larson played for ten more years after leaving Detroit and ended up with 685 points in 904 games.

“When I got to Detroit I learned a lot from the guys who were there about being an NHL player,” Steve Yzerman said, “and Larson was one of the best teammates I had.”

9. Dick McAuliffe

Sometimes looks can be deceiving, which can lead to being underrated. Dick McAuliffe looked odd on the ballfield. He wasn’t partularly tall or large. He had big ears and he looked more like a truck driver than a ballplayer. At the plate his bizarre batting stance was mocked, his unpleasant swing promoted cringes from coaches up and down the ladder of development. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was results, and “Mac” emerged as one of the better middle infielders in baseball in the 1960s.

First as shortstop and later as a second baseman, McAuliffe provided unexpected pop with his bat and spirited pep on the diamond. He was a spark plug for the Bengals, serving as a table setter at the top of the lineup. McAuliffe was integral in the success of the Tigers and their ultimate world championship in 1968. But he was overshadowed by teammates who had prettier skills or were louder with the lip. Like all who toiled in the low-scoring 1960s, McAuliffe’s stats look pedestrian, but a deeper look shows that the pesky Tiger who once broke the collarbone of a pitcher who dared throw at his head (Tommy John), was an excellent ballplayer. He died in 2016, still one of the most popular players in Tiger history.

8. Vinnie Johnson

Pistons’ fans will always appreciate Vinnie Johnson, a key member of the Bad Boys back-to-back NBA champions, but he’s still a vastly underrated performer who was very productive in limited playing time year after year.

Consider this: Johnson typically averaged 25 minutes per game, or about half a game as part of a three-guard rotation with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. He was 6’2 with a thick neck and long arms. Yet despite being out-sized by interior defenders, Johnson’s 1,165 offensive rebounds are 8th all-time among Pistons. Every player ahead of him on the list was paid to rebound (Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Greg Monroe etc.), but Vinnie was a insta-scorer, The Microwave. His task was to put the ball through the hoop, to heat up like a ball-bouncing hot pocket. Still, Vinnie was a rebounding menace as well as a deadly scorer.

Vinnie never complained about minutes, never caused a ruckus on a team packed with massive egos. He waited his turn on the bench and answered the call to bring points to his team. He was also underrated as a ball-handler in a point guard role, slinging passes from the hip when he wasn’t raining his line-drive jumpers toward the rim. A fantastically popular Piston, Johnson is also one of the most underrated players in history.

7. James Jones

There used to be a time when NFL teams used fullbacks as a key part of their offense. Jones was drafted in the first round by the Lions in 1983 primarily to become the lead blocker for Billy Sims. But his tremendous ball-carrying skills and injuries to Sims led to Jones becoming a feature back for Detroit frequently in the 1980s.

In his rookie season when the Lions won the division title, Jones blocked for Sims as #20 ran for more than 1,000 yards. But Jones also scored six touchdowns on the ground and ran for 475 yards of his own. The following year he showed off another facet of his game, catching 77 passes (seventh in the NFL) out of the backfield and scoring eight TD’s (five through the air, three as a runner). The following two seasons, Jones carried the load as Sims was out with injuries that ultimately ended his career. Jones ran for 886 yards in 1985 and 903 in 1986 while topping 1,000 all-purpose yards each season.

When the Lions drafted Barry Sanders they wanted a one-back set so Jones was expendable and the team let him go to Seattle. He was never healthy after that, but for his six seasons in Detroit (1983-88), Jones was a star, and largely overshadowed by bigger names on the team.

6. Mark Howe

What happens if you’re a great hockey player but your father is the greatest player in the history of the sport? Hardly anyone notices you, that’s what happens. Howe inherited a lot of physical talent from Gordie, and learned how to play the game from his Dad too, especially the “toughness” part, forging a 22-year career in which he played 929 games and scored 742 points.

Howe was a defenceman who could pass the pack and score, he was very fast on his skates. But he also had a tough edge to him, inheriting his father’s rugged style of play. He was nearing 40 when he got to Detroit for his final three seasons but he was still good enough to man his shifts and lead the Red Wings defense. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011, but even that honor hasn’t helped Howe get much attention for a great career.

5. Leonard Thompson

The list of the top five touchdown scorers in Detroit Lions history reads like Hall of Fame material: Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, Herman Moore, Billy Sims, and Dutch Clark. Then comes Leonard Thompson. Who?

Thompson spent a dozen seasons in the NFL, all of them in the Honolulu Blue of the Lions. In college at Oklahoma State, Thompson was a hybrid halfback and wide receiver, a sort of offensive secret weapon. He was drafted in the eighth round by the Lions in the 1975 NFL Draft, but he wasn’t considered much of a player in his first few years in the league. The Lions kept him deep on their depth chart as a backup halfback and receiver, and his only moment of notoriety early in his career was when he blocked a punt and returned it for a game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds left in a 1977 contest against the Colts. It wasn’t until his sixth season when he was 28 years old that “LT” got a chance to play regularly. That was Sims’ rookie season, the year of “Another One Bites The Dust” and the exciting 4-0 start for the Lions. He teamed with Freddie Scott as Detroit’s receiving threats over the next years, enjoying his best success improbably after his 30th birthday. He eventually scored 39 TD’s and accumulated more than 4,600 yards through the air for the Lions, an amazing feat considering he only started seven games in his first five seasons in the league.

4. John Hiller

Tiger fans who saw him pitch have long appreciated Hiller, but the lefthanded reliever is one of the overlooked stars at his position. Back when Hiller pitched out of the bullpen, relievers were used much differently than they are today. Relievers in the 1970s were true “firemen” utilized whenever the game was on the line, even if it meant entering the game in the sixth inning. Hiller’s numbers fare well against the top relievers of that era.

Using advanced analytic methods, we see that Hiller’s career relief WAR of 27.8 ranks seventh all-time, trailing three Hall of Famers (Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage, and Trevor Hoffman) and Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, and Billy Wagner. Hiller made his mark as a multi-inning arm out of the pen, with 67 percent of his appearances going for more than three outs (the second-highest mark ever). Hiller’s career ERA+ of 134 is much better than that of contemporary Rollie Fingers, who is in the Hall of Fame. Fingers benefited from pitching on winning teams and being used in more save situations, but Hiller was more effective in his appearances than Fingers and most of the other bullpen aces of the 1970s.

There’s an excellent argument given his workload and usage as a multi-inning relief ace, that Hiller is the most effective lefthanded reliever in baseball history. Others have come after him to earn more 1-2-3 ninth inning saves or get accolades in far fewer innings, but Hiller at his peak was immensely valuable. In 1973 he saved a then-record 38 games, pitched 125 innings, and posted an 8.1 WAR, the second-highest mark ever by a relief pitcher in a single season. His WAR3 and WAR7 (best three seasons and best seven seasons) rate third all-time, ahead of more famous relievers like Bruce Sutter, Rivera, Dan Quisenberry, and Wilhelm.

Hiller will never make the Hall of Fame—he’s stuck in that awkward span of time before relievers were racking up tons of easy saves and he also suffered for having pitched for obscure teams that rarely won a lot. Instead he was used in the thankless role of “on-the-spot fireman” putting out the fires and keeping his team in the game (think the way Andrew Miller was used in the postseason in 2016 by the Indians). He did it as good as anyone ever has.

3. Norm Ullman

While the Red Wings superstars were on the Production Line (Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, and Ted Lindsay) and Production Line II (Alex Delvecchio, Howe, and Lindsay), Ullman was typically on a second line with other wing players. That didn’t lessen his impact and performance as one of hockey’s most productive players.

His career statistics rank him among the greatest centrers to ever play in the NHL, with 490 career regular season goals and 739 assists for 1229 points. He had sixteen NHL seasons of 20 or more goals.

Ullman led Detroit in goals in 1961, 1965, and 1966 and led the league in 1964–65 with 42 goals. In that same season he missed the overall scoring title by 4 points, second to Stan Mikita.

He scored 30 goals and added 53 assists during Stanley Cup Playoff action in 106 games played. Ullman was twice the playoff scoring leader, but usually surrendered headlines to Howe and more famous teammates.

While he usually gets lost among the myriad of great players in Red Wings history, Norm Ullman deserves more credit for his Hall of Fame career and his contribution to the success of hockey in Detroit.

2. Lou Whitaker

Let me ask those of you who watched Whitaker’s career in Detroit, when he roamed the infield with partner Alan Trammell: How much of a difference was there between the double play duo? Was Trammell a much better player than Sweet Lou? During his career was Trammell seen as the superior player?

The answer to those questions is: not much; nope; and negative.

Trammell was an excellent all-around player, without a serious weakness in his game. Trammell had a few great seasons and he had a lot of really good seasons. And Whitaker was the same. Neither player reached historic career milestones like 3,000 hits or 300 homers, but both were clearly among the elite at their positions for nearly two decades. Yet Trammell spent 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot and was finally elected to the Hall last December, while Whitaker was “one-and-done” on the writers’ ballot for Cooperstown.

Our response? BOOOOOOOO!!!!! (And we’re not saying LOUUUUUUU!!!!!)

Sweet Lou is one of only three second basemen with at least 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored, 200 home runs, and 1,000 walks. The other two are Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan.

What does a guy have to do to get respect?

1. Bob Lanier

How many basketball fans talk about Bob Lanier when the discussion turns to the greatest big men in NBA history? Lanier was a nearly unstoppable offensive force when he arrived in the Association in 1970 with the Pistons. At just a shade under 7 feet tall and weighing in at 250 pounds, “Dobber” was agile in the paint. In his first nine seasons his per-game averages were 22.8 points, 12.0 boards, 3.3 assists, and 2.1 blocks. That comprised the bulk of his time in Motown, but even though he was an All-Star nearly every season, Lanier played in the long shadow of Kareem Abdul Jabbar. All these years later, when it comes to the great all-around big men in NBA history, Lanier is frequently forgotten.

What do you think of my list? Tell me in the comments section below or go over to our Facebook page to join the debate.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.