Since the modern World Series between the American and National leagues began in 1903, Detroit has managed to win the championship four times – in 1935, 1945, 1968, and 1984. At first blush, it doesn’t seem like a heck of a lot to show for more than a century of play. But it’s still more than historic franchises such as Cleveland, the Philadelphia Phillies, and both Chicago teams have won during the same period.
Ty Cobb, who played in Detroit’s pennant winners of 1907-08-09, learned how elusive a World Series win can be. Tigers manager Hughie Jennings, who had been a starting shortstop with the old Baltimore Orioles of the National League during the 1890s, was eager to show his old employer that the upstart “junior circuit” was the real deal. Instead he whiffed in three grabs at the ring.
There’s nobody around who can talk about those days, which is perhaps just as well. After the Tigers’ sad-sack performances all three Octobers, American League president Ban Johnson was left grumbling. “We do all right in the World Series,” he complained, “except when that damn National Leaguer, Jennings, gets into it. Then we get the hell beaten out of us.”
The Tigers’ first World Series opponent was the Chicago Cubs, featuring the fabled infield of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers, and first baseman Frank Chance. The first game, in Chicago, ended in an extra-inning 3-3 tie, the game called because of darkness. The Cubs won the next two games before the teams traveled to Detroit.
The first-ever World Series game in Detroit was played October 11, 1907. A crowd of 11,306 packed Bennett Park to watch the home nine get whipped, 6-1. The following afternoon, Detroiters stayed away in droves as the Cubs completed a sweep with a 2-0 blanking.
Throughout the series the Tigers were handcuffed by pitchers Orvie Overall, Ed Reulbach, Jack Pfiester, and Three-Finger Brown. In five games (including the tie), Cobb—the American League’s leading batter and base stealer—hit a meager .200 with no RBI and stolen bases. “The wonderful Ty Cobb,” New York sportswriter Joe Vila observed, “dwindled from a world-beater to a lame amateur.” Wahoo Sam Crawford, runner-up to Cobb on the league’s batting list, was only marginally better, batting .238.
When the Tigers and Cubs met in a rematch the following October, Detroit improved only to the extent that it actually won a game. Unfortunately, Chicago won the other four, including all three played at Bennett Park. The finale was a 2-0 loss that attracted a mere 6,210 spectators on a wintry afternoon. The turnout remains the record low for a World Series game and had some out-of-town pundits predicting that Detroit would not remain a major-league town much longer. Cobb had his finest postseason, batting .368, but the team only hit .203 against one of the greatest pitching staffs ever assembled. The 1907 and ’08 championships remain the Cubs’ last, making it 104 years – and counting – since they’ve won a World Series.
The Tigers were more competitive against a new opponent in the 1909 World Series, but the result was the same. The tussle between Pittsburgh and Detroit was billed as a showdown between each league’s greatest star: Cobb vs. Honus Wagner. The Pirates’ bowlegged shortstop outperformed his rival as Pittsburgh took the seventh game in Detroit, 8-0. Babe Adams, an unheralded 12-game-winner during the regular season, won his third game of the series on a blustery Saturday afternoon at Bennett Park.
With that, the Tigers became the first American League team to drop three World Series in a row – a distinction they hold to this day.