Cabrera chasing Cobb and Heilmann among Tiger batsmen

Miguel Cabrera is trying to win his third consecutive batting title in 2013, something only Ty Cobb has ever done for the Tigers.

Miguel Cabrera is trying to win his third consecutive batting title in 2013, something only Ty Cobb has ever done for the Tigers.

Although there is still a long way to go in the season, Miguel Cabrera’s chances to claim a third straight batting championship are looking pretty good, especially since he goes into the All-Star break about 35 points ahead of the pack.

As impressive as Miggy’s work with a stick is, when it comes to batting average and batting titles, Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann remain the two most dominant hitters in the 110+year history of the Detroit Tigers. The two hit-happy Hall-of-Fame outfielders are easily 1-2 in lifetime batting (as Tigers), with Cobb boasting a .369 mark and Heilmann the runner-up at .342.

There are a variety of ways to measure the batting brilliance of Cobb and Heilmann, whose overlapping careers put their deadly bats in the same lineup for a dozen summers. Consider this tidbit: Of the 14 highest single-season batting averages ever compiled by a Tigers hitter, Cobb rang up 10 of them and Heilmann accounted for the remaining four. That list includes three .400 seasons by Cobb (in 1911, 1912, and 1922), which ties him with Ed Delahanty and Rogers Hornsby for the most ever in major league history, and a single .400 season by Heilmann (in 1923).

Heilmann’s ponderous baserunning undoubtedly cost him a few other .400 seasons. He batted .394 in 1921 and .393 in 1925; just four “leg” hits in either season would’ve lifted him to an even .400. In 1927, he hit .398 – just one base hit short of .400. In other words, a miserly nine hits over three seasons kept Heilmann from being the only man ever to to have four .400 seasons. Ouch!

Another gauge of this dynamic duo’s batting brilliance is the number of batting championships Cobb and Heilmann captured between them. From 1907 through 1927, a total of 21 seasons, they won a combined 16 titles. Cobb had a dozen (1907-15, 1917-19) while Heilmann notched four (1921, 1923, 1925, 1927). The only other Tiger in history to win multiple batting titles is Cabrera.

Miggy started the 2013 season fifth on the club’s all-time batting list with a .328 average. He is within reach of the #3 and #4 names: Bob “Fats” Fothergill (.337) and Dale “Moose” Alexander (.331), a couple of one-dimensional bangers who played in the 1920s and early ’30s.

Batting titles and career averages are one thing, but not the only way to measure greatness. For all of his accomplishments, “Mr. Tiger” Al Kaline won just a single batting title (before he turned 21!) and his career batting mark finally stood at .297 after his 22 seasons in a Detroit uniform. Kaline played a bulk of his career during the “second deadball era” – the 1960s – when the pitcher was so dominant that the league lowered the mound in 1969. That circumstance helped lower Kaline’s batting average, but he still managed to hit over .300 nine times, a lofty number. By comparison, Cabrera is in his sixth season as a Tiger and on his way to his fifth year over .300 – more than half way to Kaline’s total. Cobb hit .300 23 times and Heilmann did it an even dozen times. It seems likely that Cabrera could eventually reach Heilmann’s total.

However, there is no way – short of stringing together a few .400-plus seasons, and we all know how easy that is – that Cabrera will ever overhaul the Georgia Peach and Ol’ Slug in career average or number of batting titles won. Their numbers are that insurmountable since both left the Tigers more than 80 years ago.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.