Trammell, Kuenn, and Rogell rank as best shortstops in Tigers history

Shortstop Alan Trammell played 20 seasons for the Detroit Tigers.

Shortstop Alan Trammell played 20 seasons for the Detroit Tigers.

With Jhonny Peralta on the way out and Jose Iglesias starting what could be a long, promising career in Detroit, it’s a good time to look back at top Detroit Tiger shortstops of the past.

If you were to name an all-time Tigers team at every position, at least half the positions would be uncontested. You would begin with center field, second base, right field, and first base all locked up and probably even lined up in that exact way if you wanted to start compiling an all-time batting lineup: Cobb followed by Gehringer, Kaline, Greenberg.

Hal Newhouser would toe the rubber, although with Justin Verlander at the cusp of his career, Prince Hal may not reign forever.
Catcher, left field, third base, and shortstop aren’t quite as easy to call. I will look at these positions in weeks to come. Let’s start at short.

Only three men have played at least 1,000 games at shortstop for the Tigers. Billy Rogell’s career as a Tiger ran from 1930 to 1939 after starting with a few partial seasons in the 1920s with the Red Sox and finishing as a sub in the 1940s with the Cubs. He played 1,148 games as a Tiger shortstop, and was the full-time regular starter there for seven seasons from 1932 to 1938. During that span he hit from .259 to .296, with an on-base percentage ranging from .332 to .381, and slugged from .353 to .404. In other words, he was dependable and productive but far from spectacular at the plate, especially considering the hitters’ era in which he labored.

He was rangy but unspectacular in the field. During his time as a Tiger, he committed 265 errors at short. Granted, errors were more common in those days, with many more balls put into play by batters than today and thus many more fielding chances, but even so, during his seven seasons as the Detroit full-time shortstop, Rogell averaged 33 errors a year. His lifetime fielding percentage at short was .956.

He did rank first in the league in retroactively calculated defensive WAR in 1934, ’35, and ‘36, but I don’t put a lot of stock in that. He was a key part of the club’s championship teams of the Thirties, and for a long time was considered the best all-time Detroit shortstop. (And he remains the best Tiger player ever to serve for thirty-six years as a Detroit city councilman).

Certainly, Rogell was as good as Donie Bush, who played 1,845 as the Tiger shortstop from his rookie call-up in 1908 through 1921, when he was traded to Washington to play out his career. He hit .250 in his career with absolutely no power, hitting nine homers lifetime (it was the Deadball Era, but even so his career slugging percentage of .300 is rather telling). He excelled in drawing walks, however, making him useful enough in the lineup, with a credible .356 on-base percentage. Bush led the league in walks four times.
But he was also in the top four in errors every season he played for Detroit, led the league in errors twice, and had only a .936 lifetime fielding percentage as a shortstop.

Until Alan Trammell arrived at Tiger Stadium, no one other than Bush or Rogell had ever played as many as 750 games at shortstop for the Tigers. Tram played 2,139 games over twenty seasons as Lou Whitaker’s double play partner. He was dependable in the field and at the plate, consistently productive at or near the top of the lineup. He hit a very nice .285/.352/.415. Trammell finished in the top ten in the MVP voting three times, as high as second in 1987. He had decent if not great range and sports a .977 lifetime fielding percentage. Baseball-Reference.com ranks him as the eleventh greatest shortstop of all time. Yet he peaked at 36.8 percent in Hall of Fame voting in 2012, and with the crowded ballot these days, he’s not likely to go much higher.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the Tigers had signed Derek Jeter, the kid from Kalamazoo, and he played his career in Detroit. And the Yankees had signed that New York City youngster Lou Whitaker, and Trammell joined him for twenty seasons in the Big Apple. Is there any doubt both Tram and Lou would be in Cooperstown by now? Probably they’d have been awarded plaques in the first year of their eligibility. Jeter might have been ignored instead of mega-hyped.

Alan Trammell is easily the greatest Detroit shortstop of all time. But there’s a footnote. Harvey Kuenn played for the Tigers from 1952 to 1959, including 747 games at shortstop, fourth on the club’s all-time list. For five seasons, from 1953 through 1957, he was the regular shortstop. In 1958 he was moved to center field, where he spent most of the rest of his career. Kuenn hit .353 and won the batting title in 1959, then was famously traded for the home run king, Rocky Colavito.

Only some Tiger fans remember how remarkable Kuenn’s five years as the Tiger shortstop were. Kuenn hit over .300 in four of them, with an OPS of .715 to .857. He was Rookie of the Year in 1953, finished eighth in the MVP voting in ’54 and fourth in ’56. He was a good fielder too, with a .964 lifetime fielding percentage at shortstop, and obviously great range—enough to play center field. Kuenn was a perennial all-star in the 1950s. He stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for all fifteen years he was eligible, peaking with 39.3 percent of the vote in 1988. I think there’s a good case for him, too, to be in Cooperstown (according to Baseball Reference, the player he compares most closely to statistically is George Kell!).

For those five seasons in the 1950s, Harvey Kuenn was the best shortstop who ever played for the Tigers. But for the long haul, Trammell is the easy pick on the all-time Detroit team.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.