The greatest right fielders in the history of the Detroit Tigers

Wahoo Sam Crwford, Harry Heilmann, and Al Kaline all rank among the greatest right fielders in baseball history, and all three are in the Hall of Fame.

Wahoo Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, and Al Kaline all rank among the greatest right fielders in baseball history, and all three are in the Hall of Fame.

When I started this series a few weeks ago by looking at the shortstops, examining the all-time greats for the Detroit Tigers at each position, a reader pointed out that Al Kaline shouldn’t automatically be given the right-field job and that two old-timers, Harry Heilmann and Sam Crawford, should be considered too. That’s true.

The Tigers are deep in right fielders — deeper than at any other position.

Kaline, of course, played his entire career, spanning 22 seasons, in Detroit. Of his 2,834 games as a Tiger, he played 2,033 games in right, the rest mostly in center, and some at first base and in left field, and even two at third base. Heilmann played 15 seasons in Detroit from 1914 to 1929, and then finished his career in Cincinnati. He and Crawford each played just over 1,400 games in right field for the Tigers. Heilmann played almost a third of his games at first base.

Heilmann was a consistently great hitter with a .342 lifetime batting average, a career .410 on-base percentage, and a .520 slugging percentage. He hit over .390 four times as a Tiger, topped by a .403 mark in 1923. Heilmann finished in the Top Ten in the MVP voting five years in a row. While it’s hard to quantify fielding statistics, especially from that era, he did have a .963 fielding percentage as a right fielder. Baseball Reference.com gives Heilmann a cumulative -13.9 defensive WAR for his career.

“Wahoo Sam” Crawford started his career with four seasons in Cincinnati and finished it with fifteen in Detroit, from 1903 to 1917. A contemporary of Ty Cobb, he was one of the premier power hitters of his era, at a time when power was revealed more by triples than homers (because of the distant outfield fences in most parks of the day). Crawford hit .309/.362/.452 lifetime and still holds the MLB record for most career triples (309). Apparently he wasn’t a great fielder either, with a .952 fielding percentage and a retrospective defensive WAR of -18.1.

All three men are in the Hall of Fame — and they rank high on the Detroit franchise’s career lists of offensive achievements. Take a look at Baseball Reference’s list of the top Tigers in offensive WAR: Cobb 144.8, Kaline 92.7, Charley Gehringer 80.7, Lou Whitaker 74.8, Alan Trammell 70.3, Heilmann 67.7, Crawford 63.5, Hank Greenberg 54.2. Three of the top six are the right fielders!

It’s hard to ignore Heilmann, who is second to Cobb among Tigers in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage, third in slugging, fourth in OPS, and fourth in hits.

But Kaline is at least as deserving. He is, of course, the franchise leader in homers with 399 and the only Tiger besides Cobb with 3,000 hits. Kaline leads the franchise in walks and intentional walks. In total bases, Kaline ranks second, Heilmann fourth, and Crawford sixth on the franchise list. Kaline and Heilmann rank second and third in RBIs, and Crawford is fifth.

“Mr. Tiger” was a 18-time All-Star, he finished in the top ten in MVP voting nine times, and he was among the very best right fielders in the game during his career. He had a .978 fielding percentage as a right fielder with a legendary arm.

Many were the times I can recall a rookie speedster trying to go from first to third on a single and Kaline gunning him down. He had 170 outfield assists during his career, but you can’t measure his arm just by that stat, because most veteran players wouldn’t run on “The Line.” He didn’t just have a cannon, he was incredibly accurate with his throws.

Kaline deservedly is a legend in Detroit. He was incredibly consistent and dependable, a complete ballplayer, and the anchor of the team throughout his career.

A few years ago, I played in a league composed of all-time franchise teams. We were playing a modified version of the old Statis-Pro desktop game, with cards constructed according to the game’s rules and some tweaks and judgment calls from the league originator (such as outfield arms; amazingly, because he used only assists and was a Red Sox fan from Boston, he rated Kaline’s arm as merely good not great, and I argued with him vociferously about that). Because defense didn’t matter in the game as much as offense, I consistently had Heilmann as my starter in right field, batting third behind Cobb and Gehringer and in front of Greenberg.

Heilmann and Crawford were great hitters in their eras, but there is no evidence that they were special defenders who performed at anywhere near the level of Kaline. All three men deserve to be considered if we were to compile a list of the Top Ten Tigers of all time. In terms of offensive abilities, Kaline and Heilmann are neck and neck — and Crawford not far behind.

I haven’t defined the criteria for my little exercise here. Much as at shortstop, it depends on whether you’re taking the whole career into account or just a peak five years. There’s no doubt Heilmann was the better hitter in his prime, but overall Kaline takes the prize as the Tigers’ top right fielder, edging out Heilmann because of his defense.

In coming weeks, I’ll pick my left fielder, catcher, and third baseman. There is still no need for discussion of center field, second base, and first base. Best pitcher is a lock too, but worth a discussion, because we should have a righty and a lefty starter as well as a bullpen ace. Stay tuned.

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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.