It comes down to Horton or Veach for greatest left fielder in Detroit history

Bobby Veach and Willie Horton each spent at least 12 seasons playing left field for the Detroit Tigers.

Bobby Veach and Willie Horton each spent at least 12 seasons playing left field for the Detroit Tigers.

Left field has of late been an unsettled position for the Detroit Tigers, but that’s nothing new.

While it’s easy to find Hall of Famers and other greats who have played center field and right field for the Tigers, in the entire history of the franchise only two men have played at least 1,000 games in left field: Bobby Veach (1,528) and Willie Horton (1,103).

No one has spent more than three consecutive seasons as the team’s primary starter in left since Larry Herndon (1982-86) and Steve Kemp (1977-81) each toiled there for five straight years. From 1956 to 1960, Charlie Maxwell was the starter in left. In the 1940s, Dick Wakefield manned the position for five non-consecutive seasons (he was not the primary starter in 1945).

Maxwell (683) and Herndon (672) are fourth and fifth on the franchise games played list in left field. Third is Matty McIntyre, who played 762 games there from 1904 to 1910. Also worth a mention as memorable Tiger left fielders are Goose Goslin, Bob Fothergill, Heinie Manush, and Bobby Higginson — but none except Higginson had much longevity at that position. Goslin and Manush are Hall of Famers but played most of their careers with other teams.

An unsettled left field is almost a Tiger tradition. But that’s the case for many franchises. Of the three outfield positions, left is the one least likely to be occupied by a star. Name the great left fielders off the top of your head — Ted Williams and Stan Musial and Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds — and suddenly you run out of names. The great athletes play center, where speed is prime, and right, where a strong arm is key. Left is the place to park good hitters who don’t have the chops to play elsewhere in the outfield. It’s often a default position, sometimes occupied by surplus first basemen.

For the all-time Tigers positional team I have been assembling, I think it comes down to Horton and Veach.

A Kentucky native from a coal mining family, Veach arrived at Navin Field during its inaugural season of 1912. For the next eleven seasons with the Tigers, he played alongside Ty Cobb, but he couldn’t have had a more different personality. Veach was quiet, unassuming, and personable, so laid back that Cobb, who eventually became the manager, considered him lackadaisical. According to a SABR biography, Cobb eventually instructed right fielder Harry Heilmann to yell often at Veach to make him angry.

A left-handed batter with a strong right throwing arm, Veach was a very dependable hitter and RBI man, and he worked hard to make himself an adequate defender. He had nine consecutive seasons with fourteen or more assists.

Holding the end of the bat, rarely choking up, and swinging freely, the skinny five-foot-eleven, 165-pound Veach rarely struck out. During the dozen years he was a regular, he easily led the league in total RBI, driving in at least 100 runs in six seasons. He also stole 195 bases and was a career .310 hitter. As a Tiger, he hit .311/.370/.444, and in his best year, 1919, he hit .355, second only to Cobb. Veach was sent to Boston in the winter of 1923-14 and finished with two years as a member of the Red Sox, Yankees, and Senators. After his MLB career was over, he played four years for the Toledo Mud Hens and lived the rest of his life in the Detroit area. He is buried in White Chapel Memorial Cemetery in Southfield.

Willie Horton, of course, lives in the hearts of Detroit fans. Growing up within shouting distance of Tiger Stadium, he was a multi-sport star at Northwestern High and famously hit a legendary home run on or over the roof at Tiger Stadium while still a teenager.

Horton had a few brief stints with the Tigers in 1963 and 1964 before being installed as the full-time left fielder in 1965. He left at the beginning of 1977 and finished out his career, mostly as a DH, for Texas, Cleveland, Toronto, and Seattle.

Willie was a below-average outfielder. Nonetheless, he had a strong arm which was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in club history — his throw to nail Lou Brock at home in Game Five of the 1968 World Series. That may have been one of the single most important momentum-changing plays in baseball history.

Horton could hit for power though, launching 262 homers as a Tiger with 886 RBI during an era not known for prodigious slugging. Though prone to slumps and strikeouts as most power hitters are, he was very productive, ending up at .276/.337/.472 as a Tiger.
Both Veach and Horton can be judged on a very similar career span of just over a decade as a regular Tiger left fielder. Note how similar their career OPS for Detroit is: .809 for Horton, .814 for Veach. Veach, of course, was by far the better base runner (Horton was 14-for-43 in steals in his career) and a significantly better fielder. Baseball Reference pegs him as worth 42.3 runs a year for the Tigers as a hitter. The same source gives Horton a career WAR as a Tiger of 28.6.

I wasn’t alive to see Veach play, and during his career he was overshadowed by his longtime teammates Cobb and Sam Crawford. (As a group. the three are without a doubt one of the best outfields in baseball history.) I’d venture to say Horton was the bigger fan favorite. He was a beloved hometown slugger and has remained a local celebrity. His calm and commanding presence on the team during the 1967 and 1968 seasons, in a time of racial turmoil in Detroit, was enormously influential.

It’s a close call, but my pick for the spot of all-time Detroit left fielder is Bobby Veach. That brings our lineup to six: Cobb, cf; Gehringer, 2b; Heilmann, rf; Greenberg, 1b; Veach, lf; Trammell, ss. Who will fill the catcher and third base slots? 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.