The nine biggest “What Ifs?” of Detroit Tigers’ history

In June of 1979, Sparky Anderson took the job as manager of the Detroit Tigers, but he had two other offers already on the table and had accepted one in principle.

In June of 1979, Sparky Anderson took the job as manager of the Detroit Tigers, but he had two other offers already on the table and had accepted one in principle.

There’s an old idiom: “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.”

What does it mean? No one knows, but it’s the type of thing old people love to tell you when they want to sound wise.

But seriously, what would life be without “what ifs?” Second-guessing, Monday Morning Quarterbacking, call it what you will, it’s human nature to wonder what life would be like if things had been done differently. What if Alexander the Great hadn’t died so young? What if Lincoln hadn’t gone to the theater? What if the Titanic had heeded advice and slowed down in icy waters? What if Hitler had been successful in conquering Europe? What if they’d never made the last three Star Wars movies? Those are a few of the seminal questions we like to ponder.

But what if (there I go again) I turn the “what if” machine to baseball, and more narrowly, the history of the Detroit Tigers? How could the history of the Old English D have been different? Here are nine scenarios for you to consider. Leave your comments below and add your own “what ifs.”

1. What If … Ty Cobb had quit and went home to Georgia?
Ty Cobb was a gifted 18-year old ballplayer in 1905 playing in the minor leagues for the Augusta Tourists in the South Atlantic League, a far cry from the big leagues. He was homesick and he was often picked on by his teammates, who thought the high-strung young Georgian was too intense and sensitive. Despite the tough environment, Cobb played well for Augusta, but on August 8, news was wired to Cobb that his father had been fatally wounded by a gunshot in the family home in Georgia. Making it most terrifying was that Ty’s mother was alleged to have pulled the trigger. A grief-stricken Cobb hurried home to be with his mother, who was facing charges of manslaughter. Ty stood by his mother, and she was eventually acquitted, but in the interim, Cobb’s contract was purchased by the Tigers and he was called to the majors at the end of August. With the stress of his home situation weighing on him, Cobb traveled above the Mason-Dixon Line for the first time in his life, reporting to Detroit where the teenager found himself the teammate of men who were not happy to be competing with the youngster for playing time. Cobb was hazed mercilessly as a young player and he wanted to quit several times. He even packed his bags on one occasion, intent on going back to Georgia to be with his mother and tend to his family’s farm. But he didn’t, and he went on to become the greatest hitter of his generation, earning 12 batting titles and owning more than 100 records when he retired in 1928.

But what if Ty had quit? What if he’d failed to resist the urge to go back south? How would the history of Detroit baseball be different?

Cobb was very smart and would have followed in the footsteps of his father and esteemed family heritage and probably studied to become a doctor (he’d always been drawn to medicine). He would have been a success in any field he chose, though still troubled by the personality traits that hounded him his entire life: impatience, sudden temper, and distance from others.

As for the Tigers, how would they have fared without The Georgia Peach? The team was young and talented in the 1905-1910 era, so they would have still been a force in the American League, but without Cobb they wouldn’t have had the aggressive firebrand in the middle of their lineup. Cobb hit more than 100 points ABOVE league average nearly every year of his career, and he fueled the Tigers’ offensive attack. Most likely, Sam Crawford would have stayed in center field (where he was when Cobb emerged) and still had an excellent career. Crawford certainly would be more well-known to Detroit fans today had he not been overshadowed by Cobb.

The Tigers never won a pennant between 1910 and 1933, and that drought would have been even more insufferable without the mastery of Cobb to root for. In addition, Cobb wouldn’t have been there to manage the team from 1921 to 1926, replacing the popular Hughie Jennings. More than likely, Crawford, or maybe George Moriarty or Bill Donovan (had he survived a train crash that took his life) would have been managing the team instead. The game of baseball may have been different, because Babe Ruth’s influence toward a free-swinging power game may have taken hold much earlier without Cobb around to remind people how “Deadball” was preferable. At any rate, the record books would be much different without the Mt. Everest-like presence of Ty Cobb.

2. What If … the Tigers had held on to Carl Hubbell?
At spring training in 1926, Detroit skipper Cobb watched a tall, lean but muscular 22-year old left-handed pitcher throw from the mound. The young pitcher had speed and control but he threw a strange pitch, one that Cobb and his pitching coach feared would ruin the young ballplayer’s arm. As a result they failed to keep the pitcher on the team and sent him back to the minors. The following season, manager George Moriarty repeated the scenario, shipping the tall southpaw out rather than give him a shot in the major leagues. The next season, Detroit didn’t even give him a look and the pitcher latched on with the Giants. His name was Carl Hubbell and he went on to win 20 games in six straight seasons for the Giants in the 1930s on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Hubbell was a master, and his “strange pitch?” It was the screwball, which made him nearly impossible to hit. In the 1934 All-Star Game, Hubbell struck out five consecutive future Hall of Fame sluggers on the American League squad.

Had Cobb or Moriarty, or someone in the Tigers’ farm system recognized that Hubbell was a special pitcher, it would have given the team an ace (and a left-handed one at that) to build around in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. The Tigers ended up with a few really good pitchers in that era, such as Tommy Bridges and Schoolboy Rowe, but neither were in the class of Hubbell, and neither were left-handed. At his peak, Hubbell was worth about 7-9 wins above average each season. In the 1930s there were two other dominant teams in the AL, first the A’s from 1929-31, and then the Yankees in 1932, and again for four straight pennants from 1936-39. The Tigers interrupted the Yanks’ reign in 1934-35, and again in 1940. With Hubbell, the Tigers would probably not have had enough to snatch any more pennants, but they would have been much better and probably would have won 100 games in both ’34 and ’35, and might have won the 1934 World Series with Hubbell on the hill for them.

3. What If … the Babe had been able to accept the Tigers’ managerial job offer?
In the 1933 off-season, the Tigers were searching for a manager after Bucky Harris had resigned late in the season. Owner Frank Navin wanted a big name to draw crowds and enhance the stature of his franchise, which hadn’t won a pennant in more than 20 years. The great Yankee slugger Babe Ruth was long in the tooth as a slugger, but he was still a marquee superstar. Navin decided to offer the 38-year old Ruth a multi-year deal to play and manage the Tigers and he sent an assistant to locate The Bambino in December. But the Babe was vacationing in Hawaii on a cruise and was difficult to reach, so Navin traded for A’s catcher Mickey Cochrane instead. Cochrane was 31 years old and still had plenty of great baseball in him. He went on to lead the Tigers to pennants in each of his first two seasons, and in 1935 the Tigers won their first World Series title.

But what if Navin had been able to offer the job to Ruth? Well, it probably would have been a huge mistake. The Babe was no manager, he was undisciplined, uninterested in strategy, but most importantly, he was just too nice to his fellow players. Ruth would have been terrible with the young players on the Tigers, and he never would have displayed the on-field leadership that Cochrane did. In addition, by late 1934 he was fat, out of shape, and longer an effective big league player. The Tigers may have eventually won a World Series in the 1930s, but not with the Babe in the manager’s seat.

4. What If … the Tigers had never traded for Norm Cash?
Just before the regular season began in 1960, the Cleveland Indians decided that young first baseman Norm Cash didn’t fit into their plans. So, on April 12, they traded Cash to the Tigers straightup for Steve Demeter, a 25-year old third baseman who had spent seven years in the minor leagues and had exactly two big league hits to his credit. Cash’s left-handed swing proved to be perfect for Tiger Stadium, and he hit 373 home runs for Detroit over the next 15 years. He was a key part of the Detroit team that won the Series in 1968 and the division title in 1972. Demeter went on to hit 161 home runs after the trade – but they all came in the minor leagues. He was still playing in the minor leagues in 1972!

What if the Indians had kept Cash? The Tigers’ lineup in the 1960s is much less formidable: there’s no Big Three of Kaline/Colavito/Cash, there’s no left-handed power to balance out the right-handed pop of Kaline, Willie Horton, and Bill Freehan. Instead, the Tigers have to find another first baseman to fit into their lineup in the 1960s and early 1970s. More than likely, the Tigers were still talented enough to win the ’68 pennant without Cash, but their successful run from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s would have been less impressive. The farm system was ripe with outfielders in that era (Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Noryhrup, to go along with Kaline and Colavito for a while), and it’s possible that Detroit may have moved Kaline to first base sooner than they did to make room for Northrup.

No matter how they team would have done without Cash, it wouldn’t have been the same without Stormin Norman’s colorful personality.

5. What If … Mark Fidrych hadn’t suffered a serious arm injury?
In 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was the biggest star in sports, let alone baseball. He was Rookie of The Year and he drew more than 500,000 fans to his games at Tiger Stadium alone. In spring training in 1977, Fidrych sprained his knee while shagging flyballs in the outfield. He started the season on the disabled list, but he returned in May. Many fans forget, Fidrych pitched brilliantly upon his return, lowering his ERA below his mark from his rookie season and earning a spot on the All-Star team for the second time when he went 6-1 in June. Then, in a start against Baltimore in early July, something happened to his arm and he was never the same again. On July 12, just a week from the All-Star Game, Fidrych faced just three batters in a game against the Blue Jays and had to be removed with arm pain. he didn’t pitch again in 1977, and comeback attempts over the next three years were unsuccessful. Doctors examined his wing but the technology didn’t exist at that time to see that he had tore his rotator cuff. Most of the cures that were tired actually hurt the arm more, and eventually he had two major tears in the rotator cuff and he lost his velocity and command. He retired in 1983 after trying for two years to get back to the big leagues with Boston in their farm system.

Had Fidrych never suffered the arm injury, he would have been one of the best pitchers in the league for many years. He was very talented and he had great concentration and work ethic, he would have been intent on being a good pitcher for years. There’s no reason to believe that the workload that the young 21-year old experienced in his rookie season had anything to do with his arm injury. Instead, as was speculated by author Doug Wilson in The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych, the righty had the stuff to be star pitcher for years. His control and 90+ mph fastball often found itself at the knees of enemy batters. Fidrych would have been just 29 years old when the 1984 season started, right in the prime for a pitcher, and as part of a talented Tigers’ team that featured many young players he would have made that team even better, serving as a mentor to guys like Dan Petry and Jack Morris, who followed him to Detroit. The 1970s were filled with many hard-throwers who completed a lot of games and pitched for many years, and there’s no reason that The Bird couldn’t have won 150-200 or maybe even more games for the Tigers. Morris won 198 for the Tigers through the age of 35 pitching for good teams that gave him great run support. Fidrych could have won just as many.

6. What If … Sparky had taken the other managerial job instead of coming to Detroit?
The Cincinnati Reds fired Sparky Anderson after the 1978 season because he had the audacity to bring the team to a second place finish for the second year in a row. Sparky was only 44 years old when he was axed by the Reds, and he was the most sought after manager in the game. He sat on the sidelines as the ’79 season started, intending to take a year off before contemplating the inevitable job offers that would come his way. But he didn’t have to wait a full season. Early in the year, Gene Autry, the owner of the California Angels went after Sparky, a man he considered a personal friend. Sparky was from southern California, was still living there, and he was even doing some broadcasting for the Angels. Autry made Sparky a very considerable offer, which would have made him the highest-paid skipper in the sport. But, Sparky was also being pursued by the Chicago Cubs, and at the last minute, the Tigers entered the scene, after broadcaster George Kell tipped off management that Sparky was going to take the Angels’ job at the end of the season.

Of course, we know he came to Detroit, but what if he hadn’t? Well, it’s probably not pretty. Managers don’t make teams, but the good ones can push good teams over the top. Sparky arrived at the perfect time to mold the young Tigs into a winning unit and organization. If Les Moss had spent the entire ’79 season at the helm, the Tigers might have been a .500 team (they were 27-26 with Moss), and they may have continued to improve gradually, but there were several personnel decisions that Sparky demanded that Moss wouldn’t have. Under Sparky, Ron LeFlore was out, as was Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp, and later Glenn Wilson. These were talented players that Sparky sent packing, and in return the Tigers usually got good pieces in return, or freed up spots for better players coming along. There’s no way the Tigers have their improbably ’81 run to almost win the second-half division crown if Sparky’s not there to guide a young team and Kirk Gibson. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris, and Lance Parrish became men under Sparky, while Moss and the mangers who would have followed (maybe Jim Leyland?) wouldn’t have been as skilled at shaping young players into winners. There was so much talent that maybe the Tigers would have won a title in the 1980s without Sparky, but I think it’s unlikely. There was a lot of competition in the American League in the 1980s, and with Sparky at the helm, it helped keep the Tigers on course. Baseball in Detroit just wouldn’t have been as much fun without Sparky.

7. What If … the Tigers had never traded away John Smoltz?
At the trade deadline in 1987, the Tigers traded 20-year old minor leaguer John Smoltz, a Detroit native, to the Atlanta Braves for veteran Doyle Alexander. Alexander went on to pitch brilliantly down the stretch, and the Tigers wouldn’t have won the division crown without him, but Smoltz went on to a Hall of Fame caliber career with the Braves, throwing his final pitch in 2009 after earning more than 200 wins and saving more than 150 games.

Had Detroit kept Smoltz, they could have still gotten Alexander by sending a different prospect to the Braves. With Smoltz in their rotation on the 1990s, the Tigers are a different team, a more balanced team instead of the slugging softball-style club they morphed into with Cecil Fielder, Rob Deer, Mickey Tettleton, et al. Maybe the Tigers maintain the good start they had in 1993 when they were in first place as late as late June. With Smoltz as the unquestioned ace of their staff  they could have been a much more interesting team and more of a challenge to the AL Central in the 1990s, potentially.

8. What If … the city of Detroit and the Tigers had chosen to preserve Tiger Stadium?
There are many people who are still saddened by the loss of Tiger Stadium, which hosted its last MLB game in 1999. The Tigers, under owner Mike Ilitch, abandoned the old ballpark at The Corner, insisting they needed a new venue with luxury boxes and modern amenities to compete. But for the first few years at Comerica Park, the team suffered through the most dismal stretch in franchise history, culminating with a 119-loss season in 2003. Ironically, faced with the same issues, the Boston Red Sox made a different decision in regards to their old ballpark, choosing to stay at Fenway. The result? A fan base who adores the ballpark as much or more than the players, record revenues, and three World Series titles in 10 seasons. Meanwhile in Detroit, there’s hardly a trace of Tiger Stadium left at The Corner, and the city stubbornly refused any efforts to keep parts of the park intact as a public venue or historic landmark.

Had Ilitch, the Tigers, and the City of Detroit had the guts to renovate Tiger Stadium, modernize it, and preserve baseball at The Corner, baseball would be even more precious in Detroit than it is now, and it would probably be just as successful, though the roster may look different. The Red Sox proved that an old ballpark with quirks and some drawbacks can be viewed as a treasure, not an albatross. If the Tigers had stayed at Tiger Stadium, they probably never dovetail to the depths of 119 losses, they continue to play in a hitter-friendly ballpark, which would draw free agent hitters to Motown. They may not have the great pitching they currently have, and more runs and home runs would delight fans, for sure, plus the old ballpark would have celebrated its 100th birthday in 2012. Can you imagine the number of home runs Miguel Cabrera would have hit to the opposite field at Tiger Stadium?

9. What If … Torii Hunter had caught the ball off the bat of Big Papi in the 2013 ALCS?
Most of you are painfully aware that the Tigers lost the AL Championship Series last fall in six games to the Red Sox. But it could have been very different, even if just one play had played out in the Tigs favor. Detroit won Game One in Boston and was leading Game Two, only four outs from going up 2-0 in the series when the Detroit bullpen imploded (helped by a panic attack by the Detroit manager, whom I shall not name here). The Sox had the bases loaded and were down by three when David “Big Papi” Ortiz came to the plate against Joaquin Benoit in the 8th inning. His drive to right field soared just past the reach of Torii Hunter, who tumbled into the Boston bullpen in pursuit. The Sox went on to win the game, the series, and the World Series ultimately. Given how great the Detroit starting pitching was going, it seems pretty obvious that of Hunter catches that ball (and stays in the field of play for the final out of the inning), the Tigers win Game Two and take a stranglehold on the ALCS. They go home up 2 games to none, finish off the Sox and go to the World Series. With their starting pitching rolling along, they could have easily manhandled the Cardinals. That one play in the 8th inning of Game Two of the 2013 ALCS might have cost the Tigers their first World Championship since 1984.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.