The 10 most important injuries in Detroit Tigers’ history

Al Kaline tumbles while making a catch in 1962.

Al Kaline tumbles while making a catch in 1962.

The bell had yet to sound for the 2014 season when the Detroit Tigers were dealt a blow with a serious injury to shortstop Jose Iglesias. It remains to be seen how much the loss of Iglesias will hurt the team, but so far, judging by the no-range roulette at the shortstop position, it isn’t going very well, though the team is still in first place.

How have injuries played a part in the history of the Tigers? I looked back through history to find the injuries I feel were the most “important” and made the biggest impact on the franchise. I tried to measure their impact on pennant races, and in a few cases I identified injuries that curtailed a player’s career. Let me know below in the comments section if you think I missed a pivotal injury.

#10. Joel Zumaya, 2007-2010
You name the bizarre injury, Zumaya probably had it. He hurt his shoulder while carrying an air conditioner unit. He hurt his hand and wrist from playing too many video games. He suffered the run-of-the-mill elbow and shoulder maladies too. The hard-throwing relief pitcher (he was clocked once at 106-MPH) was being groomed as the next closer for the Tigers after his great rookie season in 2006 as a setup man. How different could things have been had “Zoom-Zoom” stayed healthy? At 29 years old this season. Zumaya could have been in the middle of a fine career as one of baseball’s most feared closers.

#9. Mark Fidrych, 1977-1980
The maladies of The Bird are well-chronicled, his “what if” is one of the most intriguing in Tigers’ history. After his thrilling rookie campaign in ’76, Fidrych made only 27 starts in the big leagues over the next four seasons. He was no flash in the pan: in ’77 in 11 starts he was the same ol’ Bird, and he made the All-Star team for a second year before his right arm went sore. The Tigers weren’t a very good team during this era, they were young and learning, but had Fidrych been at the top of their rotation, they might have won a bit more, and who knows how many more games the floppy-haired idol could have won? Later, when medical expertise improved in the mid-1980s it was revealed that Fidrych had almost tore his rotator cuff completely through. Unless that had been surgically repaired, he was never going to pitch effectively.

#8. Kirk Gibson, 1986
It was early in the season and the Tigers were in Boston facing the Red Sox on April 22, 1986. Gibson drew a walk and was on first base taking a big lead when opposing pitcher Roger Clemens fired a throw to first base to keep him close. Gibby lunged back to the bag feet first and grimaced in pain – he had severely twisted his ankle and injured his foot. Gibson had been off to his best start ever, hitting .359 with two doubles, a triple, two homers, and 7 RBI in 12 games. He missed nearly two months, and by the time he came back the Tigers were 10 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. In many ways, this injury epitomized the frustrating two seasons following the ’84 championship, when a Detroit dynasty failed to materialize.

#7. Victor Martinez, 2012
Sure, the Tigers made the World Series without VMart, but could they have won the whole shebang with him in their lineup in 2012? The only reason Mike Ilitch paid to bring Prince Fielder to Motown was the injury to Martinez (which occurred in the offseason to his hip), so the question is: would Detroit have won just as much and more with VMart as opposed to Prince? According to advanced statistical analysis, Fielder was worth 5 extra wins in ’12. Martinez had been good for 3 extra wins in 2011 and added about 2 extra wins in 2013 when he came back. But, it’s not as simple as a switch of these two players: it’s likely Detroit wins the AL Central in 2012 even if they don’t add Fielder and VMart is healthy. Then, it’s a matter of whether Martinez would have delivered some extra punch in the postseason. Prince hit .173 with just one extra-base hit (a HR) in the postseason in 2012. Martinez has fared much, much better in the postseason during his career. In 2013, Martinez hit .405 with 5 extra-base hits in 11 postseason games. One wonders if a healthy Martinez could have made a difference for the Tigers in the 2012 World Series (Fielder was 1-for-14 in the Fall Classic).

#6. Mickey Cochrane, 1936
This one may not qualify as an “baseball injury,” but it did serve as a setback. After the Tigers won the World Series in 1935, team owner Frank Navin promoted Cochrane to general manager in addition to his role as player/manager. The stress of the added responsibility was too much for “Black Mike” and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He hardly played at all after May, and the Tigers failed to repeat as league champions. However, there was another injury that season that was more crushing than the loss of Cochrane, but more on that below.

#5. Mickey Cochrane, 1937
The Tigers were 2 1/2 games out on May 25, 1937, when they lost not only their catcher, but their manager in one of the scariest incidents to ever occur on a baseball diamond. Cochrane was facing Bump Hadley of the Yankees when he was struck in the head by a fastball. Witnesses stated that Cochrane crumpled to the ground like a bag of cement. “It looked like he didn’t even see the pitch coming,” teammate Pete Fox said. Cochrane was unconscious, hovered in serious condition with poor vital signs, and was even given last rights by a priest. He spent a week in a New York hospital before making a partial recovery. X-rays revealed his skull had been fractured, and Cochrane suffered from health issues the remainder of his life due to what was likely a high-grade concussion. He regularly dealt with nausea, double vision, vertigo, and fits of depression. Cochrane never played again, had to leave the team in ’37 as manager, and then retired from managing part way into the ’38 season. The loss of his leadership was a great blow to the Tigers, who had a very good team and contended for pennants several times over the next few seasons.

#4. Lou Whitaker, 1988
The Tigers were in first place by a game on the morning of September 4, 1988, clinging to the lead over the Boston Red Sox. After a Saturday game at Tiger Stadium, Sweet Lou attended a party with his wife in suburban Detroit. That’s when he did something silly that probably cost the Tigers a trip to the playoffs. “We were doing a fast dance and I did the splits. The first time, nothing happened. The second time I went down, I heard something pop,” Whitaker explained. He had torn cartilage in his right knee and would not play again that season. Detroit lost the division by one game.

#3. Alan Trammell, 1988
The 1988 season was a case of close but no cigar for the Tigers, unfortunately in large part due to a pair of injuries to baseball’s best double play combo. Trammell – who nearly won (and should have won) the MVP Award in 1987  - was having another fine season in ’88 and was leading the Tigers to possibly a second consecutive division title. Without Kirk Gibson (who exited via free agency after ’87), Trammell was the main man in the middle of the Detroit lineup in 1988. The shortstop was hitting .330 with 10 homers and 40 RBI in late June when he suffered an injury to his right shoulder. The Tigers were in first place, two games up in the AL East when he was shelved. Tram missed 15 games and when he came back Sparky & Crew were still perched in first place, but in early September, Trammell was sidelined again with more problems with his shoulder and missed  a week, which was crucial. Detroit was in a dogfight with the Red Sox for first place, Trammell was never healthy as the season wound up, and the Tigers finished one game back. With a healthy Trammell all season it’s almost certain the Tigers would have won the division crown again in ’88.

#2. Hank Greenberg, 1936
It was the early stages of the ’36 season and the Tigers barely had a chance to start their defense of the AL pennant when Greenberg went down on April 29th in the team’s 12th game. Greenberg was playing first base when Senators’ baserunner Jake Powell collided with him and broke his wrist. Some considered it a dirty play, since Powell was known for his animosity toward Jews and blacks. Greenberg was red-hot at the time of the injury and he was lost for the season. The Yankees ended up winning the pennant, but Detroit may have made it a race with Hammerin’ Hank in the lineup.

#1. Al Kaline, 1962
Kaline was still only 27 in 1962 as he began his 9th full season in a Tigers’ uniform. In late May, he was off to one of the hottest starts of his career, batting .336 with 13 homers and 38 RBI through Detroit’s first 36 games. He was pacing the league in hits as well as the three triple crown categories. He wasn’t just having a good season, he was having an MVP-type season. Then, on May 26 in a Saturday game at old Yankee Stadium, fate dealt Kaline a bad deal as he made a spectacular play in the outfield. Elston Howard hit a line drive to right field in the 9th inning with the tying run on base. Kaline dove to make an amazing catch to end the game in victory for the Tigers, but he broke his collarbone in the process. The Line missed two months, returning in late July, but he was still hampered by the injury and fell off at the plate. Detroit was 19-17, 3 games out of first at the time of the injury to Kaline, they went 26-31 without him and were 11 games out when he returned. Kaline suffered several crucial injuries in his career: in 1959 he fractured his cheekbone; in 1965 he broke ribs and also had surgery on his foot; in ’67 he broke a finger; in 1968 he missed time due to a broken arm and a bruised thigh. In all, Kaline probably missed 240 or so games due to injury in his career, which most likely cost him 250+ hits and 30-35 home runs. None of his injuries hurt the Tigers more than this one in ’62, when he was off to a remarkable start and the team was in the hunt.

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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.