Ty Cobb's reputation as a racist is a wee bit more overblown than it should be. I realize that to a lot of critical theorists who can't look at Tony the Tiger without spotting racism, I'm going to look like I'm defending the man, but you know what? Those people are only broadening the definition of racism, and one day they'll call the wrong person a racist and find themselves on the wrong end of a very expensive libel lawsuit. Anyway, Ty Cobb's brand of racism was ultimately more bark than bite, and he didn't partake in many - if any - major actions that tried to hold back black people, which is a whole lot more than can be said for guys like Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker (both KKK members), Cap Anson (refused to take the field when the other team fielded a black player; Anson is, in a MAJOR way, responsible for professional sports ever being segregated in the first place), Tom Yawkey (refused to sign black players; his team never even signed a black free agent until 1993, and the Red Sox didn't even integrate until 1959, two years after Jackie Robinson retired), or Kenesaw Mountain Landis (the former commissioner who repeatedly stepped in whenever a team showed any interest in signing a black player). Cobb WAS inarguably a nasty dude, though, who reportedly beat up a man with no hands, sharpened his spikes, and may or may not have fixed a ballgame or two or murdered someone.
Ty Cobb casts a real long shadow over the history of his team, the Detroit Tigers, because he is still considered the greatest baseball player of all time by large factions of baseball historians. He played in the WAY WAY BACK era, in the early 1900's, just when baseball as a professional sport was starting to get off the ground. The Tigers are actually one of the charter members of the American League, along with the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Cleveland Indians. To this day, they are also the only survivor of the immediate predecessor of the AL, the Western League, to still exist under their original name. The Tigers were founded in 1894, six years after the failure of the Detroit Wolverines, their previous baseball team. When the junior circuit declared itself a major league in 1900 and began openly fighting over players and fans with the older National League, the Tigers just happened to be there. Fortunately for them, they were the only team in Detroit at the time. Industrial expansions hadn't quite arrived on the scene just yet, and so the Motor City wasn't yet the Motor City, the industrial giant which would eventually become one of the largest cities in the United States. There are a few different accounts about how they came to be called the Tigers. One revolves around orange and black striped socks, another around one of the owners naming them after the mascot of his alma mater, the Princeton Tigers.
Cobb arrived in 1905 and became the first major superstar of MLB. Being added to a roster that was already stacked, Cobb took them to three Pennants in a row in 1907, 1908, and 1909. Those teams were chokers, though. In 1907, they lost the World Series in five games to the Chicago Cubs, and one of those games ended in a tie. That tie was also the only game in which the Tigers managed to score more than one run. The next year brought a grudge match against the Cubs, and the Cubs won again, in five games again, although the Tigers managed to do slightly better by actually winning the one game the Cubs didn't win. In 1909 the Tigers faced the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although the Pirates were the class of the NL and had won 110 games to Detroit's 98, Detroit managed to take them to seven games, but ultimately came up on the losing end. Cobb never got that close again. In 1915 the Tigers won 100 games but lost the Pennant to the Boston Red Sox, who won 101. Cobb took over as manager in 1921, but his teams never won more than 86 games during his six years helming the Tigers. Cobb left the Tigers after the 1926 season, joined the Philadelphia Athletics for the next two, and then retired.
The Tigers were reloaded by the 30's, and were fielding big time talents like Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane, and Hank Greenberg. In 1934 they finally returned to the World Series, their first since the 1909 team with Cobb. They also had the misfortune of facing the legendary Gashouse Gang team being fielded by the Saint Louis Cardinals. Detroit had the better record, but it was clearly the Cardinals' year, and they won in seven games. It wasn't until 1935 that Detroit finally broke through. That year, the Tigers won 93 games. Unfortunately, they also went 8-14 over the last 22 games while their opponents, the Chicago Cubs, won 100 games, enjoyed a roll of 21 straight wins during the Pennant stretch, had no holes, and looked like they would dominate the Tigers on momentum alone. That wasn't the case; Detroit won their first World Series in six games. Although they endured a fall in the standings through the late 30's, they were back on by 1940, winning another Pennant. but losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games.
When ballplayers began returning after they were finished serving in World War II, the Tigers were again on top of the pack in 1945, when they returned to the World Series to face the Cubs again. Although this World Series stretched to seven games, many ballplayers were still overseas, and the 1945 World Series is widely considered one of the sloppiest ever played. It was also an important Series in Chicago sports lore because it was the Billy Goat Curse year. Although the Cubs hadn't actually won the World Series since 1908, in 1945 they were still one of the most dominant and hated teams in baseball because they showed up in it so regularly. Things shot south for them after that, so the Tigers have the distinction of beating the Cubs in their most recent World Series appearance. After what the Cubs had done to the Tigers in those very early World Series years, I'm fair sure Detroiters aren't wracking themselves with guilt over it.
The 50's saw the Tigers return to the further ends of the pack, but in 1953 they found a bonus baby by the name of Al Kaline (pronounced "kay-line"). One of the few Major League Baseball players who never played a day in the minor league system, Kaline immediately began putting up stat lines which held up favorably with any of Cobb's numbers, and he became probably the most beloved Tiger in the team's history. (He also threw out the opening pitch at last night's World Series game.) In 1958, the Tigers integrated when they signed Ozzie Virgil Sr. By 1961, they had started their ascent from the basement, winning 101 games and finishing second to the New York Yankees in the standings. In the 60's the Tigers were one of the best teams in MLB, with players like Mickey Lolich, Denny McClain, Willie Horton, and Earl Wilson. 1966 was a bizarre and tragic season for the Tigers. They finished third, but manager Chuck Dressen was forced to step aside due to health problems. The acting manager in his place, Bob Swift, was also forced to step aside for health problems. Both of them, tragically, didn't make it and died that year. Frank Skaff took over until the end of the year before being replaced by Mayo Smith. Smith proved his worth as a manager in 1968, leading the Tigers to a 103-win season which culminated in their third World Series title. The 1968 season was the final season before the divisional playoff format took hold, and the Tigers hold another unique distinction by winning that last Pennant and World Series before MLB was realigned. They beat the Cardinals in seven games.
Billy Martin took over as manager in 1971, after Smith dropped them into fourth place. He managed to make them the head of the 1972 AL East class, but they faced the Oakland Athletics in the ALCS, and there was no way Oakland was going to be beaten that year, and the Tigers lost. That marked the start of a decline which lasted throughout the entire decade which lasted until the middle of 1979, when Sparky Anderson was put in charge. Anderson was a popular commodity, having managed Cincinnati's Big Red Machine juggernaut to numerous Pennants and two World Series titles, including their legendary 1975 team. The Tigers returned from the basement, and in 1984 they fielded the best team in their history, a 104-win monster which went wire to wire and steamrolled through the postseason, and wrecked the San Diego Padres in the World Series. Sparky Anderson became the first of only two managers to win the World Series in both leagues.
The Tigers won their division in 1987, but the following several years saw them collapse. They won 88 games in 1988, and only 59 in 1989. They began trying to rebuild using a new approach based on power hitting, which only worked to a certain extent. Cecil Fielder was signed and well worth whatever they were paying him, but the team's core got older and the pitchers were a bunch of nondescript D-listers. The Tigers won 85 games in 1993, which was the best they did in the short span of time after 1988, in which they middled. That 1993 record was their best for a long time, though, and not the start of a better future. Anderson retired in 1995, and Detroit was lost at sea.
At the time of Sparky Anderson's retirement, the Tigers had never gone more than four straight seasons with losing records, so the post-Anderson years were the team's absolute nadir. In 1996 the Tigers hired Randy Smith as general manager. He put together a team that lost 109 games and is widely considered one of the worst in baseball history. So during this down period, Tigers fans could at least take solace in the fact that, no matter how shitty their team was, they had experienced the absolute worst they would ever go through. Then in 2003, it somehow actually did manage to get worse. Now, to be fair, they were picking up another new general manager for that season, and he decided to build the Tigers using the extremely risky implosion by design strategy. Everyone who played for the Tigers that year did so with the understanding that the Tigers were basically having a hiatus year, and they would likely be ditched come the end of the season. No one expected the Tigers to do any good at all, and the Tigers spent the season charging down the 1962 New York Mets for the worst record in baseball's modern era. Those Mets lost 120 games. The 2003 Tigers stood at a nasty 38-118 after 156 games, and were looking like a lock to own the new record when they won five of their last six - including their finale - to come to rest at 43-119.
Teams had been terrible in the past. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders and 1916 Philadelphia Athletics had been terrible. The 1935 Boston Braves and those infamous 1962 Mets had also been awfully bad. But the 2003 Tigers had the first 20-game loser in more than 20 years, ace Mike Maroth. Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Cornejo were first, second, and third in MLB for losses. The three losingest pitchers all being on the same team had NEVER happened before. Ramon Santiago became only the twelfth Triple Crown loser in MLB history, coming in last in all three Triple Crown categories. The team overall has been called the worst team in baseball history without an excuse. The Spiders and As, after all, lost because they had unloaded all their stars. The Braves were hit with financial problems, and the Mets were a first-year expansion team that was fucked over by roster realignment because the other NL owners were scared to death of them potentially being good.
Implosion by design is a high risk, high reward maneuver, though, and when the Tigers snapped up catcher Ivan Rodriguez in the offseason, things suddenly looked a lot brighter, especially when they improved by almost 30 games in 2004. In 2005, the Tigers spent money on two prized free agents, Magglio Ordonez and Troy Percival. During the 2005 season, the Tigers made a trade with the Texas Rangers which brought Kenny Rogers, and managed to make a run for the Wild Card before fading and finishing with 71 wins. In 2006, the manager was fired and replaced by Jim Leyland, who came with a World Series victory in 1997 as manager of the Florida Marlins. In 2006, the Tigers spent the year racing against the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox, even looking like they would win the division until a second half swoon denied them and gave the division title to Minnesota. Fortunately for them, the defending World Series Champion White Sox did their best to honor their cross town NL rivals by choking, and Detroit captured the Wild Card and went to the playoffs. They beat up the Yankees in the LDS, pounded the ever-loving shit out of Oakland in the LCS, and just three years after posting the worst record in AL history, they were the AL Champions. Unfortunately, they choked pretty badly in in the Fall Classic against the Saint Louis Cardinals, committing a number of ridiculous errors, but even so, Detroit was the acknowledged force of the AL Central now.
They've fallen short most years since then, but they've still been a chic pick to win the division because of the general weakness of it and the fact that they've been playing baseball that's generally very good. They finally won the division in 2011, and after grabbing prized free agent Prince Fielder (yes, he's Cecil's son) in the offseason, everyone pretty much ceded the division to them. The White Sox held the 2012 division lead, though, and for the first few months Detroit just sucked. Of course, as is the universal order of professional baseball, Chicago choked, and Detroit moved in and got the division. Since then, they also won the AL Pennant. They're three games down in the World Series, but they're there.
The Tigers are a team of some unique distinctions. Ty Cobb was the first player to get a hit off pitcher Walter Johnson, whom many argue was the greatest pitcher. The Tigers are the last team to have faced - and beat - the Chicago Cubs in the World Series before the notorious Billy Goat Curse got the better of them. The last 30-game winner, Denny McClain, was a Tiger, and just this season Miguel Cabrera became the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Just in the World Series right now, they just became the first team in a long time to be shut out in two straight games. They were also the opponents the Chicago White Sox were facing during the most notorious and embarrassing incident in that team's history, Disco Demolition Night, in which a simple promotion set up to destroy a handful of disco records turned into a free-for-all melee amongst a drunken and high crowd.
Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Hank Greenberg, Heinie Manush, Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Larry Doby, Al Kaline, and Jim Bunning are among those who have been Tigers. The Tigers have retired six numbers, including Cobb and Kaline. They've also placed the names in right field of many members of the team who played before a numbering system was issued. Cobb is still considered one of the greatest. He's also traditionally considered one of the meanest, although over the last couple of years, his reputation is being called into question and looked over again because most of it is based on what his primary biographer, Al Stump, wrote about him. Stump's veracity is being called into serious question these days, and many of the things he wrote about Cobb are now reputed to be fabricated. At the very least, Cobb is starting to appear as a far more complex person than traditional biographies are painting him. The other face of more knowledgeable Tigers fans is Kaline, considered one of the great class acts of the sport. Though in his twilight, he's still around and still supporting his team in spirit, and Detroit was happy to receive him at Comerica Park last night to throw the first pitch. The team itself has won a total of eleven Pennants and four World Series.
The AL Central has the best divisional rivalries no one knows about. Like every other team in Detroit, the Tigers have one of those to-the-death rivalries with the Chicago White Sox. The Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, and Kansas City Royals are also there for foils. In my official capacity as a huge fan of both the Yankees and White Sox, I think White Sox/Tigers is a much better rivalry than Yankees/Red Sox. The two teams usually have a base of talent which is about equal, and when both teams are good, they're really capable of doing anything against each other in any game, or in the standings. Races between them are hotly fought to the death. Rivalries in the World Series are unique because so few teams have any of them at all, but the Tigers actually managed to pull off World Series rivalries with two different teams: The Chicago Cubs, whom they've played against four times, (and are 2-2 against) and the Saint Louis Cardinals, whom they've battled three times (and are 1-2 against).
It pains me that I'm rating the Detroit Tigers higher than the Chicago White Sox, but objectivity calls. The Tigers have been a more notable team. They're a very historic team, and it's good to be a fan of them at the moment. These Tigers are to be feared and respected.
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