The 10 greatest games in Tiger Stadium historyby Chris Jaffe
April 23, 2012
Last week, as I’m sure many of you know, Fenway Park celebrated its centennial anniversary. It had a big celebration and media attention. That’s appropriate, as the park has lasted all this time. However, while it’s the only baseball stadium to survive 100 years and still be used, it wasn’t the only long-lasting ballpark to have its 100th anniversary last week.
The very same day Fenway hosted its first game back in 1912, so did another famous place—Tiger Stadium (a.k.a. Briggs Stadium and Navin Field). The Tigers left it after 1999, so its 100th birthday would never generate nearly as much attention, but it did last quite a while, 88 seasons of baseball within it. And when it had its 100th birthday, it got me to wondering, what are the best games it ever hosted?
You could just as easily ask that question about Fenway Park, and more people would probably be interested in the results, but there’s a problem there. Well, with Tiger Stadium, it’s more fun. There are so many Fenway games that you have to put on—the Fisk game, the Dent game, etc.—that there isn’t much research to do. For me, doing the research is the fun part, so let’s look at Tiger Stadium.
Anyhow, here are the ground rules for what games make the list.
- This is from the point of view of a baseball fan, not a Tiger fan. It doesn’t matter if the game is a joyful win for Detroit or a heartbreaking loss.
- We’re looking at great games here, not great performances, which aren’t necessarily the same things.
- Postseason games are more important than regular-season games and thus will have an edge, but let’s not crowd out the regular season altogether.
- Last but not least, these are guidelines, not rules. If I want to make Game No. 10 a great performance, then so be it. Let’s not constrain ourselves too much with rules. Lists are supposed to be fun.
OK, so with that said, here are Tiger Stadium’s greatest games:
10. (tie) The greatest performances in Tiger Stadium. April 30, 1922: White Sox 2, Tigers 0. July 15, 1973: Angels 6, Tigers 0.
In its 6,700-ish game existence, Tiger Stadium saw exactly eight complete-game no-hitters. These two were the most impressive.
In 1922, Chicago’s Charlie Robertson didn’t just throw a no-hitter, he threw a perfect game, the only one in stadium history. No one else in baseball would throw another until Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series. Yeah, that deserves a mention.
And 51 years later, Nolan Ryan wasn’t perfect, but he was much more dominating. While Ryan walked four batters, he also fanned 17. That’s the most strikeouts ever in a no-hitter. The Ryan Express was so overwhelming, Tigers star Norm Cash took a table leg to the plate in lieu of a bat at one point.
Only two of the first 17 batters Ryan faced put the ball in play. A dozen fanned, and three walked. That’s as dominant as dominance can get.
9. Tiger Stadium’s last postseason home win: Oct. 10, 1987: ALCS Game Three: Tigers 7, Twins 6.
The AL East champion Tigers needed this win badly, as they’d dropped the first two game of the ALCS to the underdog Twins in Minnesota. Early on, it looked like it would be an easy victory. Detroit batted around in the third inning, giving them a seemingly comfortable 5-0 lead.
Then Minnesota responded with two runs in the fourth. And then a two-run homer in the sixth, and suddenly the big lead was just a narrow 5-4 advantage. That wasn’t to last, either, as Gary Gaetti drove home two with a single in the top of the seventh. So long five-run Tiger lead, hello, 6-5 Twins advantage. If Minnesota wins this one, Detroit has no chance for the pennant.
Sparky Anderson’s boys had some fight in them, though. In the bottom of the eighth, just five outs from defeat, the team roared back to the lead thanks to the bat of their No. 9 hitter, Pat Sheridan, who belted a two-run homer. Not bad for a guy with six homers in 141 games on the season.
Detroit won to keep hopes alive but then dropped the next two anyway, ending its season. The postseason would never return to the old ballpark.
8. Tiger Stadium’s biggest comeback that wasn’t: June 2, 1925: Tigers 16, White Sox 15.
After six innings, this was anything but an interesting game. The Tigers had an enormous lead, 15-5. Surely, nothing could happen to it.
Well, obviously, something did or it wouldn’t be on this list. Chicago scored seven in the seventh and then three in the ninth. Suddenly the 10-run lead was just a pleasant memory.
The lead might have been vanquished, but Chicago couldn’t seal the deal. Instead, with one out in the ninth, a Tiger player went deep with a walk-off home run. The Tiger who hit it? Ty Cobb, of course.
7. The greatest All-Star Game of them all: July 8, 1941: AL 7, NL 5.
This is the most famous All-Star Game, the one that ended with a walk-off homer by Ted Williams. The AL entered the ninth trailing, 5-3, but scored one and had two on when The Splendid Splinter came to the plate.
On the mound was Rip Sewell, and he had a specialty pitch, the “eephus” pitch. This was the best time for it, because Williams could end the game with one swing, and no one had ever hit that trick pitch hard enough to send it over the fence.
Sewell threw it, and wouldn’t you know it, Williams became the only person to hit the eephus over the fence. A thrilled Teddy Ballgame rounded the bases as the AL won the game.
6. Baseball for axe-murderers: Sept. 14, 1998: White Sox 17, Tigers 16 (12).
I could be wrong, but my hunch is the wind was blowing out that day at Tiger Stadium. This wasn’t merely the highest-scoring one-run game in stadium history, it was a back-and-forth game with enough shifting fortunes to give everyone involved a bad case of whiplash.
First Chicago took an early 5-0 lead. Then Detroit stormed back for an 8-6 edge. Chicago reclaimed the lead by the seventh-inning stretch, 12-8. Detroit scored twice in the seventh and two more times in the ninth to tie it, 12-12. Shortly after tying the score, Detroit had the bases loaded with only one out in the ninth but couldn’t bring the winning run home.
Extra innings beckoned. Chicago scored thrice in the 10th only to see Bobby Higginson tie it with a home run in the bottom of the frame: 15-15. This was beginning to look like Detroit’s day.
Or not. Chicago had back-to-back homers in the 12th, and while the Tigers valiantly fought and scored one more run, the game ended with Chicago victorious, 17-16.
5. The best pitchers’ duel: May 7, 1974: White Sox 1, Tigers 0 (11).
This is the opposite of the above, the best pitchers’ duel in stadium history. This isn’t the longest 1-0 game in Tiger Stadium history. They had a 13-inning one in 1973, and a 12-inning game in the stadium’s final season.
No, but this has something special since both starting pitchers went the distance. Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood was an unsolvable riddle on this day, allowing just two hits and four walks while fanning 10. Detroit counterpart Lerrin LaGrow was nearly as good, letting just seven runners on base—and two of them were knocked out in double plays. Through nine innings, only one batter had even made it to second base.
In the 10th, it looked like the Tigers had finally figured out Wood. Thanks to two walks and a single, they had the bases loaded with only one out. A pop-up and a groundout later, and the game headed for the 11th.
At this point, LaGrow looked like the better pitcher. He’d gotten stronger, having retired 17 of the last 19 men he faced. But it only takes on pitch, and one bad pitch to Sox catcher Ed Herrmann became a home run for the day’s only score.
The pitchers’ combined Game Score of 185 (99 for Wood, 86 for LaGraw) is the best in Tiger Stadium history.
4. (tie) The greatest series ever: Oct. 2, 1987: Tigers 4, Blue Jays 3. Oct 3, 1987: Tigers 3, Blue Jays 2 (12). Oct. 4, 1987: Tigers 1, Blue Jays 0.
It’s the stuff of storybooks. If it was a Red Sox-Yankees series, we’d never here the end of it.
The 1987 season ended with the Tigers hosting the Blue Jays with the division in the balance. Toronto entered on a four-game losing streak but still led the AL East by one game over the rival Tigers. Both teams had a simple mission: win the series at all costs.
In the first game, Toronto jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, only to see the Tigers come back right away. All the scoring was over by the end of the third, and while the Jays got men on base in nearly every inning, they also hit into four double plays. The division was now tied, with both teams sporting 96-64 records.
The next day, Toronto held early leads of 1-0 and 2-1, but the Tigers kept tying them. Toronto wasted a bases-loaded situation in the sixth and repeatedly put runners in scoring position but couldn’t bring home that third run. The game went into overtime, until a bases-loaded single by Alan Trammell won it. Detroit, which trailed Toronto by 3.5 games just a week earlier, now led by one.
A Tiger win in the finale would clinch the division, and a Tiger win is just what happened. Toronto starter Jimmy Key was nearly flawless, holding the Tigers to just three hits, and two of those hits were immediately rubbed out in a double play.
But that third hit couldn’t be erased. It was a solo home run by Larry Herndon. Frank Tanana made it stick by pitching a complete-game shutout, and the Tigers were headed to the postseason.
3. Overcoming early jitters: Oct. 4, 1934: World Series Game Two: Tigers 3, Cardinals 2 (12).
It was one of the greatest postseason pitching performances of all-time, certainly the best by someone who looked so bad early on.
Through three innings, Detroit’s Schoolboy Rowe surrendered six hits and two runs to the Gashouse Gang Cardinals. It could’ve been even worse, but St. Louis had a runner thrown out at the plate to end the third inning.
But when Rowe turned it around, he didn’t just do it a little bit. After the third inning, Rowe retired 27 of the next 28 batters he faced, allowing only a double in the 11th.
Meanwhile, the Tigers rallied back. They tied it in the bottom of the ninth, and even there Rowe played a role. After a leadoff single, he bunted the runner to second, which allowed him to score on another single. Three innings later, Goose Goslin singled home Charlie Gehringer to give Detroit the ballgame.
2. The greatest game from the most underrated postseason: ALCS Game Four: Tigers 4, A’s 3 (10).
1972 might have the greatest postseason ever. All the series went the distance. The World Series featured a record one-run decisions, and most the games were decided in the final minutes. The NLCS featured a walk-off wild pitch to end its Game Five. But no game was as thrilling as this one.
Detroit needed a win to force a fifth and final game in the ALCS. The Tigers scored first for a 1-0 lead, but the A's tied it on a Mike Epstein home run. That’s where it stood as regulation ended.
In the 10th, Oakland looked to ice the game and pennant by scoring a pair of runs for their first lead of the day, 3-1. They had another would-be run on third with one out but couldn’t bring him the last 90 feet. That would prove to be costly.
Instead of rolling over and dying, Detroit rallied back, loading the bases on two single and a walk with no outs. Now, the tying run was just a single away from scoring. Instead of a single, Detroit scored a run on a fielder’s choice turned error with everyone safe. The error was because normal catcher Gene Tenace was playing second, totally foreign ground to him.
Shortly after that, a bases-loaded walk to Norm Cash tied the game. Jim Northrup then ended the unlikely comeback with the game-winning single for Detroit. It was a sweet moment, but the A’s would have the last moment to savor as they won Game Five for the pennant.
1. Walk-off world championship: Oct. 7, 1935: World Series Game Six: Tigers 4, Cubs 3.
Not many World Series end with a walk-off win, but the 1935 Fall Classic did. The Tigers entered it leading three games to two, and needed just one more victory for the first world title in franchise history. Though they had the edge in the series, the Cubs would have the advantage on the mound in Game Seven, so Detroit wanted to win it here.
It was a tense and hard-fought game, with neither team ever leading by more than one run. Detroit took leads of 1-0, and 2-1, but Chicago moved ahead, 3-2. Detroit tied it in the sixth, and then it was just a matter of who could score last for the win.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Mickey Cochrane stood on second base representing the championship-run when Goose Goslin came to the plate. Goslin, as you might, recall is the guy who got the big hit to end the Schoolboy Rowe masterpiece in the 1934 World Series. Now he had a chance to top himself, and he delivered with a single. Cochrane beat the throw to the plate, and the Tigers had done it.
Other games had more back-and-forth action, but no game at Tiger Stadium had the combination of high stakes and late-inning tension as this one. Thus, it’s the greatest game in Tiger Stadium history.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org were invaluable for this research.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.