The Most Disappointing Season For…the Detroit Tigers

The 1973 Detroit Tigers

Record: 85-77  (3rd AL East, 5th out of 12 the AL)

Pythagorean Record: 77-85

Runs Scored: 642 (9th in the AL)

Runs Allowed: 674 (6th in the AL)

Prior Season Record: 86-70

Manager: Billy Martin (71-63), Joe Schultz (14-14)

Hype: Last year these same players won the division. This year there’s no reason they can’t get to the World Series. We have the players, the pitchers AND the manager.

The Gory Details:  The Tigers won the World Series in 1968. Eight of the 1973 position players were on that winning team, which even in the age before free agency, is pretty remarkable. Of the regulars (10 in all that saw action in over 90 games), only shortstop Ed Brinkman and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez weren’t on the squad that summer. Those two players were seasoned vets as well.

In fact, most everyone on the offensive side of the ball was well seasoned. No one penciled into the main lineup as a starter, platoon player, or main utility player was under 30 except Rodriguez. They say experience helps teams win the big games. We’ll see about that…

As for the pitchers, Mickey Lolich was around in 1968, and over the past few seasons he was the dependable ace, working an incredible 376 innings in 1971 in 45 starts, and following that up with 41 starts and 323 innings in 1972. The Tigers could pencil him in for at least 40 starts and 300 innings of quality work.

Backing up Lolich were Joe Coleman, who over the past few seasons had also had a pretty heavy workload, and was just 26; Jim Perry, the wily veteran and Gaylord’s brother; and veteran lefty Woody Fryman, who had stabilized the rotation after he came over from Philadelphia in mid-season.

The bullpen was stacked as well. John Hiller was an incredible story. He had a heart attack, and missed a season and a half, but returned in mid-season 1972 and pitched incredibly. Lefty Fred Scherman filled in for Hiller as the main stopper for two seasons, also was around.

Plus, Detroit had three youngsters, Lerrin LaGrow, Bill Slayback and Chuck Seelbach, that really helped the team down the stretch the year before.

The manager of this veteran squad? One Billy Martin. This was Martin’s fourth season as a manager. In his first three seasons he had two division titles and a second place finish. Although, there was baggage. (Understatement…)

He was fired from Minnesota in 1969 after a famous incident where he beat up one of his own pitchers in a bar brawl.

In 1971, there were allegations that he had pitchers on his team (notably Bill Denehy), that were only on the team as intimidators and instigators.

In 1972, his team was involved in a few bench clearing incidents, and of course in the ALCS LaGrow hit Bert Campaneris, perhaps on orders from Martin, and Campy threw his bat at LaGrow. The only one to really go crazy in that incident (besides Campaneris) was Martin.

Martin also had his strategy questioned during the series, as in the final game of the series he benched Willie Horton and played backup catcher Duke Sims in left field. Tigers management were a bit puzzled by that.

Then there was the case of Les Cain, who was a young and promising pitcher that developed arm issues. Martin thought he was goldbricking, and in 1972 used him early in the year even though Cain said his arm hurt. Cain’s arm failed him, and he filed a Workman’s Compensation claim against the Tigers and Martin because of the overuse, and won his case, the only one like that in baseball.

However, everyone was ready for a great season when Spring Training hit. Well, some of the Tigers were. Willie Horton and Jim Northrup weren’t too pleased with Martin’s style or decision making. Both players found themselves in Martin’s doghouse off and on through the previous years, and there was no reason to think that would be different.

Horton and GM Jim Campbell were meeting with Martin about Horton’s status during the spring, when Martin got irate, told Campbell he was quitting, stormed out of the office, and left camp. He didn’t come back for the rest of the day, and no one knew what was happening.

Martin just said later that ‘he needed to get away’ and always was going to return, and return he did, the next morning, calmly smoking his pipe, like nothing had happened.

Soon after, he gave an interview where he wondered why the Orioles, whose core was also aging like Detroit’s but had several young players ready to take their place, were able to develop young players all of the time, while the Tigers farm system wasn’t providing him with those same young players of quality. While that was true, that’s not something the manager of the team should say in public on or off the record.

Then there was an argument Billy had in a bar in Lakeland with minor league player Ike Blessitt. Blessitt was a young player, but obviously Martin didn’t like what he saw in September of 1972, The two had words that they ‘took outside’, and Billy was arrested by the police for shouting obscenities in public.

Still, even with those distractions, the Tigers vets were seemingly able to overcome them and were considered among the favorites in the AL in 1973. The DH rule, which was just instituted, was definitely going to help Martin and the Tigers, as they’d be able to use Gates Brown and Frank Howard as platoon DH’s instead of just as pinch hitters.

Martin was also platooning at second, catcher and mixing-and-matching four players in the three outfield spots, and using Ike Brown as a pinch hitter for the more offensively challenged infielders like Brinkman and Rodriguez.

Trouble hit the pitching staff early, as Slayback and Seelbach had sore arms and weren’t ready to go when the season started. That scrambled the staff a bit, but they were just relief pitchers (in Billy’s mind, chattel). Hiller was ready to take a full load of bullpen work for sure and in the middle of April Campbell swung a deal to get Mike Strahler from the Angels for some pitching depth in the organization.

The AL East was volatile in the beginning of the season. So much so that Detroit’s 6-5 loss on May 13th moved them from second to fifth in the standings. Detroit surged ahead of the tightly bunched pack, leading the division over the latter stages of May and ending the month at 25-21, up 1 ½ games.

The start wasn’t what Detroit had hoped for, and the Tigers made some changes in order to rectify some issues. Fryman had a rough start to the year, so Detroit went out and traded for Ed Farmer, who could start and relieve if needed. Strahler also moved into more of a starting role to supplement the iron trio of Lolich, Coleman and Perry.

Realizing that old vets such as Horton, Northrup, Mickey Stanley and Al Kaline were a bit defensively challenged in the outfield, Dick Sharon was called up to be a defensive replacement, a pinch runner, and another bat on the bench. He may have been faster than those players, but he was no speed demon. No one on the Tigers was. Detroit stole just 28 bases ALL season.

June didn’t work out so well. It wasn’t just Fryman that lost the way. Slayback and Seelbach were basically cooked due to arm issues, and they didn’t pitch another inning all season. LaGrow was having his own problems, as was Scherman. Strahler had hiccups as well and oh, by the way, Fryman was still getting pounded.

It seemed that the pitchers either pitched very well, or got hammered. Detroit suffered through an eight game losing streak in June, and fell back to fifth place again. Martin, as you could guess, was seething.

He didn’t do anything crazy, yet, just tried to arrange the staff so that Lolich, Coleman and Perry started as often as they could. Detroit finished June in fifth, at 37-38, but were just 5 ½ games behind. The Tigers then won five of six, and had a five game winning streak in mid-July. After the All-Star break, they went on a tear, winning eight in a row in a stretch that ended August 1st.

August started even better. On August 6th, Frank Howard tied the game with a 9th inning shot off of Sparky Lyle, and the Tigers won in the 10th when the Yankees made two errors on a Brinkman sacrifice bunt to plate Rodriguez. (One was the very rare E9 on a sac bunt – thanks Matty Alou.) That put Detroit in first place at 60-50 in what was now a four team affair.

Detroit finished the homestand winning five out of seven, and then won the first game of a long road trip, beating Minnesota 9-3. That put Detroit up 1 ½ games, but they had 12 more road games ahead of them in Minnesota, Anaheim, Oakland and Chicago.

It didn’t go so well.

Minnesota teed off on Coleman and Lolich, the two stalwart starters Martin had the most faith in, and won the series. The punchless Angels blitzed Fryman and Strahler, and took two out of three. Oakland also won two out of three in their series, which ended on Wednesday, August 22nd.

Coleman gave up seven runs to the A’s, and now the Tigers were in third place at 68-58, and 4 ½ back. While Detroit was fiddling around in the West, Baltimore was burning up the league, and pulled away from the once tightly bunched pack.

Martin had to sense that his team was tired. They had to be. Coleman’s arm was showing wear, same with Lolich. The team’s age was showing on offense and defense.  A few players were having good to great seasons, sure, but two of them that were, Horton and Northrup, were ones that Billy didn’t care for and so he still didn’t play them full time. Sharon even got some starts ahead of the veterans.

The team was scheduled to play Chicago on Friday, and left Oakland Wednesday to travel there. Martin, though, didn’t go with the team, and went home for a day.

Billy, having been fired before without warning, may have been covering his bases and making contacts with some movers and shakers during that day off. Maybe he was doing laundry. He probably was drinking a bit. All the Tigers brass, coaches and players knew was that he wasn’t with them.

It was now Friday. Game time in Chicago was approaching. No one had seen the manager. It was Lolich’s turn to pitch, so he got ready, but no one else knew the lineup or anything and knowing Billy, no one was really sure if they’d play or where they’d hit.

Finally, one half hour before game time, Martin arrived like there was nothing wrong. The lineup turned in, hurriedly, the game was played, and certainly afterwards discussions were had. The Tigers did win that game and the next, but lost a Sunday doubleheader to the White Sox.

Back home, Detroit was hoping to make one last push to try and catch Baltimore. Unfortunately, Minnesota took two of three, and now the Tigers were seven games behind. Baltimore was still rampaging through the league, and realistically 1973 wasn’t going to be Detroit’s year. Still, a second place finish, and some moves to shore up pitching and the defense, and you would be optimistic about 1974 if you were a Detroit fan.

Cleveland rolled into town to face the Tigers in a four game set starting on August 30th. The Indians were rebuilding, with some talented young players in their lineup, but they were having an awful year thanks to a woeful pitching staff. Gaylord Perry was their lone bright spot in the rotation, and he was up to his old tricks using deception, guile, and suspected illegalities.

During the game, Martin thought for sure he caught Perry loading the ball up, but the umpires did nothing. So, when Scherman replaced Coleman in the ninth down 3-0, Martin told the lefty to throw spitballs. Scherman did walk two that inning and the ball seemed to have more movement than normal. The Tigers went down meekly in the ninth for the loss.

After the game, Martin, with no hesitation, blasted the umps for not catching Perry’s loaded balls AND bragging that he DID order Scherman to throw spitballs. Well, that did it.

The AL wasted no time at all and suspended Martin for three games as soon as the quotes hit the AP wire. The Tigers ownership and GM had also had it. All of the incidents starting in 1971, through the ALCS, to the shenanigans in the spring, to the Chicago debacle and now this – this was just too much.

The Tigers needed some modicum of decorum. So right as the suspension was due to be over, the Tigers fired Martin and Joe Schultz, former Pilots manager, took the helm the rest of the way.

(Sidebar: It is unknown if Schultz told his team to “Pound the old Budweiser.”)

After Martin was fired and the roster expanded, Schultz did give some young players a chance in the lineup and coaxed the pitching staff along. The Tigers meekly went out 14-14 under him and finished 85-77, 12 games behind in third place. Definitely not what they had in mind.

Martin, of course, had the last laugh. He landed in Texas a week later after the Rangers pushed aside Whitey Herzog (who landed at Kansas City soon enough and also had laughs on Texas for his too early firing). He rebuilt that clown show into a contender within a season, and then somehow got himself fired in Texas right when the Yankees managerial job was opening up in mid-season 1975.

Sure enough, Billy Martin had somehow, whether by plan or pure luck, moved into the one managerial job he really ever wanted within two seasons of his firing in Detroit.

As for the Tigers, they held onto this core way too long. In 1974 and 1975 they bottomed out. Finally, in 1976 Detroit had some new blood, but it took a while for the Tigers to really contend again.

Detroit had the perfect storm for disappointment. They had a team that was moving past their prime in almost every position, pitchers who were overworked, and a manager who basically looked out for himself. That spelled doom for the Tigers and set them back greatly for about a decade.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Hiller was incredible, and Martin got 125 relief innings out of him. He had an 8.1 WAR. Coleman and Lolich also had WAR’s over 5.0, though they did pitch a ton of innings. They paid for that overuse in 1974 and beyond. The best position player was platoon second baseman Dick McAuliffe, at only 2.6.

Honorable Mention Team: The 1988 Tigers had a lot of elements from the dominant 1984 team, and finished one game behind in second place in the AL East. In 1989, hell met the handbasket big time as the Tigers slipped to 59-103 with basically the same cast of characters as 1988.

Bad Blast from the Past: From 1907 through 1911, the Tigers, under Hughie Jennings, were winners or contenders. Led by Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, their offense carried the team as far as it could take them. In 1912, the offense slipped a bit, and the pitching really lost its way. Detroit fell from 89-65 to 69-84 just like that. Oh, and in 1912 the team went on strike for a day because Cobb was suspended for going into the stands to fight someone in the stands, who happened to be disabled. That’s a nice look, there, Tigers.

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