When you have as storied a history as the Detroit Tigers, it is nearly impossible to keep track of all of their “great” players. Even as a lifelong Tigers fan who keeps as close a tab as possible on current and former members of my favorite team, there was one name I wasn’t familiar with: Harry Heilmann. Over a conversation at a local establishment I learned of who Harry Heilmann, or “Slug”, was as a player, and, needless to say, I was impressed.
When you’re at Comerica Park, you’ll notice on the top left corner of the brick wall behind the right-field out of town scoreboard Heilmann’s name along with others like Manush, Jennings, Crawford, Cochrane, Kell, and Harwell. Most of these guys you could name if you’ve spent any time around the new(er) home of the Detroit Tigers. But who was Harry Heilmann? Let’s look at his career as a Tiger.
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Harry Heilmann began his career with the Detroit Tigers in 1914, taking over in right field from “Wahoo” Sam Crawford. The Tigers were looking for the 19-year-old to replace someone who had simply amassed a career .309 average and was integral to the Ty Cobb years, and three straight World Series appearances from 1907-1909. No easy task for a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager from the West Coast.
Heilmann made his debut with the Tigers in 1914 against the Boston Red Sox, going 0-1 as a pinch hitter. The rest of the season in 1914 didn’t go quite as planned for the Tigers and Heilmann. He ended the year hitting only .225 in 182 at-bats. During the next season, he spent time in the Pacific Coast League, playing 98 games for the San Francisco Seals, back home in California. Slug wouldn’t be long for the minors, collecting a .364 average in 1915, with 135 hits (23 doubles), and more impressively 12 home runs. This performance led to a call-up in 1916 with the Tigers, something Heilmann never looked back from.
After tasting time at the Major League level in ’14, being relegated to the Minors in ’15, then receiving the full-time call to Motown in ’16, all Harry Heilmann did was become one of the more prolific hitters during the next 16 years. Of course, Heilmann has been overshadowed during this time because of the explosion of power by one man, Babe Ruth. That, and the perennial batting champion of the National League, Rogers Hornsby, constantly kept the name Harry Heilmann from gaining prominence; not to mention he was battling his own teammate Ty Cobb for the premier hitter of the American League for much of his career.
But, during this span (1916-1932), Harry Heilmann was a top 10 Major League hitter. If you sort the stats (and, I did just that, you can see it here) you’ll consistently see Heilmann in the top 10 amongst all the well-known names. For instance, he was 10th in average (.344), ranking above guys like George Sisler and Jimmie Foxx. He ranks 4th in hits (2,619) ahead of Ruth, Cobb, and Tris Speaker. And, lastly, he was 2nd during this time in doubles (534), ahead of Hornsby, Cobb, and Ruth. He collected a career WAR of 67.7 with the Tigers, which ranks him sixth in club history. Along the same lines, his 72.2 career WAR (with Detroit and Cincinnati) puts him 88th all-time in Major League history. Not bad for a relative unknown to be a top-100 player in all of the MLB. Unfortunately for Heilmann, and maybe why he isn’t as well known, is the relative obscurity the Tigers were in during his career, never once finishing higher than second in the American League his entire career. During his time the Tigers went 1,452-1,423, a .505 winning percentage.
This type of performance is worthy of a Hall of Fame induction, something Heilmann received from the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1952. Unfortunately for Heilmann, he passed away from lung cancer on July 9, 1951; never receiving his call from the Hall while alive. Regardless, Heilmann was a force to be reckoned with while donning the Old English D. His name is rightfully recognized on the back wall of Comerica Park, along with all the greats that have passed through our hallowed organization. Now, maybe we can begin to discuss his name among the greats to have ever graced the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, something I wish I had been able to do much sooner.