To me, there is no doubt. There is no debate. There is no question what the greatest and most important home run in Tigers history is. I’ll give you Gibby vs. Goose, Fielder on the Roof, Fick’s grand slam, Maggs’ walk-off. Those are nice. A survey of most Tigers fans would probably put either the Magglio Ordonez walk-off over the A’s or the Kirk Gibson three-run shot off Goose Gossage as the greatest home run in Tigers history. But let’s face it, those are so overrated.
Let’s take Magglio’s shot in game 4 of the 2006 ALCS. The game was tied with two out in the ninth, with two on, in a series in which the Tigers held a three-games-to-none series lead. Even if he didn’t hit it, they were going to win. That home run was merely the icing on the cake of an incredible season. It was one of only three LCS walk-offs in baseball history (at the time). It was a nice way to end the series, but a single would’ve been just as effective.
Gibby’s blast was great, but as far as what impact it had on the game/series/season, it was totally meaningless. It was a three-run jack in the eighth inning of a game they were already winning. The score was 5-4. We all know the story. Gossage didn’t want to walk Gibson, who’d already homered in the game. He told his manager he was going to strike Gibson out. Gibby then launched it into the upper deck, setting off a wild celebration. It was a great moment. It has to be the most memorable moment of the greatest season in Tigers history (in terms of wins). There was the Free Press picture of Gibson jumping up and down, and looking like an entire army couldn’t stop him. The kisses he blew, the thunderous high fives, the crowd going nuts, it was all pretty cool. Then there’s the fact that it was a metro Detroit native coming up with the hit that sealed the deal.
Here’s the problem I have with that Gibson home run being rated the best in Tigers history. Even if Gossage had struck him out, the Tigers were still going to win. They had Willie Hernandez taking the mound in the ninth inning in a series they led three games to one. However, the audio of Sparky telling Gibby, “He don’t wanna walk you,” then hearing Gossage tell Dick Williams he was going to strike him out, then seeing Gibson crush one into the seats in right—that’s priceless. But sorry, it’s not the greatest home run in Tigers history.
One this date, 1945, Hank Greenberg’s big bat provided the single greatest and most important home run in the long history of the franchise. “Absolutely,” says Virgil Trucks who started the game, and has no doubt about Greenberg’s blast ranking number one on the list of all-time great Tigers home runs. “No question about it.” No home run has ever meant more, none more clutch.
The Tigers entered play one game up on the Washington Senators. The Tigers were to play a double-header in St. Louis against the defending AL champion Browns, while Washington’s season was already finished. If the Tigers got swept in the twin-bill, it would force a playoff with the Senators to decide who would play the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. The Senators were already in Detroit waiting for the possible playoff. The Tigers lost out on a chance for the pennant the previous year, falling short to St. Louis by one game by losing to the Senators on the last day of the season. They could put that frustration behind them with the pennant-clincher against the Browns.
The weather was miserable. Rain had drenched the playing field for 10 straight days, and the temperature was 57 degrees. A total of 5,582 fans huddle into Sportsman’s Park to witness the grand finale of a great season. It was a light misty rain again on this day, and the start of play was delayed 50 minutes.
Virgil Trucks was facing Browns ace Nels Potter. Trucks had just returned from World War II three days earlier. Greenberg had returned a couple of months prior. Trucks says he wasn’t very rusty, though. He was stationed in Norman, Oklahoma after spending a year in Guam. “I ran every day, and there wasa a guy there who was a catcher who I would throw to.” Any rust he had, he was going to have to get over in a hurry. He was pitching a huge game for his team.
The Browns got to Trucks in the first inning. He gave up a double to leadoff hitter Don Gutteridge, who then scored on a single by the next hitter, Lou Finney. That run looked like it was going to be big. The Tigers finally threatened in the fifth after two were out and nobody on. Trucks walked, then Skeeter Webb and Eddie Mayo singled to tie the game.
Roy Cullenbine’s quick thinking helped give the Tigers the lead in the sixth. He walked, and Rudy York hit a foul pop up behind the plate. When Browns catcher Frank Mancuso went back to the screen to catch it, Cullenbine tagged up. He caught the Browns by surprise. He slid in safely, putting the potential go ahead run at second base with two out. The Browns then walked Jimmy Outlaw to bring up Paul Richards. Richards lined a single to center, scoring Cullenbine, and giving the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
In the bottom of the sixth, Trucks got into a jam, so manager Steve O’Neill pulled him in favor of Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser. With the bases and one out, Newhouser got a strike out on a 3-2 pitch to Mark Christman, then a fly out to end the inning. Newhouser gave up back-to-back hits to lead off the seventh, tying the game at two. With two out in the eighth and one on, Browns first baseman George McQuinn smoked one off the wall in right to give St. Louis a 3-2 lead. It didn’t look good.
The Tigers trailed with just three outs left, but of course, they weren’t done. Hubby Walker led off the ninth, pinch hitting for Newhouser. He singled, giving the Tigers some life. Webb was the next hitter, he laid down a sacrifice bunt. The Browns infield acted quickly to try to get a force at second, but Walker slid in safely through the mud, putting two on with nobody out. Red Borom went in to run for Walker. Mayo then laid down a bunt, giving himself up to put runners at second and third with one out. Potter then walked Doc Cramer intentionally to load the bases for Greenberg. Hank was a great player, but he wasn’t very fast, at all. Walking Cramer set up the possibility of a game-ending double play.
Potter started him off with a ball and a strike. The next pitch was a high fastball, and Greenberg jumped all over it. He crushed it on a line to left field, clearing the 351-foot sign, and landing in the bleachers for a grand slam. Borom, Webb, and Cramer all scored ahead of him. By the time Greenberg reached home plate, the entire Tigers team was there to mob him. “We knew it was a home run right away from the time it left the bat,” Trucks says. “There was no ‘get outta here’ or pushing it out. The whole bench just went wild. It was a big relief.” Hanks big bat had given the Tigers a 6-3 lead.
Al Benton came in to pitch the ninth inning, and set down the Browns to end the game. The Tigers had won the pennant. The rain then picked up, and the second game was canceled. They didn’t need to play it anyway. The season was over. Final score: Tigers 6, Browns 3.
Greenberg, the war hero, had once again delivered on the ball field. The greatest slugger in Tigers history hits the biggest home run in the team’s history. Without a doubt, Hank’s home run stands the test of time.
This is an excerpt from The Perfect Season: How the Detroit Tigers Go 162-0 and Sweep Their Way to a World Series Championship! Used by permission of the author. You can buy the book here.
The Perfect Season: How the Detroit Tigers Go 162-0 and Sweep Their Way to a World Series Championship!
By Matt Wentworth
Foreword by Dan Dickerson
For this book, I researched every win in the history of the Detroit Tigers franchise, from 1901-2007. From this research, I put together the greatest season’s worth of games in team history. So I start with the greatest opening day ever, then the greatest second game ever, and so on, until they go 162-0 and sweep their way to a World Series championship.
To properly tell the story, and the significance of the games, I tried to put the fan back into the stadium, to feel like they were witnessing the history unfold before them. I used the newspaper accounts from microfilm at the Detroit Public Library. I also interviewed many people to gain this perspective. I talked with Ernie Harwell, George Kell, Virgil Trucks, Frank Lary, as well as a fan who actually witnessed Babe Ruth play at Navin Field. All of these people have since passed away.
If you love Tiger baseball, you’ll love this book.
The 1945 Tigers
Listen to Burge Carmon Smith talk about the Tigers’ triumphant 1945 season