All-star oddballs 

Brawling, clowning, kicking high and spacing out — here’s a look at 10 offbeat Tigers worth remembering

As Detroiters, we’re fortunate to have a team with such a long and storied past. The Tigers have played continuously under one name and in one city longer than any other team in the American League. You could dive into the franchise’s 110-plus years of history and put together a list of almost anything: power hitters, ace pitchers, visionary managers, etc. But what if you looked beyond the stats at some of the Tigers who were most memorable for the unusual, for being exceptional in ways statistics just can’t measure? We now present our absolutely unscientific lineup of All-Star Oddballs (and welcome you to go online and name those you think also deserve a spot on this roster of the offbeat).

 

Billy Martin

In a long, tempestuous career as both a player and a manager, Billy Martin earned a reputation as a boozer and a brawler with a brilliant baseball mind.

As with some other stops along his managerial path, Martin didn’t stay long in Detroit. He led the team from 1971 to 1973, winning a divisional title in ’72. His end as a Tiger came the when he was fired, ostensibly for ordering his pitchers to throw spitballs and beanballs at opposing batters.

A brilliant baseball mind, like we said, but also slightly unhinged.

Mickey Mantle, a longtime teammate of Martin during their years together as Yankees, told a story about climbing in a car with Martin in Dallas and driving to the south of Texas to hunt deer on land owned by a friend of Mantle’s. It goes like this:

The guy doesn’t know two ballplayers are coming, so when they arrive at the ranch, Mantle tells Martin to wait in the car while he goes inside to make sure it’s OK to hunt there. The owner is happy to oblige, but asks the Mick to do him a favor: There’s an old mule in the corral that needs to be put down, and the owner doesn’t have the heart to do it.

Mantle demurs, the owner persists. So the slugger agrees to do the deed and then, while walking back to the car, decides to enliven things. He approaches the car feigning anger, saying the owner turned down their request, even after Mantle had explained that they’d just driven four hours to get there. Mantle acts pissed off and says he’s going to teach that guy a lesson.

“I’m gonna kill his mule,” he tells Martin, who tries to talk some sense into his friend, holding back on the gun and pointing out the potential pitfalls of such a rash act. Mantle, a much bigger man than Martin (described by one writer as as being built like a weasel) succeeds in getting control of the weapon and stomps off toward the corral.

He goes in, levels his rifle at a mule unaware that its imminent demise is being used as the punch line to a prank, and pulls the trigger. The mule drops. Then Mantle hears three more shots from close by. Bang! Bang! Bang! He turns around and sees Martin, who’s holding a smoking gun and saying, “I just got three of the guy’s cows.”

He was that kind of friend.

But just because he liked you didn’t mean you would be spared if things ever came to blows. His penchant for fisticuffs was legendary. As the New York Times noted following Martin’s 1989 death in a car accident (he and the driver, who hailed from Detroit, were both drunk), Martin “had fights with Clint Courtney, a catcher for the St. Louis Browns, in 1952 and 1953. He and several teammates, including Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, were involved in a fight at the Copacabana nightclub in New York in 1957. In 1960, he broke the jaw of a Chicago pitcher, Jim Brewer, and Mr. Brewer later won $10,000 in a lawsuit. As a manager, in 1969, Mr. Martin knocked out one of his players, Dave Boswell, who was fighting another player.”

That incident with Boswell, which occurred while Martin managed the Minnesota Twins, actually took place in an alley behind Detroit’s famed Lindell A.C. — a favorite watering hole for local pros back in the days when sports stars were a lot less wealthy and often rubbed shoulders with their fans. The Twins were in town to play the Tigers, but the brawl ended up being between Martin and Boswell, who ended up needing about 20 stitches to close the facial cut created by Martin’s blows. And that’s what he did to his star pitcher.

Among Martin’s odder moments during his days as a Tiger was the time he abruptly resigned — for just one day. It was in March of ’73, and he’d been called into the office of General Manager Jim Campbell along with star slugger Willie Horton. The GM wanted to smooth out problems between Martin and Horton. As the story goes, Martin got all hot under the collar at one point, exclaiming, “I’m done,” he exclaimed, heading for the door. “Get yourself a new manager!”

After being absent for a day, he reappeared, telling reporters, “I was just upset and said the hell with it. I had no intention of quitting. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t even remember saying anything about quitting. Maybe I said it, but I don’t remember. I had to get away for a day. Maybe I got mad at something when I should have sat there a little longer and talked things out.”

Alcohol surely played a role in his erratic behavior. For just a bit of insight regarding Martin’s fondness for booze, we again turn to Mantle, who once told Sports Illustrated about the “breakfast of champions” he and Martin would frequently enjoy: “… a big glass filled with a shot or more of brandy, some Kahlua and cream. Billy Martin and I used to drink them all the time, and I named the drink after us. Sometimes when I was in New York with nothing to do, and Billy and I were together, we would stop into my restaurant on Central Park South at around 10 in the morning, and the bartender would dump all the ingredients into a blender and stir it right up. It tasted real good.”

With Billy, said Bishop Edwin Broderick at Martin’s funeral, you got a lot of “thrills and spills, ups and downs,” but “he was always, one must admit, an interesting show.”

 

Norm Cash

Some guys just like to have fun. Norman Dalton Cash was one of them.

A power-hitting lefthander from Texas, the player affectionately known as “Stormin’ Norman” spent nearly his entire 16-year big league career as a Tiger.

A first baseman who could field as well as hit, Cash had a breakout year in 1961, when he led the American League with a .361 average, hitting 41 home runs. Only afterward did he reveal that the feat was accomplished with the assistance of bats illicitly lightened by a mixture of cork, sawdust and glue. He even demonstrated his technique for Sports Illustrated — after his retirement, which came in 1974.

In fact, he once summed up his career by saying, “I owe my success to expansion pitching, a short right-field fence, and my hollow bats.”

What he’s most remembered for, though, were his playful antics. Like the time he attempted to steal second base and got caught between the bags. Trapped by the opposing players, he put his hands in the shape of a T in an attempt to extricate himself from the predicament by calling a time out.

It didn’t work, but it made for one hell of a story. It’s also said that there was at least one time when, after being on second base at the start of a rain delay, he could be found trying to occupy third once play resumed.

The crowning moment of his career as a prankster came on July 15, 1973, when Nolan Ryan, then an ace for the California Angels, had a no-hitter going with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

That’s when Cash stepped up to the plate. His bat wasn’t corked that day; in fact, at that moment he didn’t hold a bat at all. Instead, he had the leg of a clubhouse table in his hands. When the ump told Cash he had to get a real bat, he reportedly said, “Why not? I won’t hit him anyway.” Then, using a regulation bat, he proceeded to pop out with a weak fly to left, giving Ryan a no-hitter and earning himself an indelible place in baseball lore.

Cash met an untimely death in October 1986, when he drowned in an accident off Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. He was only 51. According to press accounts from the time, then-Tigers President Jim Campbell had this to say about Stormin’ Norman: “Norm was a well-liked, free spirit. He was everybody’s friend, and along with it one of the great players to ever wear a Tiger uniform.”

 

Tyrus Raymond

“Ty” Cobb

In the history of baseball, nobody earned the description “infamous” quite like Ty Cobb, who played with the Tigers from 1905 to 1926. Nicknamed “The Georgia Peach,” the ballplayer may as well have earned the moniker for his sweet swing (his career batting average remains a baseball record: .366) as for his heart of stone. He was known as a bigot with a short temper and a penchant for sadism. One local sportswriter described his style of play as “daring to the point of dementia.” A later Tiger player said Cobb regarded the game as “something like a war,” recalling that “every time at bat for him was like a crusade.” Cobb inspired fear in his opponents and hatred in his teammates. His reputation as a dirty player was well-known — his contemporaries described how he’d sharpen his cleats in the dugout, then slide feet-first into a bag with those razor-sharp spikes aimed high. Given his thirst for blood and spurred soles, it’s hardly surprising his career record for stealing home (54 times) still stands. It’s also not a shocker he retains the dubious honor of committing more errors (271) than any American League outfielder.

Some say that the tales of Cobb’s violence were amped up by ambitious sportswriters who wouldn’t let facts get in the way of good copy. But some unflattering accounts of Cobb’s behavior are undeniable, and illustrate an almost sociopathic personality that traded in violence that was completely out of proportion to the perceived insult. In 1907, when a black groundskeeper greeted Cobb too familiarly during spring training in Georgia, an infuriated Cobb attacked him; when the groundskeeper’s wife intervened, Cobb began choking her. The conflict only ended when the catcher knocked Cobb out cold. In 1908, when a black laborer complained about the ballplayer walking on freshly poured asphalt, Cobb attacked the man, earning a battery charge. Perhaps most famously, in 1912, while playing against the Highlanders in New York, Cobb was so incensed by one remark from a heckler that he bounded into the stands and attacked the man. The crowd protested, as the man had lost all of one hand and most of the other in an industrial accident. Undeterred, Cobb reportedly yelled, “I don’t care if he got no feet!”

Novelist W.A. Berger, in his recent book of historical-inspired fiction The Purples, included Cobb in a scene. One of the Jewish gangsters, attending a ballgame at Navin Field, gets Cobb’s attention and asks, “Is it true you hate Jews?”

With a big smile, Cobb replies, “I hate everybody!”

It rings true.

 

Mark Fidrych

It is not just baseball lore that a no-hitter was once thrown by a pitcher flying high on LSD. The story of that peculiar exploit has been around for decades.

If you were to guess which big league pitcher actually accomplished that psychedelic feat, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych might naturally come to mind. It is, after all, not too far-fetched to think a guy who would hold conversations with baseballs might be tripping his brains out on some powerful purple microdot.

But you would apparently be wrong. For the record, it was former Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Dock Ellis who, after his playing days were over, copped to being on acid the day in 1970 that he pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres.

Fidrych is described this way on the jacket of Doug Wilson’s new book The Bird:

“Lanky, mop-topped, and nicknamed for his resemblance to Big Bird on Sesame Street, Fidrych exploded onto the national stage during the Bicentennial summer as a rookie with the Detroit Tigers. He won over fans nationwide with his wildly endearing antics, such as talking to the ball (and throwing back the ones that ‘had hits in them’), getting down on his knees to ‘manicure’ the mound, and shaking hands with just about everyone from teammates to groundskeepers to cops during and after games. Female fans tried to obtain locks of his hair from his barber and even named babies after him.”

But, as Wilson rightly notes, Fidrych was “no mere sideshow.”

That ’76 season was a truly magical one. Although he didn’t get his first start until mid-May, he went on to win 19 games. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, and finished second in voting for the Cy Young Award.

Unfortunately for the Bird and the fans that adored him, things were never really the same again after that first season. His slide toward oblivion began with a torn knee cartilage suffered while kidding around in the outfield during spring training in 1977. Then, after his return to the field, Fidrych suffered a shoulder injury while pitching against the Orioles on July 4. It wasn’t until years later that he learned he had torn a rotator cuff.

By 1980, just four years after bursting on the scene in a blaze of glory, his baseball career was over.

The end to his life came in 2009, when he was working on a dump truck at his farm in Massachusetts. His clothes got tangled up in a rotating shaft and he suffocated. He was 54.

 

Dave Rozema

Born in Grand Rapids, 6-foot, 4-inch “Rosey” joined the Tigers as a pitcher in 1977, and had a tremendous rookie year. It started with his first major league win being a shutout against the Boston Red Sox. By season’s end, he was 15-7, taking fourth in the 1977 Rookie of the Year award. A four-year lull followed, with Rozema winning no more than nine games a season. By the start of the ’82 season, though, he was back in form, winning his first three starts.

Then came May 14, 1982.

The Tigers were locked in an unusually confrontational contest with the Minnesota Twins. In the second inning, Twins manager Billy Gardner was ejected for disputing a call. In the third, the Twins’ first base coach was also tossed for arguing too intensely. Maybe those vibes had spread among the players, because, in the fourth inning, when Twins starter Pete Redfern beaned batter Chet Lemon, both teams rushed the field. A brief brawl ensued, mostly between Kirk Gibson and a Twins’ pitching coach, but it was over almost as soon as it started. The umps halted play for 20 minutes to sort things out, and, when it was over, Redfern left the game injured (his right foot had been spiked) and Lemon was ejected.

Tied up at 2-2, the game went into extra innings, and tensions were clearly running high. Dave Rozema took the mound and held the Twins scoreless through the top of the 11th inning. The Tigers turned the tide in the bottom of the 11th, putting men on base and getting in position to take the game. Then the Twins’ Ron Davis threw a brushback pitch that was too high and tight for Tiger third baseman Enos Cabell, who responded with “threatening gestures” at the pitcher. The ump tried to restrain him, but Cabell rushed the pitcher, who met him halfway as the benches cleared again and what can only be described as mayhem ensued. For almost 10 minutes, the players tackled, wrestled and pummeled each other on the infield. At one point, the umps had almost halted the violence when Minnesota’s Jesus Vega started punching again, earning licks from Gibson and Richie “The Gravedigger” Hebner (for more on Hebner, see below).

Much of this chaos is now forgotten, but against its bloody background shines one legendary moment, when the gallant Rozema leaped into the fray. Literally. Flying through the air with a karate kick.

The video of this moment cannot be found online — at least for long, before it’s ordered removed. Someone who did view it described Rozema flying in from the left hand side of the screen with a karate kick, aiming for Twins player John Castino.

Castino was not hurt by the kick, but Rozema shredded his knee, tearing eight ligaments, and was carried off the field in a stretcher. The season-ending injury would derail his career.

At least in the stats, the game was a win for the Michigander. When order was restored and the game resumed, Gibson socked a homer that clinched the game for the Tigers, 4-2.

 

William James

“Gates” Brown

What’s odd about Brown’s career is how it began: Serving time at the Ohio State Reformatory for robbery. The story goes that Brown was encouraged by a guard to join the prison’s ball team, and the coach, impressed by his skill with a bat, contacted several big league clubs. The Tigers sent some scouts to watch him play and, based on their evaluation, the team helped him get an early parole and signed him to a contract. Although other teams also expressed interest, he said he signed with Detroit “because they didn’t have any black players and eventually I figured they would, plus, I had been told about the short right porch at Tiger Stadium.”

In his first trip to the plate as a major leaguer he hit a home run.

Brown went on to have an impressive 13-year career, giving an especially big boost to the team during its 1968 season, when it won the World Series. As a pinch hitter that season, he had a batting average of .450. (He helped the team win another championship as a batting coach in 1984.)

Brown did have one truly oddball moment as a player. It came in ’68, when the manager called the slugger in to pinch-hit just as he was getting ready to chow down on a few hotdogs the clubhouse kid had brought him. So he stuffed the dogs in his shirt, grabbed a bat and stepped to the plate. Bill Dow, a metro-area attorney and lifelong baseball fan who has written often about the Tigers of yore, dug up Brown’s account of what happened next and posted it to the detroitathletic.com website:

“I always wanted to get a hit every time I went to the plate. But this was one time I didn’t want to get a hit. I’ll be damned if I didn’t smack one in the gap and I had to slide into second — head first, no less. I was safe with a double. But when I stood up, I had mustard and ketchup and smashed hot dogs and buns all over me.

“The fielders took one look at me, turned their backs and damned near busted a gut laughing at me. My teammates in the dugout went crazy.”

Asked by his manager why he was eating during a game in the first place, Brown decided to point out the obvious.

“I said, ‘I was hungry.’ Besides, where else can you eat a hot dog and have the best seat in the house.”

 

Jim Walewander

When you think about the music of baseball, it sure has changed. It used to be limited to the repertoire of the ballpark organist, who’d play the swelling buildup to “Charge!” or the melody of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” But prerecorded music has taken over in a big way. Back in the 1980s, when the closest you’d get to punk rock might be a few bars of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” coming over the P.A., there was a quiet, clean-cut 21-year-old Tiger who helped change all that.

You’d have hardly guessed it when Chicago-born James Walewander joined the Tigers in 1983. But Walewander was listening to some pretty out-there music back then, especially considering that, before punk broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, it was the stuff of threatening episodes of Quincy and CHiPs. Back during the Reagan administration, you wouldn’t even hear even, say, the Ramones on mainstream radio.

And so it was considered quite odd indeed when, in 1987, the world learned that Walewander was a big fan of Philly-based punk band the Dead Milkmen, who performed such sharp and satirical songs as “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything).” Walewander invited the band to Tiger Stadium, where they met both him and manager Sparky Anderson, as well as getting to see Walewander hit his only major-league home run.

Now that’s music to our ears.

 

Denny McLain

The last time a major league pitcher won at least 30 games in a season was 1968. The man who did it was ace right-hander Denny McLain, who won the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards during that championship season. He won the Cy Young again the following year, and was also named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.

In addition to his dominance on the mound, McLain also played a mean organ, releasing two albums on Capitol Records.

But there was a darker side to the hurler. His 2007 autobiography, I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect, is a cautionary tale described this way on amazon.com:

“From being the only 30-game winner in more than 70 years to having the Gambino crime family order a hit for your murder, Denny McLain has surely seen it all: RICO charges from the U.S. government to touring the country as a popular musician playing on national TV and the Las Vegas strip before becoming a close jail-house friend to John Gotti Jr. … By 1972, he was a retired star, hustling games of golf. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he was in and out of prison for charges including racketeering, loan-sharking, extortion, cocaine possession and fraud before being included in wide-sweeping RICO charges that tried to connect him to Gotti and the violent underworld of the mafia.”

He blamed his downfall on his “desire for excitement and attention.”

 

Germany Schaefer

We’re not even sure if there were ballpark mascots back in 1905, when “Herman the German” Schaefer joined the Tigers roster. But any team featuring this baseball clown had a morale boost right there. See, Schaefer had a vaudevillian streak — he even had a routine he’d perform with Tiger teammate Charley O’Leary — and often use his gags as a sneaky way to psych out umpires and opposing players. His antics on the field were strange and, sometimes, unique. He is said to be the only ballplayer to have stolen first base from second, and then stolen second again. Always the trickster, he made baseball his big top, and his monkeyshines sometimes angered umps for seeming to question their judgment. Now legendary, many of his gags involved rain gear, implying that the game should be called off due to weather. In one account, he walked onto the field wearing a raincoat and was ordered to change by the umpire, after which a genuine downpour forced the official to call the game for real.

Proving that, even in baseball, a good joke can leave you laughing last.

 

Richie Hebner

Only a Tiger from 1980 to 1982, it wasn’t any ballpark antics that made folks look at Richie Hebner askance. It was his off-season activity that garnered him the fish-eye. When he’d hang up his mitt in the fall, Hebner was also known for working at the family business. You see, Hebner’s grandfather owned a graveyard in Walpole, Mass., and his father inherited it, and he and his brother Dennis worked there digging graves for 30 years. In these days of multimillion-dollar contracts, it’s unheard-of for players to work in the off-season, let alone do manual labor. But it added cachet to Hebner, who was given the nickname “The Gravedigger,” and allowed him to make such jokes as, “I’m the last guy to let you down.”

 

Michael Jackman and Curt Guyette are editors at Metro Times. Think they missed some oddballs? Let us know! Post in the comments or email letters@metrotimes.com.

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