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  • Writer's pictureJames Sargent

Yesterday’s Tiger Heroes (Wynwidyn Press, 2014)

Blog Item from chapter 1, pages 2-3:

Adding excitement for Detroit fans in 1956, the Tigers’ lineup, featuring several very good hitters, led the American League with a team batting average of .279, topping the Red Sox (.275) and the Yankees (.270). The Tigers’ best hitters included Harvey Kuenn (pronounced Keen), who averaged .332 with 12 homers and 88 RBIs; Charlie Maxwell, who hit .326 with a team-high 28 homers and 87 RBIs; youthful Al Kaline, who batted .314 with 27 four-baggers and a team-best 128 RBIs; and veteran Ray Boone with his .308 mark, 25 homers, and 81 RBIs. All four made the American League’s All-Star team. Detroit’s stellar pitchers were Frank Lary, later dubbed the “Yankee Killer,” with a 21-13 record, lefty Billy Hoeft, 20-14, and fastballing Paul Foytack, 15-13. The Tigers had other good pitchers like rookie Jim Bunning, later a Hall of Famer, who contributed a 5-1 record, and veterans Steve Gromek, 8-6, and Virgil Trucks, 6-5. Southpaw Al Aber, 4-4 with a 3.43 ERA and a career-best seven saves, was the leading late-inning “fireman” (relievers were not yet called “closers”) in a mediocre corps of relievers.

All of these players were seasoned professionals, and as a result, they had certain points in common. They lived more urgently than others, Roger Kahn wrote when explaining the likes of Mickey Mantle, because their careers could be over by age 35, or sooner. Few of these young men were articulate, or read books, or understood paintings, or even cared. Instead, they usually went to movies, often Westerns, and the more gunplay, the better they liked it. They read the sports pages, and on long train rides to other cities, they played cards, drank beer, pulled pranks, and swapped stories. Most came from small towns, and they were suspicious of people in larger cities. They were bigger, stronger, tougher, and often more selfish than most, but one thing they could do well. “From their earliest memory, it seemed,” Kahn observed, “each had been the best baseball player of his age in the town and even in the county. Somehow that single fact covered for everything else.”

Indeed, they were heroes, and their intense competition on the diamond drew thousands to storied ballparks like Briggs Stadium.

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