Moving on from naming our greatest catcher of all-time for the Detroit Tigers, we take on naming the greatest first baseman of all-time. If choosing a catcher was difficult, this proves to be one of the biggest battles outside of the right field discussion.
With the only criteria of playing for the Tigers for five seasons, with a majority of games at that position, we have seven candidates. They include: Norm Cash, Hank Greenberg, Miguel Cabrera, Rudy York, Lu Blue, Cecil Fielder, and Tony Clark. The only two players that I am going to eliminate from this list right away will be Clark and Fielder, as Clark’s the .277 average and 156 homers aren’t going to cut it with this group, although the numbers are respectable. Fielder, I was intending to write about until I looked at his numbers as a first baseman and realized a third of his homers came as a DH.
We’ll start in chronological order…
Lu Blue (1921-1927): Blue started out his 13-year career as a Tiger, where he played seven years and all but one game at first. With Detroit, Lu hit .295, with 19 homers and 407 RBI, while steal 87 bases, and obtaining a .806 OPS and a 20.8 WAR. Blue landed on 3 MVP ballots, but never finished higher than 10th.
Hank Greenberg (1930-1946): The original “Hammerin’ Hank” player all but one season with the Tigers, however lost three seasons to World War II, where he served in the Air Force. Greenberg’s numbers are still special however, as he was the key figure on these teams along with Charlie Gehringer. Of the 1,269 games the Hank played in Detroit, 1,138 were at first, before he was convinced to move to the outfield (see below).
During Greenberg’s career as a Tigers first baseman, he hit .317, with , 1,231 hits, with 291 doubles, 58 triples, 250 homes, and knocked in 978, while scoring 788 times. Hank had a .406 OBP, .615 slugging, combining for an amazing 1.022 OPS and 43.7 WAR.
Greenberg appeared in amazingly only four All-Star games, was on 8 MVP ballots, winning the MVP twice, and finishing 3rd twice. One of the great Hank Greenberg stats comes from 1935, where he had hit 25 homers and collected 103 RBI by the All-Star break (a standing record), but was not selected to the All-Star team, as both managers put themselves on the roster, but did not play. Other Greenberg tidbits include having the 3rd most RBI in a season with 184 in 1937 and challenged Babe Ruth’s record of homers in a season with 58 in 1938.
Hank played in two World Series as a first baseman, which included 1934 and 1935. In the ’34 series against St. Louis, he hit .321 with a couple doubles, a triple, a homer, drove in 7, and even stole a base in the losing cause. The following season Greenberg sprained his wrist in the 2nd game of the series and did not play after that. Before the injury, Hank was 1-6 with a homer and 2 RBI.
Rudy York (1937-1945): Rudy played for Detroit in 10 of his 13 years in the Majors where he started off as a catcher, saw more time at first during the 1939 season, and moved there for good after the Tigers persuaded Hank Greenberg to move to right field. From 1940-1945, York played 924 games at first, collecting 962 hits, batting .275, with 175 doubles, 36 triples, 151 homers, and collecting 638 RBI, and had a .835 OPS, and a 18.5 WAR.
York, made 4 All-Star teams out of those 5 (8 total) years, was on the MVP ballot each of those years, including finishing 3rd in 1943 and 8th in 1940.
Rudy played first base for both of Detroit World Series teams in 1940 and 1945, where he hit a combined .203, with a double, triple, and homer, and collected 5 RBI between the two series.
When comparing York’s career to another player, Baseball-Reference.com compares him most favorably to Hall of Famer Tony Perez.
Norm Cash (1960-1974): Cash started out with the Chicago White Sox where he appeared in a limited role before being traded to Cleveland and eventually the Tigers before the 1960 season and playing out the next 15 seasons of his career. Of Norm’s 2,018 games in Detroit, 1,912 were as a first baseman. For his career at first with Detroit, Cash hit .273, collected 1,780 hits, including 238 doubles, 40 triples, 367 homers, knocked in 1,068 runs, score 1,015, and almost has an even walk (1,014) to strike out (1,044) rate. Additionally, Cash had a .866 OPS and a WAR of 51.7.
Norm Cash, was an All-Star four times, appeared on the MVP ballot five times, finishing as high as 4th in 1961 where he won the AL batting title.
Cash appeared in the World Series in 1968 with the Tigers, where he was a key cog, hitting .385 in the series, collecting 10 hits, scoring 5 runs, hitting a home run, and driving in 5. Norm also hit well in the 1972 ALCS, against the Oakland A’s, where he hit .267, hit another homer and drove in a couple runs.
Miguel Cabrera (2008-2016): Seems like a shoe in, but we need to take a look at Miggy’s numbers positionally before handing one the greatest right handed hitters of all-time, Detroit’s best at first award.
I think we are all familiar with how Miggy landed in Detroit and we know that he spent some time kicking the ball around at third base to make room for Prince Fielder at first. With that, Cabrera has played 1,376 games now as a Tiger, with 978 of those games coming as a first baseman. In those games at first, Cabrera has hit .326, with 1,185 hits, 261 doubles, 6 triples, 209 homers, and 708 RBI, to go along with a .406 OBP, .573 slugging, and a combined .979 OPS. His 51.4 WAR as a Tiger takes a hit when removing his 3B seasons and moves down to 36.9.
Of course his 2012 and 2013 seasons were at 3B and is when he won the Triple Crown and both MVP Awards, so we take that out of play. Still Cabrera has played in 5 All-Star games as a First Baseman, has been on every MVP ballot of his career, finishing as high as 2nd, 4th and 5th, at first. Has won 3 Silver Sluggers at the position, and won batting titles in 2010 and 2015.
Cabrera has also manned first base during two playoff runs in Detroit (2011 & 2014), where he has hit .326 with 5 homers, and 11 RBI.
There you have it, the Detroit Tigers have had some incredible first baseman over the years, but I think this all boils down to Hank vs. Miggy. First, Cabrera will be a Hall of Famer, he also may be one the five best right handed hitters of all-time, but at this point in a head to head comparison, I have to go with Hank Greenberg for best Detroit Tiger first baseman of all-time. For me, it boils down to a couple things…First, Cabrera’s career is still in play and the numbers aren’t quite up to Hank’s YET. Second, Cabrera has Hank in batting average, but OBP is a tie, and slugging goes to Hank, as does OPS. Lastly, Cabrera has moved around positons a bit, the reduction in Cabrera’s WAR and loss of both MVP seasons while playing 3rd hurt him in this process. One additional note, I did not factor in the lost seasons for Greenberg to WWII, since he had already shifted to the outfield at this point. One other thing to consider, Miggy has 8 seasons at first, while Hank had 9, the variance in counting stats will tighten up a bit with Cabrera surpassing Hank in hits and doubles next season, but a wide gap will remain in other places and it’s tough to think that Cabrera will increase his slugging and OPS figures to surpass Greenberg.
It may seem like a crazy decision as Cabrera is one of the four or five greatest Detroit Tigers of all-time, but not the best first baseman YET. By the way, if the crazy trade talk goes away and Cabrera can have a couple more healthy seasons, he will be the best Tiger first basemen of all-time.