Brawling, clowning, kicking high and spacing out — here’s a look at 10 offbeat Tigers worth remembering
Published: April 2, 2013
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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