These are the greatest leadoff hitters in Tigers’ history

Tony Phillips, Lou Whitaker, and Dick McAuliffe each performed well at the top of the order for the Detroit Tigers.

Tony Phillips, Lou Whitaker, and Dick McAuliffe each performed well at the top of the order for the Detroit Tigers.

They get it started. They spark the offense. They set the table.

They’re the leadoff hitters, and they’re an important part of a baseball lineup. Throughout history the great leadoff hitters have made a mark in the game. Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, and Tim Raines are some of the most famous and most successful leadoff hitters of the last 50 years.

The Detroit Tigers are currently using Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis (at times) in the #1 spot in their lineup. Their styles are quite different. Davis is the sort of offensive player that was traditionally used in the leadoff spot for decades. Teams wanted a slap-hitting, speedy basestealing threat at the top of their lineup, one who could get on base, maybe swipe a bag, and be in position to score on a hit from the #3 and #4 hitters. It didn’t matter much if they had any power. On the other hand, Kinsler represents the more modern leadoff hitter – a good average hitter with good plate discipline who can also hit the ball for power. Kinsler has hit as many as 20 homers five times, and twice he topped 30 homers while with the Texas Rangers.

Here are the 10 greatest leadoff hitters in the history of the Detroit Tigers, based on several factors, but primarily on their ability to get on base, hit and hit for power, steal bases, and their contribution to winning teams.

#10. Eddie Yost, 1959-60

Just spent two seasons with Detroit, which is why he ranks so low. Otherwise, “The Walking Man” would rank much higher. Yost was one of the best at getting on base in baseball history – his career .394 OBP ranks among the best ever. In Detroit in 1959-60, he had two of his best seasons, posting a .425 OBP while averaging 17 homers and 130 walks. Yost didn’t steal bases and he didn’t hit for a high average, but he got on base a lot. He was a Billy Beane sabrmetrics-style ballplayer years before that was even thought of. Unfortunately for Yost and the Tigers, the team was mediocre in the two seasons he was in Detroit, but Eddie did lead the league in runs scored in ’59 with 115.

#9. Eddie Lake, 1946-49

Lake was nicknamed “Sparky” because of his peppery attitude and it certainly fit his style of play. The little shortstop was way ahead of his time as a ballplayer. He hit for a low average but he walked a ton (103 free passes his first season as Detroit’s leadoff man and 120 the next), but his lack of speed and his woeful .211 batting average didn’t impress manager Steve O’Neill, who should have known better. After getting on base a lot at the top of the order for the Tigs in 1946-47, Lake was demoted to the role of utility player and wound up his big league career coming off the bench. He still got on base a lot, posting an OBP of .427 in 1948 in 67 games and still getting on 36% of the time in ’49 despite hitting below .200 in 94 games as a backup infielder. In another era, Lake’s ability to take a lot of pitches and get on base would have been much more appreciated.

#8. Curtis Granderson, 2005-09

Ranks 7th all-time in games at leadoff for the Tigers, enjoying a five-year stretch before being sent to the Yankees in a three-way deal. Granderson had a phenomenal season in 2007 when he became only the fifth major leaguer to hit at least 20 doubles, triples, and home runs. Garnderson twice led the AL in triples and he scored more than 100 runs twice from the top of the order for Jim Leyland’s ballclub. Grandy’s weaknesses were his inability to hit left-handed pitching and his high strikeout rate. His .485 slugging percentage as a leadoff hitter for Detroit ranks first in team history.

#7. Lu Blue, 1921-27

Lu Who? Lu Blue, that’s who. Blue was an odd-looking ballplayer: he was a short, scrawny first baseman with little power. But he was a very good hitter and he had an excellent eye. Playing most of his years with Detroit under manager Ty Cobb, Blue hit .300 four times including in his rookie year in 1921 when he found his way on base 288 times. The switch-hitter had a 5-to-2 walk-to-strikeout ration in his career, a typical season being about 100 walks and 40 strikeouts. For his career he had a .402 OBP. He ranks 9th in games at leadoff for Detroit.

#6. Donie Bush, 1914-21

Prior to Blue, the Tigers had little Donie Bush in the leadoff spot for almost a decade. The short little pixie was a pest at the top of the order and he was an excellent baserunner. Bush scampered home frequently on hits by Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford in the 1910s. Five times the switch-hitter led the American League in walks, in 1909-12, and again in 1914. Even in 1915 when he batted just .228, Bush scored 99 runs because he walked 118 times. The first great basestealing threat at leadoff for the Bengals, Bush swiped 402 bases for the Tigers, topping out at 53 in 1909. He did his leadoff hitting from 1914 to 1921, when he posted a .352 on-base percentage and averaged 85 walks per season.

#5. Ron LeFlore, 1975-79

When you think of speedy leadoff hitters, Ron LeFlore fits the bill. The lightning-fast LeFlore led the AL in stolen bases in 1978 with 68 thefts, then he swiped 78 the following season. LeFlore was a fine hitter, batting over .300 three times for Detroit with decent power (he hit as many as 16 homers). In 1976 he had a 30-game hitting streak and started in center field in the All-Star Game. But LeFlore didn’t walk very much (about 50 times per season) and he struck out a lot and was prone to slumps. His 751 games at leadoff are the second-most in franchise history.

#4. Harvey Kuenn, 1953-59

Kuenn started his career hitting at leadoff, but later was shifted down to #2 and #3 (in ’59 when he won the batting title he hit 2nd and 3rd for the Tigers). As a leadoff batter, Kuenn was very effective, hitting .305, the highest mark for a Detroit player with at least 200 games in the leadoff role. A great contact hitter, Harvey rarely struck out and he could take a walk, so his OBP was good at .354 in the #1 spot. He ranks fifth all-time in leadoff games for the Tigers.

#3. Tony Phillips, 1990-94

Ernie Harwell nicknamed him “Tony the Tiger,” and for five seasons, Phillips was a valuable asset for Sparky Anderson. Like Donie Bush and Lu Blue, Phillips was a switch-hitting leadoff man. Like Eddie Lake, Phillips could play any of the infield positions. But unlike any other great player in Detroit history, Phillips could pick up a glove and play just about anywhere on the diamond. As a result, Sparky used him at third, second, short, any of the three outfield positions, and as a DH when he needed to. Phillips’ ability to draw walks (he employed a low crouch which tightened the strike zone for enemy pitchers) and his power were his offensive calling cards. In his five seasons in Detroit, he averaged 154 hits, 100 runs, 26 doubles, 10 homers, 62 RBI, 14 stolen bases, and 104 walks per season. He was actually one of the best offensive players the Tigers had in years, but the Tigers stunk and he got lost among the sluggers on those teams. Tony’s .392 OBP as a leadoff hitter in Detroit ranks 1st among players in that role for at least 300 games. Phillips ranks 4th in runs scored and 6th in leadoff games for the Tigers, he leads all Detroit leadoff men with 446 walks (one more than Whitaker).

#2. Dick McAuliffe, 1960-73

Only LeFlore and Whitaker hit in the #1 spot for the Tigers more than McAuliffe who did so on and off for most of his career with Detroit, which spanned 14 seasons. In ’68, McAuliffe was the leadoff man for the World Champion Tigers, getting on base 226 times in a season dominated by the pitchers. McAuliffe was the first Detroit leadoff batter who regularly hit home runs. He hit 95 while batting in the leadoff spot, second in franchise history. Only Whitaker and LeFlore scored more runs from the leadoff spot, but Dick’s many seasons in the role and the fact that he did it for two first place teams in Detroit (’68 and ’72) earn him this high ranking.

#1. Lou Whitaker

One of the things that made it a Tigers game in the 1980s was the sight of Lou Whitaker tip-toeing to the batters’ box in the first inning to lead off the game for Detroit. #1 on the back of his jersey and #1 in the lineup, Sweet Lou was an excellent leadoff hitter, spending about half his career in that role for the Bengals. Whitaker holds team records for most games as a leadoff batter (922), runs (622), hits (1,069), home runs (103), RBI (414), and times reached base (1,568). He led off games with homers 23 times, a franchise record that ranks in the top five in baseball history. In the 911 times he started the game at leadoff, Whitaker reached base 37% of the time. In 1984 he jump started the Detroit offense, teaming with #2 hitter Alan Trammell to form a dangerous duo at the top of Sparky Anderson’s lineup. In the postseason he reached based 25 times in 13 games, failing to reach base only once (in Game 3 of the ’84 ALCS). Want a spark to start the game? In the 1984 World Series, Whitaker got on base in the first inning and scored in Games One, Two, and Four. Later in his career after Phillips was acquired, Whitaker was shifted down to #2 and #3 and rarely led off in the last 5-6 years of his career.


Other Tigers’ leadoff hitters of note, with the years in which they batted leadoff at least one game for Detroit: Ralph Young 1919-1921, Jack Warner 1925-1928, Roy Johnson 1929-1932, Harry Davis 1932-1933, Jo-Jo White 1932-1938, Pete Fox 1933-1940, Barney McCosky 1939-1946, Johnny Lipon 1942-1952, Doc Cramer 1943-1948, Joe Hoover 1943-1945, Neil Berry 1948-1952, Jerry Priddy 1950-1953, Billy Bruton 1961-1964, Jake Wood 1961-1967, Ricky Peters 1980, Gary Pettis 1988-1989, Chad Curtis 1995-1996, Brian Hunter 1997-1999, Roger Cedeno 2001, Alex Sanchez 2003-2004, Austin Jackson 2010-2013.

3 replies on “These are the greatest leadoff hitters in Tigers’ history

  • Cliff Parker

    Dan is the Man!! Once again you got your facts straights when others don’t, because this story has all of the key points listed that made the Tigers great especially when you listed Lou Whitaker at #1 as the greatest leadoff hitter in Tigers history. I remember watching Lou Whitaker back in high school in 1984, and when the Tigers went to the 1984 World Series and won it, Lou Whitaker led the Tigers in that series with 6 runs scored when they beat the Padres. As a result of his great career with the Tigers, he and “TRAM” when on to play 19 successful seasons with Detroit and made the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most 6-4-3 and 4-6-3 double plays made for any pro baseball teams ever. This story is a great platform for both Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell to be honored with an induction into Cooperstown and Dan Holmes to be considered to be one of the greatest sports journalists out of Detroit, Michigan. Bottom line; if Guinness can honor two of Detroit’s greatest athletes, then Cooperstown should honor Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell as well as “Black Jack” and “Gibby” and Willie Hernandez, because that whole 1984 Detroit Tigers team was absolutely awesome!

  • Tim McBride

    One of my old best buddies and tigers fan had a bet with me that we never resolved. He is now deceased before the bet was ever answered. I said there was a chance the Sweet Lou led off more than he hit 3rd or other in his career. He said no way. I still don’t know the answer, but it was closer than he thought based on this great stat article. Thanks for posting

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