Hank Aguirre: Everybody’s Tiger

“Who’s your Tiger?” as a slogan hasn’t quite caught on the way “Bless you Boys” did in ’84, but it certainly does keep fans thinking. Who IS “your Tiger?” Is your preference for slick fielding? The it’s probably Brandon Inge, who handles the hot corner as well as anyone has done it in Detroit for a generation. Are you most comfortable with players who have shown they can perform year after year, and who lend overall class to an organization? Then you’re probably cheering for Johnny Damon. Is a pitcher’s duel your idea of great baseball? You won’t find anybody more dominant than Verlander at the top of his game. Is “your Tiger” even the same man Wednesday that it was the previous Saturday? Is your Tiger maybe even playing on somebody else’s team these days?

Once upon a time, the answer to the question was easy. Everybody’s Tiger was Lankus Hankus – Hammerin’ Hank – Tall Henry. No, NOT Greenberg. The tall slugger beloved by Detroit fans everywhere was the one and only Henry John Aguirre – he of the lifetime .085 batting average. That is not a misprint. Hank’s ineptitude with a baseball bat was legendary. During the second 1962 All Star game, when our hero struck out spectacularly the second time in two at-bats as Detroiters in the Wrigley Field crowd cheered wildly, George Kell found himself explaining (as much to the other announcer as to fans watching on television) that, back home in Detroit, they cheered if Henry got a loud foul. [This writer will carry to the grave a souvenir of one of the seven doubles Aguirre hit in sixteen seasons, as she was slicing meat at the time – with a very sharp knife.]

Hank Aguirre, at his best, was arguably one of the top southpaws ever to wear a Tiger uniform. To put his “best” in perspective, it helps to note that in 1962, the year he led both leagues with a 2.21 ERA, his National League opposite number was Sandy Koufax, who managed only a 2.54. Hank’s ERA, when he was on his game, put him in a category that in recent years has been matched only by Pedro Martinez. He struck out almost twice as many men as he walked, and he had a lifetime ERA of 3.25. And, not only that, in that blessed era before the designated hitter came along to corrupt the game, all of Detroit had the chance to hold its breath every time Hank Aguirre came to bat.
Maybe the real reason that we loved Henry so much was that he was so real – a ballplayer with whom we could all identify. One day, he lost a tooth and won a ball game – all in the same day. With a gap-toothed grin that would have made any second grader proud, he celebrated both events with laughing reporters.

Yep – Henry always made us smile, whether it was rolling his glove into a ball and playing touch football in the outfield instead of running wind sprints, or exercising his right to vote. Forgetting during one key election year that voting machines were designed primarily for right-handed voters, he made off-season headlines by tearing the metal handle completely off the machine when he cast his vote.

One afternoon, as a handful of blue-clad daughters swarmed atop the Tiger dugout before one father-son game, he roared in a voice loud enough to be heard from foul pole to foul pole, “Is all I got GIRLS???” Not to worry, Hank. You also had your son Rance, who caught the game for the Tiger kids that day, handling the delivery of one Mark Kaline. Between the two of them, the Tiger offspring sent the adult Tigers down to inevitable defeat.

Eventually, the old arm gave out. After 1974, Hank’s baseball career was over, making way for his new career in another honored line of work (honored in those days, anyway). As the founder and inspiration behind Mexican Industries, Hank not only was a significant automotive supplier, his dedication to the Latino community made his company of particular value to automotive manufacturers who were required to include “minority content” in the cars they manufactured.

We lost Hank to prostate cancer in 1994, and Mexican Industries didn’t really survive the transition to new management. But, regardless of whether the company ever functioned at its old level, nothing erases the significance of what Hank Aguirre did for the Detroit business community.

Or erases that infectious grin – with or without its missing tooth.