The greatest right fielders in the history of the Detroit Tigers

Wahoo Sam Crwford, Harry Heilmann, and Al Kaline all rank among the greatest right fielders in baseball history, and all three are in the Hall of Fame.

Wahoo Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, and Al Kaline all rank among the greatest right fielders in baseball history, and all three are in the Hall of Fame.

When I started this series a few weeks ago by looking at the shortstops, examining the all-time greats for the Detroit Tigers at each position, a reader pointed out that Al Kaline shouldn’t automatically be given the right-field job and that two old-timers, Harry Heilmann and Sam Crawford, should be considered too. That’s true.

The Tigers are deep in right fielders — deeper than at any other position.

Kaline, of course, played his entire career, spanning 22 seasons, in Detroit. Of his 2,834 games as a Tiger, he played 2,033 games in right, the rest mostly in center, and some at first base and in left field, and even two at third base. Heilmann played 15 seasons in Detroit from 1914 to 1929, and then finished his career in Cincinnati. He and Crawford each played just over 1,400 games in right field for the Tigers. Heilmann played almost a third of his games at first base.

Heilmann was a consistently great hitter with a .342 lifetime batting average, a career .410 on-base percentage, and a .520 slugging percentage. He hit over .390 four times as a Tiger, topped by a .403 mark in 1923. Heilmann finished in the Top Ten in the MVP voting five years in a row. While it’s hard to quantify fielding statistics, especially from that era, he did have a .963 fielding percentage as a right fielder. Baseball gives Heilmann a cumulative -13.9 defensive WAR for his career.

“Wahoo Sam” Crawford started his career with four seasons in Cincinnati and finished it with fifteen in Detroit, from 1903 to 1917. A contemporary of Ty Cobb, he was one of the premier power hitters of his era, at a time when power was revealed more by triples than homers (because of the distant outfield fences in most parks of the day). Crawford hit .309/.362/.452 lifetime and still holds the MLB record for most career triples (309). Apparently he wasn’t a great fielder either, with a .952 fielding percentage and a retrospective defensive WAR of -18.1.

All three men are in the Hall of Fame — and they rank high on the Detroit franchise’s career lists of offensive achievements. Take a look at Baseball Reference’s list of the top Tigers in offensive WAR: Cobb 144.8, Kaline 92.7, Charley Gehringer 80.7, Lou Whitaker 74.8, Alan Trammell 70.3, Heilmann 67.7, Crawford 63.5, Hank Greenberg 54.2. Three of the top six are the right fielders!

It’s hard to ignore Heilmann, who is second to Cobb among Tigers in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage, third in slugging, fourth in OPS, and fourth in hits.

But Kaline is at least as deserving. He is, of course, the franchise leader in homers with 399 and the only Tiger besides Cobb with 3,000 hits. Kaline leads the franchise in walks and intentional walks. In total bases, Kaline ranks second, Heilmann fourth, and Crawford sixth on the franchise list. Kaline and Heilmann rank second and third in RBIs, and Crawford is fifth.

“Mr. Tiger” was a 18-time All-Star, he finished in the top ten in MVP voting nine times, and he was among the very best right fielders in the game during his career. He had a .978 fielding percentage as a right fielder with a legendary arm.

Many were the times I can recall a rookie speedster trying to go from first to third on a single and Kaline gunning him down. He had 170 outfield assists during his career, but you can’t measure his arm just by that stat, because most veteran players wouldn’t run on “The Line.” He didn’t just have a cannon, he was incredibly accurate with his throws.

Kaline deservedly is a legend in Detroit. He was incredibly consistent and dependable, a complete ballplayer, and the anchor of the team throughout his career.

A few years ago, I played in a league composed of all-time franchise teams. We were playing a modified version of the old Statis-Pro desktop game, with cards constructed according to the game’s rules and some tweaks and judgment calls from the league originator (such as outfield arms; amazingly, because he used only assists and was a Red Sox fan from Boston, he rated Kaline’s arm as merely good not great, and I argued with him vociferously about that). Because defense didn’t matter in the game as much as offense, I consistently had Heilmann as my starter in right field, batting third behind Cobb and Gehringer and in front of Greenberg.

Heilmann and Crawford were great hitters in their eras, but there is no evidence that they were special defenders who performed at anywhere near the level of Kaline. All three men deserve to be considered if we were to compile a list of the Top Ten Tigers of all time. In terms of offensive abilities, Kaline and Heilmann are neck and neck — and Crawford not far behind.

I haven’t defined the criteria for my little exercise here. Much as at shortstop, it depends on whether you’re taking the whole career into account or just a peak five years. There’s no doubt Heilmann was the better hitter in his prime, but overall Kaline takes the prize as the Tigers’ top right fielder, edging out Heilmann because of his defense.

In coming weeks, I’ll pick my left fielder, catcher, and third baseman. There is still no need for discussion of center field, second base, and first base. Best pitcher is a lock too, but worth a discussion, because we should have a righty and a lefty starter as well as a bullpen ace. Stay tuned.

4 replies on “The greatest right fielders in the history of the Detroit Tigers

  • KalineCountry Ron

    My long love of Baseball and the Detroit Tigers started in late July of 1954. Dad took me to Briggs Stadium with ‘his’ redsox playing the Tigers.
    I could not take my eyes off the skinny kid with the rocket arm and my life long love of the Tigers and Al Kaline started.
    There was never a better rightfielder defensively than Kaline. These past 60 years, a few with stronger arms, but not always on the money. Kaline was without a doubt the most Consistently Accurate outfielder I have seen. Kaline was a 5 tool player from the beginning. His Power ranked a 4 out of 5, compared to the legendary sluggers from the 50’s/60’s/+70’s. He was a chessmaster playing checkers/baseball. He knew how and with what pitch the pitcher would try to get him out.
    I think Al’s only weakness as a player was his inability to stay healthy. He was always missing 15/20 to 60 games(1962), with some sort of nagging or debilitating injury. It is why Kaline was never mentioned in the same breath as Aaron, Mantle, Mays for hitting. Those players were doing everything Al did but also with some years of 40/50 homers.
    The Tigers have some of the Legendary Best Rightfielders in Baseball History. Having 3 HOF Rightfielders is an incredible accomplishment for any franchise.
    Kaline’s Defense + Throwing arm along with ‘his’ HOF offensive career puts him over the batting feats of one of the 10 best righthanded batters in baseball history Harry Heilmann, imo.
    One game in the 50’s Kaline threw out 3 whitesox runners; Minnie Minoso, Freddie Marsh, + Jungle Jim Rivera. All tried to stretch a single to a double, go from first to third or score from second. Al threw each of them out in that game. The league stopped running on Al, except for a couple of weeks when he returned in 1962 after breaking his collarbone on the game ending catch May 26. That was the year Al could have hit 40 Homers. As it was he hit 29 with 94 rbi in exactly 100 games.
    Part of the reason Al’s assist total might pale in comparison to say Clemente’s total was the National League had more of the better African American and Hispanic players, the NL played a more wide open daring game, and took more chances on the bases. Better overall players also was the reason for the NL dominance in the All-Star games from that era. The AL was slower to integrate the players.
    Back in the mid 1980’s I went to a card and autograph show with Mickey Mantle signing. Mick was my second favorite player growing up and I told him so….that he was next to Kaline. Mickey took his time posing for pictures and talking to everyone lined up for his autograph. When I shook Mick’s hand and said that to him he said that when he played Kaline was the best ‘all-around’ player in the league.
    We moved from Detroit to Boston in 1957. I never missed the Tigers at fenway during Al’s career.
    I saw jackie jensen, dwight evans of the redsox, and your boston fan/friend telling you Kaline was merely good is typical of what I have dealt with for over 50 years.
    Well dewey had a good arm, but watching plenty of sox games during his career, he also led the league in throws up the third base line for many years.
    Most every time I see a rankings list of all-time best at their positions, Kaline is ranked 5th or 6th, evans around 20th.

  • brian grieves

    it is just too bad we can’t have three best they did play in different eras and each era had it’s own struggles—I call it a tie

  • John Darin

    It is very difficult to compare players that you have not seen play. Harry Heilmann and Sam Crawford were great players, but before my time. For that reason I cannot pick the greatest Tiger right fielder.
    I can say that I was privileged to see Al Kaline play for nearly all of his career. In my opinion he was the finest defensive right fielder I ever saw.

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