When Harry Heilmann Jumped Into the Detroit River To Save a Drowning Woman

Harry Heilmann was one of the best right-handed hitters in the history of baseball.

Sibling rivalry can split brothers apart, but it can also spur them on to great heights. In the case of Hall of Fame outfielder Harry Heilmann, early on he had to struggle with the comparisons to a brother who was a better baseball player, and he later was forced to overcome intense grief when that brother died.

Harry’s older brother Walter was the baseball player in the family, which led Harry to stay clear of the game when he was teenager. He didn’t want to be compared unfavorably to his sibling. Walter was a good pitcher with an excellent curve ball and fine control. It looked as if Walter would eventually see his name on a major league roster someday, he was that good.

The Heilmann boys grew up in San Francisco in the early twentieth century, a tumultuous time in the history of The Golden City. Harry was eleven years old in 1906 when the city nearly burned to the ground after a major earthquake. The city emerged from that tragedy, which claimed more than 3,000 lives, and so did Harry, a little runt who tried desperately to follow in Harry’s footsteps as an athlete in the Bay area.

But in 1908 tragedy struck closer to home for the Heilmann family. That fall, Walter was on the ocean with friends when the sailboat they were in capsized. Everyone was saved except Walter, who drowned as he tried to swim to shore. Following his older brother’s death, the heartbroken Harry distanced himself from the game of baseball.

After he graduated from high school, Harry accepted a job with the American Biscuit Company as a bookkeeper. He was 18 years old and had never played organized baseball. A short time later, a friend asked Heilmann to fill-in for an absent player on his baseball team and after Harry delivered a game-winning double, a professional scout signed him to play for Portland. A year later the Tigers bought his contract and Heilmann was in a Detroit uniform. His brother’s destiny had become his own, just like that. 

By 1916, the 21-year old was settled in as a big leaguer, though the Tigers had to get creative to find playing time for the right fielder. The Detroit outfield at that time featured Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Bobby Veach, one of the greatest in history. Detroit plugged Harry in at first base when they could.

Late in the evening on July 25, 1916, Heilmann was driving when he witnessed an automobile back off a dock and fall into the Detroit River. Heilmann jumped from his car and into the river, saving the lives of three of the five passengers. Sadly, a young woman and her daughter drowned. Newspapers made note of the incident, reporting on the identity of the famous hero.

We can’t be sure if Harry was thinking of his brother Walter when he went into the Detroit River to save those strangers, but it’s likely that the tragic loss of his sibling was on his mind. The next afternoon at Navin Field, Heilmann received a standing ovation as he took his position in the outfield.    

Ultimately, Heilmann nudged Crawford out of right field and won four batting titles. He remains one of the greatest righthanded batters in baseball history. He had an innate ability to hit a ball with a bat. It also helped that his teammate (and later manager) Cobb, was a skilled hitting coach. But as Ty admitted years later, “I never toyed with Heilmann’s swing, it was already near-perfect.”

After his playing career, Heilmann stayed in Detroit and was a popular radio broadcaster, working Tigers games for more than fifteen seasons. For a new generation of Tigers fans, Harry became synonymous with the team long after his batting championships. He collapsed suddenly in Lakeland during spring training in 1951 and remained hospitalized for months until his death at the age of 56.

“I doubt whether the death of any other person in the State of Michigan could cause more genuine regret,” said team owner Walter Briggs.