The 1978 Detroit Tigers were in need of some rejuvenation. The six years since the franchise won the AL East in 1972 seemed like a lifetime ago. The Tigers were on four straight losing seasons. The organization called up four players who not only laid the groundwork for winning, but ultimately transformed the entire baseball landscape.
Lou Whitaker broke in at second base and with his .361 on-base percentage won Rookie of the Year honors. It was a freshman class that included two future Hall of Famers—one of whom was his own double-play partner, Alan Trammell at short (the other was Paul Molitor in Milwaukee). Trammell’s OBP was a respectable .335 in his first season in the bigs.
Whitaker and Trammell were the immediate impact players, but two other rookies were also important. Lance Parrish played 85 games at catcher, hit 14 home runs and set the stage for him to take on full-time duty behind the plate. And Jack Morris, soon to be the ace of the rotation and one of the premier big-game pitchers of his generation, was pulling relief work and spot-start duty. Morris’ rookie year of ’78 saw him log 106 innings with a 4.33 ERA.
Those four—Whitaker, Trammell, Parrish and Morris—were the future. But there was also some talent on hand for the present. Jason Thompson was a good all-around first baseman and in 1978, Thompson hit 26 homers and drove in 96 runs. Steve Kemp played leftfield and posted an OBP of .379. Veteran DH Rusty Staub played in all 162 games and rang up a slugging percentage of .495. Ron LeFlore provided speed at the top of the order. His OBP of .361 was augmented by 68 stolen bases.
All told, the Tigers had the best on-base percentage in an American League that included fantastic lineups in New York, Boston and Milwaukee (an AL franchise prior to 1998). And Detroit finished fifth in the American League in runs scored.
The pitching needed help. Detroit made an offseason trade, shipping outfielder Ben Ogilvie to Milwaukee in exchange for starter Jim Slaton. Over the long-term, the deal would be less than inspired—Ogilvie became one of the top power hitters in baseball, while Slaton was never more than a respectable starter. But the logic of the trade at the time was understandable. Slaton was reliable—the 4.12 ERA wasn’t great, but he made 34 starts and won 17 games.
Milt Wilcox, Dave Rozema and 35-year-old Jack Billingham all had ERAs in the 3s and rounded out a good rotation. Kip Young made some spot starts and finished with an ERA of 2.81. The rotation wasn’t the problem—while the lack of a clear #1 was a drawback, the starting pitching was good enough to win. The bullpen lacked depth. Even in an era where starters went deep and often finished games, Detroit’s pen still needed help behind 35-year-old closer John Hiller. It’s the reason the Tigers finished seventh in the American League for staff ERA.
Prior to 1993, the alignment of baseball had each league split into just an East and West division with only the first-place team advancing. That was bad news for Detroit. The AL East was clearly the best division in baseball. The Yankees were the defending champs. The Red Sox and Orioles weren’t far behind. The Brewers would have a breakout season in ’78. Only the Indians and the Blue Jays were non-contenders.
So it was providential that this young Detroit team was able to open the season with a steady diet of games against the AL West. They took advantage going 17-7 and leading the East by as many as three games in April. They were tied for first as late as May 19 when the schedule started picking up. The Tigers hosted the Red Sox for a four-game weekend series.
The weekend got off to a good start on Friday night. Staub homered, eight players had hits and Detroit won 7-5. On Saturday afternoon, the Tiger lineup was able to knock around Red Sox ace Dennis Eckersley and the game was tied 5-5 in the ninth. Bullpen woes bit them and the day ended with a 6-5 loss.
Sunday doubleheaders were still reasonably common in 1978—true doubleheaders, with only a twenty-minute break between games. Wilcox was brilliant in the opener and outdueled Boston’s Bill Lee 2-1 with the help of a Thompson home run. Even though Rozema and Morris were shelled in the nightcap, a 9-3 loss, Detroit had at least held their ground against one of the division’s kingpins.
But the road would not be as kind. Eight games in Baltimore and Boston loomed that would lead into Memorial Day. The Tigers only mustered two hits in losing the opener at Baltimore 2-0. Slaton pitched well in the opener of Wednesday’s doubleheader and handed Hiller a 2-0 lead. The closer promptly allowed the tying runs to score. Fortunately, the Tigers scraped out a run in the ninth and won 3-2. But only one run combined in the next two games—the Wednesday nightcap and on Thursday—resulted in losing three of four.
It got worse in Fenway over the weekend. A Wilcox-Lee rematch on Friday didn’t go as well and the Tigers lost 6-3. Morris was brilliant on Saturday, but took a hard luck 1-0 loss. Leading 3-2 in the eighth inning of Sunday’s first game, Hiller gave up three straight hits that tied the game and then a walkoff home run in the 10th. Slaton pitched gamely in the nightcap, hanging in the game in spite of giving up eleven hits, but lost 4-3.
By the time the carnage of the East Coast was complete, Detroit was six games out of first. With the Yankees and Red Sox on their way to an epic pennant race, the Tigers would never get back in the mix.
Detroit continued to struggle against the best teams from the AL East through the early part of the summer. By the All-Star break, they were 15 ½ games back and sitting on .500 at 42-42.
But this young team did not mail it in. When the schedule lightened, they took advantage. A strong late summer moved the record to a solid 74-61 by Labor Day. Games with the Red Sox and Yankees marked the September schedule and slowed the Tigers down, but they still clocked in with a final 86-76 record.
The string of losing seasons was broken. While a cynic might say that Detroit could only beat the league’s softer teams, the fact is that after four years of being one of those softer teams, the Tigers had clearly elevated themselves. They weren’t among baseball’s best. But they were getting there. The foundation, one that would hit its peak with a dominant World Series title run in 1984, was in place.