Baseball in Detroit entered a new era in 1978 with the rookie seasons of Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Lance Parrish. The 1979 Detroit Tigers continued the transition. Veteran manager Ralph Houk retired after ’78 and an outreach was made to Sparky Anderson, recently dismissed in Cincinnati. It took until midseason for the deal to get finalized and Anderson to come aboard, but when he did, the great Tiger move into a new decade had take another step forward.
Les Moss was handling the managerial duties when the season opened and he had an offense that could steal bases and hit home runs. Ron LeFlore was the man who set the table and the centerfielder posted a .355 on-base percentage and stole 78 bags. Whitaker’s .395 OBP and 20 steals gave the offense some more spark.
Power came from Steve Kemp and the leftfielder hit 26 home runs and drove in 105 runs, to go along with an excellent .398 OBP. Jason Thompson was another good bat at a corner position and the first baseman popped 20 homers. A late May deal for Champ Summers to play right field paid off in a big way—over the final four-plus months, Summers had a .414 OBP, a .614 slugging percentage and hit 20 homers of his own.
Trammell was still developing as a hitter, but his .335 OBP was respectable. John Wockenfuss was a reliable utility player and hit 15 home runs off the bench. All told, it was good enough for Detroit to rank fifth in the American League in runs scored.
Morris had broken in as a relief pitcher in 1978 and ’79 saw his first move into the rotation. It was an unqualified success, with 17 victories and a 3.28 ERA. But there were problems behind him.
Milt Wilcox was the #2 and his ERA clocked in at 4.35. Wilcox and Morris combined to make 56 starts. Even that’s a low number for the top two in a rotation. But Moss, and then Sparky, had to do a lot of experimentation with the other starting pitchers.
Veteran Jack Billingham pitched well when he took the ball—a 3.30 ERA and ten wins—but the 36-year-old was only able to make 19 starts. Pat Underwood was too young at age 22 and finished with a 4.59 ERA in his 15 starts. Dan Petry would eventually become a reliable cog in the rotation. This season he was twenty years old and getting his feet wet, 15 starts and a 3.95 ERA. Dave Rozema, age 22, had similar numbers—16 starts and a 3.51 ERA.
Individually, there was promise. Collectively, that’s too much instability. And after Aurelio Lopez, with his 21 saves, 10 wins and 2.41 ERA, the bullpen was weak. So Detroit’s staff ERA ended up a mediocre eighth in the American League.
The season started slowly. The Tigers lost five of seven to a mediocre Twins teams. They managed to split twelve games against good divisional foes in the Brewers, Orioles and Yankees, but when Memorial Day arrived, Detroit was 18-21. They were in fifth place, eight games back of frontrunning Baltimore.
Here might be a good place to step back and remind younger readers that the baseball alignment prior to 1994 had each league split into just an East and West division and only the first-place finisher could go to the postseason. That meant Detroit and other centrally located franchises, were split up and shared with each coast.
Detroit was in the AL East, as was Cleveland and Milwaukee (an AL team prior to 1998). They joined with the East’s four current members in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto. The AL East of this era was the toughest division in baseball. The Yankees were two-time defending World Series champs, the Red Sox and Orioles perennial contenders and the Brewers joining the Tigers as the up-and-comers. There wasn’t any margin for error.
Detroit came out of the holiday and went 8-5 on a road trip that ended in California. When they returned to old Tiger Stadium, Sparky was signed and in the dugout.
The Tigers continued to chip away with wins against the AL West. But just as had been the case in ’78, it was a road trip to Boston and Baltimore that dealt a lethal blow. Detroit lost six of eight. Twice in Baltimore they lost on a walkoff when they had the lead. The Tigers dropped another game to the Orioles that was tied 5-5 in the eighth inning.
But Detroit came off the mat. They took two of three from Boston back at home, then went up to Milwaukee for a long five-game series and won three times. When Detroit closed the first half by taking four of five from the White Sox, the Tigers had reached .500.
Being .500 in the AL East still left you in fifth place, fourteen games off the pace, so there was no pennant race buzz in the air. But Detroit needed to keep improving. And they did.
The Tigers took home series from the Brewers. After taking another home series from three-time defending AL West champ Kansas City, Detroit headed west to California. The Angels were in the lead in a push to dethrone the Royals. The Tigers had a chance to play spoiler in this mid-August matchup.
Morris picked up his 10th win in the series opener, aided by three hits and three RBIs from Whitaker to lead the 5-3 win. Thompson and Parrish homered on Tuesday and Detroit won 6-3. In Wednesday’s finale, Thompson homered again, as did Summers. Petry was brilliant, tossing eight innings of two-hit ball and the Tigers won 6-1. The sweep kickstarted a 7-2 road trip through the West Coast.
California made a return trip to Detroit at the end of August. Billingham opened the series with seven strong innings to pull out Monday night’s 3-2 win. The Tiger bats unloaded on Tuesday—three hits from Whitaker and home runs by Summers, Trammell and Thompson—for a 12-2 win. Morris completed another sweep of the Angels on Wednesday with a 2-1 win.
The Angels would succeed in their quest to displace the Royals at the top of the AL West. But it was no thanks to the Tigers, who went 6-0 against the eventual division champs in the heat of August.
Detroit reached Labor Day with a record of 73-64. Baltimore was running away with the East and the Tigers were in a 16 ½ game hole. They played 19 games in September against the Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees. It’s not the kind of slate where you’re going to pile up wins, but Detroit hung in there and went 9-10. They finished the season at 85-76.
In the rigorous AL East that meant fifth place. But it was only three games off of the record the Angels posted in winning the West. Detroit had established that the winning baseball of 1978 was not a fluke. And they had a World Series-winning manager in the dugout to help them build to the next step.