5 greatest Michiganders to play for Tigers

January 21st, 2021

The Tigers have been intertwined with the history of Detroit since the franchise was one of the founding members of the American League more than a century ago. That history has included more than a few players from the great state of Michigan.

Five Hall of Famers were born in Michigan; two of them played for the Tigers. Other franchise greats were born or grew up in Michigan, or went to school in the state. Here’s a look at the five greatest Michiganders to play for the Tigers:

1. , 1924-42
Career highlights: 1937 AL MVP, six-time All-Star, '35 World Series champion, elected to Hall of Fame in '49

While Al Kaline is rightly recognized as Mr. Tiger, Gehringer has a case as Michigan’s quintessential ballplayer. Born and raised on a farm in Livingston County, Gehringer played at the University of Michigan before word of mouth earned him a tryout with the Tigers. He played all 2,323 of his Major League games in a Tigers uniform -- all but 15 of them at second base -- over a 19-year Hall of Fame career.

Though his career year was his Most Valuable Player Award-winning season in 1937, batting .371 at age 34, Gehringer had a 60-double season the year before. In '29, he led the AL in hits (215), doubles (45), triples (19), runs scored (131) and stolen bases (27). He hit .375 in the '35 World Series to earn the Tigers their first title. His 78.6 career fWAR ranks fifth all-time among Major League second basemen, and is tops among all Tigers born in Michigan regardless of position.

2. , 1939-53
Career highlights: AL MVP in 1944 and '45, pitching Triple Crown in '45, seven-time All-Star, '45 World Series champion, inducted into Hall of Fame in '92

Newhouser was an amazing Michigan success story. He was born in Detroit in 1921, the son of first-generation immigrants who moved to the city to work in the automobile industry. He was a hypercompetitive teenager when his hometown Tigers won the World Series in '35, and he signed with them three years later at age 17. He made his big league debut the following September, won nine games as a teenager to help the Tigers win the AL pennant in '40 and became an All-Star in '42. He vaulted among the league’s elite pitchers when he unleashed a slider in '44. From '44-49, Newhouser went 136-67 with a 2.52 ERA, a 152 ERA+, 2.75 FIP, 28 shutouts and nine saves before shoulder issues halted his career.

Newhouser remains the only Major League pitcher ever to win back-to-back MVP Awards. Just in case anyone reduced his success to having top hitters away from the game during World War II, Newhouser posted arguably a better season in 1946, leading the league with 26 wins and a 1.94 ERA while finishing second to Bob Feller in strikeouts. Newhouser led AL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement in '47 and ’48, too.

3. , 1961-76
Career highlights: 11-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove Award winner, 1968 World Series champion

Freehan was born in Detroit and grew up in Royal Oak before his family moved to Florida during his high school years. He came back to the state to play baseball and football at the University of Michigan, where he hit .446 as a freshman in the spring of 1961 and made his big league debut for Detroit that September. He was an All-Star with a .300 batting average three years later, the first of 10 consecutive selections to the Midsummer Classic. He also won five consecutive Gold Gloves at catcher.

While Kaline, Willie Horton and Denny McLain were the stars of the Tigers in the 1960s, Freehan was the rock. His durability was incredible; he started 137 games behind the plate in '64 and '67, and 142 games in '71. He finished second in AL MVP voting in '68 behind McLain. Freehan remained in the state after his retirement.

4. , 1963-77
Career highlights: Four-time All-Star; led World Series champion 1968 Tigers in batting average, home runs and OPS

Horton was born in Virginia, the youngest of 14 children, but he moved to Detroit with his family at age 5. He became a star in youth leagues and then Northwestern High School before following his father’s advice and signing with the hometown Tigers in the summer of 1961. Horton was an All-Star four years later, leading the Tigers with 104 RBIs -- the first of back-to-back 100-RBI seasons -- to go with 29 home runs. His 36 homers provided the thump for the '68 Tigers; his .895 OPS that year ranked second to Carl Yastrzemski.

Horton posted a 125 OPS+ or better in eight of his 15 seasons as a Tiger. But his performances in the clutch solidified his on-field legacy in Detroit. His throw from left field to retire Lou Brock at home plate in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series remains one of the most famous plays in franchise history. He hit 7-for-23 with six runs scored and three RBIs in that Fall Classic. His work in the city after he retired has furthered his status as a hometown hero.

5. , 1979-87, 93-95
Career highlights: 1984 ALCS MVP, two-homer game in Game 5 of 1984 World Series

Amazingly, Gibson was never an All-Star or a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger Award winner in Detroit. His MVP Award came in his first season after signing with the Dodgers. Still, his feats in big games secure his place in Michigan sports lore, from his upbringing in Waterford to his two-sport stardom at Michigan State. He’ll forever be remembered for his two home runs in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series to earn the Tigers their first title in 16 years. Seven of Gibson’s 195 career regular-season home runs with Detroit were walk-off shots, including two as a pinch-hitter. He also had a pair of inside-the-park home runs.

Gibson put together a 125 OPS+ over 12 seasons as a Tiger and produced two seasons with at least 5.0 bWAR. He was also a notorious tough at-bat with high walk totals throughout his prime years.