How they came to be called the Tigers

December 1st, 2021

The Detroit Tigers have been known by the same nickname since they were one of the founding members of the American League in 1901. But they weren’t always the Tigers, nor are they the only Major League team to have played in Detroit.

Detroit had a National League team known informally as the Wolverines (no association with the University of Michigan) that played from 1881-88, winning the NL title in '87. Six years after the Wolverines disbanded, Detroit gained a franchise in the Western League. The team didn’t have an official nickname and went by several monikers in its first season, including Detroits and Wolverines.

The first reported reference to Detroit’s team as the Tigers came in a Detroit Free Press article on April 16, 1895. Both the headline and the story on the team’s 13-1 exhibition win referred to the club as Strouthers’ Tigers, referring to the team’s 23-year-old manager and first baseman, Con Strouthers:

“The Athletics, a local team composed of young men living out Michigan Avenue mostly and aspiring to the amateur championship of the city, tackled Capt. Strouthers’ Tigers, and although the playing of the amateurs was very creditable, but one of their number succeeded in getting around the circuit, while the scoreboard showed thirteen for Detroit at the end of the contest.”

The article further praises the team’s quickness on the basepaths and in the field:

“A striking feature of this year’s team is the dash which Strouthers’ men put into their game; everyone playing for all there is in it. The pitchers watch the bases, and catcher Lohbeck will not stand any nonsense from those who figure on stealing a bag or two. Lohbeck is like a cat and ... is always ready to throw the ball.”

According to author Richard Bak in his book “A Place for Summer: A Narrative History of Tiger Stadium,” the reference was a tribute to the Detroit Light Guard, a military unit that dates back to the early 1800s and earned its Tigers nickname during the Civil War. The group formally adopted the tiger as its symbol in '82, including a tiger’s head later carved on the walls of its armory. Several Light Guard members were associated with local baseball clubs over the years, and the guard’s band often performed at big games. A few years after the first reference, the Detroit Light Guard gained further glory for its service in the Spanish-American War.

George Stallings, the team’s manager and captain in 1896, claimed the nickname came from the striped socks players wore, but the Free Press headline came a year earlier. Whatever the case, the nickname was formalized once the team joined other Western League franchises and formed the upstart American League.