DETROIT -- Of all the amazing achievements and honors in Al Kaline’s 67 years with the Tigers, there’s this subtle fact: He was the first Tiger to have his jersey number retired by the club.
For their first eight decades, the Tigers had no retired numbers, not even for Hall of Famers. Ty Cobb, arguably the greatest player the franchise has known, played in an era before jersey numbers, so the Tigers didn’t retire numbers for the Hall of Famers who followed. Charlie Gehringer, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1949, and Hank Greenberg, inducted seven years later, went without the honor for years, and many players wore their old numbers.
Not until Kaline’s Hall of Fame induction in 1980 did the Tigers join other franchises with the practice. If anyone warranted the tradition, it was the man known as Mr. Tiger. On Aug. 17, two weeks after Kaline’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown, his No. 6 went into franchise history at Tiger Stadium. Three years later, the Tigers bestowed the honor on Gehringer’s No. 2 and Greenberg’s No. 5.
Here’s the current list:
2 -- Charlie Gehringer
3 -- Alan Trammell
5 -- Hank Greenberg
6 -- Al Kaline
11 -- manager Sparky Anderson
16 -- Hal Newhouser
23 -- Willie Horton
42 -- Jackie Robinson (retired across MLB)
47 -- Jack Morris
Lou Whitaker is scheduled later this year to join the short list with his No. 1. When it happens, he’ll become the fourth member of the 1984 World Series champions to receive the honor, joining Trammell, Morris and Anderson.
He’ll also inevitably lead to the next intriguing question: Which Tiger will be next?
For years, the standard with the Tigers has been that a player should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame to have his number retired. Whitaker, for whom the Tigers have pushed ardently for induction in Cooperstown, will be just the second non-Hall of Famer in the group. He’ll join Horton, a Detroit-raised Tigers slugger and 1968 World Series hero whose work on and off the diamond made him a Detroit icon beyond just wearing No. 23.
If the Tigers were to wait for their next Hall of Fame player to retire another number, that player will almost surely have to be from a generation still playing. In that case, it would come down to who retires first. But that’s no guarantee.
Here are some possibilities:
Justin Verlander, RHP: No. 35
Though Verlander has been an Astro for two-plus seasons and won a World Series title in Houston, he’s clearly not forgotten in Detroit, where he was drafted and developed through the system. He pulled off an American League MVP/Cy Young Award double-play in Detroit in 2011, the year he won the pitching Triple Crown, to go with his '06 AL Rookie of the Year Award and two no-hitters. He already has a Hall of Fame resume by many standards, and his 13 years in Detroit strongly suggest he’ll go in as a Tiger five or so years after he retires, whenever and wherever that might be. No Tigers player has worn No. 35 since he left.
Miguel Cabrera, 1B/DH: No. 24
Cabrera didn’t come up as a Tiger, but aside from his World Series title as a rookie with the 2003 Marlins, virtually all his career accomplishments have come while wearing the Olde English D, from his batting Triple Crown in '12 to back-to-back AL MVP Awards and four batting titles. Unless injuries end his career prematurely, he’ll join the 3,000-hit and 500-homer clubs as a Tiger, further cementing his place in Cooperstown. Cabrera and Verlander going into the Hall as Tigers would be a lasting part of the legacy of Mike Ilitch’s tenure as team owner. If Cabrera plays out his contract, which runs at least through 2023, he might take a while, possibly longer than Verlander.
Jim Leyland, manager: No. 10
The Tigers already have one Hall of Fame manager whose number hangs on the wall at Comerica Park: Anderson led the 1984 club to glory. Mickey Cochrane, a player-manager for the '35 champions, has his name on the wall but no number. Nobody has worn No. 10 in Detroit since Leyland retired as manager after the 2013 season. It might depend on whether Leyland gets into the Hall of Fame. He’s the only skipper to win a World Series (1997 Marlins) and a World Baseball Classic (2017 Team USA), and he ranks 17th all-time in wins. The only ones ahead of him not in the Hall are Bruce Bochy (just retired), Gene Mauch (no World Series), Dusty Baker (still active) and Lou Piniella.
Max Scherzer, RHP: No. 37
This is where the odds begin to get long, though Scherzer is on his way to a Hall of Fame resume. For starters, Scherzer is 35 and showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Beyond that, despite emerging as a star over his five seasons in Detroit, he now has just as many seasons in Washington, where he has won two Cy Young Awards and a World Series title.
Kirk Gibson, OF: No. 23
The number is already retired for Horton, though technically there’s no reason it can’t be retired for two players. However, while Gibson’s return to the Tigers as a television analyst and special assistant adds to his legacy, he was one and done on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2001. Unlike Whitaker, he has not been on a Veterans Committee ballot.