For years now complacency has made the Tiger a fat cat. No one knows just why, for Detroit hasn't won a pennant since 1945 and hasn't been a serious contender for 10 years. The Tigers are somewhat like the college boy with his gentleman's C: they are always respectable. They finish fourth or fifth, generally play good baseball and titillate fans around the league by knocking off the Yankees with surprising regularity. They win their share, but little more. Why?
•NOT MUCH DRIVE
The talent is certainly there. In Harvey Kuenn and Al Kaline (top left) they have two of the best baseball players in either league. Their four starting pitchers—Paul Foytack (below left), Jim Bunning, Frank Lary and Don Mossi—are strong and reliable. The infield is steady if not sensational.
The Tigers' chief problem seems to be a lack of competitive drive. There has been little pressure on them to win. Detroit is a model baseball town (the Tigers topped one million in home attendance last season for the 14th time in 15 years), and the fans keep the club solidly in the black. They may be disillusioned at times—as last spring, when Detroit lost 15 of its first 17 games—but let the team win two games in a row and the auto assembly lines are humming with Tiger talk, the turnstiles with Tiger fans. The front office has, unwittingly perhaps, encouraged this rose-colored view by praising and rewarding good individual performances too liberally. New President Bill DeWitt met with anguished bleats this winter when he insisted on tying individual salaries to group results.
•PLETHORA OF STARS
As in the past, Detroit had more than its share of individual standouts last year. Kuenn won his first American League batting championship with a .353 mark. Kaline finished second with .327, and hit 27 home runs for the third time in his career. Charlie Maxwell, the third outfielder, batted only .251 (22 points below his lifetime average) but led the team in homers (31) and runs batted in (95). Third Baseman Eddie Yost got on base 292 of his 675 times at the plate, the most effective on-base record in the league. Frank Lary, Jim Bunning and Don Mossi won 17 games apiece, making Detroit the only team in either league to have three pitchers with over 15 victories each.
Yet the Tigers were just one of the pack in team performance. They were fourth in club batting, fifth in club fielding, seventh in club pitching. And they ranked first in no single aspect of club batting, fielding or pitching.
•PLUG THE HOLES
This year's Tigers have tried to remedy two nagging deficiencies: shortstop and first base. Detroit hasn't had a first-rate shortstop since Dick Bartell, a star with the 1940 pennant winners. The last first baseman of note was Rudy York, a member of the 1945 world champions. Manager Jimmy Dykes's winter acquisitions—Chico Fernandez and Steve Bilko—will hardly produce pennants in the style of Bartell and York, but they may be improvements. Rocky Bridges, last year's regular shortstop, is a born hustler who, as Dykes says, "will give you a pretty good job wherever you put him." Rocky last year gave one of his better efforts at the plate, hitting .268 before injuries sent him to the bench (his stand-in, Coot Veal, barely topped .200). But Bridges has never been a full-season ballplayer or a better-than-adequate shortstop; after 10 years around the majors he still fights ground balls and now is a step slower in getting to them. Fernandez has the opposite problem. A gifted athlete, he has an easygoing nature that drifts readily into laziness. After two promising years with the Phillies he suddenly and for no apparent reason fell apart last spring: in some 40 games he batted a paltry .211 and was lackadaisical in the field. Phillie Manager Eddie Sawyer, who some say harbored a grudge, banished Chico to the bench and employed him only rarely as a pinch runner and pinch hitter.
Can Fernandez help the Tigers? A half-serious joke around the Lakeland camp this spring ran: "The Tigers will be O.K. if Fernandez hits Bilko's weight." Big Steve weighed in at 249, so not much is demanded of Chico.
This may be Bilko's last chance to crack the major leagues. He has had more than his share of chances, dating back to 1949, when he reached the Cardinals after five years in the minors. Just a fair fielder and an average base runner, he keeps bobbing up in the majors for only one reason: the awesome power that has made a shambles of lesser leagues (148 HRs, 428 RBIs in three seasons on the Pacific Coast). The lure of the long ball is irresistible, and Bilko will get a thorough trial. An added incentive for Big Steve is that he needs one more year in the majors to qualify for the pension plan. Ready to step in if he fails is Gail Harris, who fell from 20 home runs and .273 in 1958 to nine home runs and .221 in 1959. In spring training Harris discovered that he had eye trouble (nearsighted in one eye, farsighted in the other) but abandoned glasses after a brief trial.
The addition of a run-producing first baseman would beef up the feeble lower half of Detroit's batting. The team as a whole led both leagues in number of men left on base.
Second base is in the workmanlike hands of Frank Bolling. Last year's fill-in, Ted Lepcio, went to the Phillies in the deal for Fernandez. Now ex-Brave Casey Wise, a slick glove man, is in line for the utility job. Yost, one of baseball's iron men in his Washington days, is still good for 140 games at third base, but to give him an occasional rest, Dykes may keep stocky Steve Demeter, although Demeter would rather be traded in order to have a chance at a regular job.
Three Big Ten alumni fought veterans Johnny Groth and Neil Chrisley for the reserve outfield positions. Em Lindbeck, former Illinois quarterback, hit .284 at Atlanta last year and is a fine fielder. George Thomas, who attended Minnesota, looked good but may not be ready to hit major league pitching. Best bet to stick is Steve Boros, from the University of Michigan, a powerful 185-pounder who hit .305 and drove in 85 runs for Birmingham.
•A REAL BIG FOUR
Lary, Bunning, Mossi and Foytack started all but 20 of Detroit's games last year and may have to do it again. No surefire fifth starter has been discovered. Ray Semproch, a National League sensation in 1958, was obtained for that purpose but may wind up in the bullpen. And much as the starters need help, the bullpen needs it more. Ray Narleski, billed as the strong right arm of the relievers, won only four of 16 games and compiled a horrible ERA of 5.80. Pete Burnside and Dave Sisler, a couple of ex-Ivy Leaguers, and journeyman Tom Morgan will do fair work, but that's about all. Rookie Bob Bruce may be able to help; he is now in his eighth year in the Tiger system and won't have many more shots at the parent club. He had a so-so year at Charleston in 1959 but led the Puerto Rican winter league with a sparkling 2.05 ERA.
1959 TEAM PERFORMANCE
RUNS BATTED IN