Al Kaline caught the final out of Jim Bunning's no hitter at Boston in 1958. (Detroit News)
Ty Cobb stood at home plate at old Bennett Park near the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit and glowered at the Boston pitcher. The pitcher was a craggy veteran who had been around for a decade or more from the ’90s on — the 1890s — and now in the new century was the best in the game.
The pitcher was named Denton Young — Cy Young to us here in 2013 — and his young adversary at the plate and he were about to start a rivalry. At times it would be a bitter rivalry.
At other times the Detroit and Boston franchises of the American League would be friendly foes, often trading players back and forth — and in their two historic ballparks knocking each other cuckoo with home runs.
The Tigers and the Olde Town Team from Boston have been going at each other for 111 years now. It started with the Tigers vs. the Boston Americans back in 1901 — two ballclubs gathering precious traditions, creating a historic rivalry.
And now they combat each other again for the first time in a postseason playoff, the Tigers vs. the Red Sox, for the American League pennant.
Fred Lieb, an old-day sports journalist and historian, detailed the feud between Cobb and Young, capturing some florid dialogue, in his 1946 book, “The Detroit Tigers.”
“ ‘There’s that so-and-so prima donna again,’ ” Cy would say in apparent disdain. “ ‘I passed a good hitter just to get you, you Georgia bum.’
“Ty would tap his bat on the plate, and reply: ‘It’s a wonder they wouldn’t be carting you off to the Old Women’s Home. I guess they feel sorry for an old stiff like you, because you fought in the Civil War, and let you stay around.’ Then Cy would drive Cobb back with a fast one at Ty’s head.”
It would be during a ballgame in 1906 or 1907.
The rivalry was vicious and nasty back then in the early years of the last century. The old, old-timers — the baseball savants when I was growing up — maintained that Ty Cobb was the greatest player of all time and that Cy Young was the best pitcher. The stats would support these opinions even now.
Cobb, still a teenager, had traveled north from Georgia, to join the Tigers late in the 1905 season. He arrived groomed to be arrogant. Young, by then, had long been one of baseball’s more dominant pitchers — and packed some swagger of his own working for the Boston club.
It would go on like this, with genuine hatred between Young, who would amass the highest number of pitching victories, 511, and Cobb, who would establish the record career batting average, .367.
“Cobb got his share of hits off the veteran’s assorted deliveries,” Lieb wrote, “Cy got his share of Cobb zeroes in the boxscore.”
In that first decade of the 20th Century, Young pitched the Bostons to victory over Pittsburgh in the first World Series. And Cobb would lead the Tigers to pennants in 1907, 1908 and 1909 with the illustrious Hughie Jennings as manager. Alas, the Tigers lost all three World Series.
Through the 20th century and into the 21st, the Tigers and Red Sox — the Bostons adopted their new name in 1908 — remained rivals long after Young retired and the feud with Cobb became history.
The rivalry would feature the wondrous Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Dominic DiMaggio for the Red Sox — and Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Al Kaline for the Tigers. Later this rivalry would involve Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris for the Tigers, Roger Clemens for the Red Sox.
Now it features Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander for the Detroits, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and a bunch of elf-looking guys with beards for the Bostons.
Ted Williams loved hitting in Briggs/Tiger Stadium with its nearby right-field grandstand. He hit his most famous home run in Briggs Stadium, although it wasn’t off a Detroit pitcher. It was off Claude Passeau and it won the 1941 All-Star Game in the bottom of the ninth.
The footage of Williams leaping on the basepaths and clapping his hands is familiar still.
That same year, Williams and the Red Sox were back at Briggs Stadium. Williams was battling to bat .400 and was in a bit of an August funk. His average had shrunk to .402.
Harry Heilmann knew something about hitting for average. He had played in a Detroit outfield alongside Cobb. He had won batting championships in 1921, 1923 and 1925. He had batted .403 and at the time was the last American Leaguer to bat above the .400 mark.
In 1941, Heilmann was a voice of knowledge on the Tigers’ radio broadcasts and advised Williams to go for the base hit.
Williams took the advice and his batting average climbed in September. He finished batting .406 that 1941 season. And no major league hitter has batted .400 since.
Still Williams did love the short right field in Briggs/Tiger Stadium. And when he retired in the early 1960s, he had 521 home runs, 55 of them in Detroit.
In 1949, Williams entered the final day of the season leading George Kell in the race for the batting championship. Though both finished at .343, Kell won by .00016.
In June of 1953, Johnny Pesky, who came over in a nine-player trade the previous June that sent Kell to the Red Sox, was aboard the Tigers’ team bus as it reached Briggs Stadium. He was seated next to an 18-year-old rookie.
“Take a look at this ballpark,” Pesky told the teenager, “you’re going to be a great ballplayer here for a long time.”
The rookie was Al Kaline.
One Sunday in 1958 at Fenway, Jim Bunning started the first game a doubleheader for the Tigers. Inning after inning Bunning held the Red Sox without a hit. He got the first two batters in the bottom of the ninth.
With typical flair, Bunning faced the next batter. He pitched and the batter hit a fly ball to right field. A bit of Hall of Fame history: Bunning pitching, Ted Williams hitting the ball and Al Kaline catching the last out of a no-hitter.