Hal Newhouser at 100: Remembering the Detroit Tigers legend’s most epic games

Detroit Free Press

A Detroit baseball legacy that may never be matched turns 100 today.

A century ago, on May 20, 1921, Hal Newhouser was born in Detroit. The son of first-generation European immigrants, “Prince Hal” focused on baseball as a teen, inspired by the Detroit Tigers’ seven-game victory over the Chicago Cubs in the 1935 World Series. Less than four years later, after starring in American Legion ball, Newhouser made his Tigers debut as an 18-year-old. Flash forward six more years and the left-hander was on the mound for the Tigers in Game 7 of the 1945 World Series, which they won for the franchise’s second championship.

In all, Newhouser spent 15 seasons with the Tigers, posting a 3.07 ERA in 2,944 innings over 460 games, including 212 complete games and 33 shutouts. He made seven All-Star teams (and would have made an eighth, if not for the game’s cancellation in 1945 due to World War II). He led the American League in wins four times, and twice each in ERA, complete games and strikeouts. In 1945 alone, he won the pitching Triple Crown, leading the AL in wins (25), ERA (1.81) and strikeouts (212).

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From 1944-46, he went 80-27 with a 1.99 ERA and a 1.119 WHIP with back-to-back AL MVP awards (in 1944-45, followed by a runner-up finish in ’46). His 11 consecutive victories in June and July 1946 wouldn’t be matched by another Tiger for 65 years, until Justin Verlander won 12 straight in 2011.

And yet, he had to wait until 1992 for induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame, selected by the Veterans’ Committee. Even in Detroit, his No. 16 was the fourth number retired, and not until 1997, a little more than a year before his death and nearly a decade-and-a-half after the franchise retired Al Kaline’s No. 6 (1980), Charlie Gehringer’s No. 2 (1983) and Hank Greenberg’s No. 5 (1983).

“I know there were people who looked down on some of his accomplishments because he pitched during the war,” said George Kell, a fellow Hall of Famer and teammate of Newhouser’s for seven seasons, to the Free Press in 1988 when Newhouser died at 77. “But he was a great pitcher before and after the war, too.”

A heart issue gave Newhouser 4-F status, exempting him from military service, unlike many of the game’s biggest stars. His numbers during the war and after are comparable: 2.29 ERA and 646 strikeouts in 1,005 innings from 1942-45, followed by a 2.79 ERA and 738 strikeouts in 1,142 innings from 1946-49.

“I’ll say this about Hal Newhouser,” Kell continued in 1998. “He was the best pitcher I’ve ever played behind.”

Indeed, Newhouser’s 58.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR, as figured by baseball-reference.com) is tops all-time among Tigers pitchers, but he ranks in the franchise’s top 10 pitchers in just a few other major categories: He’s tied for third in shutouts (33), fourth in complete games (212), fourth in wins (200), sixth in losses (148), sixth in starts (373) and seventh in appearances (460).

Newhouser is one of just two Detroit-born players in the Hall of Fame, and the only one to star for the Tigers. (The other native Detroiter? John Smoltz, who played as a teen in Lansing and was drafted by the Tigers, only to be traded to the Braves in 1987.) In honor of the 100th birthday of a Detroit great — whose career WHIP with the Tigers, coincidentally, was an on-brand 1.313 — here’s a look at Newhouser’s best games with the Tigers.

May 27, 1943: Tigers 3, Yankees 2

At 22, Newhouser was in the middle of his fourth full season with the Tigers and coming off his first All-Star season, in which he had a 2.45 ERA in 183 2/3 innings. But he hadn’t produced many strikeouts, with just 103 — good for sixth in the AL — in 1942. On this sunny day in the Bronx, though, he showed a glimpse of his strikeout ability — he finished in the top three in the AL in strikeouts in every season from 1943-49 — with 14 strikeouts (along with four hits and two walks) in nine innings.

He was utterly dominant for the first five innings — the Free Press described him the next day as “a veritable tornado blowing the bats out” of the Yankees’ hands — with at least two strikeouts in every frame, including three in the fourth. That fourth was also the only inning the Yanks presented a threat, stringing together a single and a homer for their two runs of the afternoon; New York put just one more runner in scoring position the rest of the way. In all, Newhouser struck out every Yankee who came to the plate; only reliever Johnny Murphy — “the lucky stiff,” as the Free Press noted — was spared, by lack of an at-bat.

April 27, 1944: Tigers 2, White Sox 0 (12 inn.)

Newhouser still wasn’t a finished product; he’d finished the 1943 season with a 5.19 ERA in September, led the AL with 111 walks for the year and was bombed in his first start of 1944 for five runs over two innings, prompting manager Steve O’Neil to send him to the bullpen for a week. Just prior to this start in Chicago, O’Neil proclaimed it was Newhouser’s “last chance” to remain in the rotation. The young lefty delivered, going 12 innings without allowing a run.

He was far from perfect — six walks and only five strikeouts — prompting the Freep to describe Newhouser’s effort as “made good the hard way” and “good in the pinches.” In 43 appearances the rest of the season, including 32 starts, Newhouser continued his success the hard way: 93 walks paired with 178 strikeouts over 294 2/3 innings en route to a 2.26 ERA. He ended up as MVP by a mere four points ahead of fellow Tigers pitcher Dizzy Trout, who actually received more first-place votes, 10-7.

June 29, 1944: Tigers 4, Senators 0

Even at the peak of his career — 1942-48 — Newhouser struggled with walks. In 223 starts over that span, he went without allowing a walk just 17 times, including this outing in Washington. It was a matchup of future Hall of Famers, with Newhouser going head-to-head with Early Wynn.

The duo combined for 14 scoreless innings before the Tigers finally broke through on a solo home run by Rudy York in the eighth inning. Newhouser, though, didn’t falter. He gave up just two hits to the Senators — a single to the second batter of the game, and another single to open the fifth inning — and saw just one Senator make it past first, on a two-out steal in the fifth. Newhouser then picked up a strikeout to end the threat and the inning; he finished with nine in the game.

Oct. 10, 1945: Tigers 9, Cubs 3

Newhouser wasn’t the most popular with his teammates; a fierce temper and perfectionist nature left him complaining about his team’s performances as much as his own. But that also meant Newhouser wasn’t above making use of every advantage, as he did for Game 7 of the World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

As he told the story in 1997: “It was a bright, sunny day in Chicago and they had a full house. While I was practicing some bunts before the game, I noticed the ball was tough to see. Then I saw the reason: The fans in the centerfield bleachers had taken off their coats because it was a hot day and most of them were wearing white shirts. It made the ball tough to pick up for the batters.”

Newhouser allegedly adjusted his arm angle — after allowing a one-out double, a bunt error and an RBI single in the bottom of the first — and the Cubs were stymied the rest of the way. Newhouser finished with 10 hits, three runs and one walk allowed, but also struck out 10 while going the distance.

Then again, it might not have mattered, considering his teammates scored five runs in the top of the inning. As Newhouser told the Freep after the victory in Chicago: “It sure felt comfortable. Maybe I’ve hinted once or twice that I usually don’t get many runs to work on, but the fellows sure came through at the right moment. I could think of no better time in my life to see a big ‘5’ on the Detroit side of the scoreboard.”

Sept. 22, 1946: Tigers 3, Cleveland 0

They would end up teammates in the early 1950s, but in the 1940s, Newhouser and Cleveland’s Bob Feller, a righty, were AL rivals, dealing heat from opposite sides of the mound and sometimes in the same game.

“I used to kid him when we’d take those publicity pictures before we’d pitch against each other — you know, trying to get him to smile,” Feller told the Freep in 1998. “But he didn’t smile too often when he was in uniform.”

He had reason to smile after this game, his 26th win of the season and one of two starts during the 1946 season in which he didn’t issue a walk. Newhouser held Cleveland to two hits and no runs while striking out nine over nine innings. (Feller was nearly his equal, going all nine and striking out seven, but also allowing eight hits and four walks.)

Sept. 8, 1949: Tigers 10, Cleveland 0

Despite his frequent dominance, Newhouser never threw a no-hitter and had just two one-hitters, including this one at Briggs Stadium in Detroit in Game 1 of a doubleheader. (His old pal Feller took the loss in Game 2.) It was arguably the closest he ever came, even as his time with the Tigers was winding down.

Newhouser opened the game by retiring the first 17 Cleveland batters, his perfection snapped only by a walk to relief pitcher Frank Papish in the sixth inning. An inning later, the no-no was gone, too, broken up by a single by Cleveland player-manager Lou Boudreau (who immediately pulled himself for a pinch-runner) to open the seventh inning. Newhouser closed out the inning with a flyball to center and a double play, then retired the final six batters in order. His final line: one hit, one walk, no runs and three strikeouts in nine innings.

He would make 69 more starts for the Tigers, with two more shutouts, through the 1952 season before joining Cleveland for two final seasons, recording a 2.39 ERA in 28 appearances mostly in relief.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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