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Harry Heilmann

Harry Heilmann
Heilmann in 1917 Bain News Service photo
Right fielder / First baseman
Born: (1894-08-03)August 3, 1894
San Francisco, California
Died: July 9, 1951(1951-07-09) (aged 56)
Southfield, Michigan
Batted: Right Threw: Right
MLB debut
May 16, 1914 for the Detroit Tigers
Last MLB appearance
May 31, 1932 for the Cincinnati Reds
Career statistics
Batting average .342
Hits 2,660
Home runs 183
Runs batted in 1,539
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Career highlights and awards
Induction 1952
Vote 86.8% (fourth ballot)

Harry Edwin Heilmann (August 3, 1894 – July 9, 1951), nicknamed "Slug," was a Major League Baseball player who played 17 seasons with the Detroit Tigers (1914, 1916–1929) and Cincinnati Reds (1930, 1932). He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1952.

Heilmann was a line drive hitter who won four American League batting crowns, in 1921, 1923, 1925 & 1927. He and Ted Williams are the last two American League players to hit .400, Heilmann having accomplished the feat in 1923 at .403. His career batting average of .342 is currently 12th-highest in major league history.[1]

He was also a premier slugger, ranking among the American League leaders in both slugging percentage and RBIs in 12 seasons. He is among the all-time major league leaders in doubles with 542, triples with 151 and RBIs with 1,539. He played in 2,148 major league games, 1,327 in right field and 448 at first base, and was also the first to hit at least one home run in every major league ballpark in use during his career.

Early years: 1913–1920

Born in San Francisco, California, Heilmann attended Sacred Heart High School as did Joe Cronin. In 1913, while the 19-year-old Heilmann was working as a bookkeeper for a biscuit-maker, a former teammate from Sacred Heart asked him to fill in for the Hanford, California, team in the San Joaquin Valley League. After a scout saw him hit an 11th-inning game-winning double, he was signed to a professional contract by the Portland Beavers of the Northwest League.[2][3] He later recalled that his signing bonus for Portland was a spaghetti dinner.[4] After he hit .305 for the Beavers,[5] the Detroit Tigers purchased his contract for $1,500.

Heilmann debuted with the Tigers on May 16, 1914, and played in 69 games that year, batting .225 and committing six errors in 31 games in the outfield (29 in center field) for a .870 fielding percentage.[6] For the 1915 season, the Tigers sent Heilmann to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. In 1915, he and fellow San Francisco native Ping Bodie (later a star with the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees) led the Seals to their second Pacific Coast League title, with Heilmann hitting .364.

Heilmann returned to the Tigers in 1916, playing in 136 games, including 30 games at first base and 66 games as a backup right fielder for Sam Crawford. Although his .282 batting average was low by the standards he would set later, he ranked among the American League leaders with 30 doubles (seventh best), 73 RBIs (seventh again) and 43 extra-base hits (eighth). He also became a favorite in Detroit for his actions off the field. On July 25, 1916, he spotted a woman in danger of drowning in the Detroit River, dived into the river and saved her life. His heroic act was reported in the local press, and he was loudly applauded at the next day's game.[7] He continued to improve at the plate in 1917, once again ranking among the American League leaders with 86 RBIs (fourth), five home runs (seventh) and 11 triples (eighth); but he was called "Slug" due to his notoriously slow running and difficulties in the field. In 1917, the Tigers tried playing him in right field (95 games), center field (28) and first base (27), but he was not particularly good at any of those positions.

In 1918, with the United States entered World War I, Heilmann joined the U.S. Navy and served on a submarine, causing him to miss half of the 1918 season.[8] He played in only 79 games in 1918, either in right field (40) or at first base (37).

He returned in 1919 and had his best season to date, ranking among the American League leaders with a .320 batting average (10th best), .477 slugging percentage (seventh), 93 RBIs (fourth), 53 extra base hits (fourth again), 15 triples (second), 256 total bases (fifth), 172 hits (sixth) and eight home runs (eighth). 1920 was another strong year for him at the plate, with a .309 average, 41 extra-base hits and 89 RBIs, but he continued to fall short in the field in those two years. Detroit manager Hughie Jennings made him the Tigers' starting first baseman, and he led the league in errors at that position both years, including 31 in 1919 for a .979 fielding percentage.

First batting title: 1921

File:Harry Heilmann 2.jpg
Harry Heilmann, circa 1914

Heilmann was a good hitter in his first six years (averaging .291), but became a great hitter in 1921. The "live-ball era" that started in 1920 certainly played a part in this. As the lively ball forced outfielders to spread out and play deeper, more of Heilmann's line drives found the wider gaps.

In addition to the lively ball, Heilmann's ascent to star status in the 1920s was likely due to his teammate, all-time lifetime average leader Ty Cobb, who became the Tigers' playing manager in 1921 and worked closely with him to improve his mechanics at the plate. Cobb taught him to crouch more, use his wrists to drive the ball and shift his weight to his front foot. Whether due to the lively ball, Cobb's teaching or both, Heilmann's batting average rose by 85 points in 1921 to .394, which gained him the first of his four American League batting crowns albeit narrowly, edging out Cobb by five points.

Though primarily a line-drive hitter, Heilmann could also hit for power. He was among the American League leaders in home runs 11 times. On July 8, 1921, Heilmann hit a home run in Detroit reported by the New York Tribune at a gargantuan 610 feet – one of the longest ever recorded. In addition to winning the batting crown, Heilmann also led the league with 237 hits and was among the league leaders with a .444 on-base percentage (third best), .606 slugging percentage (second), 365 total bases (second again), 43 doubles (third), 139 RBIs (second) and 76 extra-base hits (third). The entire Tiger lineup hit remarkably well that season. In addition to Heilmann and Cobb's 1-2 finish for the batting title, Detroit's third outfielder, Bobby Veach, was also among the league's best at .338. The 1921 Tigers finished the season with a team batting average of .316, highest in American League history. But true to the baseball adage that good pitching beats good hitting, the 1921 Tigers lacked good pitching and finished in sixth place, 27 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees.

Three more batting titles: 1922–1927

Heilmann broke his collarbone in 1922, but still managed to hit .356 (fourth in the AL) with a .432 on-base percentage (fifth best) and a .598 slugging percentage (fourth). And despite missing more than a month with the collarbone fracture, he hit a career-high 21 home runs (fourth again).

Heilmann strung together 12 consecutive seasons of hitting at least .300, and was in the top 10 in batting average 10 times. In 1923 he won his second batting title, hitting .403 for the season, edging out Babe Ruth's .393. It was the second time a Detroit batsman had denied Ruth a triple crown. Ruth led the league in home runs and RBIs in both 1921 & 1923, but was edged out averagewise in both years by Cobb and/or Heilmann. In 1926 another Tiger hitter, Heinie Manush, won the batting title to deny Ruth the triple crown a third time, to the delight of manager Cobb.

In addition to winning the 1923 batting crown, Heilmann had one of his best seasons as a slugger. He finished second to Ruth in on-base percentage (.481) and slugging percentage (.632). He was also among the top five with 121 runs (fourth), 211 hits (third), 331 total bases (fourth), 44 doubles (fourth again), 18 home runs (third), 115 RBIs (third) and 73 extra-base hits (fourth). Despite hitting over .400, however, he finished third in the 1923 American League Most Valuable Player voting behind slugger Babe Ruth and speedster Eddie Collins.

Heilmann worked as a life insurance agent during the off-season in the 1920s. On October 16, 1923, after Babe Ruth had received his World Series winner's share‚ Heilmann‚ who was friends with Ruth despite having beaten him for the batting title‚ sold Ruth a $50‚000 life insurance policy.

In 1924 Heilmann "slumped" (by his standards) to a "mere" .346 (sixth best in the AL), but his .445 on-base percentage was second best. He also led the league with 41 doubles, and had another 100+-RBI season. He had his best defensive season in 1924, leading the league in outfield assists with 31; he never had more than 18 in any other season.

In 1925 Heilmann won his third batting title, this time in a close race with Tris Speaker. On the first of September he trailed Speaker by 17 points, but beat him in the closing weeks. With a few games to go he refused to come out of the lineup, and won the title .393 to .389. He was again among the leaders in most offensive categories, with 134 RBIs (second best), a .457 on-base percentage (fourth), .569 slugging percentage (fifth), 225 hits (third) and 326 total bases (fourth). Despite that third batting title the American League MVP award went to Roger Peckinpaugh, who hit almost 100 points below Heilmann and had 70 fewer RBIs and 40 fewer extra-base hits than Heilmann but whose Senators repeated as pennant winners.

In 1926, Tiger outfielders took three of the top four spots in the batting race. Center fielder Heinie Manush's .378 won the batting crown, while Heilmann and left fielder Bob Fothergill both hit .367. Heilmann's .445 on-base percentage was second best in the American League, he once again had more than 100 RBIs and he finished fifth in AL MVP voting.

In 1927 Heilmann won his fourth batting crown with .398 in another close race pitting him against Al Simmons. Heilmann trailed Simmons by one point going into the last day of the season. In a doubleheader at Cleveland he had four hits in the first game and three in the second, finishing six points above Simmons. He was also near the top in most offensive categories with a .475 on-base percentage (second best), 120 RBIs (third), 201 hits (third as well), 50 doubles (third again), 73 extra-base hits (third once more), .616 slugging percentage (fourth), 311 total bases (fourth again) and 106 runs scored (fifth). Despite winning that fourth batting title he still finished second in the MVP voting, this time behind Lou Gehrig of the 110-44, Series-sweeping world champion Yankees.

Through the 1920s, Heilmann led the entire AL in hitting at .364 average. His .558 slugging percentage was topped only by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Al Simmons. For the decade he averaged 220 hits, 110 runs, 45 doubles, 12 triples, 16 homers and 130 RBI in 154-game seasons.

When a reporter reminded him that he had won batting titles every other year from 1921 to 1927, Heilmann replied: (Tiger owner) "Mr. [Frank] Navin gives me contracts on a two-year basis. I always bear down real hard when a new contract is coming up."[4]

Final years in the major leagues: 1928–1932

Harry Heilmann was honored alongside the retired numbers of the Detroit Tigers in 2000.

Heilmann's batting average dropped off somewhat in 1928 (.328) and 1929 (.344) although he was still among the league leaders in hitting both years. Even when bothered by arthritis in both wrists in 1929, he still managed 63 extra-base hits and 120 RBIs along with his .344 average.

In October 1929, the Tigers sold Heilmann to the Cincinnati Reds. Despite continuing difficulty with arthritis in his wrists, he hit .333 for the Reds in 1930 with 68 extra-base hits, 19 home runs and 91 RBIs. While not previously known for his fielding, his range factor was 2.78 in 1930, second highest in history for a right fielder. In his time with the Reds, he also became the first player to hit a home run in every major league park used during his career. The arthritis kept him out of action in 1931. He attempted a brief comeback in 1932, but played in only 15 games for the Reds.

Heilmann retired for good in 1932 with career totals of 2,660 hits, 542 doubles, 151 triples, 1,539 RBI and 876 extra-base hits. His .342 batting average is still second only to Rogers Hornsby among right-handed hitters. In 1994, Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams rated Heilmann as one of the top five right-handed hitters,[9] and the 17th best overall hitter, of all time.[10]

Life after baseball and the Hall of Fame

From 1934 to 1950, Heilmann did radio play-by-play for Tiger games on WXYZ. For the first eight years, he was part of an unusual broadcasting arrangement. While Heilmann's broadcasts anchored a radio network that stretched across Michigan, Ty Tyson did play-by-play separately on WWJ for metropolitan Detroit. The competing broadcasts merged in 1942. He was popular for his humor, story-telling skills and knowledge of the game, and his broadcasts were heard throughout Michigan as the Tigers won pennants in 1934, 1935, 1940 & 1945 and world championships (over the Chicago Cubs) in 1935 & 1945. Stricken with lung cancer in March 1950, he managed to return to the broadcast booth at Briggs Stadium for a few innings later that year. That summer, former teammate and manager Ty Cobb launched a campaign to elect Heilmann to the Baseball Hall of Fame while he was still alive, which fell short in the 1951 balloting at 67.7%.

Heilmann died on July 9, 1951, two days before the All-Star Game in Detroit. Shortly after his death, Time magazine published an article on Cobb's campaign for his former teammate. "Recently, hearing that Heilmann was seriously ill, Cobb wrote to several of his baseball-writer friends, urging them not to bypass Harry in this year's selections. Last week, New York Times Columnist Arthur Daley printed part of Cobb's letter, agree[ing] that Heilmann's election was long overdue. The appeal came too late. At last week's All-Star game in Detroit, 50,000 fans stood and observed a moment of silence. The day before, Harry Heilmann, 56, had died of cancer in Detroit."[11] He was elected to the Hall of Fame, along with Pirate slugger "Big Poison" Paul Waner, six months later in January 1952 on 87% of the ballots.

In 1999, Heilmann was ranked 54th on The Sporting News list of 100 Greatest Baseball Players,[12] and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.

Career statistics

2147 7787 1291 2660 542 151 184 1539 113 64 856 550 .342 .397 .520 4053 277 40

See also


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