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Harry Heilmann

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Harry Edwin Heilmann (August 3, 1894July 9, 1951), nicknamed “Slug,” was a Major League Baseball player who played 17 season with the Detroit Tigers (1914, 1916-1929) and Cincinnati Reds (1930, 1932). Heilmann was a line drive hitter who won four American League batting crowns in 1921, 1923, 1925, and 1927. Prior to World War II, he was the only AL player other than Ty Cobb (11 titles) to win 4 or more batting titles. He and Ted Williams are the last two American League players to hit .400, Heilmann having accomplished the feat in 1923 with a batting average of .403 and Ted Williams in 1941 with .406 (In NL, Rogers Hornsby batted .400 3 times in the 1920s and Bill Terry batted .401 in 1930). Heilmann was considered the AL equivalent of Rogers Hornsby during his career - although he faced more premier hitters/sluggers in the American League. Heilmann’s career batting average of .342 is the 12th highest in Major League history. [1]. Heilmann was also an excellent 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 (23rd all-time), triples with 151 (49th all-time) and RBIs with 1,539 (39th all-time). Heilmann played in 2,148 Major League games, including 1,518 as a right fielder and 448 as a first baseman. Heilmann played for the Cincinnati Reds in 1930 and part of 1932. He homered in every major league ball park he played in during his career. Other pre-expansion players to do it were Jeff Heath and Johynny Mize. He was elected to Hall of Fame by BBWAA along with Paul Waner in 1952 after his death in July, 1951.

Early Years: 1913-1920Edit

Born in San Francisco, California, Heilmann attended Sacred Heart High School, the same school that Joe Cronin attended. [2] In 1913, the 19-year-old Heilmann was working as a bookkeeper for a biscuit-maker, when 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, Heilmann was signed to a professional contract by the Portland Beavers of the Northwest League. [3] [4] Heilmann later recalled he received a spaghetti dinner as a bonus for signing with Portland. [5] After he hit .305 for the Portland Beavers [6], his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers for $1,500.

Heilmann debuted with the Tigers on May 16, 1914, and played in 69 games that year, batting .225 and committing 6 errors in 31 games in the outfield (28 in center field) for a subpar .870 fielding percentage. For the 1915 season, the Tigers sent Heilmann to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. In 1915, Heilmann 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. Though his .282 batting average was low by the standards he would set later, Heilmann ranked among the American League leaders with 30 doubles (7th best), 73 RBIs (7th best), and 43 extra base hits (8th best). Heilmann also became a favorite in Detroit for his actions off the field. On July 25, 1916, Heilmann spotted a woman drowning in the Detroit River. He dove into the river and was credited with saving the woman’s life. After the incident was reported in the local press, Heilmann was given an ovation at the next day’s game. [7] In 1917, Heilmann continued to improve as a batter, once again ranking among the American League leaders with 86 RBIs (4th best), 5 Home Runs (7th best), and 11 triples (8th best). However, Heilmann, who earned the nickname “Slug” due to his notoriously slow running, had difficulties as a fielder. In 1917, the Tigers tried playing him in right field (95 games), center field (28 games), and first base (27 games), but he was not particularly good at any of those positions.

In 1918, with the United States at war against Germany, Heilmann joined the U.S. Navy and served on a submarine, causing him to miss half of the 1918 season. [8] Heilmann played in only 79 games in 1918, splitting his time between right field (40 games) and first base (37 games).

Heilmann returned to the lineup 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 (7th best), 93 RBIs (4th best), 53 extra base hits (4th best), 15 triples (2nd best), 256 total bases (5th best), 172 hits (6th best), and 8 home runs (8th best). Heilmann had another strong year at the plate in 1920 with a .309 average, 41 extra base hits, and 89 RBIs. However, the 1919 and 1920 seasons also highlighted Heilmann’s shortcomings as a fielder. Detroit manager Hughie Jennings used Heilmann as the Tigers’ starting first baseman, and he led the league in errors by a first baseman both years, including 31 in 1919 for a .979 fielding percentage.

Heilmann’s First Batting Title: 1921Edit

Although Heilmann was a good hitter in his first six years, he did not become a great hitter until 1921. In his first six seasons, Heilmann batted .291. The “live ball” era that started in 1920 certainly played a part in Heilmann’s batting in the 1920s. As the lively ball forced outfielders to spread out and play deeper, the line-drive hitting Heilmann took advantage of the gaps that were created.

In addition to the lively ball, Heilmann’s development into a star in the 1920s was likely also influenced by Ty Cobb. Cobb took over as the Tigers’ manager in 1921 and worked closely with Heilmann to improve his batting technique. Cobb taught Heilmann 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. Heilmann won his first of four American League batting crowns with a .394 average. Ironically, Heilmann narrowly won the batting crown, edging Cobb, by five points.

Though primarily a line-drive hitter, Heilmann could also hit with power. He was among the American League leaders in home runs 11 times. On July 8, 1921, Heilmann hit a home run in Detroit that the New York Tribune reported measured 610 feet – one of the longest home runs ever hit by a Tiger.

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 (3rd best), .606 slugging percentage (2nd best), 365 total bases (2nd best), 43 doubles (3rd best), 139 RBIs (2nd best), and 76 extra base hits (3rd best).

The entire Detroit Tigers lineup had a remarkable season at the plate in 1921. 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 batting leaders with a .338 average. The 1921 Tigers finished the season with a team batting average of .316 – the highest in American League history. Perhaps proving the baseball adage that good pitching beats good hitting, the 1921 Tigers lacked good pitching and finished in 6th place, 27 games behind the Yankees.

Heilmann Wins Three More Batting Titles: 1922-1927Edit

Heilmann broke his collarbone in 1922, but still managed to hit .356 (4th in the AL) with a .432 on base percentage (5th best) and a .598 slugging percentage (4th best). And despite missing more than a month with the broken collarbone, Heilmann hit a career-high 21 home runs – 4th best in the league,

Heilmann strung together twelve consecutive seasons of hitting at least .300, and was in the top ten in batting average ten times. In 1923, Heilmann won his second batting title, hitting .403 for the season, edging out Babe Ruth who hit .393. It was the second time Detroit’s batters had denied Ruth a triple crown. Ruth led the league in home runs and RBIs in both 1921 and 1923 but was edged out in batting average both years by Cobb and/or Heilmann. In 1926, another Tiger hitter, Heinie Manush, won the batting title to deny Ruth the triple crown yet again. Detroit manager, Ty Cobb, reportedly delighted in the fact that his batters three times denied Ruth a triple crown.

In addition to winning the 1923 batting crown, Heilmann had one of his best seasons as a slugger. He finished 2nd to Ruth in on base percentage (.481) and slugging percentage (.632). He was also among the Top 5 with 121 runs (4th), 211 hits (3rd), 331 total bases (4th), 44 doubles (4th), 18 home runs (3rd), 115 RBIs (3rd), and 73 extra base hits (4th). Despite breaking the .400 mark, Heilmann finished 3rd in the 1923 American League Most Valuable Player voting behind Babe Ruth and Eddie Collins.

Heilmann worked as a life insurance agent during the off-season in the 1920s. On October 16, 1923, after Babe Ruth 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 .346 batting average (6th best in the AL), though his .445 on base percentage was 2nd best in the league. He also led the league with 41 doubles and had another 100-plus RBI season. Heilmann had his best defensive season in 1924, collecting 31 outfield assists, more than any other outfielder that year. Heilmann never had more than 18 outfield assists in any other season.

In 1925, Heilmann won his third batting title, this time in a close race with Tris Speaker. At the beginning of September, Heilmann trailed Speaker by 50 points, but beat Speaker in the closing weeks. With a few games to go, Heilmann refused to come out of the lineup, and won the title .393 to .389. Again, Heilmann was among the leaders in most offensive categories, with 134 RBIs (2nd best), a .457 on base percentage (4th best), .569 slugging percentage (5th best), 225 hits (3rd best), and 326 total bases (4th best). Despite Heilmann’s third batting title, the American League MVP award went to Roger Peckinpaugh, whose batting average was almost 100 points below Heilmann’s, and who had 70 fewer RBIs and 40 fewer extra base hits than Heilmann.

In 1926, Detroit’s outfielders took three of the top four spots in the batting race, with center fielder Heinie Manush winning the batting crown at .378, and Heilmann and left fielder Bob Fothergill both hitting .367. Heilmann’s .445 on base percentage was 2nd best in the American League, and he once again hit more than 100 RBIs, finishing 5th in the American League MVP voting.

In 1927, Heilmann won his fourth batting crown, batting .398 and missing the .400 mark by just two hits. The 1927 batting title was decided in another close race, this one pitting Heilmann against Al Simmons. Heilmann trailed Simmons by one point going into the last day of the 1927 season. In a doubleheader at Cleveland, Heilmann had four hits in the first game, and three in the second, finishing at .398 - six points above Simmons. Heilmann also finished the 1927 season near the top in most offensive categories with a .475 on base percentage (2nd best), 120 RBIs (3rd best), 201 hits (3rd best), 50 doubles (3rd best), 73 extra base hits (3rd best), .616 slugging percentage (4th best), 311 total bases (.4th best), and 106 runs (5th best). Despite winning a fourth batting title, Heilmann still finished second in the MVP voting, this time behind Lou Gehrig.

Through the 1920s Heilmann led all American League batters with a .364 average. His .558 slugging percentage was topped only by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Al Simmons. For the decade, Heilmann averaged 220 hits, 110 runs, 45 doubles, 12 triples, 16 homers, and 130 RBI per 154 games.

When a reporter pointed out that he had won batting titles every other year from 1921 to 1927, Heilmann replied: “Mr. Navin gives me contracts on a two-year basis. I always bear down real hard when a new contract is coming up.” [9]

Heilmann’s Final Years in the Major Leagues: 1928-1932Edit

Heilmann’s batting average dropped off somewhat in 1928 (.328) and 1929 (.344), though he was still among the league leaders in batting average both years. Even with arthritis in his wrists bothering him in 1929, Heilmann managed to hit .344 with 63 extra base hits and 120 RBIs.

In October, 1929, the Tigers sold Heilmann to the Cincinnati Reds. Despite continuing difficulty with arthritis in his wrists, Heilmann 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, Heilmann had a range factor of 2.78 in 1930—the 2nd highest range factor in baseball history for a right fielder. While playing with the Reds, Heilmann also became the first player to hit a home run in every major league park used during his career. Ailing with arthritis, Heilmann did not play in 1931. He attempted a brief comeback in 1932, but appeared in only 15 games for the Reds.

Heilmann retired for good in 1932 with career totals of 2,660 hits (No. 62 in MLB history), 542 doubles (No. 23 in MLB history), 151 triples (No. 49 in MLB history), 1,539 runs batted in (No. 39 in MLB history), 876 extra base hits (No. 57 in MLB history). His .342 batting average is still second only to Rogers Hornsby among right-handed hitters. In 1994, Ted Williams rated Heilmann as one of the top 5 right-handed hitters [10] and the 17th best overall hitter of all time. [11]

Life After Baseball and the Hall of FameEdit

From 1934 to 1950, Heilmann worked as a play-by-play announcer during Tigers radio broadcasts. Heilmann was popular as a broadcaster for his humor, knowledge of the game, and story-telling talent. His broadcasts were heard throughout Michigan as the Tigers won pennants in 1934, 1935, 1940, and 1945. Heilmann became ill with lung cancer in March 1950. He managed to return to the broadcast booth at Briggs Stadium to broadcast a few innings of the 1950 season. During the summer of 1950, former teammate, Ty Cobb, launched a campaign to elect Heilmann to the Baseball Hall of Fame before he succumbed to cancer. Despite Cobb’s campaign, Heilmann fell short in the 1951 Hall of Fame voting, after being named on 67.7% of the ballots.

Heilmann died on July 9, 1951 – two days before the All Star Game was played in Detroit. Shortly after Heilmann’s 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, agreed 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.” [12] Heilmann was elected to the Hall of Fame six months later in January 1952, along with Paul Waner, after being named on 87% of the ballots.

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

Career statisticsEdit

G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG TB SH HBP
2147 7787 1291 2660 542 151 183 1539 113 64 856 550 .342 .397 .520 4053 277 40

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Preceded by:
George Sisler
George Sisler
Babe Ruth
Heinie Manush
American League Batting Champion
1921
1923
1925
1927
Succeeded by:
George Sisler
Babe Ruth
Heinie Manush
Goose Goslin

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