Sunday, June 19, 2005

Woodie & Hondo Helped Fuel Tigers' '72 AL East Charge

(another in a series of posts featuring memorable Tigers -- in one way, shape or form -- who played in Detroit since the last All-Star game here, in 1971. This series celebrates the return of the midsummer classic to the Motor City in 2005, and a new feature will appear each weekend until the game is played in July)

More and more sports fans are emerging who weren't even born when the Tigers were just two measly runs away from going to the 1972 World Series. Around Detroit, the '68, '84 and even the '87 teams get all the publicity, for their World Series and/or divisional exploits. But hardly anyone talks about the '72 club, and they might be the most interesting story of them all.

The '72 Tigers were managed by Billy Martin, and I could fill up an entire blog with just stories about him, so suffice it to say that Billy was, of course, fiery. Going into the season, Billy was concerned about the team's pitching but not so much about the hitting, which figured to be sufficient. The Tigers were coming off a second place finish in 1971, to the Orioles, and even though Martin complained publicly that the O's seemed to have all the good, young talent and the Tigers didn't, Detroit was nonetheless clumped into a group of teams that had a shot at winning the AL East title. The Tigers were an older, veteran-laden team than the other contenders, and it was the team's way to pick up aging players to plug holes that their minor league system couldn't.

So the Tigers acquired, in Martin's tenure, vets like Duke Sims, Tony Taylor, Dave Boswell, Jim Perry and Dean Chance, to name a few. But in 1972 specifically, the Tigers struck gold with the acquisitions of pitcher Woodie Fryman and first baseman Frank Howard.

The Tigers got Fryman from the Phillies, who were having a terrible season. Howard came from Texas, also awful in their first season as ex-Washington Senators. Fryman, a lefty starter, was 32 and was experiencing a 4-10 season when the Tigers snatched him up. Fryman fit in nicely immediately, going 10-3 with an ERA under 3.00. He was Doyle Alexander before Alexander. Doyle, as you probably know, went something like 9-1 down the stretch for the '87 Tigers who won the division on the final day of the season. Fryman was dominant, and it was a good thing, too, because surprisingly it was the Tigers' pitching that saved their bacon because the vaunted offense struggled mightily. The starting rotation of Fryman, Mickey Lolich, Joe Coleman and Tom Timmerman was so proficient that the offense didn't have to score a lot of runs, which it didn't.

Fryman was 1972's Doyle Alexander for the Tigers

Howard was an even more interesting story. Hondo was 36 and at one time with the Senators was considered one of the most feared sluggers in the game. In 1968, for example, Howard hit 10 home runs in one week, still a league record. He had come into the big leagues with the Dodgers, and before long he was consistently hitting 20-30 homers. But by the time the Tigers came calling in '72, Howard was near the end of the line and was merely pedestrian with the new Rangers. It seemed like his career was over. But the Tigers' acquisition breathed life into Hondo. He only played 14 games, but he had some key hits and was perhaps the team's biggest cheerleader. He had to cheer, because he was acquired too late to qualify for the postseason roster. I always felt sorry for Howard because of that, being relegated to booster when everyone knew he was dying to play in the ALCS against Oakland. But Howard insisted he was simply happy to be in the playoffs, coming over from the last-place Rangers, even if he couldn't play.

Who knows how the '72 ALCS would have turned out had
Howard (above) been able to play in it?

The Tigers won the division by outlasting the Red Sox and Orioles. The title was clinched on the final Saturday night of the season with a win over Boston at Tiger Stadium. Because of a players strike that began the season, the Tigers played 156 games, the Red Sox 155 in '72. And the Tigers won the division with an 86-70 record compared to the Bosox' 85-70 mark. Who says one game can't make a difference?

The Tigers lost the first two games of the ALCS in Oakland -- it was best-of-five back then -- but then recovered to win the next two in Detroit. Then, in the deciding fifth game, which Fryman started, the Tigers lost a heartbreaker, 2-1, when little-used reserve George Hendrick slid home with the go-ahead run in the fourth inning. The Tigers were that close to returning to their second World Series in five seasons.

Both Fryman and Howard returned to the Tigers for the 1973 season, but neither had much of an impact. Fryman was 6-13 with an ERA over 5.00, and Howard was a part-time DH, hitting 12 homers in 227 at-bats. The Tigers flirted with contention, but then Martin lost it -- as he always did wherever he went -- and got fired, and the team finished third.

Neither Woodie Fryman nor Frank Howard wore the "olde English D" very long, and lots of folks don't even know they played for the Tigers at all. But without them, the Tigers may not have won the AL East in 1972. And had Howard been able to play in the playoffs, maybe the Tigers would have won the ALCS, too.

But I guess we'll never know, will we?

(next week: Ruppert Jones)

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