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Today in Baseball History: Detroit Tigers become the ‘Tigers’

Ty Cobb Sliding Into Third Base

(Original Caption) Baseball. A stationary action shot of Ty Cobb sliding. Note the flapping long sleeves and the turned up collar of the old time uniform. The base is out of place and no modern Club would permit a tour sack like this ont he field.

Bettmann Archive

This is yet another team name entry, the sort of which we’ve had a few of lately.

Why so many? Partially because new teams tend to fall at the beginning of seasons and we’re at what would be, on the calendar anyway, the beginning of the baseball season. If you’re doing a “This Day in History” thing, it’s going to consist, disproportionately, of firsts like this in April.

It’s also because I find the topic fascinating, so you’re stuck with me talking about team names a lot. Sorry.

If you missed the earlier bits on this topic, here is the one I wrote about how the Cubs became the “Cubs,” which also contains a general overview of how informally team names actually developed. Here’s one specific to the history of the team name “Yankees.”

Now let’s do a team whose history, and name, predates the Yankees: The Detroit Tigers.

For starters, let’s note that the franchise that would become the Tigers was not the first major league team in Detroit. That distinction belongs to the Detroit Wolverines, who were a new member of the National League in 1881. They lasted eight seasons -- winning the National League pennant in 1887 -- but folded during one of the NL’s early rounds of contraction after the following season. Mostly because the owner spent too much money buying up stars he couldn’t afford. It happens.

The Tigers, like a number of the teams which would become charter members of the American League, began as a minor league club in the upstart Western League. There had been earlier iterations of the Western League before that, but this one -- formed by Ban Johnson and Charles Comiskey in the winter of 1893-94 -- began play in 1894. In fact, the Tigers are the only original Johnson/Comiskey Western League team that still plays where they were founded that year.

The others:

  • Comiskey’s own Sioux City Cornhuskers, who would become the St. Paul Saints in 1895 and then move to Chicago and become the White Stockings -- and later the White Sox -- in 1900;
  • The Milwaukee Brewers, who would move to St. Louis to become the Browns in 1902 and, of course, would move to Baltimore to become the Orioles in 1954;
  • The Grand Rapids Rustlers, who wandered to St. Joesph, Missouri, then to Omaha Nebraska, and then to Columbus, Ohio to become the Senators, before they moved north to become the Cleveland Blues in 1900, after which they would switch to the Cleveland Broncos by around 1902, exist as the Cleveland Naps from 1903 through 1914 and then, finally, the Cleveland Indians in 1915. Wouldn’t be shocked if they change names again in my lifetime;
  • The Kansas City Blues, who would move to Washington to become the Senators franchise in 1901 and then move on to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961;
  • The Toledo White Stockings, who also moved to Columbus, where they were the Buckeyes, and then were dropped entirely when the Buffalo Bisons were formed in 1899. Those same Buffalo Bisons lated only two years before they were dropped and were replaced by the Boston Americans who are today’s Boston Red Sox in 1901; and
  • The Minneapolis Millers and Indianapolis Indians who each just ceased to exist in 1901 in favor of a club in Baltimore, who would later become the Yankees, and a club in Philadelphia, which would then, as now, be known as the Athletics, even if they’ve moved cities a couple of times themselves.

Got that? If not, try to keep up. Thanks.

Anyway, the Detroit team was not the Tigers in 1894. They were sometimes called the Wolverines, as a throwback to the defunct NL team but they were more commonly known in their first season as . . . the Creams. Unlike a lot of early teams, however, this name was not a function of the colors they wore. Rather, they were called this because team owner George Vanderbeck boasted the team would be the “cream of the league.” In this I like to think of them as nominal cousins of the Brooklyn Superbas. And it makes me wonder if there were ever teams called the “Spiffys” or the “Swells.” If not, there probably should’ve been.

The Creams would really only last a season, however, because on this date in 1895, after their victory over a local semipro team known as the Athletics, Detroit Free Press editor Philip Reid wrote the headline “Strouthers’ Tigers showed up very nicely.” Strouthers, by the way, was the team’s manager, Cornelius “Con” Strouthers, who in 1905, as manager of the Augusta Tourists of the Sally League, would sign a young player by the name of Ty Cobb and subsequently sell his contract to the Detroit Tigers for $750. That happened the same month Cobb’s mother murdered his father (she was acquitted) but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Maybe we’ll cover it in August if we still don’t have any real baseball.


Where did Reid come up with the name “Tigers?” On one level it was probably just a nod to their ferocious play. “Go get ‘em, Tiger,” and all of that. But there was a somewhat deeper connection at play here, as “Tigers” was also the nickname for the Detroit Light Guard, a unit of Michigan’s Army National Guard, which had fought in the Civil War and would soon fight in the Spanish-American War and which still exists today as the United States Army’s 1225th Corps Support Battalion. There would’ve been a lot of local pride surrounding that unit at the time, and most historians believe that Reid was invoking them in his usage. The team would formally ask the Light Guard for official permission to use “Tigers” around 1900, when the Western League changed its name to the American League, though they had been using it informally for five years by then.

Later in 1895 Vanderbeck decided to build the team their own park, called Bennett Park, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues in downtown Detroit. The Tigers would play their first game there on April 28, 1896, defeating the Columbus Senators. Bennett Park was built on the cheap, with the smallest seating capacity in the Western League when it became the American League. It also was kind of dangerous, as they simply laid the dirt and sod over preexisting cobblestones, which would sometimes protrude out over the dirt. Talk about a hard slide. In 1911 the Tigers would make a move to get better digs when they purchased some land adjacent to Bennett Park, demolished the stands, turned the field 90 degrees and constructed Navin Field for the 1912 season.

Like the team, it too would change named, later becoming Briggs Stadium and then, finally, Tiger Stadium, which the baseball club formerly known as the Creams would play through the 1999 season. It was a pretty good place.

Also today in baseball history:

1929: Indians’ rookie center fielder Earl Averill homers off of Tigers pitcher Earl Whitehill, becoming the first American League player to hit a home run in his first major league at-bat;

1929: In that same game, the Indians become the first team to wear numbers on the back of their jerseys on a permanent basis. The Yankees would also adopt numbers permanently in 1929, but their April 16th game was rained out, so they wouldn’t take the field in them until the following day;

1935: Babe Ruth makes his National league debut, playing for the Boston Braves and hitting a homer and a single off Giants’ legend Carl Hubbell;

1940: Bob Feller tosses an Opening Day no-hitter, beating Chicago at Comiskey Park, 1-0;

1946: Harry Truman becomes the first President to throw the ceremonial first pitch left-handed;

1948: WGN-TV in Chicago televises a baseball game for the first time. It’s an exhibition game, with the White Sox beating the Cubs 4-1. Jack Brickhouse does the play-by-play;

1983: Padres first baseman Steve Garvey, playing against his old team, the Dodgers, for the first time, appears in his 1,118th straight game, breaking the National League record for consecutive games played, previously held by Billy Williams of the Cubs. Garvey’s consecutive game streak will end at 1,207 due to a dislocated thumb. On this same date, five years later, the Padres will retire Garvey’s number;

1988: The Braves establish a National League record for losses at the start of a season by losing their tenth consecutive game. With a 7-4 defeat to the Dodgers. This streak marks the beginning of my favorite season as a baseball fan.

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