1901 – Present
The Tigers rival any team in baseball for the distinction of most conservative. Authoritarian ownership through the years resisted change (night baseball, the hiring of black players and free agents) while fielding teams that have been generally respectable, sometimes outstanding, rarely just bad. Detroit was a charter member of the American League in 1901. The city was at first an indifferent baseball town; AL president Ban Johnson considered moving the Detroit team to Pittsburgh in 1903. But the NL blocked the move at the same time it granted recognition to the American League. The automobile industry spurred growth in Detroit and support for the Tigers followed. That support has rarely slipped. Tiger baseball became big business under the ownership of Frank Navin (1907-35). The team won five pennants during that period, and its first World Series in 1935, shortly before Navin’s death. Walter O. Briggs Sr., the new owner, enlarged the home stadium, Navin Field (dating to 1912) in 1938 to 56,000 seats and renamed it after himself.
In 1940, major league baseball Commissioner Landis awarded free agency to 91 Tigers players, ruling that general manager Jack Zeller had violated baseball’s working agreement with the minor leagues by making secret deals with players on different teams in the same leagues. Forty-eight years later, an arbitrator freed Tigers star Kirk Gibson after finding the Tigers guilty of collusion in restricting the free agent market. Only the Cubs held out longer against night baseball than the Tigers, who added lights in 1948. Detroit signed no black players until after Briggs died in 1952 and his son, Walter Jr., succeeded him. Third baseman Ossie Virgil (June 6, 1958) was the first black to play for the Tigers. From 1951 to 1960, Detroit never finished better than 17 games out of first place. Briggs’ heirs sold the team to his partners in 1960. John Fetzer and general manager Jim Campbell built strong teams based on pitching, defense, and left-handed power. In a key move, they hired Sparky Anderson to manage in mid-1979. Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan purchased the team in October 1983, and his new willingness to spend money helped Anderson acquire the right players to operate his incomparable platoon system. Anderson’s tenure peaked with a World Series victory in 1984 over the San Diego Padres.