Heilmann was a 6’1″ 200-lb righthanded hitter who captured four American League batting titles in 15 seasons with the Tigers. Heilmann is among Detroit’s all-time leaders in every major hitting category. He was working as a bookkeeper when he was offered his first baseball job. In 1913 he hit .305 for Portland (Northwest League) and was purchased by the Tigers for $1,500. He first joined Detroit in 1914, but stayed from 1916 through 1929, with only two gaps; he missed half of 1918 while on a Navy submarine, and several weeks of 1922 with a broken collarbone.
A fair outfielder, Heilmann was moved to first base for 1919 and 1920 and led the AL in errors at that position both seasons. During the 1920s, he was a part of .300-hitting Tiger outfields in seven seasons. Joining him, at various times, were Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Heinie Manush, and Detroit stars Bobby Veach and Bob Fothergill. Disgruntled pitcher Dutch Leonard wrote to Heilmann in December 1926, telling him of the two letters Leonard had sent to Ban Johnson implicating Joe Wood and Ty Cobb in betting on games. Heilmann showed the letter to Tigers owner Frank Navin and the story came out into the open.
Heilmann was involved in many close batting races. In 1921, he topped Ty Cobb by five points by hitting .394 with a league-high 237 hits. His .403 mark in 1923 bested Babe Ruth‘s .393. In 1925 he caught and passed Tris Speaker with a few games to go; he refused to come out of the lineup, and won the title, .393 to .389. He trailed Al Simmons by one point going into the last day of the 1927 season; in a doubleheader at Cleveland, he had four hits in the first game, and three in the second, finishing at .398 – six points above Simmons.
Arthritis in his wrists began bothering Heilmann in 1929. He was sold to the Reds after the ’29 season, but was unable to play in 1931. He came back as a player-coach in 1932, appearing in 15 games. Popular with fans and players, with a keen sense of humor and a trove of stories, he was the radio voice of the Tigers for 17 years. During WWII, he traveled to the Middle East as part of a baseball group entertaining troops. He died of lung cancer at age 56 in 1951, and was elected to the Hall of Fame the following year.