From 1948 to 1960 the Detroit Tigers finished higher than fourth place in the eight-team American League just once. It was the longest stretch of mediocrity in franchise history up to that point.
But there was one season in that span when the Tigers enjoyed success, almost sneaking a pennant away from the vaunted New York Yankees. If not for a strange play in Cleveland that was affected by a Canadian forest fire, Detroit may have won the flag in 1950.
The 1950 Tigers were managed by Robert “Red” Rolfe, a baseball lifer who knew something about winning. As a third baseman he won five World Series titles in the pinstripes of the Yankees, playing alongside Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, and Red Ruffing. Rolfe was a keen student of the game – an Ivy League graduate – who excelled at in-game managing.
Like the Yankees of the 1930s, Rolfe’s 1950 Tiger squad was loaded with lumber. Third baseman George Kell was the defending batting champion, and he hit .340 in ’50 to pace the team. Three other Tiger regulars – the starting outfield of Hoot Evers, Vic Wertz, and Johnny Groth – also hit over .300. Kell, Wertz, and Evers each drove in at least 100 runs.
The Tigers ranked third in runs scored and fewest runs allowed. The team directly in front of them in both of those categories – the Yankees – shadowed Detroit in the standings all year. The Tigers used a 21-9 record in June to forge a lead as large as 4 1/2 on the Yanks. A strong foursome of Hal Newhouser, Art Houtteman, Fred Hutchinson, and Dozzy Trout led the Bengal rotation.
At the All-Star break the Tigers led the race by three games. At the end of July the Yanks had caught them and the Cleveland Indians were just two games behind.
On Sunday, September 24, the Tigers were finishing a three-game set in Cleveland against the Indians, who had fallen out of the pennant race. The Tigers were a game-and-a-half behind the Yankees with eight games to play.
The game was tied at 1-1 in the 10th when the wind over Lake Erie came into play on the field. Earlier that weekend forest fires had roared through Canada across Lake Erie to the north. The winds blew south on Sunday, sending clouds of smoke over the city of Cleveland. By the late innings it was difficult to see. When Bob Lemon tripled to open the 10th (yes, the starting pitcher was still in the game and batting!), Rolfe walked the next two batters to set up a double play. Larry Doby popped out for the first out, bringing up Luke Easter. easter hit a routine grounder to first baseman Don Kolloway, who stepped on the bag for the second out. He returned the ball toward home plate and catcher Aaron Robinson. But Robinson, blinded by the smoke floating in from Lake Erie, didn’t see that Kolloway tagged the bag. He thought the force play was still in effect at home. As a result, he simply touched the plate, thinking he’d recorded the second out. But the force at first had meant that Robinson needed to tag Lemon coming into home. He did not, of course, and Lemon scored the winning run.
The Tigers lost the game, 2-1, having been swept by the Indians. The Yankees won and increased their lead to 2 1/2 games. The Tigers won four of their last seven games, but were eliminated on the next Friday. They won 95 games, their highest total in years, but they’d fallen short of the Yankees, who went on to win the World Series.
When he was dismissed as manager less than two years later, Rolfe cited the “smoky loss” in Cleveland in 1950 as a turning point in his tenure.
“We lost a bizarre game, [the] strangest I ever saw,” Rolfe sighed. “We never played another big game in my time in Detroit, sadly.”