Harry “Slugs” Heilmann, befitting his nickname, didn’t get many leg hits. No matter. The San Francisco native smacked plenty of line drives.
Heilmann, born on this date in 1894, retired with 2,660 hits over 17 seasons, most of them with the Detroit Tigers. He batted .342 lifetime, the same as the great Babe Ruth. He won four batting titles, putting together a superb run of odd-numbered seasons (1921, 1923, 1925 and 1927).
One of baseball’s early west coast stars, Heilmann learned to hit while playing on the Bay area sandlots. The Tigers signed him in the fall of 1913 for $1,500. He debuted in Detroit the following season but hit just .225 in 68 games. The outfielder spent 1915 in the minors.
Back with the Tigers in 1916, Heilmann batted .282 with little power (two home runs). He followed that by batting .281 in 1917 and .276 in 1918. It looked like he would be a decent, not great, player.
Something clicked in 1919. He upped his average to .320 and emerged as one of top players in the game. After dipping to .309 in 1920, the right-handed batter put up a .394 mark in 1921. From 1921-1930, Heilmann not only led the American League in batting average four times, he never hit below .328. Typically, he finished in double figures in home runs and with more than 40 doubles and about 10 triples despite not being fleet of foot.
Heilmann knocked in more than 100 runs eight times and finished in the top 10 in the A.L. MVP voting five straight years (1923-27). How good was he? He batted .403 in 1923 and came within just a few hits here and there of topping the .400 mark two other times. Besides that .394 mark in ’21, the Californian finished at .398 in 1927.
Heilmann left for the National League in 1930. He hit .333 for the Cincinnati Reds and retired for one season. He came back–sorta–in 1932 for Cincinnati and hit .258 in 31 at-bats.
His playing career over, Heilmann went up to the broadcast booth. He handled Tigers play-by-play on WXYZ for 17 seasons before being diagnosed with lung cancer. Heilmann died July 9, 1951, age 56.
Ty Cobb, the irascible one, the greatest Tiger of them all, visited Heilman in the hospital near the end. Supposedly, Cobb told Heilmann that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame. It was a kind gesture, but it wasn’t true. The writers finally voted Heilmann into Cooperstown in the summer of 1952.