There has never been a player that benefited more from a switch in managers than Harry Heilmann. A member of the Detroit Tigers
for six seasons before Ty Cobb took over as the new skipper in 1921, Harry Heilmann had been a steady but unspectacular player. But once Cobb was entrenched as the new filed boss, the first thing he did was take Harry Heilmann aside and give him some batting tips. That advice turned Harry Heilmann from just another face in the crowd into one of the greatest right-handed hitters that ever lived, and sent him eventually to the Hall of Fame.
Up until Cobb became the Tiger manager, Harry Heilmann’s claim to fame had been saving a woman from drowning in the Detroit River in 1916. Harry Heilmann had come to Detroit at the age of 19 in 1914, and was essentially a man without a position. He could not crack the outfield corps of Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Bobby Veach, so Harry Heilmann was tried at first, where he proved to be an absolute butcher. The Tigers shuffled Harry Heilmann between the outfield and first base for most of his first four campaigns in the majors until deciding to bite the bullet and make him their full-time first sacker in 1919. Harry Heilmann led all first basemen in errors for two straight years, and at the plate he was capable, but had only hit over .300 twice in his first half dozen seasons.
Two things happened in 1921 that made Harry Heilmann a star virtually overnight. One was Cobb taking over as a player/manager and telling Harry Heilmann to change how he stood in the batter’s box, use his wrists more to drive the ball, and develop the ability to hit from a crouch. The second thing that Harry Heilmann used to his advantage more than anyone else was baseball’s adopting a livelier ball. In addition, the umpires were told to use fresh balls more, a direct result of Cleveland’s Ray Chapman being killed by a Carl Mays pitch in 1920 that he more than likely had a hard time seeing as it crashed into his skull. Implementing his new batting stance, and with the outfielders now having to play deeper because of the new balls, Harry Heilmann exploded in 1921 for a .394 average and 139 runs batted in.
1921 was the first of Harry Heilmann’s four American League batting titles, which would occur from then on during every odd year. Ironically, Harry Heilmann beat out Cobb that season by five points for the batting crown. In 1922, Harry Heilmann suffered a broken collarbone, but still managed to bat .356 in 118 contests and slam his career high of 21 home runs. 1923 saw Harry Heilmann produce another batting title, this time besting none other than Babe Ruth by ten points and hitting over .400 for the only time in his career. His .403 standard came with 115 runs batted in and over 200 hits, a number that Harry Heilmann would surpass four times; each time he collected at least 200 base hits he won the batting crown.
With a nickname of “Slug”, you can be assured that Harry Heilmann did not get a lot of infield hits due to his lack of speed. By now Harry Heilmann was playing the outfield full time, and gradually he was able to get much better defensively. 1924 saw Harry Heilmann throw out no less than 31 runners on the base paths from his spot in Detroit’s outfield. He batted .346 and sent 114 men over home plate as well. Another batting title came in 1925, but it did not come easily. Harry Heilmann trailed Tris Speaker by as much as fifty points in the batting race as September neared, but caught up to the Cleveland outfielder and on the season’s last day trailed him by a single point. Speaker had a bum leg and sat out the last game of the year at .389, while Harry Heilmann had a doubleheader to play. After going 3 for 6 in the first game, Harry Heilmann had the batting title wrapped up, but, sixteen years before Ted Williams would show similar guts and honor while attempting to bat .400, Harry Heilmann played in the second game. He went 3 for 3 and wound up with a .393 average and his third batting title.
Harry Heilmann finished behind Heinie Manush and Ruth in batting in 1926, and then won his final title in 1927. Philadelphia’s Al Simmons went 2 for 5 on the final day to make it to .392, but Harry Heilmann passed him with a four hit effort in the first game of a double dip versus the Browns. Once more Harry Heilmann refused to sit the second game just so he could have the title for sure, and the baseball gods rewarded his nobility by allowing him three more hits in the second tilt, to finish at .398.
The next two seasons saw Harry Heilmann’s average drop, but his run production remained the same. However, he developed arthritis in his wrists in 1929, and Detroit sent him to the Reds, for whom he still managed to bat .333 and drive in 91 runs. Harry Heilmann sat out all of 1931 with his arthritic wrists, and then retired officially after a few games with Cincy in 1932. At the time of his retirement, Harry Heilmann was the only man to have hit a home run in every major league park in baseball.
He left the sport with over 1,500 runs batted in, eight 100 RBI seasons including seven in a row, 306 more walks than strikeouts, and a .342 career average. His lifetime batting mark is the highest by any righty except for Rogers Hornsby and Ed Delahanty. Harry Heilmann became a popular Tiger broadcaster after his career was over, until he developed lung cancer and passed away in 1951. The next year, Harry Heilmann was elected to the Hall of Fame. The effort to have him enshrined had been led by someone who had been his friend right up until the day he had died, and had been responsible for his great turnaround- Ty Cobb.