Birdie Tebbetts lost his job before making the big leagues. The Tigers drafted Tebbetts in 1934, but also traded for Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane to catch and manage. Tebbetts appeared doomed to the minor leagues or the bench, but fate intervened. Cochrane suffered a horrible beaning and was unable to play. Rudy York became the Tiger backstop, but could not field well. Finally, Tebbetts slipped into the starting lineup and remained in Detroit until 1947. He remains one of the top catchers in franchise history.
The future Tiger graduated from Providence College with a Philosophy degree in 1934. Detroit drafted the collegian and even paid his tuition. Despite the favorable impression, Tebbetts was quickly shoved aside to make room for Mickey Cochrane. Management brought “Black Mike” over from Connie Mack’s Athletics to manage and assume catching duties. Tebbetts spent the next several seasons in the minors. In later years, he said the situation made him unhappy.
The Tigers won two pennants and a World Series in Cochrane’s first two seasons. Tebbetts finally made his big league debut for the world champs on September 16, 1936. He hit .303 in 10 games and posted a .940 OPS in limited duty. The youngster played in 50 games in 1937 and 53 in 1938 and batted .191 and .294. In the meantime, Cochrane’s career ended with a bean ball. Rudy York replaced the skipper in the starting lineup. York could hit with the best, but was a defensive liability. As a result, the Tigers turned to Tebbetts in 1939. He batted .261 in 106 contests. York moved to first base in 1940 and Tebbetts became the Tiger catcher.
The Tigers won the pennant with Tebbetts catching and York at first. Hank Greenberg moved to left in order to accommodate Manager Del Baker’s lineup changes. The catcher batted .296 with four home runs, 46 RBI, and .768 OPS. York hit .316 with 33 home runs, 134 RBI, and .993 OPS while Greenberg won the MVP. Detroit’s leftfielder raked for a .340 average, 41 home runs, 150 RBI, and 1.103 OPS. Unfortunately, the Tigers lost a seven game series to the Cincinnati Reds. Tebbetts went hitless in his only World Series appearance.
Tebbetts may have been the best catcher in the league. He made the All Star team in 1941 and started the mid-summer classic in 1942. Tebbetts led the AL in assists three consecutive years and was difficult to run against. He also assisted his pitchers by annoying opposing batters. In many respects, he was the A.J. Pierzynski of his day. In fact, he decked a Cleveland fan after being pelted with a basket full of tomatoes. Tebbetts got under everyone’s skin.
Charges were dropped against the Tiger, but he could not escape World War II. The backstop entered military service in August 1942 and did not return until 1946. He batted .243 in 87 games and then .094 to start 1947. The Tigers believed their former All Star had passed his prime and shipped him to Boston. He played four years in Boston and emerged the league’s best catcher by 1948. Tebbetts finished his career with a two-year stop in Cleveland.
Birdie Tebbetts batted .260 in nine seasons with Detroit. He was the league’s best catcher prior to World War II. He hit for average, fielded better than anyone else in the league, and annoyed the competition. Detroit felt age and the war years robbed Tebbetts of his skills and sent him to Boston, where he enjoyed his best years. However, Tebbetts remains one of the great catchers in Tiger history.