The Detroit Tigers won the 1940 American League pennant under manager Del Baker. Then, they lost Hank Greenberg to World War II. The franchise’s fortunes collapsed without Greenberg and they finished below .500 for two consecutive seasons. Ownership turned to Steve O’Neill to stop the bleeding. O’Neill managed the Tigers for six seasons. During his tenure, the Tigers never experienced a losing season and won the 1945 World Series.
Steve O’Neill caught for 17 big league seasons with the Indians, Red Sox, the Yankees, and Browns. He finished with a .263 average, which was respectable for his position during that period. His brothers, Jack, Jim, and Mike all played baseball as well. In fact, his brothers Michael and Jack served as the first brother battery in big league history. Despite the trivia, Steve O’Neill was by far the most successful of the brothers.
O’Neill played his last game in 1928 and immediately moved to managing. First, he toiled three years in the International League for Toronto. His former team, Cleveland, provided his first big league opportunity. O’Neill played 13 years in Cleveland from 1911-1923, but managed only three. The Indians finished over .500 each year under O’Neill, but he was let go.
The Tigers hired O’Neill to manage in 1943. The team finished below .500 in 1941 and 1942 mainly because they lost Hank Greenberg to the draft. The Tigers improved to 78-76 in O’Neill’s first season. Meanwhile, the new skipper helped lefthander Hal Newhouser mature.
Newhouser finished 8-17 in 1943 with a respectable 3.04 ERA. He improved dramatically in 1944. The Tigers missed the postseason by one game as Newhouser compiled a 29-9 record to win the MVP. Dizzy Trout chipped in 27 wins for the Motor City.
O’Neill’s squad finished ½ game better in the win-loss column in 1945, but that was good for the pennant. Newhouser won the Triple Crown and his second MVP, Trout won 18, and most importantly, Greenberg returned from the war. Detroit won the pennant by 1 ½ games and then defeated the Cubs in the World Series with Newhouser posting the Game 7 victory.
Detroit improved again in 1946 with 92 wins, or four more than 1944 and 1945. However, they finished 12 games behind the Red Sox in second place. Hank Greenberg hit 44 home runs, George Kell joined the team, Trout won 17, and Newhouser went 26-9. They were not a team other squads wished to play.
The Tigers took its first backward step under O’Neill in 1947. They finished with 85 victories, which placed them 12 games behind the DiMaggio-led Yankees. The franchise traded an aging Hank Greenberg and Newhouser dropped to 17-17. The slide continued in 1948 with a 78-76 finish despite 21 wins from Newhouser. Management let O’Neill go.
Steve O’Neill finished his Tiger tour of duty with a 509-414 managerial record. He never experienced a losing season, won the 1945 World Series, and is credited for developing Hal Newhouser. (He is also given credit for advancing Bob Feller and Robin Roberts careers). Additionally, his .551 win percentage is third all-time amongst Tiger skippers with 600 or more games. Only Mickey Cochrane (.582) and Mayo Smith (.560) rank higher. If there was any drawback to O’Neill’s tenure, it was World War II because it cost the Tigers Hank Greenberg.