For 17 seasons, Harry Heilmann’s skills as one of the greatest hitters of his era dazzled the Detroit faithful.
Once his playing days were through, Heilmann captured the imagination of a new generation of Tigers fans as the team’s official voice.
A native of San Francisco, Heilmann’s West Coast origins made him somewhat of a rarity for a star player at the time. His supreme talent with a bat in his hand separated him even further. Heilmann won four batting titles with the Tigers – each of them over runner-ups who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame, including teammate Ty Cobb. He topped the .400 mark in 1923 and retired in 1932 with a career .342 average, third behind only Rogers Hornsby and Ed Delahanty for the highest lifetime mark among right-handers. Cobb himself declared Heilmann, known to Detroit fans as “the Old Slug” to be the second-greatest right-handed hitter he had ever seen behind Hornsby.
Though hitting seemed to come to Heilmann as naturally as breathing, broadcasting was not as predestined. He started his post-playing career as an insurance salesman, but like many his savings were wiped out by the Great Depression. In 1934, Heilmann turned to broadcasting with Detroit radio station WXYZ, otherwise known as the Michigan Radio Network. Heilmann was one of the first retired players to enter the booth.
At first, Heilmann was as raw on the air as he was fluid on the field.
“As an announcer, the early Heilmann resembled a Boy George on the Metropolitan Opera,” wrote Curt Smith in his anthology Voices of the Game. “He favored slang; he painted word-pictures by number; he met the English language and, ambushed, fled behind his Maginot Line.”
He did possess a wealth of stories, however, of peers like Cobb and Babe Ruth that delighted listeners. And, as Ford C. Frick Award winner Ernie Harwell recalled, “He got better, working at it as he had his hitting, and he stayed on the air long enough to become popular in his own right.”
During Heilmann’s first years, the Michigan Radio Network split its Tigers broadcasts over two different feeds. This meant that Heilmann’s calls were directed outside of the Detroit metropolitan area, spreading his popularity as far as the Upper Peninsula and even some neighboring areas in other Midwestern states. In the 1940s, Heilmann’s voice stretched across both network feeds as well as local television station WWDT.
In 1951, Heilmann’s vocal stature in the Great Lakes region had grown so large that Commissioner Happy Chandler tabbed him to call that summer’s All-Star Game at Briggs Field. The former Tiger would not get the chance, however, as he passed away from lung cancer July 9, 1951.
Three days later, on the eve of the Midsummer Classic, Heilmann was buried in nearby Southfield. He was elected to the Hall of Fame for his playing merits in 1952.
“There are still those around Detroit today who say, ‘You can take your Barbers and Gowdys and McNamees and Cosells,” Smith wrote. “We’ll never have another like the Old Slug.”