Harry Heilmann won four batting titles, hit .403 in 1923, and is the owner
of a .342 career batting average. Yet, because he played in the shadow of Ty Cobb and was never a member of a pennant winner,
his name is almost never included among the greatest hitters of all time.
Harry Edwin Heilmann was born on August 3, 1894 in San Francisco, CA. While
he played baseball growing up, Heilmann never considered it as a career until 1913. Working as a bookkeeper, the 19-year-old
agreed to play in a semipro game for $10. His play caught the eye of a scout from the Northwest league, who signed the teenager
shortly after the game.
Heilmann debuted that year with the Portland club and hit .305, prompting
the Detroit Tigers to purchase his contract. The rookie's first stint in the big leagues did not go well, as he hit just .225
in 69 games in 1914. As a result he was sent to San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League for more seasoning.
The 6'1", 195 lb prospect played well in 1915, hitting .364 for the Seals
and rejoined the Tigers in 1916. Although he hit .282 that season, Heilmann was most famous for rescuing a drowning woman
in the Detroit River in late July.
Over the next three seasons, while shuffling between positions, he established
himself as a solid major league hitter. Then, in 1919, the Tigers decided to make Heilmann their regular first baseman. He
responded by hitting .320, which began a 12 year streak of .300+ seasons.
In 1921 Ty Cobb became the Tigers player/manager and made Heilmann his
prize pupil. The 27-year-old responded by hitting .394 and beating out Cobb for his first batting crown. In 1923, he won his
second batting title, with a .403 mark.
Heilmann would make two more runs at the magical .400 mark in 1925 and
1927, but would fall just short (.393, .398). He would however, pick up two more batting titles for his efforts. While Heilmann
would have three more productive seasons, his glory days were behind him.
By 1929, the San Francisco native had developed arthritis in both wrists,
but remarkably was still able to hit .344. Nonetheless, the Tigers shipped him to Cincinnati for the waiver price. Heilmann
enjoyed one final season in the sun in 1930, hitting .333 and becoming the first man to homer in every major league park used
during his career.
Meanwhile, the condition of his wrists continued to worsen, and in 1931
he was unable to play. Heilmann returned to the diamond with the Reds in 1932 as a player/coach and appeared in 15 games.
Following the season, he retired.
In his 17 year career, Heilmann amassed 2,660 hits, 1,539 RBI, and scored
1,291 runs. His .342 career average is second only to Rogers Hornsby among right-handed hitters.
Following his playing days, Heilmann returned to Detroit and acted as the
Tigers radio announcer from 1933 until his death in 1951 at the age of 56 due to lung cancer. In 1952, a decade after he last
took the field, Heilmann was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame.
-David Zingler, August 2004