Well, no one ever said a big series required an entertaining prelude. As the first place Cleveland Indians (84-62) head home for this weekend’s much ballyhooed showdown with the Detroit Tigers (78-68, still 6 games back), both teams will be stumbling into the starting blocks.
The Tribe is fresh off dropping three of four to the Chicago White Sox, a team so lifeless that even their bloop walkoff celebration on Thursday looked more like an iPhone 7 queue. Detroit, meanwhile, failed to walk through a wide open door, losing 4 out of their last 6, including a series split with the Triple-A Twins.
So clearly momentum won’t be in play at Progressive Field for this match-up, but make no mistake—it’s still high stakes, and it’s still Cleveland vs. Detroit. For a good century or so, that has always counted for something.
Cleveland vs Detroit: Intro to the Hatred
In another life, Cleveland and Detroit could have been the best of friends. They come from similar backgrounds, live a stone’s throw from each other, and get by on the same brand of underdog perseverance. As downtrodden, post-industrial towns with some occasionally downtrodden sports teams, they have taken their turns serving as the punch lines of elitist east coast jokes; bouncing back from every hit with a blood-soaked smile. Through it all, you’d just assume that the Motor City and the Forest City would understand—maybe even admire—one another. But we know, of course, that this is not the case. And sports probably has as much to do with it as anything.
Though the rivalries between Cleveland and Detroit’s professional franchises have generally paled in comparison to the one between those Big Ten schools down the road, there have certainly been occasions when the Indians-Tigers, Browns-Lions, and Cavs-Pistons feuds have reached epic proportions. Sometimes it’s resulted in unforgettable championship game match-ups. In other instances, it’s just led to straight up fisticuffs. Historically speaking, the numbers suggest it’s Detroit that usually gets the better of these battles. The Tigers may have lost 11 of 12 to the Tribe so far this season, but they still hold a slim 1,109 to 1,068 edge in that ancient all-time series. The Pistons, meanwhile, have owned the Cavaliers by a 121-85 count, and the notoriously hapless Detroit Lions can claim an eye-popping 18-5 mark against the Browns. Still, when it’s come to some of the marquee moments from a century’s worth of pro sports confrontations between these Rust Belt metropolises, it looks like a pretty balanced scorecard. To judge for yourself, here’s one reasonably even-handed Ohioan’s take on a baker’s dozen of the Greatest Showdowns in Cleveland vs. Detroit Sports History.
13. August 7, 2013: Miggy vs Salazar
If you wanted to pick one showdown-within-the-showdown to best exemplify the past five or six years of the Indians-Tigers rivalry in the AL Central, you’d be hard pressed to do better than Danny Salazar staring down the assassin Miguel Cabrera in this memorable 2013 contest at Progressive Field. Salazar, the exciting fire-throwing rookie, was making just the second start of his career, but he was already flirting with legend status. With the surging Indians trailing the division-leading Tigers by six games in the Central, the youngster took the hill and showed no fear against his club’s arch nemesis, striking out Miggy (the eventual league MVP) not once, not twice, but three straight times in dominating fashion. He racked up 10 K’s in all and worked into the eighth inning with the Indians holding a 3-2 lead. Danny got the first two men out in the eighth, then surrendered a single to Torii Hunter. In a bold move (or lack thereof), Tito Francona then elected to stick with Salazar to face Cabrera a fourth and final time. You could almost feel it coming. On the first pitch, WHACK. Two-run homer to center field: 4-3 Tigers.
It was just one of 40 home runs Miggy has hit off Cleveland pitching in his career, but it ranks high among the most dramatic. As it happens, the Indians actually came back to tie that game before losing 6-5 in 14 innings. The guy who relieved Salazar that day, amusingly, was a journeyman lefty out of the pen named Rich Hill. As for the Salazar-Cabrera matchup, Miggy has generally continued to have the upper hand, going 10-for-32 (.313) with 2 HR, 5 RBI, and 2 BBs. Danny has punched him out 10 times, however.
12. December 29, 1957: Tobin Rote Torches the Browns
The two dominant NFL franchises of the 1950s met for their final championship showdown at Briggs Stadium in Detroit in front of 55,000 onlookers. It was supposed to be a coming out party for rookie Jim Brown as Cleveland looked to repeat the blowout win they’d dropped on the Lions in the title game three years earlier. Instead, Detroit got their revenge, even with star quarterback Bobby Layne down with an injury. In his place, former Packers QB Tobin Rote threw 4 TD passes and ran in for another, leading his club to a 59-14 smackdown of the Browns. It’d be the last title in franchise history for the lowly Lions.
11. April 27, 1984: 19 Rounds with the Motor City Kitties
The Detroit Tigers were off to a 16-2 start and on their way to a 104-win, World Championship season. The Indians were off to a 10-6 start of their own, and on their way to a completely forgettable sixth place finish. In this early season meeting between the two clubs at Tiger Stadium, however, it was the Tribe who would survive a war of wills. With the game tied at three after two innings, both teams were shut down for the rest of regulation, as the Indians’ Rick Sutcliffe dueled with Detroit’s Juan Berenguer. When the bullpens got involved, little changed. The game continued on deep into the chilly April night. A Cleveland run in the top of the 10th was matched by a Tiger run in the bottom half. The next EIGHT innings were all goose eggs for both sides, until a pair of errors in the 19th inning led to a Tony Bernazard sac fly and a big three-run double from Mike Hargrove. Luis Aponte held the fort in the bottom of the frame, and the Indians claimed an 8-4 win after 5 hours and 44 minutes of battle with the AL’s best. Oh, and within the next two weeks, Cleveland would play a 12-inning game and TWO 16-inning games. Holy Overworked Bullpen, Batman!
10. February 28, 1989: Rick Mahorn vs Mark Price
The Cavaliers were arguably playing the best basketball in team history in the winter of 1989, and a 115-99 drubbing of the Bad Boy Pistons at the Coliseum seemed to confirm this. Paced by Ron Harper’s 26 points, Cleveland moved five games up on Detroit in the division, improving to 42-12 on the year. All anybody could talk about after the game, however, was the brutal, blindside elbow that Detroit’s Rick Mahorn had unleashed on the Cavs’ choirboy point guard Mark Price. Mahorn was fined $5,000 and a concussed Price returned to action just a week later. But, the incident became a symbol of Cleveland’s physical inferiority to the merciless Pistons, as the Cavs eventually fell in the first round of the playoffs while Detroit took home the NBA title.
9. September 19, 2008: Fausto Carmona vs. Gary Sheffield
Though neither team had a horse in the pennant race, the Indians’ 6-5 win over Detroit proved doubly satisfying on this night. Jamey Carroll’s walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth gave Cleveland the last punch in a fight that literally broke out two innings earlier. After allowing two homers to Miguel Cabrera (as is tradition), Tribe starter “Fausto Carmona” nipped an ever surly Gary Sheffield with an inside fastball. Sheffield trotted to first, but after a Carmona pickoff attempt led to more barking between the two, an all-out, bench-clearing brawl ensued. “He just walked to first base with that attitude,” Indians catcher Victor Martinez said afterwards. “Who is he? Shut your mouth and keep playing the game.” The starting pitcher for Detroit in the game was Armando Galarraga, who would create his entire legacy two years later in another bizarre showdown with the Indians: “The Perfect Game That Wasn’t.”
8. November 22, 2009: Matthew Stafford vs. … Brady Quinn?
In the first exciting Lions-Browns game in a few decades, Cleveland’s maddeningly dull offense came to life against a terrible Detroit secondary, as “phenom” Brady Quinn tossed three touchdown passes in the FIRST QUARTER alone (!!!), sending the Browns out to a 24-3 lead at Ford Field. It looked like the Brownies would finally be ending their four-game losing skid. But that’s when Matthew Stafford decided to steal Quinn’s coming out party right from under him, firing three touchdown passes of his own before halftime, cutting the Lions’ deficit to 27-24 at the break. Quinn (21-33, 304 yards, 4 TD) fought back in what would become the only truly memorable game of his career. Another touchdown pass gave the Browns a 37-31 lead with five minutes to go. Cleveland then appeared to have the Lions stopped as time expired, but a Hank Poteat pass interference call (typical) gave the Lions’ one final play. An injured Stafford (26-43, 422 yards, 5 TD) then managed to hit Brandon Pettigrew for a game-winning touchdown with 0:00 on the clock. “Yup,” all Browns fans said in unison. [By the way, if you watch the video below and hear the sounds an injured Matt Stafford makes, you won’t sleep well tonight].
7. October 9, 1910: Ty Cobb vs. Nap Lajoie
Even though nobody alive could possibly remember it, people still talk about the patently ridiculous 1910 batting title race between the Tigers’ villainous legend Ty Cobb and the Cleveland Naps’ superstar/namesake Napoleon Lajoie. As the story goes, Cobb invented a bogus illness to put his seemingly safe batting crown on lockdown on the final day of the season. What he didn’t count on was a minor conspiracy of sorts in Cleveland’s finale, as St. Louis Browns manager (and ex Cleveland Spider) Jack O’Connor instructed his rookie third baseman Redd Corriden to play deep all day against the visiting Naps, enabling Lajoie to reach base SIX times on bunt singles. Confusion and controversy soon followed, as both Cleveland and Detroit fans claimed their man had finished with the superior average (both were right around .385). The Chalmers Automobile Co. elected to give the batting champion’s prize (a free car) to both men in the end, but in the record books, Cobb got the official nod—despite later statistical evidence to the contrary. Photo: Check out Ty Cobb on the right in a Cleveland uniform! For the Addie Joss memorial game in 1911, Cobb lost his Tiger duds in transit and had to borrow an extra Naps uni. Bizarre alternate reality fun.
6. September 18, 1954: A Pennant Clincher on Enemy Turf
Only 7,000 people were in attendance at Briggs Stadium in Detroit to see this relatively unimportant late season match-up between the mediocre Tigers (64-82) and the otherworldly Indians (106-40)—relatively unimportant for Detroit, anyway. For the Tribe, one more win would clinch them the pennant after a long summer of holding off the relentless New York Yankees. Trailing 1-0 in the seventh inning, the Indians jumped ahead with back-to-back homers from Dale Mitchell and Jim Hegan. That would be all they’d need, as Early Wynn got the W in a 3-2 Cleveland triumph, sending off a celebration that would perhaps leave the Indians feeling a bit too good about themselves heading into the World Series a couple weeks later.
5. May 21, 2006: Game 7 Gets Ugly
In the Cavaliers first ever postseason showdown with their regional rivals from the Motor City, it was a classic story of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. After dropping the first two games of the Eastern Conference semi-final series, the Cavs won three straight behind the heroics of LeBron James, giving them two shots at winning the series. They failed to do so in a heartbreaking 84-82 loss at home, so it was off to Detroit for what looked to be an epic Game 7 battle between the old guard and the new kid on the block. With the Pistons clinging to a 40-38 lead at the half, all of Northeast Ohio prepared for a thrilling second half surge that never came. Instead, the Pistons mirrored the defensive dominance once exhibited by those Bad Boy teams a generation earlier, holding Cleveland to an embarrassing 10 points in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth. LeBron scored 27, but the Cavs proved they weren’t quite ready for primetime, falling 79-61.
4. December 27, 1953: Perfection Turns to Dejection
Paul Brown’s club looked essentially unbeatable through the majority of the 1953 NFL season, winning its first 11 games before a loss to the Eagles in the regular season capper. Even after that minor setback, the Browns were still big favorites to avenge their 1952 loss to Detroit and take home the ’53 Championship. Instead, Otto Graham struggled through much of the day, as various drives stalled and ended with Lou Groza field goals. Cleveland still led 16-10 with just four minutes to play, but Lions QB Bobby Layne led an Elway-like 80-yard drive culminating in a touchdown pass to Jim Doran and a Doak Walker extra point. The 55,000 fans at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium began to celebrate, but the Browns still had one last possession. In standard heartbreaking fashion, however, Graham’s first pass of the ensuing drive was picked off, sealing a thrilling 17-16 win and a second straight championship for the Lions.
3. September 27, 1940: Bob Feller vs. …Floyd Giebell?
With three games left in the 1940 campaign, the Tigers needed one more win to clinch the pennant. To do so, however, they’d have to beat the team hot on their heels—the Indians. With 27 game-winner Bob Feller taking the hill at Cleveland Stadium in the opener of the series, Tiger manager Del Baker figured he’d be better off saving his ace Schoolboy Rowe for a more favorable match-up. So, he gave the ball to a doe-eyed rookie named Floyd Giebell, fresh off the bus from Buffalo. With the Tigers and the Indians in the midst of an extremely heated rivalry, Tribe fans actually pelted the visiting Tiger players with not-so-fresh produce throughout the game, with one tomato knocking Detroit catcher Birdie Tebbetts to the turf and another splatting on Hank Greenberg as he chased down a fly ball. As the umpires and team officials tried to restore order, the youngster Giebell went about his business unfazed. And while Feller was brilliant (just three hits allowed), a two-run homer by the Tigers’ Rudy York stood up, as Giebell shutout the Tribe for a complete game win, sending Detroit to the World Series. The unknown kid had outdueled a living legend to become a hero in his own right. In a Moonlight Graham-ish twist, though, Giebell would never win another Major League game in his career, as a return to the Minors and three years of service in World War II would eventually reduce his legacy purely to cult status.
2. May 31, 2007: LeBron Slays the Pistons
It’s not even accurate to say that LeBron James’ Game 5 performance against Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals has “taken on the stuff of legend.” In truth, it was one of those rare moments in sports that had its historical significance thoroughly in tact before the ink had even dried on the game recaps. It was the game where James evolved from a phenom into an iconic figure—a player that was worthy of the Hall of Fame comparisons once recklessly tossed around him. Things took a bit of a detour in the subsequent NBA Finals sweep against San Antonio, and a slightly bigger detour a few years later. But as the larger picture of James’ career continues to come into focus, this 48-point effort against a helpless Pistons defense in Double-OT remains an indelible portion of his all-time highlight reel. Lest it be forgotten, the King scored Cleveland’s final TWENTY-FIVE points in the game, as his teammates pulled up lawn chairs, twiddled their thumbs, and admired the show. The Cavs won the series two days later, avenging the previous season’s Game 7 embarrassment at The Palace. Those who doubted LBJ’s abilities in “the clutch” prior to his first championship need only have watched a tape of this contest to get their minds straight.
1. December 26, 1954: Third Time’s the Charm for Browns
With the city of Cleveland still needing a pick-me-up from the Indians’ World Series collapse just a couple months earlier, there was some concern that the Browns would only throw more gasoline on the fire. Yes, they’d advanced to a remarkable fifth consecutive NFL Championship Game. But they had lost the previous three, including two straight to the hated Detroit Lions. The Browns also were fresh off a loss to Detroit in the regular season finale just a week earlier. So there was plenty of reason for the soon-to-be-stereotypical Cleveland fan cynicism. On this day, however, the fans’ concerns would be cast out abruptly in a supernova of gridiron domination. In front of 44,000 at Municipal Stadium, Otto Graham put on a Boxing Day clinic, throwing two TD passes and running for three more himself, as the Browns pummeled the Lions 56-10 to claim their second NFL Championship. Hi-O-Hi-O for Cleveland! We may not be the model NFL franchise these days, nor the fastest growing city in the country, but in a general sense—as they say—we’re not Detroit!