Humble Harry Heilmann was a war hero, baseball great and a dedicated Catholic leader
Detroit Tiger great and Shrine parishioner was a 'pioneer' for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and an all-American gentleman
ROYAL OAK — “He never turned his back on a youngster. He went about doing good ... Harry’s not dead,” proclaimed Fr. Charles Coughlin from the ambo at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak. For several days, in mid-July 1951, scores of southeastern Michiganders carried a heavy heart following the passing of local baseball icon and all-around good guy Harry Heilmann.
Overshadowed by teammate Ty Cobb for much of his professional career, Harry “Slug” Heilmann might be the greatest Detroit Tiger you've never heard of. Chances are you probably also didn't know Heilmann was a prominent Catholic figure in the greater Detroit region during the first half of the 20th century.
In his heyday, Heilmann was best known for his prowess at the plate, winning the American League batting title four times in the 1920s, including posting an incredible .403 batting average in 1923. After his playing days, he became the magnetic voice of Detroit Tigers baseball, calling play-by-play from the radio booth from 1934 to 1950. His Hall of Fame career coincided with his legendary generosity, courage and humility. As a parishioner of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, he demonstrated his commitment to Christ by demonstrating genuine care for those he encountered in his daily life and helping Catholic organizations raise money in times of need.
Harry Edward Heilmann was born Aug. 3, 1894, in San Francisco. His humble parents, of German-Irish Catholic stock, sent their children to the city’s Catholic schools for a faith-based education. Growing up, Harry looked up to his athletic brother Walter, who was widely known as the best pitcher in the region. Sadly, his brother’s career and life were cut short when he died in a boating accident near San Francisco.
Following in his older brother’s footsteps, Harry began his professional baseball career in 1913 in the Pacific Coast’s Northwestern League, where he established himself as an above-average hitter. Initially, his parents thought he was engaged in criminal behavior because of the considerable money he was bringing home without working. Soon they found out their son was truly earning a good wage playing baseball. Later that year, the Detroit Tigers owner Frank Navin signed Heilmann to a $1,500 contract, and he packed his bags for the Motor City.
Heilmann’s Tiger career — which officially began with an unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance in 1914 — did not start as he hoped. He struggled to make consistent contact with the ball during his first professional season and was sent down to the minors. When he returned a couple years later, his batting only slightly improved.
Events beyond Navin Field, however, revealed Heilmann was not your stereotypical, self-absorbed baseball player. On the night of July 25, 1916, disaster struck on the east side of Detroit. A joyriding party of four adults and a 3-year-old child accidentally drove their vehicle into a canal. Heilmann happened to be driving nearby, and he sprung into action. The outfielder quickly exited his car, dove into the canal and rescued a woman and man submerged with the vehicle. Sadly, another woman and her toddler died in the incident. Though Heilmann refused to detail his noble deeds to the public, he was quickly hailed as a hero throughout the Motor City and in the Detroit Free Press. The next day, Tigers fans gave Heilmann a standing ovation each time he came to the plate in a game against the visiting Washington Nationals. Journalists reported that they could see the outfielder “blushing clear around to the back of his neck” each time he heard the crowd’s thunderous applause. Despite being uncomfortable in the spotlight, Heilmann drove in two runs for the victorious home team.
A few years later in 1918, Heilmann dropped his glove and headed for the Navy. For the remainder of World War I, he served on a submarine crew patrolling the Pacific Ocean. When he returned to the diamond for the 1919 season, “Slug” switched positions from the outfield to first base at the request of his manager. Heilmann subsequently led the American League in errors at the position for the next two years, but his hitting dramatically improved, raising his batting average to well over .300. Heilmann moved back to the outfield in 1921, but his prowess at the plate continued for the remainder of the 1920s. Throughout that decade, Heilmann averaged 209 hits, 123 RBIs and 105 runs per season. His cumulative .364 batting average led the American League, which is all the more impressive considering he was playing at the same time Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker, and his teammate Ty Cobb were setting records.
Nonetheless, by the end of the 1920s, Heilmann had developed painful arthritis in his hands. He played through the pain, still managing to hit well over .300 in 1929 and 1930. Figuring Heilmann’s best days were behind him, the Tigers placed him on waivers, and he was claimed quickly by the Cincinnati Reds. He permanently retired in 1932 after a 17-year professional career.
Heilmann could not keep himself away from Detroit area and the game he loved. The “Old Slug” returned to the Motor City in 1933 and was hired the next year by WXYZ as the play-by-play radio broadcaster for Tigers baseball. For the next decade and a half, his raspy voice and humble nature mesmerized local fans. Many appreciated the fact that he simply called the game as he saw it. A Detroit Free Press article attested to the fact that many other baseball radio broadcasters of the era relied upon “hysterics and fabricated spine-tingling situations.” In stark contrast, following a spectacular catch, important strikeout or dramatic home run, Heilmann was known to say “listen to the voice of baseball” and turn his microphone to the crowd for several seconds as it hummed with excitement. Besides his factual commentary of the ballgame, Heilmann was known to provide insider tips and memorable stories from his playing days. And unlike other baseball radiomen throughout the country, Heilmann was known to compliment players from opposing teams. “If a player has praise coming, Harry gives it to him, regardless of his uniform,” stated former Detroit Tiger great George Kell.
Because of Heilmann’s humility and the fact that his baseball and radio broadcast careers garnered much of the spotlight, very few sources during his life attest to his activities in the community or on behalf of the Shrine. One 1927 advertisement in the Free Press indicates that Heilmann was the “General Chairman” of a charitable organization called the “Friends of the Shrine of the Little Flower.” The group organized concerts, vaudevilles, and other forms of entertainment to raise funds for the new Catholic church on the corner of Woodward and 12 Mile. It is also known that he was part of a group of former baseball players who traveled overseas during World War II to boost soldiers’ morale.
Additional research conducted by Capuchin archivist Junia Yasenov at the Solanus Casey Center reveals that he was quite active with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on the east side of Detroit. Throughout the 1940s, more than a dozen newspaper clippings for Capuchin dinners and other fundraising events list Heilmann as the toastmaster, master of ceremonies or chairman. He used his clout and connections to persuade future Hall of Famers such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Al Kaline and Charlie Gehringer to attend fundraisers and share their treasure to help the Capuchin brothers serve the working poor in Detroit. By 1950, Heilmann’s promotion of the Capuchin Guild baseball night became such a popular event that it sold out its allotment of 900 banquet places and had to sit people in an overflow basement.
Unfortunately, Heilmann’s lifelong habit of smoking finally caught up to him the next year in 1951. After collapsing in Florida while covering the Tigers’ spring training, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Heilmann’s mailbox soon experienced a flood of “countless, thousands of letters, telegrams, and get-well cards” from every corner of Michigan. A gracious Heilmann was personally touched by the outpouring of support. On a plane trip home that spring, he confided in a Detroit journalist sitting next to him, saying, “I’m a sick man ... but I’m an awfully happy one. I never knew any man could have so many friends. I can’t get over it. It darn near makes me cry.” On July 9, 1951, the legendary Harry Heilmann succumbed to his fatal condition at age 56.
A few days later, during the annual All Star game, the greatest athletes in baseball bowed their heads in a somber moment of silence for the beloved Heilmann. Many mourned the loss of “Old Slug,” including those who never met him in person. One elderly woman told the Lansing State Journal that when Heilmann called baseball games it was as if she had front row seats next to Harry in the stadium. “He takes me out of this old wheelchair and puts me in a box right behind the Tiger’s dugout ... I forget about this pain for a few hours,” declared the ailing lady. “I have often wished I could see him and thank him.”
One elderly woman told the Lansing State Journal that when Heilmann called baseball games it was as if she had front row seats next to Harry in the stadium. “He takes me out of this old wheelchair and puts me in a box right behind the Tiger’s dugout ... I forget about this pain for a few hours,” declared the ailing lady. “I have often wished I could see him and thank him.”
On July 12, 1951, the Shrine of the Little Flower Church in Royal Oak “was filled to overflowing” by thousands of people hoping to pay their final respects. In attendance were people from every station of life, all impacted in some way by Harry Heilmann. Professional baseball players, prominent businessmen, local fans and families filled the pews. The Free Press reported that a large contingent of the Capuchins from St. Bonaventure Monastery were present to honor the man who was a “key figure” in helping them raise “thousands of dollars to feed down-on-their-luck men” during the later years of the Great Depression. An estimated crowd of 15,000 attended the packed funeral Mass, and a couple hundred even waited out in the rain to pay “tribute to a great sportsman and humble man.”
Fr. Coughlin, the passionate pastor of the Shrine, presided over the Mass and delivered a heartfelt homily that brought smiles to the mourners’ faces. Fr. Coughlin, a former radio man himself, had established a strong friendship with Heilmann, and the priest had many amusing stories to share about “Old Slug.” In particular, Fr. Coughlin recalled the day “25 years ago when Harry and Babe Ruth” manned the gift shop at the Shrine. “Many people had heard that these great baseball players were coming, and there was a large crowd. Before I knew it, they had gone behind the counter in the ante-room and were selling prayer books, rosaries, and other religious articles,” declared Fr. Coughlin. “The only thing was that they refused to make change. If you had a five dollar bill, they took it and that was that.”
Following the high requiem funeral Mass, Heilmann’s remains were laid to rest in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield. Though his voice could no longer be heard over the airwaves and his physical presence at Catholic charity events was immediately missed, Harry Heilmann’s genuine kindness, humility and service were never forgotten by all those who knew him.
Joe Boggs is a public high school teacher, historian and co-chairman of the Monroe Vicariate Evangelization and Catechesis Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.