The Tigers Old English "D"—a Motown classic since 1896
This story first appeared at Sporting News on June 18, 2015
By Todd Radom
If any professional sports logo can truly stake a claim to being the unofficial symbol of a city, it’s the Detroit Tigers’ iconic Old English “D.”
Over the years, the Tigers’ "D" has come to represent Motown civic pride, a perpetual emblem for a resilient city and its people.
The Old English "D" is MLB’s oldest visual icon, connecting Tigers legends from Cobb to Greenberg to Kaline to Cabrera. In fact, it even predates the Tigers’ status as a major league franchise.
Today’s Tigers started out as a minor league team, playing in the Western League in 1894. Led by Ban Johnson, the Western League changed its name to “American League” in 1900 and declared itself a major league one year later.
Here is the first known reference to the Detroit Tigers’ uniform D, as published in the Detroit Free Press on February 29, 1896:
Some perspective is in order here: three weeks before the above story was printed, Babe Ruth celebrated his first birthday. Henry Ford was busy tinkering in his workshop on Bagley Street in Detroit, still three months away from completing work on his first gasoline-powered automobile. Grover Cleveland was president of the United States.
And yet here we are, nearly 120 years later — the "D" both endures and thrives as one of the most identifiable insignias in American professional sports.
The phrase “Old English D” first appeared in print in the March 13, 1896 edition of the Detroit Free Press, and it has been known as such pretty much ever since.
Visual evidence of the Western League Tigers is not easy to come by. These illustrations appeared in the Detroit Free Press in the spring of 1897:
This 1899 team photo, courtesy of the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection of the Detroit Public Library, depicts the club in their road uniforms, as differentiated by their black pants (they wore white pants at home that year). The mix of the "D" appearing on both left and right sides of the uniform in this photo, as well as the different styles of the letter, speaks to the fact that the "D" had by this point been shifted to the same position that it occupies today.
The Tigers dropped their "D" after the 1899 season, going back to a plain block “DETROIT” in 1900. It was restored in 1904, on their road uniforms. This team photo represents the first usage of the "D" by the MLB Tigers:
The "D" first appeared on their caps the following season. It didn’t quite match the uniform "D" then and it still doesn’t.
The "D" has completely disappeared from both caps and uniforms for seasons at a time. In 1927, it was replaced by a remarkably complex tiger head for one single season. The team wore a script “Detroit” both at home and on the road from 1930-33.
The "D" has morphed many dozens of times over the years. Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane restored the “D” when he was named Tigers manager in 1934, and it’s been there ever since—with the notable exception of but one season, 1960.
The origin of the Tigers’ nickname itself is shrouded in a cloud of mystery. During their first season, 1894, the franchise was known as the Detroit Creams, so called because of the fact that team owner George Vanderbeck stated that the club would be “the cream of the league.”
For many years, Detroit’s third manager, George Stallings, was given credit for the Tiger name, supposedly due to the fact that he dressed his team up in black and brown striped stockings.
The trouble with this claim is that Stallings was hired as Detroit’s manager on December 5, 1895, many months after the first appearance of “Detroit Tigers” in print. That took place in the April 16, 1895 edition of the Detroit Free Press. There are multiple references to Tigers from that day’s paper, including an item entitled “Notes of the Detroit Tigers for 1895.”
While the striped tiger story may or may not be apocryphal, closer examination and additional research reveals that there might be some truth to it after all. They were referred to as the “men of the striped sweaters” in the May 18, 1897 edition of the Detroit Free Press. And a May 27, 1899 item in the St. Paul Globe states the following: “Now that the Detroits have abandoned their old striped jackets, the nickname Tigers has no direct application.” Jackets and sweaters, as opposed to striped stockings, could well be the inspiration behind the Tigers nickname.
A widely accepted theory suggests that the club was named in honor of the Detroit Light Guard, Michigan’s oldest National Guard unit, who were popularly known as the “Tigers.”
Whatever the case, the Tigers and their Old English "D" march forward, much like Detroit itself. A little rough around the edges, timeworn, a work in progress — but an undisputable American classic.