We rank these Tigers according to their career Wins Above Replacement, or “WAR,” value. If you want an explanation of how WAR is calculated, here’s a link. If you’d rather listen to Edwin Starr’s greatest hit while reading about great Tiger ballplayers, we’ve got you covered too.
10. Mark Bellhorn, 8.0 WAR, .230 BA, 69 HR
Mark Bellhorn had a successful 10-year major league career from 1999-2009. He played for seven teams in that span. Before that, Bellhorn played for Auburn from 1993-95 where he led the Tigers to the 1994 World Series. Bellhorn was All-American in 1995, batting .342 with 12 dingers.
Bellhorn is best known for his stint in Boston where he helped the Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918. Bellhorn’s career highlight was being the second player ever to switch hit homeruns from opposite sides of the plate in a single inning.
9. Bo Jackson, 8.3 WAR, .250 BA, 141 HR
Bo Jackson, of course, is Auburn’s great baseball player who won the Heisman Trophy at his “hobby” sport. Bo batted .401 with 17 home runs in 1985. But Bo isn’t the player you describe with stats so much as moments. The biggest legend of his time at Auburn was the day he shut up hecklers in Athens, Georgia with a 550’ blast. Then he hit two more to make sure they stayed quiet. It is reported to be the longest homer ever hit at the University of Georgia.
Some will be surprised to see Jackson so low on the list. Bo’s highlight reel matches up with anybody’s but his career was shortened by injuries. Bo got progressively better each year before his injury. He was only beginning to develop the plate discipline he needed. Bo was never going to Cooperstown but his legend overshadows all of his contemporaries.
Bo is best known for his time with the Royals. After his injury, Bo made a comeback with the Chicago White Sox. He played his last season with the California Angels, now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
There are a lot of highlights one could choose of Bo. That time he nailed Harold Reynolds. Possibly a better throw nailing Mike Gallego. Three home runs against the Yankees. His first hit, an infield single to second base. Running up the outfield wall. For me, his brightest moment will always be when he was MVP of the 1989 All Star Game. Bo led off the game with a monster 448’ home run and stole a base.
8. Willard Nixon, 9.4 WAR, 69-72 4.39 ERA
Willard Nixon played nine years for the Boston Red Sox from 1950-58. Nixon was a solid hitter and fielder and starter but was never a star. Nixon’s claim to fame was his ability to beat the Yankees which earned him the nickname the “Yankee Killer.”
Nixon came up through the textile mill leagues. Auburn spotted him playing for Pepperell Mills. As a sophomore, Nixon struck out 145 batters, an SEC record that stood for nearly 40 years. He left that off season and signed with the Red Sox. Each off season, Nixon returned to North Georgia to work in the mills and referee high school basketball games.
Nixon’s career highlight came on August 7, 1956. He pitched an 11 inning complete game against the Yankees in Fenway, beating Don Larsen 1-0.
7. David Ross, 10.1 WAR, .229 BA, 106
David Ross played briefly at Auburn before transferring to Florida. He spent most of his time on the Plains backing up All-American Casey Dunn, but man oh man, did Rossie make the most of his opportunities. With Dunn injured and the Tigers’ season on the line at Florida State, Ross, a Tallahassee native, hit a walk off home run that propelled the Tigers into the rubber match and, ultimately, the College World Series.
Until the Kick Six, this was my favorite ending to an Auburn game ever, barely eclipsing “The Legend of Reggie Sharp.”
Ross had a great 15-year, journeyman career in the majors. For most of that time, he was a number two catcher where he would catch for one or two pitchers in the rotation. Ross won two World Series. He won his first in Boston in 2013. He then signed with the Cubs where he helped break the 108 year drought on the North Side. Ross’s clubhouse presence caused Kris Bryant to say Ross may have been the Cubs MVP in 2016. He was also pretty good on the field. By the numbers, his last year was his second-best in the majors.
Ross bounced around the majors. He made his debut with the Dodgers in 2002. He had stops with the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Cubs.
He ended his career in style. In Game 7 of the World Series, Rossie hit a solo shot off Andrew Miller to extend the Cubs lead to 6-3.
6. Terry Leach, 10.2 WAR, 38-27 3.15 ERA
Terry Leach lived enough baseball lives to fill an entire team. Leach was a junk baller with a side armed delivery who bounced between the minors, independent ball, and the pros. He helped Auburn reach the 1976 College World Series. Leach’s 1974 1.31 ERA and career 2.53 ERA are both still top-10 in Auburn history. In 1974, Leach was a perfect 9-0.
Leach appeared in 11 major league seasons, winning the World Series with the 1986 Mets and the 1991 Twins. The crafty righty had two of his better seasons at 38 and 39 with the White Sox before injuries forced him to retire. He wrote a great book about his life in baseball called Things Happen for a Reason: The True Story of an Itinerant Life in Baseball.
During his 11 year career, Leach played for the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, and Chicago White Sox. Leach threw his last profession pitches in 1993 for the nearby Birmingham Barons.
One of Leach’s career highlights came in the bottom of the 5th in Game 3 of the 1991 World Series. Leach was called in with two outs and the bases juiced to face Mark Lemke. Leach struck out Lemke to end the inning.
5. Gregg Olson, 13.2 WAR, 40-39, 3.46 ERA, 217 Saves
The one question I’ve gotten more than any other at Plainsman Park is “who is Gregg Olson?” Olson’s face adorns the outfield wall along with other Tiger legends, Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas, and Tim Hudson, but he lacks the name recognition of the other three.
Olson was dominant at Auburn. Olson struggled as a starter his freshman year on the Plains and was converted to the bullpen. Using a tremendous fastball and curveball, Olson was an All American closer his sophomore and junior years. Olson went 11-1 with 10 saves in 42 relief appearances as a sophomore. He had a 1.36 ERA that season. As a result of Olson’s meteoric rise, the college baseball breakout star of the year award was named in his honor.
Olson was drafted fourth overall in 1988 by the Orioles. No Auburn player has ever been drafted higher. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1989, the first closer to ever win the honor. He was named to the All Star Team in 1990. In 1993, he tore a ligament and his career was never the same. Olson is still the Orioles all-time saves leader. He continued pitching until 2001 and even racked up 30 saves for the Diamondbacks in 1998. Had he not been injured, he could have been one of the greatest closers ever.
After his injury, Olson bounced around the league. He had stops with the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Los Angeles Dodgers. Even after his peak, Olson managed to have a very successful, 14 year career.
Olson got the save on July 13, 1991, when he combined with Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan, and Mark Williamson for a no-hitter. Olson finished the game off with his trademarked 12-6 curve to punch out Harold Baines. The pitch starts inside and letter high and dropped to Baines’s ankles.
4. Red Smith, 27 WAR .278 BA 27 HR
Auburn baseball started in 1895. One of its first stars was Red Smith who played football and baseball for the Tigers in 1908 and 1909. The Tigers compiled a 28-11-2 record during Smith’s career. He played for Auburn in season and for the Georgia Railway and Electric Company semipro team during the summers. In 1910, he went pro, playing for the South Carolina based Anderson Electricians.
Smith made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1911. Red Smith was a solid contributor for the “Miracle” Boston Braves team that won the 1914 World Series. Smith was traded to the Braves midseason and led the team in hitting for the sixty games he played with them. Smith missed the series due to a late-season injury. Smith was a top 10 position player in major league baseball three times between 1913-18. He was a great batter and a mediocre fielder. Smith led all third basemen in errors each year from 1915-18. He also led the league in assists and putouts for most of the same time span. His best season was probably 1913, where he batted .296 with six homers and 22 stolen bases.
Smith retired to Atlanta where he was overjoyed to hear the news that his beloved Braves were relocating. He enjoyed one season of Atlanta Braves baseball before he passed.
3. Josh Donaldson, 35.8 WAR, .277 BA 161 HR
Josh Donaldson is Auburn’s best, current major leaguer. Donaldson was a three-year starter for Auburn from 2005-07 where he played in almost every game. In 2007, he batted .349 with 11 homers.
Josh Donaldson played one of the best individual games I ever watched in person at Plainsman Park. On May 13, 2007, Donaldson was catching against a #1 Vanderbilt team stacked top to bottom with future major leaguers. Donaldson nailed four Commodore baserunners. His solo shot in the third gave Auburn the lead. His RBI double in the 8th put Auburn on top for good in a thrilling 5-4 upset.
Despite being a first round draft choice, it took Donaldson three seasons to break into the Bigs. He made his debut with the Oakland A’s in 2010 and has made up for lost time ever since. He finished in the top-10 of MVP voting from 2013-16. In 2015, his first year with the Toronto Blue Jays, Donaldson won the AL MVP and was named Major League Player of the Year. That year, he hit .297 with 41 homers and led the AL in runs, RBIs, and total bases. Donaldson plays the game with what Auburn legendary left handed pitcher Shug Jordan called “reckless abandon.”
The Bringer of Rain is estimated to have a 40% chance to become a Hall of Famer. Due to his late entry in the Majors, Donaldson will have to continue to be productive into his late 30s to build a sufficient resume.
Here are the highlights of his 2015 MVP year:
2. Tim Hudson, 58.7 WAR, 222-133, 3.49 ERA
Tim Hudson was a sixth round draft choice who surprised front offices around the league by becoming one of the best starters of his generation. Auburn fans weren’t surprised in the least.
Hudson played at Auburn, alongside David Ross. In 1997, Hudson had what might be the best individual season any Auburn player has ever had. He was the first player to be named All-SEC at two positions, pitcher and outfield. He also earned All-American honors. He batted .396 with 18 homers. On the mound, Hudson was 15-2 with a 2.97 ERA. Hudson drove in 95 and scored 71 in a season where he only gave up 39 earned runs. His batting average nearly doubled the average of those he faced (.199). His 29 multi-RBI games that season are still the most in Auburn history.
Hudson was a four-time All Star. He burst on to the scene in Oakland in 1999, going 11-2 with a 3.23 ERA. He finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. In 2000, he racked up 20 wins and finished second in the Cy Young race. In 2010, he won NL Comeback player of the year honors by posting a 17-9 for the Atlanta Braves record a year after Tommy John’s surgery. Like Ross, Hudson ended his career on top, winning the 2015 World Series with the San Francisco Giants.
Hudson probably won’t be in the Hall of Fame but he had a really, really solid career. One of his finest starts came on August 28, 2010, where he struck out 13 Marlins in 7 innings while giving up one run.
1 Frank Thomas, 73.7 WAR .301 BA, 521 HR
It should be no surprise that Frank Thomas, the Big Hurt, tops the list. Not only is Frank Auburn’s only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, he’s the only SEC baseball player in Cooperstown. Frank came out of Auburn as the 7th overall pick in the 1989 MLB Draft. His Auburn career records for onbase percentage and slugging still stand nearly 30 years later. His .382 career batting average places him second on Auburn’s all-time list. He is third in home runs with 49 in three seasons. No Tiger has come close to the 73 walks Thomas drew in 1989. He was named All SEC every season at Auburn and All American in 1989.
At 19 years, Frank enjoyed the longest career of any Tiger big leaguer. He’s best known for his time with the White Sox where he won the MVP award in 1993 and 1994 and the batting crown in 1997. Thomas finished in the top-10 of MVP voting for seven straight seasons. He was known not only for his power but his patience, leading the league in walks four times in five years. Thomas was named to five All Star Teams. Over his career, he maintained a .301 average while hitting over 500 home runs. Frank won the World Series with the 2005 White Sox.
Perhaps what’s most notable about Frank was the way he competed. Frank was at his peak during the height of the steroids era yet there was never any allegation brought against Thomas. He entered the league at 240 lb. He “worked his ass off” to stay competitive in a dirty environment and became the League’s biggest voice against steroids use. The payoff is that Frank is in the Hall of Fame while the cheaters are not.
Thomas spent most of his career with the White Sox. He finished his career with the Oakland A’s and Blue Jays. There are too many highlights to count, so here’s some of the best.
Currently, the Tigers have three players in the majors, Donaldson, Grant Dayton, and Garrett Cooper. There are countless more coming up through the minors and pro prospects ready to take the field at Plainsman Park this spring. So this list, while impressive, is not set in stone.