Today’s Tiger: Steve Kemp

Steve Kemp

  • Born: Aug. 7, 1954 in San Angelo, Texas
  • Bats: Left Throws: Left
  • Height: 6′ 0″ Weight: 195 lb.
  • Acquired: Drafted by the Tigers as the first overall pick of the 1976 amateur draft.
  • Seasons in Detroit: 5 (1977-81)
  • Uniform Number: 43, 33
  • Stats: .284 avg., 89 HR, 422 RBI, .826 OPS
  • Awards: All-Star 1979

When the Tigers traded left fielder Steve Kemp to the White Sox for Chet Lemon, it was the quintessential Jim Campbell Winter Meetings trade.


Kemp made too much money and former GM Campbell didn’t like players who held out (Rusty Staub) or won in arbitration (Kemp, again). Campbell also liked to trade players who, like Kemp and Ron LeFlore in 1979, were entering their walk year.

Steve Kemp was terrific during his five years patrolling left field at Tiger Stadium.

He produced a .284 average, 89 home runs (lowered a bit with his nine homers in the strike-shortened 1981 season), and averaged 84 RBI and 23 doubles. He also displayed a keen eye at the plate averaging 75 walks — including 97 in 1978.

On Nov. 27, 1981, the Tigers and White Sox swapped outfielders — both who were former top selections in the amateur draft — Lemon by Oakland in 1972, Kemp number-one overall by Detroit in 1976. They were roughly the same age and had put together similar careers to that point.

In his only season in Chicago, Kemp had a career year batting .286 with 19 HR and 98 RBI in 160 games. After the ’82 season Kemp cashed in on a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees but he, like so many other mid-’80s free agents, flopped in the Bronx.

In 1983, Kemp hit .241 with just 12 home runs in 109 games. After the ’84 season he was traded with Tim Foli and cash to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Dale Berra, Alfonso Pulido and Jay Buhner.

An eye injury, suffered when Kemp was hit by a batted ball in batting practice, shortened his career in the mid-1980s. He last played in the majors in 1988 when he played in 16 games for the Texas Rangers, hitting just .222 in 36 at bats. His career batting average in 11 seasons was .278 — five points higher than Lemon’s.

When Campbell pulled the trigger on the Kemp-for-Lemon deal he probably had no idea that Kemp would flame out and that Chet the Jet would play more than 1,100 games in the outfield for Detroit.

Still, he had to like the odds that the trade would work out better than LeFlore for Dan Schatzeder.

6 thoughts on “Today’s Tiger: Steve Kemp

  1. Kemp was my first favorite Tiger. I still remember 11/27/81. It was a Saturday. I was sitting up in my bedroom sorting baseball cards on the floor when my little sister came in and said it had just been announced on the news that Kemp had been traded. I thought she was just messing with me. Nope. While it worked out better for the Tigers, it’s sad that the eye injury in batting practice basically ruined his career. He’d have stuck around much longer than he did if not for that.


  2. I remember the headline KEMP FOR LEMON was huge on the sports page, like the font size usually reserved for pennants and championships. I always like Kemp, too. Maybe it was because my cousin could duplicate his batting stance perfectly.


  3. I remember Kemp’s first at bat at Tiger stadium.
    3 mighty swings that got nothing but air. Sit down, Meat. He quickly became one of my favorites-always sprinting to first after hitting a grounder, no matter if it were routine or in the hole.


  4. I used to travel the detroit area as a regional sales manager. I loved to plan my schedule around the baseball schedules of Cinn. Chicago Detroit and some triple A teams. I was in Detroit for a double header in the early 80’s when Kemp hit a walkoff blast into the right field upper deck to win the first game. I was an instant fan. What a shame he didn’t continue to have that great career. I was convinced he was going to be in the Hall. Thanks Steve for the excitement


  5. Kemp also was a favorite of mine, but to say he was a bust after he was dealt from Detroit is not totally fair. He was great with the White Sox in his one year in Chicago, and he was hit in the face with that line drive during the middle of the season with the Yankees and he lost vision in one of his eyes, the left, I believe. He was NEVER the same because his depth perception was significantly distorted because of the injury … a very, very good player, a clutch player, too.


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