Henning: Tigers magical ’68 team to be celebrated

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
In 1968 Mickey Lolich, left, and teammates brought a title to a city that desperately needed a boost.

Detroit — How anyone can say the 1968 Tigers were a bigger story than the ’84 world champion Tigers, who started with a 35-5 blaze and sealed their World Series with a couple of crashing Kirk Gibson home runs, requires some deft dance steps.

But, in one man’s experience, the ’68 team was so extraordinary in its players, in its dramatics, and in its place on Detroit’s and Michigan’s sports timeline that it’s no wonder the Tigers will spend much of this 50th anniversary year celebrating the doggonedest championship season any of us has ever seen, listened to, or been overwhelmed by.

To their credit, the Tigers understand this. It was the reason behind a classy Monday news conference at Comerica Park headlined by three players from their ’68 fairy tale: Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Jim Price.

Mickey Lolich, hopefully Denny McLain, and probably Mickey Stanley, as well as others who were part of ’68’s grandeur will no doubt be called for a bow, especially during the formal weekend when all of this takes shape: Sept. 7-9 at Comerica Park when, of course, the Cardinals happen to be in town. It was the Cardinals who dueled the Tigers in seven World Series games in ’68, the last three of which went to Detroit, a grand flourish to a year when trailing in a ballgame was simply an invitation for the Tigers to cook up another batch of late-inning theatrics.

“For those who remember, this will be something personal,” said Duane McLean, the Tigers’ executive vice president of business operations, explaining why the Tigers and a sponsoring Comerica Bank will together celebrate ’68. “For others, it will be a history lesson.”

Among some of the scrapbook pages, and history lectures, coming:

McLain becoming the only pitcher in the past 84 years to win 30 or more games … Horton with a throw, and Kaline with a hit, turning around Game 5 at Tiger Stadium and pulling the trigger on their World Series rally … Lolich starting, completing — and winning — three games in that seven-game dogfight with the Cardinals, the last coming on a preposterous two days of rest.

There will be archival dives into Gates Brown’s sensational pinch-hits and homers into Tiger Stadium’s upper deck … Recollections of Jim Northrup hitting two grand slams in one game a few weeks after beating up Jack Aker when the Tigers got tired of being thrown at … Of the slashing single by Don Wert that brought home Kaline with Detroit’s pennant-sealing run … Of their manager, Mayo Smith, turning baseball history on its head by deciding on the eve of the World Series that Stanley would traipse from center field to become the Tigers’ new shortstop — when he had not played a single moment of shortstop in his big-league career.

There will be crackling audio of Ernie Harwell’s play-by-play calls, video snippets of Norm Cash driving a pitch into the heavens, Dick McAuliffe charging the mound after Tommy John hit him, and stories about Tom Matchick’s ninth-inning homer off Moe Drabowsky, as well as Horton’s homer against Mel Stottlemyre in a jewel of a 1-0 game.

Dick McAuliffe, left, Jim Northrup, center, and Mickey Stanley, with the World Championship trophy Oct. 10, 1968 after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals.

There will be nods and grins about how Daryl Patterson came to the mound that night at Baltimore, with the bases loaded, and blew away three Orioles batters as if he had used a flamethrower on them.

“I’ve had guys tell me, ‘That’s how I got through Vietnam,’” said Price, now the team’s radio analyst, whose partner, Dan Dickerson, did a smooth job emceeing Monday’s kickoff.

Price refers there to Tigers games that would have been carried on Armed Forces Radio during a year when America was dealing with strife and sorrow on an excruciating level. This was a time when Vietnam’s sacrifice of lives and of a nation’s soul reached an apex. This was the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated nine weeks apart.

And this was a year in Detroit when a city and its citizens continued to mourn and confront the ravages from riots that a year earlier had been the worst in American history.

Much is naturally made of the Tigers’ healing effect on a city and metro area during that dreamy baseball season of ’68. But the Tigers’ glory, their genuine mysticism, transcended 12th Street and Metro Detroit.

For those of us who lived in the state’s hinterlands, far from urban realities, the ’68 Tigers were as prominent, as important, as necessary, for reasons quite separate from Detroit’s anguish and recovery.

We needed, all of us that year, a winner, something to celebrate on a state level every bit as much as a town needed to be part of the Tigers’ week-by-week, game-by-game rapture.

Think of 1968 on Detroit’s sports arc.

The Tigers had not played in a World Series since 1945. The Lions and Red Wings each had their 1950s runs, but those championships had become old memories or, to some of us, seemed like folklore. The Pistons had only been in town a bit more than a decade and were regularly dreadful.

The city, the state, the Tigers galaxy — everyone was hungry to cheer, to view Detroit’s superb baseball players and personalities as something more than excellence on display at Tiger Stadium. This was a team all of Detroit and all of Michigan wanted a nation steeped in baseball perspective to see as this region saw the Tigers that summer of ’68 — as extraordinary, downright heroic, champions.

What could be appreciated again Monday as Kaline, Horton and Price sat in three chairs on a small stage reminiscing about ’68 was the kinship these men enjoyed then, and still share.

“It amazed me what he did,” Horton said of Brown, the charmed pinch-hitter who was behind so many of that season’s nearly endless comebacks. “He set a tone for all of us.”

As did Cash, the Texas quipster and merry-maker, whose first-base skills and left-handed bat were as colorful as his persona.

“We used to call him the John Wayne of baseball,” Horton recalled. “He’d always have a Marlboro and a Budweiser.”

But what they forged, ultimately, was a delirious October party in Detroit, after Bill Freehan had caught a pop-up near home plate at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and then picked up Lolich as if Freehan were raising the World Series trophy.

“We were world champions,” Kaline said, victory’s glow and satisfaction still lighting his face.

“For one year, we were the best.”

Remembering ’68

What: Detroit Tigers 1968 World Champions 50th Anniversary

When: Sept. 7-9, three-game series vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Where: Comerica Park

Friday, Sept. 7: Game, 7:10 p.m.; first 10,000 fans receive pair of “Sock it to ’em” socks.

Saturday, Sept. 8: Game, 6:10 p.m.; members of 1968 team honored during pregame ceremony; first 20,000 fans receive 1968 road jersey.

Sunday, Sept. 9: Game, 1:10 p.m.; members of 1968 team participate in pregame Q&A session with fans; first 10,000 fans receive 1968 World Champions pennant.

Additionally: The Detroit Historical Society will unveil Friday at the Detroit Historical Museum an exhibit detailing the 1968 team’s season: “The Year of the Tigers: 1968 World Champions 50th Anniversary Exhibition.” The presentation will run through Oct. 7.

On deck: Orioles

Series: Three-game series at Comerica Park

First pitch: Tuesday-Wednesday – 6:40 p.m.; Thursday – 1:10 p.m.

TV/radio: Tuesday-Thursday, FSD, 97.1; MLB Network on Thursday.

Probables: Today — RHP Andrew Cashner (1-1, 2.50) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (1-1, 2.13); Wednesday — RHP Kevin Gausman (1-1, 6.60) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 1.38); Thursday — TBA vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 8.18).

Cashman, Orioles: He was stingy against American League East rivals Toronto and New York in his last two starts, allowing only one run in 13 innings, with 11 strikeouts. He has had some control issues, though, walking eight in 18 innings this season.

Liriano, Tigers: He will be pitching on seven days of rest, which is not been optimal for him over his long career. He’s made 52 starts with a minimum of six days rest, and has an ERA of 4.31 and a WHIP of 1.39 in those outings.