Henning: You had to have been there to appreciate 1968 Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Al Kaline watches as a video is played on the scoreboard honoring the 1968 Tigers on Saturday at Comerica Park.

Detroit — They threw a princely party for some special guys Saturday at Comerica Park.

You might ask any of the 30,268 who turned out on a football Saturday why they showed up, expecting to be awed, like people revved to see Old Faithful or Niagara Falls.

It’s because the 1968 Tigers were, like nature’s treasures, a phenomenon you had to experience to fully appreciate.

If you’re looking for a parallel to baseball in Detroit and in Michigan to match 1968, forget it. The 1984 champion Tigers were a team of talent and dynamism so overwhelming they could start a season 35-5 and then wipe away the Padres in that autumn’s World Series. For pure baseball prowess, nobody touched the '84 Tigers.

But if you want romance, and redemption, and chills, and catharsis, sprinkled with an almost daily dose of Hollywood script-magic, the ’68 Tigers are in a realm all their own.

The '68 team was pretty much Providential.

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The Tigers did it right Saturday, honoring 13 of the players from ’68 who are yet with us, highlighting their heroics with a wonderful scoreboard video biopic, and introducing them to a crowd that wanted to both reunite with ‘68’s dreamy season and to let those men know how much they were, and are — yes — loved.

Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, Mickey Stanley, Don Wert, Jim Price, John Hiller, Tom Matchick, Daryl Patterson, Wayne Comer, Dick Tracewski, Jon Warden — when their names were called Saturday, the ballpark seemed to rise, in voice and with a palpable, spiritual reverence for these men who did so much for a town and for a region during a tumultuous time.

“I think you could tell by the reaction of the people today what we meant,” said John Hiller, who was a kid pitcher with the Tigers in ’68 and whose bullpen mastery, following an improbable heart attack two years later, became one of the Tigers’ best baseball stories from the 1970s.

“But even I didn’t realize it at the time.”

Detroit News columnist Lynn Henning greets the players before he speaks.

'A wonderful feeling'

Once the World Series ended, after Detroit had stormed back to beat St. Louis in the final three games and win a crazy-great World Series, Hiller began to understand. He saw not the usual fan-adulation for a championship team. He saw instead, gratitude, the kind of thanks patients and their families might reserve for doctors who have saved a loved one.

And, oh, the Tigers saved something, to be sure, in 1968. They’re credited with rescuing Detroit — psychologically, anyway — following the devastation and death and destruction that a year earlier had marked what had been the worst urban riots in American history.

"I think it’s a privilege for it to be thought that we helped hold the city together,” Hiller said. “It’s just a wonderful feeling.”

With history as a backdrop, and with the Cardinals and Tigers wearing the same-style uniforms they wore in ’68, Detroit's front office handled Saturday’s festivities with admirable touches of grace and distinction.

The Tigers even brought on Jose Feliciano to strum and sing the then-sacrilegious version of The Star Spangled Banner he released in Detroit during Game 5 of the ’68 Series.

What was viewed as blasphemy 50 years ago has since taken on a sense of artistry and veneration. It was smart, if not genius, for the Tigers to have made Feliciano the pre-game’s National Anthem voice.

For a final flourish, the Tigers had their own 2018 players parade to the infield’s staging grounds and present to each of the ’68 stars replicas of the ’68 World Championship trophy.

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This was special to a degree fans today can’t fully appreciate. The Tigers of ’68 played years before free agency arrived and made comparative peanuts. They got the usual World Series shares, all of $4,000, and they got rings. But that was it. In many ways, those was the only extras they earned during an era when many players needed to work offseason jobs to, well, keep up with the middle class.

But to see what the Ilitch family and Tigers executives popped for during this week’s celebration, topped by those Saturday trophies, was to see a group of grateful senior players.

There was no meanness, no sense of entitlement, to what Hiller next said. It was more comical than it was cantankerous, because if you knew how the Tigers of 50 years ago operated, under Jim Campbell’s penny-pinching watch as general manager, you knew what Saturday’s gifts meant.

“Some of our old reunions were terrible,” Hiller said, and a man who has lived in the Upper Peninsula for decades was here talking about the pre-Ilitch era. “One year we got Timex watches, and before we got to the Bridge (Mackinac) the watch stopped.”

Another year, he said, again emphasizing that it was before Ilitch became owner, the Tigers had a ’68 reunion and lavishly provided hot dogs, pizza — and pop.

“We had to chip in and buy beer,” Hiller said. “Bought it at the ballpark (Tiger Stadium) and I remember it cost $42.16 for a 12-pack.”

Those days, as Ernie Harwell might have said, are long gone.

“The Ilitches have gone out of their way — and beyond — to do things right," Hiller said.

Fans hold up the numbers 1968 at the end of the pregame ceremony honoring the World Series championship team.

'You can't compare'

Another one of those indispensable gents from Detroit’s baseball past, a man who knew the splendor of ’68 as a player, and then coached with the ’84 championship brigade, was also here Saturday.

And you won’t believe Dick Tracewski. He looks, seriously, like he did 34 years ago when he was Sparky Anderson's first-base coach.

He understood what everyone who was here for the Tigers’ last two championship teams appreciated. He knew why Saturday’s festival was filled with as many tears as smiles.

“How could you compare?” he asked, rhetorically, of the two teams. “You can’t compare.”

You can only say what some of us were saying Saturday about the '68 gang.

That our lives 50 years ago were graced beyond any adequate power to explain. One might say it was simply a baseball team that achieved all of this grandeur and lore, and that any other exaggerations should be bagged.

But the more some of us have thought for a half-century about the '68 Tigers, the more some of us are digging in, saying uh-uh, it was something more than that, with anyone's atheism their own business.