Fifty years later, 1968 Tigers can't forget World Series-changing play

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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With the Cardinals up 3-2 in the fifth, Lou Brock (20) attempted to score on a single and was gunned down by Willie Horton at the plate, where Bill Freeham applies the tag that turned the World Series in the Tigers favor.

Detroit — You talk about the advanced metrics of today's game.

Well, the folks of yesteryear knew what was up, too.

"It's the combination of myself, Bill Freehan, the rest of us, reading reports and doing our homework, and that's what made the play," Tigers great Willie Horton said Wednesday night at the site of old Tiger Stadium, where several of Detroit's past sports heroes came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 World Series championship.

The play Horton is talking about, of course, came in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, the third of Detroit's four world titles. The Tigers trailed three games to one through four games; one more loss, it was over.

The Cardinals, at old Tiger Stadium, led 3-2 entering the fifth inning, and with one out, Lou Brock doubled.

Then Julian Javier, facing Tigers lefty Mickey Lolich, lashed a single to left.

It was about to be a 4-2 lead for St. Louis, and about to be lights-out. Or so it seemed. But Horton unleashed the throw, Freehan caught it on a bounce, and tagged Brock, who surprisingly didn't slide. It was bang-bang. Doug Harvey, the plate umpire who went on to enter the Hall of Fame, called him out.

Replays all these years later showed him to be on the money.

More: Jose Feliciano returns as Tigers honor 1968 World Series champions

"I saw it today four or five times," Horton, now an executive in the Tigers front office, said with a hearty chuckle, when asked how often he's seen that grain black-and-white replay over the years.

"I had a good arm and I knew I could throw guys out.

"He came in standing up and didn't slide. And that's what made the play."

The 1968 Tigers were celebrated Wednesday night, at the site where they used to play — Old Tiger Stadium, and the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, which now is home to the Detroit Police Athletic League.

Horton, Al Kaline and utility player Tommy Matchick attended a VIP reception and participated in a Q&A, as did former Detroit Lions quarterback Greg Landry, whose rookie year was 1968 — back when the Lions also used to call Tiger Stadium home.

The 1968 celebration continues this weekend at Comerica Park, where the Tigers host the St. Louis Cardinals, the opponent from the Fall Classic 50 years ago.

"We knew it was gonna be a battle, and when we got to 3-1 down, I think our clubhouse was still very positive that we would come back," Kaline said. "And we sure did."

There are a lot of reasons the Tigers won that series, of course. Lolich's three complete-game victories stand out (with Game 5 being one of those). Manager Mayo Smith moving Mickey Stanley from center field to shortstop was another. The heroics of Kaline and Jim Northrup, also good.

But it was that throw from Horton that was a game-changer.

Horton, who grew up as a catcher, credited Stanley — universally regarded as the best athlete on that team — for working with him, on his own, in the transition to outfield.

And little-noticed is what happened after the throw home to nab Brock. Horton sprinted right to short and hugged Stanley, who wasn't at Wednesday's event, but is among about 15 1968 Tigers set to be honored at Comerica Park this weekend.

"Mickey Stanley took a lot of interest in me as a young man," Horton said. "I was a catcher when I signed, and it took me a while to play outfield.

"That play, I remember running to shortstop and running to Mickey and telling him, 'Thanks for all the hard work.'

"He was the best."

That kept the game 3-2, and in the seventh, Kaline had a two-run single to take the lead, and then Norm Cash added an RBI single to provide some insurance.

Detroit won Game 5, 5-3, and went on to win Games 6 and 7 to take the 1968 World Series.

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