Rich Reminisces: 1968 Detroit Tigers

Why do teams become legendary in our sports collecting hobby? Sometimes the reason is the cast of characters are a unique bunch mixed around. Think of the great New York Yankees teams of the late 1970’s. They had enough oversized personalities on and off the field that the moniker “The Bronx Zoo” worked for that team. For others, it was because they were a right place, right time team. Example of this was the 1969 New York “Miracle” Mets who went on a run the last 2 months of the 1969 season and post-season and won their first World Series. For others. the amount of time a team was dominant mattered. A good example is the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls within a six season period.

And sometimes, there is a little bit of all of the above including fortuitous timing and how they brought a community together. A great example of this scenario is the 1968 Detroit Tigers ,who truly were the last of their era. Five decades later we can say that because they did not have to go through a post-season gauntlet to win a World Series, nor did have to play any night games in the post-season. 

And how did they get to the 1968 World Series? First, their ace pitcher was a youngster named Denny McLain. McLain won an astounding 31 games that season. No one has won more than 27 games in a season since. In fact, very few starters even get to 31 starts anymore, so you’d basically have to win most every start to even be in a position to win 30 games. While we knew 30 games was quite the accomplishment for a pitcher, we all thought in 1968 there might be another one to reach the milestone. Many teams still used four man rotations, and that gave pitchers 40 starts in a season, which meant 30 wins was not the impossible target that it is today.

What made McLain even more interesting was his career as playing the organ and flying an airplane. Did all those outside interests shorten his career? One could argue between the known gambling issues and the just as well known outside interests, the odds were he would have had a longer career if he had focused more on his pitching career. We do know a few things today.

1) His career was over before he reached 30.
2) He is a great guest at a card show.

Their second best pitcher was Mickey Lolich, who would go on to win 3 games in the World Series that year. In 1968, the concept of a pitcher winning 3 World Series games was not considered unusual, as three pitchers had reached that total over the previous 22 seasons. After Lolich, no pitcher has won 3 games in a World Series since. On the other hand, George Frazier actually managed to lose 3 games in the 1981 World Series. Maybe some reliever will win 3 games in a future World Series.  Lolich owned a donut store and rode a motorcycle, but he was always serious about his pitching. To show what a fluke 1968 was, Lolich also blasted his first career homer during that World Series.

It was not just the pitchers who were interesting . Bill Freehan, who was the best American League Catcher from about 1964 through 1971, could have won an MVP award if things had broken a bit differently. Freehan did everything well for the Tigers, and as such garnered much MVP support in 1967 and 1968. He was a force both offensively and defensively. Today, he is battling a long-term illness, but we all remember him fondly for his time on the diamond.

The starting first baseman was Stormin’ Norman Cash. Cash, is a player who helped define the term career year. Look at his 1961 season (.361 batting average and 40+ homers) and compare that year to the rest of his career.  Cash also had a great sense of humor, and in Nolan Ryan‘s first no-hitter brought up a piano leg as his bat as he figured he could not hit Ryan with a standard bat. 

At second base was Dick McAuliffe, who set a record which can be tied, but never broken. After a 1967 season in which he only grounded into 2 double plays, he improved that in 1968 by never grounding into a double play. This record can surely be tied, but never broken indeed.  Also, he had a nasty on-field brawl with Tommy John that injured John’s shoulder and prematurely ended his season. Could that fight have been part of the reason John later needed the surgery now named for him?

The shortstop with the most playing time for the Tigers was Ray Oyler, who batted all of .135 that season. Yes you read correctly, .135 was his batting average.  To me, Ray Oyler is best known for a classic line within the book Ball 4, which I blogged about last month. That line was not family friendly, but if you want to look it up for yourself, search out “bridges completed in 1929”.  Meanwhile, here is Ray posed with a bat in the bunting position. And when he came to the plate,  posing to bunt might have been his best way to get on base.

When you hit just .135, which was absurd for any player, including most pitchers, you probably are not going to play much in the post-season. And that’s what occurred to Oyler, as Mickey Stanley transitioned from the outfield to play shortstop during the World Series. Purportedly, the move was to get Al Kaline‘s bat into the lineup, and who can argue with subbing a future Hall of Famer for a guy hitting all of .135? Yep, all of .135. I don’t know how many times I can repeat that number, but it only gets more awesome each time it’s mentioned. Stanley played error-less ball in the World Series, and having Kaline in the lineup gave extra length as well.  Jim Northrup and Willie Horton were also the other starting outfielders and for 1968, boy that was quite an explosive team at the plate.

Note the position on the 1969 Mickey Stanley card. :

Of course there was plenty of controversy during the series, but one of the oddest ones had to do with the National Anthem. Jose Feliciano was just beginning his career, and did not perform a traditional Star Spangled Banner. I did not understand back then why it was so criticized, and I don’t today but let’s listen and see what you think.

And this is a version done in 2010 to honor the original version by Jose.

We leave you with one final image of the 1968 Tigers, which is of their 3rd base coach Joe Schultz. It was known during the series that Joe would take over managerial duties for the 1969 Seattle Pilots, but who knew just how legendary Joe would become within two years of the series?


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