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Tigers greats recall '68 WS like it was yesterday

MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- The stories were flowing. A half-century after the Tigers' 1968 World Series title, Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Jim Price had memories clear enough that it sounded like last season.

Though Monday's news conference at Comerica Park was mainly about the 50th anniversary celebration, the real event was the gathering of Kaline, Horton and Price and the storytelling between the trio, bringing to life a season that many current fans know only from grainy highlight films or archives.

DETROIT -- The stories were flowing. A half-century after the Tigers' 1968 World Series title, Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Jim Price had memories clear enough that it sounded like last season.

Though Monday's news conference at Comerica Park was mainly about the 50th anniversary celebration, the real event was the gathering of Kaline, Horton and Price and the storytelling between the trio, bringing to life a season that many current fans know only from grainy highlight films or archives.

There was the story about the disappointment of the previous season, falling just shy of the 1967 American League pennant in a season that ended with back-to-back doubleheaders thanks to postponements.

"When we lost that last game, we were going into the locker room, and I saw Al Kaline with tears in his eyes, Willie Horton with tears in his eyes," Price said. "That really touched me, and the other guys that saw that, that motivated us. Great players like that, they were crying, because we lost the game. That tells you something."

There were stories of pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown, knowing when it was his time to be ready to step into a big situation.

Video: Tigers' 50th Anniversary of the 1968 World Series

"It amazed me what he did," Horton said. "He usually didn't come out toward the field until maybe about the fifth, sixth inning. He'd have a couple of hot dogs or whatever. I remember a couple times [manager] Mayo [Smith] was going to pinch-hit him earlier, and he'd kind of refuse, saying, 'I know my job in the ninth inning.'"

They all had memories of Norm Cash having a big game after having a big night before.

"Norm was the type of guy who played hard every day, and he came to the ballpark a lot of times not feeling very well," Kaline said, smiling. "But he was always into the game."

Likewise, they all had stories about Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner in the Major Leagues. Price shared the story of his role in Mickey Mantle's last home run at Tiger Stadium, and next-to-last home run in the Majors -- a gopher ball from McLain after Detroit had already clinched the pennant.

"Mickey had this thing where he would put his head down and his bat on the plate," Price said. "And he said, 'Jimbo, how ya doin'?' I said, 'I'm doing great. We're going to make you feel greater.' He looked back, and I said, 'We want you to hit a home run.' I had to say it another time, and I said, 'Look out at that big fat head,' and [McLain] is [nodding]. And Mickey said, 'All right, high and tight, mediocre cheese.'

"Mickey got that pitch and hit it in the upper deck, and running around the bases, McLain is clapping. I congratulated him when he crossed home plate. The next batter was Joe Pepitone, and Joe said, 'Jimmy, how about one of those for me?'"

There was the story of Game 5 in the World Series, with the Tigers on the brink of elimination, already trailing thanks to a three-run opening inning from the Cardinals. Kaline produced the go-ahead single off Cards closer Joe Hoerner.

Video: WS1968 Gm5: Horton gets Brock at the plate

"I knew how he was going to pitch me, because he liked to throw screwballs away," Kaline said. "A lot of people remember that hit and think it was a line drive, but it was one of those looping things over the infielders. But in my mind, it was a line drive, but I was very fortunate to put the ball in play."

Behind all the tales was the story of a team that believed it was the best in the league after falling just shy a year earlier, and it took that challenge from Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla., into the final games of the Fall Classic in St. Louis.

Video: WS1968 Gm7: Tigers win the World Series

"We all came to the ballpark with a purpose," Kaline said.

The trio, and other Tigers players from that championship team, will get together to reminisce and share memories with fans. The weekend celebration on Sept. 7-9 coincides with the Cardinals' visit to Comerica Park. Team members will be honored on the field in a pregame ceremony Sept. 8, then take part in a question-and-answer session with fans on the concourse Sept. 9.

"In professional sports, after you get established, the main thing you want to be is a World [Series] champion," Kaline said. "It's not easy. You live together, you play together, you work together, you spend more time together than you do with your family during the season. And to have this reunion, I hope a lot of the guys are able to get back here. I will never forget 1968, because we were world champions, and for one year, we were the best."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

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