Stanley's selflessness key to Tigers' 1968 title

Shift to short let club keep Kaline's potent bat in lineup

September 25th, 2018

DETROIT -- Al Kaline takes second billing to no one among athletes in the Motor City. He's known as Mr. Tiger because of his 22-year career that included one franchise, 18 All-Star Games, a batting title at age 20, a World Series title, 3,000 hits and a Hall of Fame induction in his first year of eligibility.

And yet, when he talks about that World Series championship in 1968, he always defers to one Tiger who made it possible for him.

"I can never thank one player [enough] for accepting to go play shortstop," he said at the team's 50th anniversary luncheon earlier this month, "because I might not have had a chance to play had he not agreed to go play shortstop. And we all knew on the team that he was the best athlete that we've ever seen, and he did a great job. So I feel blessed to be part of the team."

Each team's most unlikely postseason heroes

That player was Mickey Stanley, who also wore the Old English D for his entire 15-year career. He was a four-time Gold Glove center fielder -- including in 1968. But it was his move to shortstop for the World Series that season that made him a hero in Detroit.

The circumstances behind the move took place months earlier. It wasn't about an American League team adjusting to games without the designated hitter; the DH wasn't in place at the time. It was a wayward pitch in late May that broke Kaline's arm and sidelined him until July. While Kaline recuperated, the center-field platoon of Stanley and Jim Northrup became two everyday starters and blossomed. Northrup finished fifth among AL hitters in total bases, while Stanley earned his first Gold Glove.

Stanley was such a gifted outfielder that he gave tips to left fielder Willie Horton.

"It took me about four years to learn how to really throw," Horton said, "and I remember the last thing he told me: 'Try to get on top [of the ball], act like you're getting off a bus, like pulling the cord.' That's when I started getting on top of the ball."

The combination was so good that Kaline returned without a position. He moved to first base for the first time in his career -- mixing in there, while shifting back to right field to give others a day off. He also proved to be a clutch pinch-hitter, going 5-for-10 with five RBIs and five walks off the bench.

For the World Series, however, manager Mayo Smith wanted a bigger role for Kaline, as he pondered how to produce offense against a Cardinals pitching staff that posted a league-best 2.49 ERA for the season.

Shortstop was a revolving door for the team. Around mid-September, with the AL pennant clinched, Smith approached Stanley with the idea.

"I don't think there's ever been a decision like that made in the history of baseball, where you bring in an outfielder to play shortstop in the World Series," Kaline said. "We all said he's our best athlete, there's no question about it. He took infield almost every day, just for fun. Mickey decided to do it, and I'm forever thankful to him, because I don't know whether I would've been able to play on a regular basis had he turned it down."

Stanley took on the challenge, making eight starts at shortstop down the stretch of the regular season. But that didn't mean he enjoyed the position. When asked about his World Series memories during the anniversary celebration, he relayed the story about Game 1 at Busch Stadium.

"What I remember most was the first game of the World Series, I'm really nervous," Stanley told the crowd at the anniversary luncheon. "We're getting ready to take the field, Norm Cash comes up to me and says, 'I bet they couldn't pull a pin out of your [backside] right now.' That's what I remember."

Stanley started at shortstop, Northrup in center and Kaline in right when the Tigers took the field for the bottom of the first inning in Game 1. When Cardinals speedster Lou Brock led off the inning against Denny McLain, of course, he found the guy in the new spot.

Stanley fielded the ground ball and threw out Brock at first, allowing him to relax. The Tigers committed three errors that day in the 4-0 loss, but Stanley didn't have any of them.

Outside of a couple of throwing errors, neither of which cost the Tigers a run, Stanley enjoyed an otherwise clean Series. He scored four runs in the seven-game Fall Classic, including an important one in a must-win Game 5. Kaline, meanwhile, batted .379 (11-for-29) with eight RBIs for the Series. Northrup also drove in eight runs.

"Mickey always says he never enjoyed the World Series one bit because he was always a nervous wreck," Kaline said. "I can understand that, too. But God, he was a great athlete. I really thank him for it. In hindsight, he could've made an error and lost a game for us -- and that's what he didn't want to do. He didn't want to be responsible. But he was great. I can never thank him enough."

By the end of the Series, Kaline wasn't the only one thanking Stanley. When Horton made one of the signature plays of the Series -- throwing out Brock at home plate in Game 5 -- he thought of what Stanley taught him.

"I remember going to hug him when I threw out Brock," Horton said. "I said, 'Thank you.' All that work came into play."

Stanley made 58 more starts at shortstop the following season, yet still played such standout defense in center that he won his second Gold Glove in the outfield. He made 15 starts at third base later in a 15-year career he spent entirely in Detroit. The Grand Rapids native retired in 1978 and has enjoyed a quiet post-playing career out of the limelight, still living in Michigan. But even at age 76, his role change in 1968 will never be forgotten.