Born in fire: '68 Tigers would not be denied

May 27th, 2020

DETROIT -- The passing of Hall of Famer Al Kaline took the heart out of the 1968 World Series champion Tigers. But the legacy Kaline and his teammates left on their city will never be forgotten.

It began on a July night in 1967, when riots and fires within sight of Tiger Stadium put a city on edge and sent hometown slugger Willie Horton into the streets to plead with rioters to stop.

It turned a city into crisis, turned Horton from slugger to would-be peacemaker and Mickey Lolich from pitcher to peacekeeper when the Michigan Air National Guard called him to active duty.

"I had walked these streets a thousand times without a fear in the world," Horton said eloquently in his biography. "What I witnessed on those streets this night scared me."

For the rest of summer, the Tigers tried to be a team of destiny, providing the city with not only a diversion, but common ground. They took the American League pennant race to the final day of the season before a game-ending double play with the potential tying run at home plate sent them to defeat against the Angels.

To fans, it was destiny denied. To the players, it was destiny delayed, and that carried into the offseason.

“[General manager] Jim Campbell called most of us who lived in the city of Detroit right up to the office during the winter and asked us if we would be willing to go out and talk to the schools, the PAL organization, wherever the kids were. And a bunch of us did,” Denny McLain said during the 50th anniversary celebration in 2018. “We went out and saw as many people as we could see and had a great time. I think we brought a relationship together with the city through the Tigers.”

The Tigers have four World Series titles, but 1968 will always be special for that bond. Horton grew up in Detroit. Bill Freehan was born there. Outfielders Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley were born and raised in Michigan. Others, like Kaline and McLain, had been around long enough for Detroit to feel like home.

Moreover, several players came through the Tigers' organization, in some cases around the same time.

“Seventeen of us came through the system, and that happened back then,” reliever John Hiller said during the anniversary celebration. “So we knew each other in the Minor Leagues.”

“I think of having pillow fights in Tigertown,” said Horton, who played with Stanley, Northrup and Freehan on his way up the organization.

Once they returned to Lakeland, Fla., the Tigers were all in the mood to avenge 1967. They believed they were better than the Red Sox, that year and the next. And Kaline was ready for his first postseason.

“It seemed like the attitude was altogether different,” Kaline said in a 2018 interview. “We had fun and everything, but it seemed like when we got on the field, it was more business-like. Many of us, certainly I thought we were a better team actually in ’67 than in ’68, and we lost. The players came to Spring Training ready to play, ready to win, and ready to get to the World Series.”

The Tigers lost to the Red Sox on Opening Day in Detroit, then rolled off nine consecutive wins. Detroit took over first place from the Orioles on May 10 and never gave it up.

The Tigers enjoyed 15 walk-off wins, and 15 others in their last at-bat. They won 40 games after being tied or trailing in the seventh inning or later. Detroit won 35 one-run games, and won its season series against all nine AL opponents.

Gates Brown went 18-for-40 as a pinch-hitter with three home runs; he had walk-off hits in both ends of an August doubleheader. Tommy Matchick and Jim Price hit walk-off homers. Northrup hit a walk-off grand slam, one of his four grand slams that season.

“It seemed like everybody was pulling for everybody else,” Kaline said, “and the guys that sat on the bench, they didn’t play every much, but when they did play, they really produced. And I think that really helped us a lot. They all did something to win games for us.”

No Tiger shined brighter than McLain, whose 31 wins, 1.96 ERA and side career as an organist provided a fitting spotlight in The Year of the Pitcher. McLain began his season with two no-decisions, then won 18 of his next 21 starts, including seven consecutive complete-game victories. His chase to become baseball’s first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934 was a better race than the division. He credited an offseason spent bowling and a slider he developed with pitching coach Johnny Sain.

“I was throwing the ball harder than I thought I ever threw the ball before,” McLain said. “All I did was go out there and throw one strike after another.”

The one star who had an off year was the brightest. Kaline suffered a broken wrist on May 25, costing him about six weeks. By the time he returned, Northrup was on a tear, leaving Kaline shuffling between first base and outfield.

Manager Mayo Smith made it work. He had a tougher decision for the World Series. Thus came one of the most daring decisions in postseason history, moving Stanley from center field to shortstop with a week left in the regular season.

“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 two years ago. “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.”

With Stanley at short, Horton in left, Northrup in center and Kaline in right, the Tigers had their lineup. They still had to find a way to beat the slashing, speedy Cardinals and Bob Gibson, who posted a 1.12 ERA and 1.77 FIP in the regular season.

The key was thought to be McLain. But in a Game 1 matchup between two eventual Cy Young and MVP Award winners, there was no match. Gibson struck out 17 during a five-hit shutout.

Instead, the key became Lolich, briefly pulled from the rotation in August before going on a September tear. Twice, he followed Gibson-McLain matchups -- both Tigers losses -- with complete-game wins. Game 2, which included a Lolich homer at the plate, evened the series heading to Detroit. Game 5 kept the Tigers alive, with help from Horton throwing out the speedy Lou Brock at home plate.

The Cardinals took Games 3 and 4 by a combined 17-4 margin to take a 3-1 series lead. The Tigers won Games 5 and 6 by an 18-4 margin to even it up.

Detroit won Game 6 behind a complete-game effort from McLain on two days' rest. For Game 7, it was Lolich’s turn to oppose Gibson, and he was relaxed.

“I was being asked to pitch on two days’ rest,” Lolich wrote in his book "Joy in Tiger Town," co-authored by Hall of Fame writer Tom Gage. “I’d already done well in Game 2, done well in Game 5, and if I wasn’t successful in Game 7, nobody was going to hold it against me, especially the great fans of Detroit.”

Smith asked Lolich for five innings. Lolich gave nine. He was Madison Bumgarner 21 years before Bumgarner was born. Lolich got a lead to protect thanks to Northrup, whose home run was the only damage off Gibson in Game 5. Northrup didn’t clear the fence in Game 7, but his go-ahead, two-run triple in the seventh tripped up center fielder Curt Flood, who broke late and never recovered.

The 4-1 Tigers victory clinched their first World Series title since 1945. Just as important, it completed a season that helped bring a city together.