Saturday, October 21, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - Chapter 4

The Promise
I never knew my grandfathers nor did I really know my uncle (on my mother’s side). Both grandfathers died before my parents married and my uncle, Don, died when I was very young. Any recollection of him is beyond fuzzy; boiling to one short image when I was a toddler.
But, despite coming from a small family, I had “uncles.” These were friends of the adults, or distant cousins who liked being called “uncle.” Every family has them; putting the obligatory title where it doesn’t belong.
Two cousins by the name of John Gaylord and John Bloom were closer than others to us … and to me. Neither person could have been more different, but they were all “family.”
Cousin John was, in today’s parlance, gay. Except that term was never, ever used in those days. He was called the perennial bachelor, or “a little different,” or the Yiddish term, fagallah. But when you’re a teenager in the 1960s, it never came up.
My father just kept a slight frown and would always stretch his hand flat, palms-down and move turn his wrist, one way and then the other, to describe Cousin John, without actually saying a word.
That might all have been true but Cousin John had one ace up his sleeve. For most of my youth, he owned and operated one of the most macho places in Detroit – Motor City Dragway (which is not an intentional pun). It was where the ground shook every Saturday night where car-crazy Michiganders would gather by the thousands to race one another and see the stars of the sport – “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, “TV” Tommy Ivo, Dick “Mister Unswitchable” Jesse or the turbine jet cars of Art Arfons.
It was the legal version of Woodward Avenue on a summer’s night and it was a young man’s dream. My knowledge of the inner workings of a car was limited to where the key went into the ignition and how much I wished I could inherit my grandmother Gelbard’s 1952 Buick when I grew up (I didn’t but it was a car to worship). I loved attending the races and my parents had no fear about letting go with Cousin/Uncle John on a Saturday night.
The other cousin/uncle was also named John and he was a Tiger season ticket holder. For my 15th birthday, I got an autographed baseball from the 1967 squad, courtesy of Uncle John, along with a promise.
“Chuck, if the Tigers ever make it to the World Series, I promise that you will get a ticket to attend,” he said.
Lo and behold, when the Tigers clinched the pennant in mid-September, Uncle John called my father to tell him that it was a promise to be kept – one ticket for Game 5. All Detroit had to do was avoid being swept and I would be there.
My parents attended Game Four and got their tickets in the normal manner – the luck of the lottery draw. The line of cars at the main Detroit Post Office resembled the last-minute income tax filing on the night of April 15. Postal employees stood outside to take the enveloped requests by hand and on the fly.
Two weeks later, when the tickets were delivered to my parents, their enthusiasm was muted but appreciated. I, however, had to pray for a Tiger victory somewhere along the way to ensure my ticket was valid.
Game 5 was schedule for Sunday, October 6 …or so I thought.

The First Four Games: Screaming in the rain
Unlike 1967, the Tigers were runaway winners of the 1968 American League championship, winning 103 wins. Led by the miraculous season of pitcher Denny McLain, who won 31 games, Detroit roared into its first World Series since 1945.
The opponent would be the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and enough old-timers were alive to have remembered the 1934 Series when Cardinal star Ducky Medwick was forcibly removed from a Game 7 rout in then Briggs Stadium by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Medwick, part of the famed Gashouse Gang, slid hard into third base and the Detroit fans, already angered by the scoreboard, grew so belligerent that they pelted Medwick in between innings with a farmer’s market load of fruit and vegetables.
Despite having won more games than St. Louis, the Cardinals, led by the best pitcher in baseball – Bob Gibson – were established as the favorites.
Detroit manager Mayo Smith, never fully acknow¬ledged for his on-field tactics, made a daring strategic move in the final two weeks of the regular season. His veteran superstar, Al Kaline, had been injured and missed much of the year. Yet in the World Series (the only one in which Kaline would ever see action), Smith wanted his de¬fense, his rifle of an arm from right field and his lead¬ership.
That meant one of his four outfielders would either have to sit, or a major change would have to be made. So Smith took his best defensive player, centerfielder Mickey Stanley and moved him to shortstop – apposition he had played since high school – put Kaline in right and Jim Northrup in center.
Starting shortstop Ray Oyler was a smooth fielder but a weak hitter and Smith figured what he would lose in the field would be gained at the plate against the likes of invincible superstar Gibson, en route to the Hall of Fame.
So dominant were pitchers in 1968 – dubbed The Year of the Pitchers – that baseball hierarchy lowered the height of the mound in order to restore offense in the game. Never again would pitchers dominated in such a manner at that season.
And unknown to all, it would be the last World Series without a playoff round preceding it. In many ways, this series would be the end of the old (perhaps golden) era of baseball.
Game One, played in Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis, was the anticipated matchup between Gibson (who had 22 victories, a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts) and McLain (he of the 31 victories).
However, it quickly was established that it would be Gibson’s moment in history.
Gibson broke Sandy Koufax’s single-game strikeout record (15) by blowing away 17 Tiger hitters. McLain surrendered three Cardinal runs in the fourth inning, on a single by 3B Mike Shannon and a two-run base hit by 2B Julian Javier, proving more than enough for Gibson.
Future Hall of Famer Lou Brock hit a seventh-inning home run off reliever Pat Dobson but Gibson allowed just five meaningless hits as he breezed to a 4-0 victory.
In Game 2, Detroit brought out the heavy lumber against starter Nelson Briles. The Tigers slammed three home runs in the first six innings, including the only round-tripper in the hitting career of pitcher Mickey Lolich, who went the distance for an 8-1 win, yielding only six hits. Norm Cash and Willie Horton also went deep for Detroit, leading the 13-hit assault.
The Tigers felt good about coming home for a three-game set and I was ecstatic. That win validated my ticket and I was ready for my Sunday love affair.
There was just one small problem. Mother Nature was not going to cooperate. Friday’s Game Three was washed away, moving Game 5 to Monday afternoon (this was a Series where all games were played under natural sunlight – unheard of in today’s media presen¬ta¬tion). At the Bloom household, it presented something of a conundrum – school or World Series. I had no doubt what SHOULD win but it was a debate of great magnitude, worthy of anything considered by the U.S. Senate during the time of Henry Clay or Daniel Webster.
“Diane, there are times when life is more important than school,” my father told my mother. “He can go to classes every day; he might never get to the World Series again.”
Sometimes, to paraphrase, Fresh Prince Will Smith, parents just DO understand.
In Game 3, Cardinal start Ray Washburn easily outdueled Tiger pitcher Earl Wilson, thanks to catcher Tim McCarver (yes, THAT Tim McCarver that bores listeners to death on TV) who slammed a three-run homer in the fifth inning for 4-2 lead.
Orlando Cepeda followed with a two-run home run in the seventh and Lou Brock stole three bases en route to an easy 7-3 win before a vastly disappointed Detroit crowd.
The Tiger performance in Game 4 matched the weather – miserable. Brock smashed a McLain fast¬ball 420 feet into the right-centerfield bleachers to start the game and it went downhill from there. Brock added a triple and double and swiped his seventh base in the first four games – typing his re¬cord from a year before.
Gibson won his seventh consecutive start, 10-1, and Detroit offered little resistance. Gibson held the Tigers to five hits with the only run coming on a solo home run by Northrup. Cardinal hitters roughed up six Tiger pitchers for 13 hits (Gibson was among those who homered) and four Detroit errors did not help the cause.
The game was interrupted by a 74-minute rain delay and those who attended left miserable, wet and chilled to the bone.
Two of those who complained loud and bitterly about the conditions were a certain Diane and Robert Bloom of Parkside Avenue in Detroit.
“Go ahead and catch pneumonia out there tomorrow like I did,” yelled my other went she finally got home. “If I never go back to that damn place, it will be too soon.”
My father shook his head and he shook off his raincoat.
“Chuck, I’m afraid you’re just going to see them lose tomorrow,” he said forlornly. “Sorry to tell you that, son. They just stink.”
That was my biggest fear. That the last game in Tiger Stadium in 1968 would be the last game of the season.
And I would have to sit there and watch it all.

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