Sunday, October 22, 2006

1968: A Baseball Fan’s Coming of Age - chapter 5

Finding the right ‘program’The first thing I did when I entered Tiger Stadium on that Monday afternoon was purchase the official World Series program. It cost all of $1 – compared to the 25-cent regular season program/scorecard that I studied and filled out religiously. My father taught me how to keep proper score and at every baseball game I attended from the age of 8, I followed any game – major league or minor league – with a pen, pencil and scorecard.
It was part of the summertime rite of passage.
For a trip back Memory Lane, I thumbed through that 1968 program to see just HOW different things were as compared to today.
On the inside cover, Kmart, a division of Detroit-based S.S. Kresge Company, was advertising its World Series special – the Gillette Techmatic razor for $1.88. It was state-of-that-art back then with the cartridge featuring the long strip of blade that would be forwarded by a lever and adjusted to your skin’s tenderness.
Sadly, the photo that accompanied the ad, of pitcher Denny McLain, was reversed and shoed his as a left-hander, which he wasn’t. No proofing there, I guess.
And since it was the Motor City, car advertisements dominated the Detroit version. Actually, unlike what one would get at this year’s World Series, each city sold its own advertisements and, presumably, kept the money. Hence, the program reflected the community.
There were ads for the new Buick Wildcat, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford LTD, Chrysler 300, Mercury Marquis, Oldsmobile Regal 88 Royale – all big family-sized cars. The power and the muscle were presented by the Dodge Charger 440 R/T, Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette and Plymouth Road Runner.
Ah, yes, Jeeps were sold and Volkswagen advertised its reliable Beetle. Dodge even had an ad for its camper van.
Whiskeys, mainly made in southern Ontario not far from Detroit in the Seagram’s plant, also were plentiful. A fifth of McMasters, R&R or Lander’s cost around $5. Ball Park Franks were manufactured under the local Hygrade’s label and Krun-Chee Potato Chips were definitely a localized brand. R.G. Dun cigars were sold at two for a quarter. El Productos were more.
Phone numbers posted with ads did not have area code but listed letters for the first two digits. Trader Ray’s Jefferson Chevrolet could be reached at (LO)gan 75750. Other exchanges include (WO)odward and (UN)iversity. Addresses were listed as Detroit 1, Michigan.
The one eliciting the biggest laugh today was for the new General Electric Porta-Color television, that fans could lug to any ballgame and run off household batteries. With a 14-inch screen, the thing weighed a commendable … 37 pounds! Panasonic’s black and white model weighed just … 12 ½ pounds.
Imagine our children today contemplating that!

Game 5 – Oct. 7, 1968, A bloop and a blast erase the past
As an avid sports fan, I am also a collector – autographed baseballs, menus with Jack Dempsey’s John Hancock on it, game programs and old tickets. The most valuable is the Game 5 World Series ticket, framed and displayed in the guest bathroom (of all places), themed for baseball by my wife as some sort of tribute. I have yet to fully comprehend any hidden meanings but I see it almost every day.
Only once did I believe my possession of that ducet was in danger and it was on the morning of the game. In order to be “excused” from school, I had to bring the ticket to classes that morning. However, I refused. I was headed to the office with my father and stopping to possibly get mugged for the ticket (which I thought was a distinct possibility, even in an all-white suburban high school) was not in my plans.
“You have to show proof,” said my counselor, the assistant principal William Scobie.
So I went into North Farmington High School prior to the start of classes and entered his office. My hands were tucked deep inside my jacket and he looked up from his papers.
“Okay, let’s see it!” he demanded.
I looked around as if searching for spies or would-be malcontents behind walls. U took an very audible deep breath and flashed the ticket from inside my jacket, extending my arm straight out like a running back shucking off tacklers.
Mr. Scobie, as we called him, shook his head approvingly and pursed his lips slightly.
“Lucky man, you are,” he said. “Go on and get out of here before …”
He need no say anymore. I was gone in a time that would have made Jesse Owens proud and I was the slowest human being I knew. I was officially ready for The Game.
Under sunny skies, Detroit fans had barely warmed their seats when St. Louis jumped on starter Mickey Lolich in the first inning. Lou Brock doubled and scored on a single by centerfielder Curt Flood. The next hitter, Orlando Cepeda, nicknamed “The baby Bull,” stroked a massively towering fly ball into the leftfield seats and you could have heard molecules drop in Tiger Stadium; it was THAT quiet.
The Tiger offense went meekly in the first three innings, never advancing a runner past first while Lolich continued to pitch out of trouble. Catcher Bill Freehan was finally able to gun down Brock attempting to steal in the third and Lolich ended a St. Louis scoring threat in the fourth with a strikeout of SS Dal Maxvill.
In the Detroit fourth, the Tigers finally broke through against starter Nelson Briles. Mickey Stanley, the centerfielder converted to shortstop, tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by 1B Norm Cash. Hometown hero Willie Horton then tripled and scored on a single by Jim Northrup, which looked like a routine ground out to Cardinal 2B Julian Javier.
As he crouched to field the ball, it struck a pebble in the infield, bounced over a stunned Javier and into right field, plating Horton.
With one out in the fifth, Brock continued his bedevilment of Detroit pitching with his second double of the game and Javier im¬mediately followed with a line drive single to Horton in left field. Although he was not known as a good defensive out¬fielder, the Detroit native, who one year before stood on a car in full uniform trying to quell the 1967 Detroit riot, fielded the ball on one hop, and came up firing a perfect throw to home plate.
Brock, one of the fastest men in baseball and its premier base stealer, churned toward home, yet chose NOT to slide. Freehan gathered the throw and planted his foot in front of the plate, blocking Brock from touching it.
The stadium crowd exploded as if a bomb had been detonated. Life had been rediscovered in the old ballpark.
It meant something to me with Freehan making the play. We had moved to the suburban community of North Farmington and in our subdivision, Hunter’s Ridge, our neighbors were Freehan’s parents (his father’s name was Ash – of all things).
Detroit loaded the bases in the sixth inning, but Briles induced Freehan into a forceout and the Tigers were beginning to run out of innings. Meanwhile Lolich just keep “roly-poly” along, getting in and out of trouble with strikeouts, eight of them in the game.
Manager Mayo Smith took another gamble on Lolich in the seventh inning with one out. Instead of pinch hitting Gates Brown or Eddie Matthews else against Briles, Smith stayed with Lolich, who singled.
That was all for Briles, replaced by left-handed Cardinal reliever Joe Hoerner. Dick McAullife promptly singled and Stanley followed with a walk to laod the bases.
With the entire Series on the line, Kaline came to bat with the bases loaded.
George Cantor, who became a columnist for the Detroit News after he was the beat writer (and eventual travel writer) for the Detroit Free Press, was also one of three official scorekeepers for the game.
In his book “The Tigers of 68,” Cantor de¬scribes the fateful Kaline at-bat.
“In Kaline’s long career, this may have been the defining moment. Many of the cor¬porate and VIP fans who had been given tickets for the first two game of the Series had jumped off the boat for this one. The people who loved the game were in the ballpark and they screamed for their long-time hero with passion that could not be contained. This is where it had all been leading, their adulation of him for all these long hopeless seasons. It was all this moment. Kaline could not fail them now. If there had been noisy afternoons before in this ballpark’s long history, they were eclipsed by the din that filled it at this moment. The light towers seemed to sway from the sheer volume of it. The big crowd pleaded with him not to fail.
“Hoerner got ahead on the count, and Kaline fouled off one pitch after another on the corners. This was ‘Six,’ one of the smartest hitters in baseball, fully focused on what had to be done. Hoerner finally made one pitch a little too good.
“Kaline who always described himself as a ‘mistake hitter’ pounced on this mistake. He lined it to right-center. Lolich and McAuliffe came racing home and the Tigers went ahead. If there had been noise before in this game, in this season, it was nothing compared to this. The stands had become a cauldron of hysteria. The Line had come through with everything on the line. The last 15 years had been redeemed, stamped ‘paid in full.’”
In all truthfulness, it wasn’t a screaming line drive. It was sort of a humpback blooper over Juli¬an Javier’s head. But a ground ball looks like a line drive in the box score and all that mat¬tered was that Detroit had captured the lead at 4-3.
Cash then singled in Stanley for an insurance tally at 5-3.
In the ninth, St. Louis managed to put the tying runs on base with one out, but Lolich struck out an aging Roger Maris and got Brock to end the game on a grounder back to the mound.
The Monday Miracle on Michigan Avenue was complete. My mind would be seared with the memory of that game forever. My father was happy for me as I replayed each pitch for him, although he probably wished I had just gotten laryn¬gitis and stayed silent on the commute home.
Fortunes for the Tigers were about the change

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