Sock it to ‘em, Tigers!
The executioner’s sword was not removed from the Tigers’ neck as they traveled to St. Louis for Game 6. The Tiger pitching, aside from Mickey Lolich, had been totally unreliable yet Detroit Manger Mayo Smith had few options.
Still facing elimination, Smith turned to McLain on just two days’ rest to start Game 6. McLain, who had lasted less than three innings in Game 4, was not as taxed as Lolich, responded as befit the 31-game winner he was that season. He scattered nine Cardinal hits and was the recipient of one of the biggest offensive innings in World Series history.
Detroit victimized starter Ray Washburn for two runs in the second inning and then produced 10 runs in the third off Washburn and three other hurlers. The inning was high¬lighted by a grand slam by centerfielder Jim Northrup to help tie the one-inning Series mark for most runs (by the Philadelphia Athletics against the Chicago Cubs in Game 4 – 1929).
The 13-1 final score meant the next afternoon would bring the most exciting concept in team sports – a winner-take-all game for a world championship, known as Game 7.
Again, Smith faced the decision of who to start. While Lolich sat in the Detroit dugout during Game 6, Smith approached him and as if Lolich could start on two days’ rest, despite throwing two complete game victories already.
“Do you think you can pitch five?” Smith asked to which Lolich answered, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“When I came in after five, he asked me could I go one more; which I did,” Lolich continued. “When I came in at the end of the sixth, he said, ‘Can you go one more?’ And then we scored the three runs in the seventh and he asked me if I could finish and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I never thought I was going to pitch in the seventh game.”
This time, Lolich was facing the other pitching star of the Series, Gibson, who also had two complete games. In lightning speed, the Year of the Pitcher crystallized into these two men, mowing down each other’s lineup.
Former Detroit Free Press beat writer and Detroit News columnist George Cantor captured the end of the 1968 World Series in his book “The Tigers of ‘68.”
“The confetti had already been prepared in downtown St. Louis, so sure were they that the Cardinals would win the World Series.
“Bob Gibson, the famous Cardinals pitcher was up for Game 7. He had had three days rest while Lolich had only two and despite his two gallant performances, no one thought he could match up against Gibson. It seemed to be a true prediction. Gibson mowed the Tigers down for the first six innings (except for one hit.)
“But Lolich was doing OK, matching Gibson almost pitch-for-pitch. Then the base stealer, Lou Brock got a single in the sixth (his record-tying 13th hit in the Series). Everyone knew what that meant. He would steal, setting up the winning run.
“Brock edged farther and farther off the bag, daring Lolich to throw the ball to the plate or to make a try for him. Finally, detecting what he thought was the start of Lolich’s delivery, he took off for second. Instead, Lolich threw to first. Cash rifled a perfect throw to Stanley, who was covering the bag like a veteran. Brock was tagged out.”
“Then Curt Flood, another base stealer, also singled. He, too, started a mind game with Lolich, but Lolich threw to first and Flood was out.
“At the end of six innings, in the final game of the series, the score was 0-to-0. Normal life slowed to a halt on this golden Thursday afternoon in Detroit, St. Louis and much of the rest of the nation, too. The drama at Busch Stadium was all that mattered.”
“It was when Mickey picked off Brock,” second baseman Dick McAuliffe told Cantor afterwards. “That was the ball game. We’d talked about it, and Mickey knew he had to make Brock make the first move. He played it perfectly.”
Then Detroit came to hit in the top of the seventh inning. Again, Cantor described the action from his book, “The Tigers of ’68.”
“Gibson disposed of Stanley and Kaline as the seventh inning started. Cash then got Detroit’s second hit.
“Gibson, mildly annoyed, went to work on Horton. Willie drove the ball past shortstop into leftfield. Now there were two on and Northrup coming to bat.”
“When Northrop hit a liner to center, it appeared that Flood would get it without much trouble, though it was hit hard.
“Flood took one quick step in, then tried to pivot ... By then it was too late. The ball was over his head and Northrup was racing into third with a two-run triple.
“In Busch Stadium, a gasp of disbelief went through the capacity crowd. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all ... Detroiters came to their feet, also incredulous at what they were seeing on television.”
“‘I was absolutely sure we were going to win that game,’ said Gibson in retrospect. ‘I knew that Lolich wasn’t exactly what you’d call a finely-tuned athlete. He had to be dog-tired ... on two days’ rest...’
“Next, Freehan doubled getting the third run of the inning. Gibson had lost it all at once.”
Everyone knew the importance of a single play, a single step, a single moment.
“The greatest single moment I’ve ever known in Detroit was Jim Northrup’s triple in the seventh game of the World Series in St. Louis,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell in the Sept. 30, 1991 edition of Baseball Almanac. “It was a stunning moment because not only were the Tigers winning a world championship that meant so much to an entire city, they were beating the best pitcher I ever saw – Bob Gibson.”
An insurance run was added by Detroit in the top of the ninth but it was up to Lolich to seal the deal and enter Tiger and baseball immortality.
He retired Flood on a pop-up to shortstop and Orlando Cepeda, who had homered off Lolich in Game 5, popped out to Freehan. Third baseman Mike Shannon finally dented Lolich for a home run.
“Then it was (Tim) McCarver. He lifted a little pop fly ... Freehan flung aside his mask, settled under it, and tucked away Detroit’s third world championship. It was 4:06 p.m. in Detroit,” Cantor wrote. “In Detroit, within half an hour, every downtown street was filled with pedestrians. Cars inched their way forward in the mob. “No one cared. They didn’t want to go anywhere else.
“‘It’s funny,’ Lolich says, ‘those three games that I won in the World Series are three games that do not count in my lifetime record. But if I hadn’t pitched in the World Series, they wouldn’t have remembered me.’”
Lolich’s performance in the 1968 World Series seemed to buoy his career. He had gone forma journeyman starter to instant hero and he got better over the next few years.
In 1969, he won 19 games, and two years later, he accounted for 25 victories, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting to Oakland’s Vida Blue. In 1971, Lolich started 45 games and completed 29, pitching an astonishing 376 innings. He led the American League with 308 strikeouts.
The following season, Lolich won 22 games helping Detroit to the American League East division title. To do that, he started 41 games and completed 23 of them.
In fact, from 1971-1974, Lolich topped the 300-inning mark every season.
“I guess you could say I’m the redemption of the fat man; a guy will be watching me on TV and see that I don’t look in any better shape than he is. ‘Hey Maude,’ he’ll holler, ‘Get a load of this guy and he’s a 20-game winner,’” Lolich later said.
He lost 18 games in 1975 and was traded by the Tigers to the New York Mets, but not until he had struck out more hitters (2,679) than any other left-handed pitcher in American League history.
He temporarily returned in 1977 but returned for a season with San Diego. However, enough was enough and in 1979, Lolich came back to Detroit, opened a doughnut shop and was involved in other interests. Eventually, he returned to his native Oregon for retirement.
Over 16 years, Lolich won 217 games, struck out 2,832 and had an earned run average of 3.54. He was a three-time All Star in addition to his 1968 World Series heroics.
His name has been one of those bandied about for Hall of Fame consideration, but he probably did not have enough quality seasons to earn inclusion.
Yet … his name hangs around. In 2003, Lolich was one of 26 players chosen to the final ballot by the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee. There were more than 1,000 players eligible for that ballot, but Lolich was the only left-handed pitcher to make it.
Two years later, he earned nine committee votes, and earlier this year (2006), Lolich made the preliminary list for 2007.
The moment of Tiger exaltation was captured in one photograph – Freehan catching a leaping Lolich after the final out.
“As soon as it was over, I jumped on Freehan,” Lolich reminisced. “The main reason I did that was so he wouldn’t jump on me first.”
Detroit became only the third team in baseball history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a World Series and did it on the road too boot.
Most players understood the importance of the accomplishment.
“It’s a team thing,” said Freehan, an 11-time All-Star (1964-73 and 1975) and five-time Gold Glove winner (1965-69), “and baseball is a team sport. It’s the thing you dream about. The other awards, like the All-Star team or Gold Gloves, are individual accomplishments. But a lot of great players have never had the chance to play in a World Series, so it’s the greatest thrill.”
And it was a perfect way to end what would be regarded as a special year in baseball history.
“So much happened it was hard to keep up with everything,” Harwell added. “We had Denny McLain’s 31 victories, Gates Brown’s great pinch-hitting in the clutch, Tom Matchick’s home run to beat Baltimore in the ninth inning, then Darryl Patterson striking out the side to beat them in the ninth ... excitement every day in the ballpark.”