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The core of homegrown Tigers was solidifying in Detroit in the mid-1960s. The Bill Freehans and Mickey Loliches and Denny McLains and Gates Browns and Willie Hortons and Dick McAuliffes were becoming entrenched, and their blending in with veterans like Al Kaline and Norm Cash made for a pleasing team to watch.

Added to that group in 1966 was outfielder Jim Northrup, another Michigan-born kid who was a part-timer in 1965 but who became a regular in '66, at age 26.

The American League was no longer dominated by the New York Yankees. In fact, the Yanks nosedived in 1966 and would finish 10th---dead last---in the American League. The Yankees' long overdue freefall to the league basement gave the other teams in the junior circuit the feeling of, "Why not us?" The Minnesota Twins won the pennant in 1965, but they were hardly a dominant team that was head and shoulders above the rest.

The Tigers rightly felt like they could win the now wide open league; their talent was as good as any other team's---sometimes better.

But once again the Tigers' season would be marred by health concerns of their manager, Charlie Dressen.

With the team off to a decent 16-10 start, GM Jim Campbell waved the Tigers into the clubhouse as they worked out before an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, in Detroit. It was apparent that something was seriously wrong.

Manager Dressen, Campbell told the stunned team, had suffered another heart attack. And once again, coach Bob Swift would be taking over under duress. To the Tigers' credit, they kept their nose to the grindstone and continued to play good baseball under Swift as they again waited for Dressen to convalesce.

But during the All-Star break, with the Tigers in second place, eight games behind the Baltimore Orioles, Swift also fell ill. The initial diagnosis was a virus in his stomach. Another coach, Frank Skaff, took over as the Tigers were now playing for their third manager since Opening Day.

As medical reports on Dressen and Swift were being monitored like the daily box scores, the Tigers kept plugging away, though their attention was understandably divided between the games and the health of their two ailing managers.

But on August 10, sadly, Charlie Dressen died, his heart too weak. But there was more baseball to be played, and the Tigers played them the way Dressen would have wanted them to---with pride and professionalism.

As hard as the Tigers fought, the Orioles were simply too good for them and the rest of the league. Even a 76-61 record on September 4 left the Bengals 9.5 games behind the Birds.

The news on Swift was grim, too. Turns out the virus was actually cancer, and the prognosis was not good.

The Tigers limped home with an 88-74 record, admirable but only good for third place, 10 games behind Baltimore.

Individually, Willie Horton had 27 homers and 100 RBI. Norm Cash slugged 32 homers, Al Kaline 29. Jim Northrup had 16 home runs and batted .265. Yet another product of the farm system, center fielder Mickey Stanley, batted a solid .289 in part-time duty, while playing stellar defense. McLain won 20 games for the first time in his brief career, but Lolich slumped to 14-14 with a 4.77 ERA.

Shortly after the season, Bob Swift succumbed to cancer, putting an excalamation point on perhaps the darkest, saddest season in Tigers history.

 

By GregEno
 

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Tagged:
Al Kaline, Bob Swift, Chuck Dressen, Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers, Dick McAuliffe, Gates Brown, Jim Northrup, Mickey Lolich, Mickey Stanley, Norm Cash, Willie Horton

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