The Tigers were downright angry after losing the pennant on the final weekend, in fact, the final hours of the 1967 season. To a man, they felt they were the best, most talented team in the league. So they couldn't wait for spring training to begin in 1968.
A quite confidence was felt over Lakeland as the Tigers got ready for 1968. The homegrown kids were now experienced veterans, and many of them had played together since their teens in the Tigers farm system.
Manager Mayo Smith seemed to be the perfect manager for the group: respected but also a "player's manager" who gave his charges breathing room. The pitching coach was Johnny Sain, who'd played the same role with pennant winners in New York with the Yankees (1961-63) and with the 1965 Minnesota Twins.
The Tigers bolted from the starting gate like they'd been shot out of a cannon. They lost on Opening Day, then reeled off nine straight wins. By early-June they were 29-16 and leading the second-place Baltimore Orioles by 3.5 games. The Tigers not only won, but they won in dramatic fashion; so often they overwhelmed opponents in the late innings, including winning many games in their final at-bat.
A parallel storyline to the Tigers' team success was the individual success of right-hander Denny McLain. Pitching every fourth day in the days of four-man rotations, Denny often won two games a week. By mid-June, Denny had 11 wins. He won his 20th game on the ridiculously early date of July 27. The magic number of 30 wins began to be talked about. No pitcher had won that many since Dizzy Dean with the Cardinals in 1934.
Meanwhile, the Tigers kept winning, capturing the fancy of the city. Even a newspaper strike couldn't keep people away from following the team; transistor radios were found everywhere.
A Labor Day weekend series in Detroit on Labor Day weekend with the Orioles confirmed the Tigers' fate as they took two-of-three games and put the O's seven games behind. The Tigers put an exclamation point on the season with a September winning streak of 11 games, which included the pennant-clincher on September 17 against the New York Yankees. Naturally, that win came on the team's last at-bat---as did McLain's 30th victory, which he secured against the Oakland A's three days earlier.
McLain finished 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA, as he captured the AL Cy Young Award going away.
The Tigers had plenty of hitting heroes: Willie Horton had 36 homers; Bill Freehan and Norm Cash each had 25 dingers; and Jim Northrup slugged 21 homers, including four grand slams---two in one game!
The only downer was that the legendary Al Kaline missed a month-and-a-half with a broken arm after being hit with a pitch. Yet the Tigers rolled on, even without the great Kaline.
The World Series beckoned---the Tigers' first in 23 years and the first ever for Kaline, a Tiger since 1953. But would Al play in it? The Tigers outfield in his absence was Horton in left, Mickey Stanley in center and Northrup in right. With the designated hitter five years away, there didn't appear to be a spot for Kaline in the lineup. He did play some first base when he got back, but Smith had Norm Cash at first, and Cash wasn't about to be removed.
Such was the quandary on the eve of the Series.
1968 World Series
Mayo Smith had four outfielders and only three spots in which to play them as the World Series dawned. The great Al Kaline, playing in his 16th season, looked to be the odd man out---cruelly ironic as it was Kaline who'd suffered through so many disappointing seasons up to this point.
Kaline went to Smith and said he would be willing to sit out the Series if it meant giving the Tigers the best chance to win. Al said that the Tigers won the pennant largely with an outfield of Horton, Stanley and Northrup, and that's how they should try to win the World Series.
Smith would have none of it. In a bold move, Mayo switched center fielder Stanley to shortstop in place of the light-hitting Ray Oyler, shifted Northrup to center, and inserted Kaline in right field. Critics couldn't wait to pounce on Smith if the move backfired.
Game 1 went to the Cardinals as Bob Gibson upstaged 31-game winner McLain. Gibson fanned 17, a Series record. Game 2, also in St. Louis, went to the Tigers as Mickey Lolich fired a complete-game victory and even hit a home run---his first at any level of baseball. So surprised was Lolich that he forgot to touch first base and had to pause his home run trot in order to do so.
In Detroit, the Tigers lost Game 3 as Ray Washburn beat Earl Wilson, 7-3. Game 4 was delayed by rain for over an hour in the third inning as Gibson again beat McLain, who was removed after the delay, 10-1. The Tigers now trailed the Series, 3-1, and all looked lost.
In Game 5 in Detroit, the Cards were nursing a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning when Lou Brock tried to score from second on a single. Horton nailed Brock at the plate with a fantastic throw. Brock didn't slide, which probably cost him the run. The play was considered the turning point of the game, and the Series, as the Tigers rallied to win 5-3.
The teams headed back to St. Louis, where the Tigers demolished the Cards in Game 6, 13-1, thanks to a 10-run third inning. Finally, McLain won a Series game after three tries.
Smith turned to Lolich to pitch Game 7 against Gibson. On just two days' rest, Mickey hurled a complete-game five-hitter as he outdueled the NL Cy Young winner, who posted an amazing 1.12 ERA during the season. The Tigers scored three runs in the seventh inning, keyed by Northrup's triple over the head of Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood. The Cards got a home run in the ninth from Mike Shannon, but that was all as the Tigers won the game, 3-1, and the Series, 4-3.
The Tigers were world champs for the first time since 1945!
Lolich was the pitching hero, not McLain. Mickey went 3-0 with all three wins complete games, including the gem in Game 7 on short rest.By GregEno
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- 1968 World Series, Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers, Earl Wilson, Lou Brock, Mayo Smith, Mickey Lolich, Mickey Stanley, Mike Shannon, Norm Cash, Ray Oyler, Ray Washburn, St. Louis Cardinals, Willie Horton