Edson: 50 Years Ago This Week, Tigers Started Their Charge

When spring training opens down in Lakeland, Fla., this week, not even the most optimistic Detroit Tigers fans think their team is going to win the World Series.

In fact, most realistic fans will be pulling for the Tigers to win 70 games.

That’s a far cry from 50 years ago this week when the 1968 Tigers team gathered in Lakeland.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed a half dozen of those 1968 players and to a man they say the same thing: “We should have won the American League pennant in 1967, so we came into the 1968 season with something to prove.”

What happened in 1967? The Tigers were in a great four-team race right down to the final week and the final day of the season.

They split a very winnable four-game series with the California Angels on the last weekend at old Tiger Stadium. If they had swept the Angels, they would have been American League champions.

If they had won 3-of-4 they would have tied the Boston Red Sox and forced a one-game playoff.

Instead, they split and went home with a sour taste in their mouths. And inside the Tigers clubhouse, they blamed one player – pitcher Denny McLain.

McLain came up with a mysterious foot injury during the final weeks of the season. He said he rolled off his couch and injured his foot. Others have claimed for years that he got rolled by goons looking to collect on some debts.

Whatever the reason, McLain was of no help when they needed him most.

So when veterans like Al Kaline came to spring training in 1968, they were focused like no other time in their career.

“We knew we should have won in 1967,” Kaline said. “It was our pennant to lose and we did. So when we came to spring training the next year, there were no excuses. Everyone was expected to do their part.”

This time, McLain came through. He won 31 games – the last 30-game winner in baseball – and more than held up his end of the deal.

But there were many heroes that season. In fact, some of the most memorable moments of that season came from bench players.

Gates Brown, the pinch-hitter deluxe, hit .370 that season and won both games of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox with clutch ninth inning hits.

Tom Matchick hit a memorable ninth inning home run on a hot Friday night in Detroit to beat the Baltimore Orioles.

Relief pitcher Darryl Patterson came into a bases-loaded, no-out situation against those same Orioles in Baltimore and promptly struck out the side.

Everyone seemed to have a role.

It was all topped off, of course, by Mickey Lolich’s memorable World Series where he outdueled the great St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson in Game 7.

“It was kind of ironic,” catcher Bill Freehan told me years later. “Everything that could go wrong happened in 1967. Everything that could go right happened in 1968.”

This was a Tigers team that was built through its farm system – Freehan, Willie Horton, Dick McAuliffe, Don Wert, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, Lolich, etc.

So with that in mind, Tigers fans should keep in mind that while the current farm system won’t be sending many major league-ready players to Detroit in 2018, the pipeline has been restocked.

There is plenty of hope for the future.

Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.