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The Tigers See Too Much Red

Posted: Friday October 20, 2006 4:25PM; Updated: Tuesday October 24, 2006 1:15PM
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Game 1

The Tigers See Too Much Red
James Drake (Bob Gibson)/SI; Walter Iooss, Jr. (Denny McLain)/SI
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• SI FLASHBACK: Tigers rally from 3-1 deficit
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By William Leggett

On the entrance ramps to Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis last Wednesday afternoon, Dixieland bands were playing Tiger Rag and Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis. Nearly half of the sellout crowd of 54,692 seemed to be wearing straw hats with either cotton tigers or cardinals stapled to them, and 20 minutes before game time a small boy seated deep in the right field stands between two Cardinal fans raised a proud flag that spelled out "Detroit Is Tiger Country" on one side and "St. Louis Is for the Birds" on the other. The eagerly awaited confrontation between Denny McLain of the Tigers and Bob Gibson of the Cardinals in the opening game of the 1968 Series was at hand.

Even as they made their way to the warmup mounds behind the foul lines in left and right field, people applauded the pitchers. Gibson walked slowly, looking straight ahead. As McLain moved, he kept adjusting the cap on his head. In his warmup McLain was wild and having trouble keeping the ball down. Gibson looked smooth, but when he worked in the top of the first inning he threw 17 pitches. One wondered. Then the strikeouts came piling one on another. Ultimately, Gibson set a Series record by striking out 17 Tigers on his way to a 4 0 shutout. He not only had McLain's number; the entire Detroit team was frustrated and embarrassed.

The Cardinals had gone into the game feeling that they might win a slight advantage by staying away from McLain's high pitches, which American League umpires had given him during the season. National League umpires like to see the ball a little lower, and the umpire this day was Tom Gorman, a National Leaguer for 17 years. Even so, in the early innings St. Louis seemed anxious to swing at McLain's high strikes.

Then, in the fourth, Roger Maris walked on four pitches. Orlando Cepeda fouled out, but Tim McCarver also walked on four pitches, and suddenly McLain was in trouble. Mike Shannon followed McCarver's walk with a line drive single that leftfielder Willie Horton tried to scoop up on the run and bobbled. The throw then went to third rather than second, allowing McCarver to advance to third and Shannon to second as Maris scored easily. Julian Javier came to bat, and in early October Julian Javier is alive. He singled to right, scoring two runs, then promptly stole second to get himself into position for another, although it never came.

Javier's steal was only one of three against the Tigers. On the first, by Lou Brock, catcher Bill Freehan's throw was so bad that it bounced on the grass part of the infield. Although none of the three stolen bases ended up making any difference in the final score, Game One proved that Freehan's arm was poorer than the Tigers had let on and that the Tigers pitchers had trouble holding runners close to the bases. St. Louis' final run came when Brock hit a hard line drive into the seats in right for only his third homer since June 28.

Gibson's performance was magnificent, considering the muggy day in St. Louis and the fact that he had to use 144 pitches. Remarkably, he was strong at the end. He took care of Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Horton and Freehan 12 times, and when he got Horton to end the game the crowd stood and roared its approval, almost as much at the excellence he had somehow sustained through the season as at the new record. There must be something about Gibson's habits that differs from those of mere mortal pitchers.

Q. What did you eat for breakfast?

A. I didn't want to eat. I drove to the park and had coffee and doughnuts. During the game I ate a few candy bars.

Q. Did you get extra sleep?

A. No. I woke up seven or eight times during the night.

Q. What time did you go to bed?

A. About midnight. My 11-year-old daughter came in from Omaha to see the game and we talked.

Q. Was she excited about the game, interested in it?

A. She seemed mostly interested in her dress.

Game 2

As Albert William Kaline, for 16 years a great and injury-prone player for the Detroit Tigers, reached the dugout before taking batting practice for the first game of the Series, he looked out at the red, white and blue bunting and the schools of newsmen darting around the batting cage. Long ago Kaline, now 33, had promised himself that he would never go to a World Series game until he played in one. He sat on the dugout bench and again and again adjusted the stirrups on his socks and the flaps on his spiked shoes that identify him in black ink not by name but simply by the number "Six."

Whenever some Tiger players talked of him they would say, "Six had a real good night," or, "You should have seen the play Six made in Fenway." (In the opening game of the Series, Kaline doubled in four tries against Gibson but freely admitted that on his first time at bat he was extremely nervous. Even during batting practice before that game the Tigers were overswinging. They knocked very few balls into home run areas in Busch Stadium.) Kaline had been the reason why Tiger Manager Mayo Smith made the "great experiment" of moving Mickey Stanley, a fine centerfielder, to shortstop, though Stanley had played only six games at the position. By hitting hard and often late in the season after earlier injuries, Kaline had forced his way back into the lineup, and somehow a Tiger team in a World Series without Kaline would be no Tiger team at all. Realistically, though, the decision was based to a great extent on sentiment.

After the first game Kaline and his longtime friend Norm Cash concluded that the Tigers were swinging too hard and that the Detroit team had enough power to generate home runs merely by swinging naturally. Prior to the start of Game Two they moved among the players, telling them to swing as they had during the regular season and to forget trying to hit everything over St. Louis' Gateway Arch.

With Gibson's excellent performance behind them and some ragged play by the Tigers still in their minds, the Cardinals started off as though they intended to end the Series in four straight. But with two on and one out in the first inning, Cepeda hit a high foul toward the seats deep in right field. Everyone assumed that it would drop among the customers. Not Six, however. He was off when he saw the ball come away from Cepeda's bat and he kept racing on recklessly, heading right at a wire gate in foul territory. At the last instant he caught the ball, plunged through the gate, which for some reason had been left unlocked, then spun and threw to third. Javier, rightfully respecting Kaline's arm, stayed put at second.

The next batter, Mike Shannon, hit the ball to right field. Kaline made a difficult catch look easy and the Tigers were out of a rough spot. The next inning Horton hit a tremendous home run off St. Louis starter Nelson Briles. How often it is in baseball that an outstanding defensive play seems to perk up the offense.

Mickey Lolich, Detroit's left-handed starter who has a dandy little potbelly and a tremendous late season record over the last two years, felt he would not be able to start the game because of a boil that had had to be lanced. "I was groggy," he said, "but once I began to warm up I felt a little better."

In the third inning Lolich homered high and long to left field and got so excited watching the flight of his first home run in 10 years of professional ball that he missed first base and had to back up. ("I still won't believe that he hit a home run," said McLain, "until I see the rerun.") Cash later homered for the third Tiger run, and then the Cardinals began to play like the lost battalion. The final score was 8-1, and Kaline had two hits and scored twice. After he had killed the first Cardinal rally St. Louis only once again got two men on base in the same inning. When they did, Stanley started a fine double play to take care of that.

On the way back into the Tiger dugout Six was slapping Stanley on the back. "Now we go back to Detroit," said Kaline, "and after all these years without a World Series it should be something to see." It certainly was.

Game 3

The city of Detroit was alive with anticipation of its first World Series game in 23 years, and civic pride burst forth in many directions. Washington Boulevard was renamed Tiger Drive and orange stripes ran down the center of it. There were banners and flags of every description, including one notable bumper sticker on a University of Michigan student's Mustang that said "George Wallace is Rosemary's Baby." But amid all the fun and flair and color there was an angry man,  Mickey Lolich. During the workout on the day before Game Three, the pitching and semi-hitting hero of the second game in St. Louis had some unkind things to say about Brock, who had been stealing bases when his team was far behind. Lolich said he considered Brock's thefts a form of hot dog baseball.

"It was definitely for his own self glory," said Lolich. "He wants to set a record for stolen bases or something. If it was Early Wynn or someone like that, the next time Brock came up he'd be on his back on the first pitch."

Unknown to the Tigers was the fact that before the Series started, Brock had studied movies of the Detroit pitching staff's moves to first base and felt he had each of them down pat. When asked about Lolich's statement, Brock offered a slight smile and said, "I've been in the dirt before . . . and if he says it's for my self glory, I'll do it anyway."

In this game he did. Brock opened the game with a tainted walk. The fourth ball was called because Tiger pitcher Earl Wilson was caught wetting his fingers, and in a Series already poorly handled by the umpires the call seemed ludicrous. Brock promptly stole second, the first of three steals for him. After Curt Flood walked, it looked like the Cardinals would erupt for a big inning. The rally stopped abruptly, however, when Brock was caught standing up as he went to third base on a play that aborted as Maris was called out on strikes.

Ray Washburn, the Cardinal starting pitcher, was having almost as much trouble as Wilson. His breaking pitches were not getting over, and in the third inning he gave up a single to Dick McAuliffe and a homer to Kaline, bringing a rousing response from the stands. Until the fifth inning it seemed that Kaline was destined to be the game's hero. But in the fifth McCarver, one of the St. Louis sleeping giants of 1968, came to life. In the seventh so did Cepeda. Kaline was back in the chorus carrying a spear.

The Cardinals' attack is this: their first three hitters Brock, Flood, Maris or sometimes Javier are meant to set the table, and McCarver and Cepeda are supposed to carve the turkey. All season long the table setters had been models of efficiency, but the would be carvers were more like turkeys.

Now, in the fifth inning, Brock once again started a rally by getting a single and stealing second. Flood drove him home with a double, and after Maris walked, McCarver hit his homer into the top deck in right field to make the score 4-2.

In the seventh inning Flood singled and went to third when Maris, trying to check his swing on an inside pitch, inadvertently blooped the ball into left field for a double. This brought Cepeda to the plate, and in the last two World Series, watching Cepeda at bat has been about as exciting as watching the shadows lengthen in Tiger Stadium. This time he hit a line drive homer that chilled for good the hopes of all of Detroit on this increasingly cool afternoon. Cepeda gleefully landed on home plate with both feet after a big jump. "I hit the ball good in batting practice," Cepeda said, "and when I go up to the plate, I say to Timmy [McCarver], 'I going to hit it out.' As I go around the bases I am happy for my brother, my mother, my team and for everybody in Puerto Rico."

At the end of the third game one amazing statistic stood out: the first three hitters in the Cardinal lineup had been on base 21 times in 39 at bats.

Joe Hoerner came in for Washburn in the sixth inning and got the Cardinals out of a jam, giving up only a single and a walk to the next 13 batters he faced. Hoerner, a 31 year old relief man, had appeared in three Series games before this one and had been bad in each. Back in 1958 he had a heart attack. Because one of the muscles around his heart was weak, he was told he could never pitch overhand again. In consequence, Hoerner developed his curious style of throwing somewhere between sidearmed and underhanded. "It's about time," said Hoerner, "that I did something in a Series besides hit fungoes and give up a lot of runs."

Much of the joy seemed to go out of the city of Detroit after the third game, but the next day McLain would be meeting Gibson again.

Game 4

This one must have been invented for people who had never been to the Twilight Zone. All morning menacing clouds hung over Tiger Stadium, and more than an hour before gametime heavy rains started, keeping some people pent up in their automobiles in the $8 parking lots nearby while others hung papers over their heads, lifted umbrellas and marched into the 57-year-old ballpark to gather in restless clumps under the stands. Tiger fans realized that, with their team down two games to one, McLain would have to be at his very best because the man he was facing, Gibson, is the finest pressure pitcher in baseball today. But the second Gibson-McLain duel turned out to be another mismatch.

McLain had a sore arm, something suspected for several weeks, and as soon as the game began the Cardinals jumped all over him. Brock may not be The Man for All Seasons, nor even for one full season, but he is certainly the man for autumn. Brock drove McLain's second pitch into the upper deck in right-center field, some 465 feet away, and the St. Louis bench decided that Denny was Silly Putty.

Then McLain himself failed to hold a throw at first base on a tough-hop bouncer by Maris, who went on to score on successive singles by McCarver and Shannon. Two runs for Gibson seem like six for almost anybody else. Through most of this year the Cardinals had not scored for him, a fact that bothered them almost as much as it did him. Although he won 22 games and lost only nine, during those nine losses his team scored a mere 12 runs. Once, needling the Cardinals, he said, "I might just as well go out there alone, because you guys make me feel that way anyway."

But now St. Louis got Gibson two more runs in the top of the third when Flood singled, McCarver hit a ball into the gap in left center and Horton, the Tiger leftfielder, played it off the wall like a bear handling a ginger snap. Shannon doubled, and everything was over except for the business of the rain. It was still driving straight down, and Tiger fans in the centerfield bleachers, hoping for a postponement, began to chant, "Rain, rain, rain." The umpires, confirmed by baseball Commissioner William Eckert, halted the game with the Cardinals still threatening. The tarp went down over the infield, and everybody settled down to wait. The Tigers, equipped with a weather forecast predicting that a heavy rainstorm was on its way, hoped the wait would be till Monday: The Cardinals, with Gibson in front 4-0, were looking for a legal (five inning) conclusion. After a holdup of one hour and 14 minutes, the teams came back on the field and prepared to resume play.

During the delay McLain asked not to pitch again because he could not raise his arm above his head. Gibson, who had not looked at all like himself during the first two innings, walked down to the bullpen to warm up for a second time. He threw only a few pitches, most of them of the sort a 40-year-old man would throw to his son. Then, knowing that within three minutes he had to be in the on-deck circle as a hitter, he said to John Edwards, the catcher warming him up: ''John, here they come.'' Edwards said later: ''He threw five pitches and all of them were fastballs. They burned the hell out of my hand.''

In the fourth inning St. Louis got two more runs, including a homer by Gibson. Now the St. Louis dugout wanted outs in a hurry before the game was washed away. But Cepeda was walked. The angry Cardinals signaled him to try -- but not very hard -- to steal second. He was caught, and St. Louis was out of the inning.

Detroit struggled in its half of the fourth to stay the execution. Horton spent five minutes at the plate, backing out, backing in, finding mud in his spikes, visiting the dugout, losing the tar rag. Gibson struck him out.

If Detroit Manager Mayo Smith was using every legal device to slow down the game (and correctly so), Manager Red Schoendienst (with as much justice) was using every imaginable stratagem to speed it up. But once the Tigers were out in the fifth inning the intent switched -- for 150 Cardinal fans seated behind the first base dugout it was their turn to holler, "Rain, rain, rain." The rain came and went, but the game went on. The final score was 10-1, and Brock, Gibson and a tremendous Cardinal hitting attack, plus four, counted Tiger errors, had put Detroit in a desperate position.

Game 5

After four basically lopsided games the Tigers and Cardinals finally played one that had the kind of hitting,fielding and excitement everyone had expected before this Series began. The city of Detroit had seemed embarrassed by the play of the Tigers in their home park; it had a right to be. In this game, though, Detroit flashed the, come-from-behind magic that had landed the team in the Series originally. By winning 5-3 it forced the action back to St. Louis.

Five minutes into the first inning it looked dreadfully possible that the only place the Tigers were going was home. St. Louis scored three times off Lolich as Brock started things in his usual spectacular fashion by doubling to left and scoring on a single by Flood. Cepeda followed with a home run. With certain annihilation staring them in the face, Detroit's depressed followers fell silent, but in the fourth inning they came to life when Mickey Stanley's leadoff triple landed a millimeter fair inside the rightfield line and Cash scored him with a sacrifice fly. Horton then hit a tremendous triple deep to center field and Jim Northrup followed with a hard grounder that skipped off a stone and over Javier's head. The Tigers were only one run down.

Elation in the stands subsided in the fifth when Brock, who through the first five games was hitting an alltime. Series high of .524, again doubled. Javier singled to left and Brock took off for home and a sure run. But Horton moved in on the ball and let fly a looping throw from left field. It was true but high. Brock, failing to slide, missed touching home plate by the width of Freehan's strong right arm placed strategically in his way and Detroit had one of the biggest outs of the Series.

Although he was enjoying his first good day behind the plate, Freehan was still looking for his first hit as he came to bat in the sixth with the bases loaded. But again he was frustrated when he bounced into an inning-ending forceout. The late inning Tiger rush would not come. Was it too early? It was.

In the seventh, when it did come, it happened in the strangest way with a one out bloop hit by Lolich, who in this Series suddenly found a batting eye. Hoerner, who had stopped the Tigers so successfully in the third game, was summoned to relieve Briles. The Tigers tore Hoerner apart. McAuliffe singled sharply past first and Stanley, walked. The scene was set for Kaline. The big crowd stood when he entered the batter's box. "I was looking for a fastball," said Kaline, "because that's the way Hoerner pitched me before." Kaline got his fastball and hit it into short center field to bring home the tying and eventual winning runs. Cash's second hit brought home the fifth run.

The crowd stood again as Kaline took his place in right field at the end of the inning. He tipped his cap. "Somehow," said Kaline, "I enjoy hitting with men on base. I just, don't seem to get the same incentive when they're not there. When I saw all those people standing I got goose bumps. It's hard to describe the way you feel. You try to pay them back because they've been good fans and I wanted so much to have them see us win one game here after the way they had treated us all season."

The Tigers went back to St. Louis with their pride still intact and their hopes high.

More from Sports Illustrated on the 1968 World Series, including the thrilling conclusion.

Issue date: Oct. 14, 1968

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