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United in victory (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday October 24, 2006 3:31PM; Updated: Tuesday October 24, 2006 6:28PM
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Bob Gibson set a World Series record with 17 strikeouts in his Game 1 shutout victory.
Bob Gibson set a World Series record with 17 strikeouts in his Game 1 shutout victory.
James Drake/SI

Though baseball's popularity was waning in the late '60s as football replaced it as the national pastime, the Cards and the Tigers would play an entertaining, seven-game World Series, which featured a record-setting 17-strikeout performance from Gibson; three masterful outings from Mickey Lolich, who went 3-0; a critical baserunning error by the speedster Lou Brock; and a Series-turning fielding mistake by Curt Flood, the best defensive center fielder of his generation not named Willie Mays.

The World Series began in St. Louis. The night before Game 1, McLain jammed on his organ in the lobby of the Sheraton-Jefferson hotel, late into the night, even dedicating one number, Sweet Georgia Brown, to Gibson. He also told the papers that the Tigers weren't just going to beat the Cardinals, they were going to humiliate them. Gibson was not so brash. He didn't make statements before the game; he made them during the game, on the field.

On a sunny afternoon in early October, Gibson utterly dominated Detroit. By the time the Cardinals scored three runs in the bottom of the fourth, Gibson already had eight strikeouts. McLain was gone after the fifth. Brock added a solo home run in the seventh and the only remaining drama was whether Gibson would break the single-game World Series strikeout record, set by Sandy Koufax in 1963. He had 14 going into the top of the ninth with the meat of the Tigers' order due up. Mickey Stanley led off with a single before Gibson struck out Kaline to tie Koufax. Cash was next and he, too, went down on strikes. Gibson had set the record.

McCarver got up and walked in front of the plate and motioned toward the scoreboard. Gibson hollered at him to throw the ball back. He turned around and noticed that he had set the record, but quickly got back to business. Horton was up. Gibson struck him out looking on a slider that looked as if it was headed toward Horton's hip -- but it broke late and wickedly over the plate. The Cards won Game 1 4-0. The Tigers had never been mastered like that before. Later, McLain admitted, "It was the single greatest performance I have ever seen."

Although McLain had been terrific in 1968, Maris warned his teammates that the Tigers' best pitcher was really Mickey Lolich. Maris had seen enough of Lolich while still with the Yankees to know how difficult the wily left-hander could be. Sure enough, he only allowed one run off six hits in Game 2 as the Tigers beat up Nellie Briles, Carlton and the Cardinals 8-1 to even the Series.

Tigers Stadium was located in downtown Detroit, not far from where the insurrection of 1967 had ravaged the city. The riots in Detroit were the most severe in the country. They had lasted one week and left 43 blacks dead and more than 1,100 injured. More than 7,000 arrests were made and 2,500 stores were either looted or burned. The mayhem stopped when President Johnson sent 5,000 federal troops to Detroit. While images of the war in Vietnam were televised every night in America, many blacks regarded their own local police as an occupying force. In response, the white communities in cities like Detroit fled to the suburbs. However, both the black and white communities in Detroit got behind the Tigers in 1968, the team serving as a temporary Band-Aid for the tensions and problems of the Motor City.

"Don't throw that brick, the Tigers are on," Gene Cunningham, a student activist from Detroit, recalls saying during that summer in HBO's absorbing documentary, A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers. "Everybody was proud of the Tigers, but at the same time in the back of your mind you thought, 'Oh, the Tigers, those skinflints, those racists,' but hey, those were our boys on the field."


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