On the eve of the World Series of 1968, most baseball fans, including me, were excited about the impending matchup of two extraordinary pitchers. Detroit's Dennis McLain, 31-6 on the season and the only pitcher to win 30 games since Dizzy Dean in 1934, would go against St. Louis future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA was the lowest in the major leagues in more than half a century. But the matchup fizzled. Gibson pitched well—three complete games, winning two of them, with an ERA of 1.67—but McLain lost two, winning only Game 6. When the favored Cardinals lost in seven games, it was the portly Mickey Lolich who had pitched the Tigers to the championship with his three victories.
Lolich was glorious, of course, but many baseball people, including me, felt that the Tigers had won the Series in large part because of another Mickey. In one of the weirder strategic moves in baseball history, Detroit manager Mayo Smith, just a week before the Series, asked his young center-fielder—a former high school pitcher who was in his third full season in the Tiger outfield—to switch positions. Mickey Stanley started all seven games of the World Series at shortstop.
By 1968 I had lived 10 years in Michigan. Gradually I had come to love watching Detroit's baseball club in its small, beautiful, antiquated Tiger Stadium—a baseball park as fine as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, though it never got the adulatory press. As I took my son Andrew to twi-night doubleheaders, I gradually found myself loving not just baseball, but a team again: my players, my team of destiny. In one twi-nighter with Kansas City, we watched a skinny righthander come out of the bullpen, the long man in a hopeless cause, and strike out practically every batter, inning after inning: It was the unveiling of Denny McLain.
As the 1968 season opened, I suspected that the Tigers would be going nowhere, again. There were extraordinary shortcomings—like three-quarters of an infield—but as the season progressed Detroit was boosted by McLain's remarkable pitching, by a strong bullpen and by the emergence of Gates Brown as a consistent pinch hitter. The Tigers won 28 games in their last at bat—and the pennant pulling away.
But Mayo Smith had problems. Ray Oyler, the Tigers' regular shortstop, hit .135 for the season. Even more troublesome was the status of Al Kaline, who had played 16 years for the Tigers without experiencing a World Series. The aging rightfielder contributed relatively little to the Tigers' pennant-winning season. When he broke his arm in May, a young outfield took over. The Boys from Syracuse, as they were called (Syracuse, N.Y., was then the home of the Tigers' Triple A farm club) were left-fielder Willie Horton, rightfielder Jim Northrup and centerfielder Stanley. Horton hit 36 home runs that year; Northrup led the team with 90 runs batted in; Stanley drove in 60 and played the best defensive centerfield in the major leagues. When Kaline returned in July, he played at first for the slumping Norm Cash; but when Cash started hitting again (.317 from July 27 to the end of the season), Kaline became little more than a utility-man. His hitting suffered—his career average was .305 but that season he fell to .287—and when he dropped a fly ball at Tiger Stadium in August, he heard boos for the first time.
Yet it was unthinkable to bench Kaline for the Series. Who would sit down? Smith gave thought to substituting Kaline for Don Wert at third base. Wert had hit a mere .200, but he was a solid defensive player. The Cardinals were a speedy club, and if Kaline played third, the Cardinals would bunt him into early retirement.
It was Cash who first suggested that Smith move Stanley from center to shortstop. Cash and his manager did not get along: First base was an open job as long as Smith managed, and Cash's opinion of Smith's brainpower was available to the public. Yet when Cash spoke about Stanley—"He can play shortstop"—Smith listened to him. It was general knowledge, as catcher Bill Freehan put it, that Stanley was "the best all-around athlete we've got." But it takes more than a talented body to play shortstop.
A few of the Detroit coaches and groundskeepers—and Cash—knew that Stanley, all season long, had been taking thousands of grounders at shortstop before batting practice. He was 26 years old, intense and nervous; every day he was the first ballplayer to arrive at the park. When someone showed up who would hit fun-goes, Stanley worked out taking grounders. He was not auditioning—Stanley loved centerfield—but burning up excess energy. When Cash, among the early birds, strolled out to first base, he watched Stanley nip grounders and felt the sting of Stanley's arm.
One week before the Series, Smith made up his mind to play Kaline in his familiar rightfield spot, put Northrup in center, bench Oyler, and move Stanley from centerfield to short. Stanley would start at shortstop the last six games of the regular season to get ready. In his first game, he made two errors. He also made a novice's mistake. Throwing to first base to complete a double play, he stood on second while Don Buford of the Orioles barreled into him. That night Stanley called at Smith's hotel room: "I asked Mayo if he was sure that this was what he wanted. I said, 'I'm not worried for me; I'm worried for the other players.' Mayo said, 'I know you can do the job; that's good enough for me.' He said, 'You are my shortstop.' "
As the Series drew closer, the buzzing over Smith's decision grew loud. No position switch so eccentric had ever been tried in a World Series, as newspaper columnists noted. It was a managerial prerogative to realign the pitching rotation, they said, but to play a novice at shortstop was bizarre.