One of the most exciting and dramatic pennant races in big-league history was nearly finished. Following a September when any one of four teams — the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, and Detroit Tigers — could have taken control of the race with a few key wins, it had finally come down this, the final day, Sunday, October 1. Chicago had finally dropped out on Friday evening. On this day, the Red Sox and Twins, tied for the league lead, would play in Boston. Detroit, a half-game back, would host a doubleheader against the Angels. If the Tigers won both games, they would tie the Red Sox-Twins winner for the pennant, necessitating a playoff the next day in either Boston or Minnesota. If the Tigers lost either game, they were eliminated. There was no room for error.
The Tigers had finished 16-11 in September, hanging within a game or two of the leaders, even spending several days ahead or tied for the lead. Two days of rain on Thursday and Friday necessitated two season-ending doubleheaders with the Angels. On Saturday the Tigers had won the first game, 5-0, behind a Mickey Lolich three-hitter, but dropped the nightcap, 8-6, allowing six runs in the eighth to blow a seemingly safe lead. The Angels actually were the fifth team in the pennant race nearly into August before fading. They spent September mainly acting as a spoiler, beating the Twins two of three just prior to the final weekend.
In the opener, the Tigers sent Joe Sparma (15-9) to the hill, facing lefty Clyde Wright (5-4). Sparma had last pitched a week earlier when he lost a crucial game (they were all crucial) against the Senators. Late in the season Detroit manager Mayo Smith had largely replaced first baseman Norm Cash with Eddie Mathews, acquired in August from Houston. He had also used job shares in center field (Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley) and the infield (shortstop Dick Tracewski and second baseman Jerry Lumpe, with Dick McAuliffe playing the other position). Stanley and Tracewski got the call in the opener. Though the game did not matter to the Angels’ place in the standings, they went with their regular lineup.
The Tigers jumped out quickly in the bottom of the first with a two-run home run from Willie Horton. Don Mincher got one back with a home run off Sparma in the second, and then the Angels loaded the bases with none out in the third on a single, a hit batsman, and Sparma’s own error. Mincher grounded to Mathews, who threw home to get the first out. Rick Reichardt then grounded into a double play to end the threat.
The Tigers built their lead to 5-1 in the third on run-scoring singles by Don Wert and Mathews, and this proved to be enough for Sparma, who pitched just well enough to hold the Angels down. Bob “Buck” Rodgers touched him for a home run in the fourth, but the Tigers scored again in the fifth on a single by Freehan. The Angels stranded two singles in the sixth, and then Mincher hit a two-run homer in the eighth, his second of the game and 24th of the season, to make the score 6-4.
Fred Gladding, the Tigers’ primary relief ace most of the season, got the final six outs to earn his 12th save. Sparma earned his 16th win.
About the time the Tigers finished off their victory in the opener, the Red Sox defeated the Twins in Boston. The Tigers still had to win another game, and now they knew (if they cared) whom they would face in a playoff if they did so — the Red Sox, in Boston, on Monday (the next day).
For game number 162 the Tigers turned to Dennis Dale McLain, their brash 23-year-old fireballer who had already made a name for himself as a talented but exasperating hurler. After winning his 17th game on August 28 he had pitched poorly in September — lasting just 13⅔ innings in four starts with a 7.90 ERA. At a time when every game mattered so much, McLain had come up short.
On September 18 McLain reported that he had severely injured two toes on his left foot — he had fallen asleep at home and stubbed his toes when he got up suddenly to deal with raccoons that had gotten into his garbage cans. He subsequently changed his story a few times, but the injury shut him down for nearly two weeks, until this final game. Smith felt he had no choice — the rest of his pitchers were spent.
The Angels went with Rickey Clark, who had had an outstanding rookie season — 12-10, 2.45, entering the day. With the right-hander on the hill, Smith went with Jim Northrup in center field and Jerry Lumpe at second base. The Angels put the same lineup on the field save at third base, where Tom Satriano replaced Rodriguez.
McLain got through the first easily enough, before getting touched by a Rick Reichardt home run in the top of the second inning. The Tigers staked Denny to a 3-1 lead in the bottom half on Northrup’s two-run blast and McAuliffe’s run-scoring triple. Perhaps Denny would be the hero after all?
Not so fast. In the top of the third, the Angels got singles from Bobby Knoop and Jay Johnstone and a double from Jim Fregosi, and — just like that — McLain was out of the game. If that wasn’t bad enough, Mincher greeted reliever John Hiller with a two-run home run, and the Angels were up 4-3.
Three more Angels runs came across in the fourth, the key blow a two-run triple by Roger Repoz, and the Tigers’ season was on life support. Clark was gone in the second inning, but Angels ace Jim McGlothlin came on in the third and held the fort for 4⅔ innings. McAuliffe’s two-run single pulled the Tigers to within 8-5, keeping their faint hopes alive.
While this was all going on, the Red Sox clubhouse back in Boston was glued to the radio. They had spent a couple of hours sipping beer and champagne, not yet sure whether they had won the pennant or merely the right to play another game. Each Detroit out was greeted cheers, each baserunner with chewed fingernails.
In the eighth inning the Tigers managed a leadoff single by Al Kaline and nothing more. In the ninth a double by Freehan and a walk to Wert brought the tying run to the plate with no one out. The Detroit crowd came alive, and the Boston clubhouse grew silent.
The end came quickly. A soft fly ball by pinch-hitter Jim Price was the first out. That brought up Dick McAuliffe, the club’s All-Star infielder, who had driven in three runs already this day. The club needed a hero, and there was no one more appropriate to be that hero than McAuliffe. Instead he hit a sharp groundball to Knoop, who turned it into a 4-6-3 double play. The Tigers’ season was over, and the celebration in Boston could begin in earnest.