This article was written by Ray Buzenski
After winning the 1968 World Series, the Detroit Tigers seemed poised to be successful for years to come. They were a group of young players who had developed together since the early ‘’60s, led by veteran Al Kaline.They had overcome daunting adversity:From the 1967 Detroit Riots and the loss of the pennant on the final day of the season, to the 40 victories when behind or tied after seven in 1968, culminating in the world championship after being down three games to one. However, after the Tigers finished second in 1969 and fell to fourth in 1970, the run seemed over.
The front office wasn’t ready to concede. First, All-Star — but twice suspended — Denny McLain and two others were traded to Washington for pitcher Joe Coleman, third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, and shortstop Eddie Brinkman. Then, fiery Billy Martin was hired as manager, replacing Mayo Smith. The team rebounded to a second-place 91-71 record in 1971, behind Mickey Lolich’s 25 victories.
The high expectations for the 1972 season were delayed by a strike called during spring training. When the season finally began it was decided that the lost games would not be made up, resulting in an unbalanced schedule. The Tigers and the Orioles shared the AL East lead for the first half, with the Tigers leading by a game at the All-Star break. After a slow start in the second half, the Tigers claimed two players off waivers who played significant roles in the stretch drive. First, catcher Duke Sims was obtained from the Dodgers, where he’d hit .192 in 51 games. In the final two months of 1972, he hit .316 with 19 RBIs in 38 games for Detroit. The day after Sims was acquired, left-handed pitcher Woodie Fryman was claimed from the Phillies. Fryman, a former All-Star with Philadelphia, had been struggling at 4-10 with a 4.36 ERA. He went 10-3 for the Tigers the rest of the season, including the pennant-clinching victory over the Red Sox, giving Detroit a controversial half-game division win.
The Tigers’ opponent in the best-of-five ALCS was the Oakland A’s, winners of 93 games during the regular season. The series opened on the West Coast, with Lolich pitching against Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Game One went 11 innings, with the Tigers losing 3-2, despite a Kaline homer that gave them a lead in the top of the inning. The A’s rolled in Game Two, winning 5-0 behind John “Blue Moon” Odom. In the eighth inning a play occurred that changed the direction of the series. Lerrin LaGrow, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, threw his first offering to Bert Campaneris low and inside, striking the shortstop on the ankle. Campaneris, believing Billy Martin had ordered a knockdown, jumped up and flung his bat at LaGrow, the war club helicoptering just over his head. After a bench-clearing 15-minute delay, both pitcher and batter were ejected. The next day American League President Joe Cronin fined Campaneris $500 and suspended him for the remainder of the ALCS, as well as the first seven games of the 1973 season (although he was allowed to play in the 1972 World Series against Cincinnati).
The Tigers returned to Detroit needing to win the remaining three games to make the World Series, but felt good about their chances. Bill Freehan summed it up: “There are a lot of guys on this club who remember 1968 and we’ve been down a couple times this year and people were ready to count us out. I think we all felt ‘why quit now,’ that there was no use giving up.”1 When Martin was asked what he told the team in the pregame meeting, he replied, “I didn’t say anything earthshaking, just that our backs were to the wall, that we’d come a long way and there was no reason to quit.”2The Tigers’ Game Three starter was Joe Coleman, a 19-game winner. He was able to keep the A’s off-balance with a wicked forkball, striking out 14 batters in a complete-game victory.
Game Four was a repeat matchup of Lolich versus Hunter. The day was cool and overcast, with a threat of rain throughout the day. Neither team was able to take batting practice, as the field remained covered until just before game time. The A’s threatened in each of the first three innings, but were kept off the scoreboard by strong defensive plays by Kaline and Rodriguez. The Tigers also had runners in scoring position in the first and second but failed to cash in. In the bottom of the third, shortstop Dick McAuliffe opened by lifting a low, inside offering into the overhang in right, giving Detroit a 1-0 lead.
Over the middle innings, both pitchers found their grooves, with Lolich retiring 11 in a row at one point and Hunter surrendering only a Norm Cash single in the sixth. In the top of the seventh Mike Epstein ripped a one-out line drive off the facing of the second deck in right, tying the game at 1-1. Later in the frame, backup catcher Dave Duncan walked pinch-hitting for second baseman Dick Green but did not score.
During most of the season, Williams rotated many players at second while Green missed most of the year with back problems, at times playing three or more players at the position. The loss of Campaneris shortened Williams’s bench, especially since he had already pinch-hit for shortstop Dal Maxvill in the sixth. Williams decided to keep Duncan in the game as catcher and moved Gene Tenace to second, a position he had played only a few times. The Tigers went 1-2-3 in the seventh.
After Lolich quickly retired the A’s in the eighth, McAuliffe started the bottom of the inning with a walk.After a Kaline sacrifice, McAuliffe advanced to third on an infield single. Rollie Fingers was brought in to relieve Hunter. Martin attempted a suicide squeeze, but Freehan was unable to make contact and McAuliffe was caught in a rundown, ending the scoring opportunity.
The A’s could only work a two-out walk off Lolich in the ninth. Vida Blue, the previous year’s Cy Young Award winner, was brought in to pitch to the Tigers. After he struck out the first two batters, Tony Taylor hit his second double of the game into the right-field corner. After Rodriguez was intentionally walked, Martin lifted Lolich for pinch-hitter Willie Horton, who ended the inning with a fly to center. After nine, the score was 1-1.
In the 10th, pinch-hitter Gonzalo Marquez singled between first and second. Matty Alou then drove the first pitch to the base of the 365-foot sign in left-center. Jim Northrup retrieved the ball and made a strong relay to McAuliffe, who then fired a strike to Freehan at the plate ahead of Marquez. However, in the ensuing collision, Freehan was unable to hold onto the ball, allowing the runner to score and Alou to move to third. Ted Kubiak followed with a soft single to right, giving the A’s a 3-1 lead.
With the Tigers down to their last three outs, McAuliffe opened the bottom of the 10th with a line single to right off new pitcher Bob Locker. Kaline followed with a single to left. Right-hander Joe Horlen relieved Locker, and Gates Brown, the Tigers’ prolific left-handed-hitting pinch-hitter of the ’60s, hit for Stanley. After a wild pitch moved runners up a base, Brown received a four-pitch walk. Freehan then hit a groundball to third baseman Sal Bando, who elected to go for the double play instead of the lead runner at home. However, Tenace, playing out of position, dropped the throw at second and was unable to retrieve it before being taken out by Brown’s hard slide. McAuliffe scored and the bases remained loaded with no outs. Norm Cash now faced left-handed reliever Dave Hamilton. After quickly getting behind in the count, Cash fouled off a number of pitches before walking on a 3-and-2 pitch, forcing Kaline home with the tying run. Jim Northrup followed and, on the second pitch, lifted a long single to the fringe of the warning track in right over a drawn-in outfield, scoring Brown and completing the three-run comeback. The crowd of 37,615 erupted, storming the field as if the Tigers had won the pennant rather than forcing a fifth game.
The feeling in the Tigers’ clubhouse was one of destiny. Kaline reported, “These guys keep pumping each other on the bench. I don’t know what happened — it all came off so fast. But here we are right where we want to be.”3 Northrup followed: “The guys on this club don’t let themselves get down. This is where more experience pays off. We’ve been through it before.”4 However, the next day would end the season for the team. The Tigers lost 2-1 on two close plays at the plate, and Oakland went on to win the first of three consecutive World Series titles.
The Tigers’ front office maintained high hopes, but 1972 was the last hurrah for the aging ballclub. Lolich had a subpar year in 1973 and Fryman’s record flipped to 6-13. Martin and GM Jim Campbell fought throughout the year about the needs of the club before Martin was fired before season’s end. The Tigers fell to third in 1973 and sixth in 1974, bottoming out with 102 losses in 1975. But for one more game on October 11, 1972, the magic of the 1968 World Champions was felt at Tiger Stadium.
This article appeared in “Tigers By The Tale: Great Games at Michigan and Trumbull” (SABR, 2016), edited by Scott Ferkovich. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com were also accessed.
Masters, Todd. The 1972 Detroit Tigers: Billy Martin and the Half-Game Champs (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010).
Pattison, Mark, and David Raglin. Sock It to ’Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers (Hanover, Massachusetts: Maple Street Press, 2008).
Wendell, Tim. Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball and America, Forever (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2012).
Detroit Free Press.
Major League Broadcast, Game Four ACLS; announcers: Monte Moore, Ned Morton, Jimmy Piersall.
1Jack Berry, “Tigers’ Do-or-Die Effort Played to Many Empty Seats,” Detroit News, October 11, 1972.
3 Watson Spoelstra, “Northrup Finds Old Magic,” Detroit News, October 12, 1972.