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Throwback Tigers: The quiet career of Dick McAuliffe

The Tigers infielder was known as “Mad Dog” but beloved by his teammates

Tiger Stadium Photo by Ezra Shaw/Gettyimages

In this feature we take a look at moments from Tigers history, and remembering the people who helped shape it. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Tigers’ ‘68 World Series win, it seems especially timely to revisit the men who made up that team.

Richard John “Dick” McAuliffe was never the kind of player destined to make it into Cooperstown, and yet he was precisely the kind of hard-nosed, rough and tumble baseball player who helped turn the 1968 Tigers team into world champions. The spirited infielder was known as “Mad Dog” to his teammates.

McAuliffe spent 14 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, starting in 1960 at the tender age of 20 years old, and continuing until he was 33. He spent the final two years of his career with the Boston Red Sox, though by then he was in the declining stages of his career, and his time with the Sox was largely unremarkable.

With the Tigers, he managed three back-to-back All-Star seasons in 1965, 1966, and 1967, but not in the winning 1968 season when he had an American League high 95 runs scored. His career line with the Tigers was .249/.345/.408. Again, not the numbers to net you a plaque in Cooperstown, but a perfectly respectable 14-season line.

McAuliffe was born in Hartford, Connecticut and played baseball through his high school years, where he was a pitcher. He was drafted by the Tigers right out of high school in 1957. He actually just missed being scouted by the Boston Red Sox, who had seen him play at age 16 and invited him to return the next season to try out. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, since McAuliffe’s family home was badly damaged in a 1955 flood and baseball went by the wayside so he could help the rebuilding efforts that year. When he returned to the sport, it was the Tigers who took notice, offering him a $500 signing bonus.

Before his major league debut he was something of a force to be reckoned with in the minors. During his 1960 season with the Knoxville Smokies he lead the league in runs, triples, and assists. (Tangent: the Smokies are in the Double-A Southern League, and currently a Cubs affiliate, but during McAuliffe’s tenure they were a Sally League team. Sally League, delightfully, is the name for the South Atlantic Double-A League)

McAuliffe had a reputation throughout his career for having a truly unusual batting stance, which was lovingly described by Bill James as follows:

“[H]e tucked his right wrist under his chin and held his bat over his head, so it looked as if he were dodging the sword of Damocles in mid-descent. He pointed his left knee at the catcher and his right knee at the pitcher and spread the two as far apart as humanly possible, his right foot balanced on the toes, so that to have lowered his heel two inches would have pulled his knee inward by a foot. He whipped the bat in a sort of violent pinwheel which produced line drives, strikeouts, and fly balls, few ground balls, and not a lot of pop outs.”

“Whipped the bat in a sort of violent pinwheel” is such a glorious way to describe a man’s swing.

Following his first season in the majors, McAuliffe was invited by then-manager Joe Gordon to join Gordon in California for the offseason for further instruction and guidance. However before this plan could come to fruition, Gordon was fired by the Tigers.

An interesting story about McAuliffe comes during the winning 1968 season. During an August game against the White Sox, pitcher Tommy John — yes that Tommy John — nearly beaned McAuliffe, then threw behind him. In true Tigers fashion, this led to an incredible brawl, during which McAuliffe separated John’s shoulder with his knee, ending the pitcher’s season. This was not the event that led to John getting the surgery that would come to bear his name (that would come in much later, in 1974) it’s still an interesting tale. John would miss the rest of the season, while McAuliffe was suspended five games and charged $250.

Bill Freehan said of McAuliffe, “We had a lot of fights in those days, and Mad Dog was right there. Not mean at all. But you do him wrong from another team, they had to pay the price.”

1968 would not be remembered for the fight with Tommy John, though. McAuliffe and the Tigers finished the season with a whopping 103 wins, and were barreling their way towards the team’s first World Series win since 1945. According to teammate Gates Brown, McAuliffe was “the guy who made us go... [he] was the kind of player you could always count on and you know he will cover your back. It’s hard to picture the ‘68 team without him.”

McAuliffe underplayed his role in the team’s ultimate victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, when he waxed poetic about it later in life. “I mean, when you think a guy like Denny McLain won 31 ballgames ... but it was more than that. We averaged five plus runs for Denny throughout that year. Mickey Lolich was a great pitcher for our team, won [17] ballgames, but the key factor I think is that everybody contributed at the right time. I’d have to say that 1968 was the highlight of my life.”

In the final game of his career, on September 1, 1975, in a bout between the Red Sox and the Yankees, an ugly throw to Carl Yastrzemski resulted in the Boston home crowd loudly booing McAuliffe, who had also dropped an easy pop-out earlier in the game. He would ultimately never play professional ball again, and his last memory of the sport would be a crowd of boos from his own team’s fans. It was an inauspicious end to a once glorious career. He later said, “That one game everything stood out, and the fans in Boston were tough. And I really felt bad after that and that was the only time after making an error that I felt really bad about losing a ballgame. And I said, ‘Well, I guess I am over the hill.’”

He married his wife JoAnne in 1962, the same year he played second base for the first time. He and JoAnne had two children, Mary and John. Following his baseball career, he briefly ran some baseball schools before going on to own a company that sold coin-operated washers and dryers to laundromats. He died in Connecticut on May 13, 2016 at the age of 76, from a stroke. He had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease through his later years, a heartbreaking similarity he shared with fellow 1968 Tiger Bill Freehan. Of his career, McAuliffe said sagely, “I played as hard as I could. I always thought I gave 100 percent, and was proud of the feats I’d done. I thought overall ... I should have done better. That’s just my personal feeling. I think I’ve been successful.”

Jim Price, currently the co-host of the Tigers radio broadcasts, recalled his teammate McAuliffe warmly following Dick’s death. “The best guy. The best teammate. Played hard every day.”

Further Reading:

“The night Dick McAuliffe separated Tommy John’s shoulder” (Detroit Athletic Co.)

“Dick McAuliffe, Stalwart of ‘68 Tigers, Dies at 76” (New York Times)

“Dick McAuliffe” (SABR)