Fifty years ago, the spring of 1968 was a time of turbulence in the City of Detroit. The ashes from riots the previous summer were still smoldering. Signs of destruction were all around, including along Michigan Avenue, where the Tigers would begin their season on April 10. Just days before Opening Day, Martin Luther King Jr., the great civil rights leader was gunned down at a Memphis hotel. Tension was in the air.
During the riots in the summer of 1967, there was one thing that all the citizens of Detroit could agree upon: the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers made a valiant run for the American League pennant the previous season, falling one game shy of the Boston Red Sox. They would open the new season against Boston at Tiger Stadium. There was great anticipation for Opening Day.
Willie Horton, a Detroit native and star outfielder for the Tigers, had gone out to the city streets — casting aside any fears for his own safety — standing on the hood of a car, in uniform, to appeal for calm amidst the burning and looting that was destroying his home town. Pitcher Mickey Lolich was called up as a member of the national guard, who were brought in to quell the riots.
People knew immediately who I was,” Horton told writer Tim Wendel. “What I remember today is that they were so concerned for me, that I might get hurt. It looked like a war zone out there. I’ve never seen stuff like that – burning buildings, looting, smoke everywhere.”
The Red Sox were led by defending Triple Crown winner Carl Yazstrzemski as a sell out crowd packed Tiger Stadium for opening day. On the mound for the Tigers to open the 1968 season was not Denny McLain, who would go on win 31 games, the Cy Young award, and the American league MVP award. Nor was it Lolich, who would pitch three complete game victories in the World Series. No, the starting pitcher for Detroit was Earl Wilson, a former Red Sox pitcher, who had won 22 games and finished 12th in the league’s MVP voting in 1967.
The Red Sox posted three runs in the first three innings before Wilson put the Tigers on the board with a home run of his own. That was the first of seven home runs he would belt that season in just 88 at-bats. Horton reached safely in three of his four plate appearances, which included an RBI double, scoring Al Kaline. Mickey Stanely had three hits for Detroit, while Dick McAuliffe and Kaline had one each.
Dick Ellsbury took the mound for the Red Sox, scattering nine hits en route to a 7- 3 complete game victory for Boston. Although the start to the season was not what the Tigers wanted, they would win their next nine games to take control of the American League standings. By Mother’s Day, the Tigers would be in first place for good, winning 103 games and leading the league by 12 games for their first American League pennant, and their first World Series victory since 1945.
The 1968 Tigers had a strong local flavor:
Catcher Bill Freehan was born in Detroit, went to Royal Oak High School and the University of Michigan, and would later coach the Wolverines. He made 11 All-Star appearances and won five Gold Glove awards.
Outfielder and lead-off man Mickey Stanley was born in Grand Rapids and remained in the Detroit area after retiring from baseball. He played all of his 15 seasons with the Tigers, winning four Gold Gloves during his career.
Outfielder Jim Northrup, who led the Tigers in RBI’s in 1968, while hitting five grand slams, hailed from Grand Blanc, Michigan. He played ten seasons with Detroit and lived in the area the rest of his life.
First baseman Norm Cash made four All-Star appearances during his 15 seasons with the Tigers. After retirement, he remained in the area and spent a few summers playing pro softball for the Detroit Caesars, along with Northrup and Stanley.
Gates Brown spent 13 seasons in the major leagues, all with Detroit. He became the Tigers’ hitting coach, a position that he held when they won the World Series in 1984.
Lolich played 13 seasons in Detroit, winning over 200 games and making three All-Star appearances, finishing twice in the top three voting for the Cy Young award. He operated a donut shop in Lake Orion for 18 years after he retired.
Hall of Famer Al Kaline was born in Baltimore, going straight out of high school to the major leagues 1955. He played 23 seasons, all with Detroit, making 16 All-Star appearances and winning ten Gold Gloves. He remains with the organization as a special advisor.
Wilson hit an American League record 35 home runs as a pitcher in his career. His HR/AB ratio of 12.38 was the highest in the major leagues in 1969. He won 13 games as the Tigers’ third starter that season.
Horton would lead the Tigers with 36 home runs in 1968. He made four All-Star appearances during his 18-year career. 15 of those seasons were with Detroit, and he also remains in the Tigers’ front office as an advisor.
A season that began during a time of turmoil in the city of Detroit would end in celebration. Baseball gave the people of Detroit something to cheer about when it was badly needed. 1968 is known as the year of the pitcher. In Detroit, it was the year of the Tigers.