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Top Tigers teams countdown #2: The 1968 Tigers were a roster of legends

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1984 had your hearts, but the 1968 squad were a close second.

St. Louis Cardinals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

There was no doubt that when we polled our readers about the best teams in Detroit Tigers history, the 1984 Tigers would take the crown. But in close second was the other World Series winning franchise in modern history, the 1968 squad.

The 1968 team, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of their win last season, were the first Tigers club to win a World Series since 1945, and were the winningest team (by games) in Detroit’s history... until 1984. The ‘68 team had an incredible 103 wins and 59 losses. (For the record, by percentage the 1934 Tigers actually had the best record in team history with 101-53). So by the numbers, the 1968 Tigers are second to the 1984 club as well.

The season started out beautifully with the Tigers going 9-1, and by the time May rolled around, they were in the top spot in the division, a place they would maintain for the remainder of the season.

For the entire year, the Tigers seemed to be riding a wave of pure good luck. Their roster was one of incredible talent, but they also managed to manage a slew of incredible late-inning or comeback wins, where victory seemed uncertain, but the team were able to pull out a clutch victory at the last minute. Of the 162 games they played that season, they won after the seventh inning in 40 of them, and crazier still, they won a whopping 30 games in their last at bat. Talk about breathless baseball.

The lineup was a veritable who’s who of Tigers heroes. Denny McLain won his first Cy Young that season (he won his second just the following year). While we can all talk about how little wins matter in baseball, it’s hard to to be impressed by McLain’s 31 wins that season. 31. He had a 1.96 ERA, a 2.53 FIP, and a 0.905 WHIP. He was rightfully crowned the AL MVP in addition to his Cy Young win.

Mickey Lolich was sublime, especially in the World Series, where he threw three complete games and allowed only five runs. It’s also worth noting that he hit the only home run of his entire career in Game 2 of the Series, and won the World Series MVP title as a result of those combined efforts. Lolich’s regular season efforts were overshadowed by those of McLain, but he still managed a 17-win season with a 3.19 ERA, 2.99 FIP, and 1.105 WHIP. He would go on to be a three-time All-Star with the Tigers in following years.

Earl Wilson and Joe Sparma rounded out the regular starter ranks, though reliever John Hiller made an impressive 12 starts throughout the season as well.

The lineup is nothing short of incredible. Bill Freehan — a truly overlooked Hall of Fame candidate — was the team’s catcher and collected a monstrous 971 putouts in 1050 chances, which was the best record for a catcher until 1997. Norm Cash hit 25 home runs that year. Dick McAuliffe didn’t hit into a double play for the entire season. Don Wert, the team’s third baseman, took a pitch to the head so hard it shattered his helmet, but in spite of the brutal and life-changing injury, it was Wert who got the final hit to win the AL pennant.

Honestly, how is there not a movie about this team? Between the liner to Wert’s head, the brawl McAuliffe had with pitcher Tommy John over a hit by pitch, and McLain’s legendary year, it’s really all almost too cinematic to be believed.

And we haven’t even gotten to the outfielders.

Willie Horton, anyone? He only hit 36 home runs that year. Mickey Stanley won a Gold Glove for his efforts in center field. Tigers legend Al Kaline had a season abbreviated by injury, playing only 102 games, but that afforded Stanley an opportunity to shine. 1968 was actually the first season in 13 consecutive years that Kaline was not an All-Star. He still managed to hit .287/.392/.428 with a wRC+ of 148. In a bad season. And what about Jim Northrup, who hit four grand slams in the regular season, then another in the World Series for good measure? About those grand slams? He hit three in a single week.

If this were a movie I would be getting notes back about how unrealistic it was.

What if I added a player who was signed while he was in prison? Gates Brown has you covered. As a pinch hitter, he was a big reason the Tigers won so many of those clutch games in the last at bat.

The 1968 Tigers had a little something for everyone. And for those reasons, they’re you’re number two club in Tigers history.


New addition: 1987 Tigers

Being so close to the ‘84 team, we don’t talk much about the ‘87 club, but they are still one heck of a team. Not only did they clinch the AL East on the literal last day of the season, they were the last Tigers club to make a postseason appearance until 2006.

The team went 98-64, and featured the likes of Chet Lemon, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Jack Morris and Willie Hernandez (you know... most of those guys that made the ‘84 team so enjoyable.)

So where does the ‘87 crew rank for you?


Poll

Which team is third-best in Tigers franchise history?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    1909
    (12 votes)
  • 2%
    1915
    (8 votes)
  • 9%
    1934
    (36 votes)
  • 13%
    1935
    (52 votes)
  • 6%
    1945
    (26 votes)
  • 13%
    1961
    (50 votes)
  • 14%
    1987
    (54 votes)
  • 17%
    2006
    (67 votes)
  • 16%
    2013
    (62 votes)
  • 1%
    Other
    (6 votes)
373 votes total Vote Now