One of the things many folks have found themselves doing more of these days is picking up books that have been lingering on their to-read pile, immersing themselves into fiction or history to pass the time.
There are a ton of new baseball books out there to read, but one that might be especially appealing to baseball fans came out last year and was written by beloved former Tiger Mickey Lolich, chronicling the thrilling success of the 1968 Detroit Tigers club.
Joy in Tigertown is a celebration of one of the best teams in Tigers history, written by one of the club’s best players — with the assistance of former Tigers reporter Tom Gage, and with a forward by Jim Leyland. If you miss baseball, and miss winning Tigers teams, this might be the perfect read to pick up right now.
This excerpt from Joy in Tigertown: A Determined Team, a Resilient City, and our Magical Run to the 1968 World Series by Mickey Lolich with Tom Gage is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/JoyInTigertown.
Someone once asked me at what point in 1968 did I know we were going to win the American League pennant. In fact, I’ve been asked that question more than once over the years. But the answer is easy. I knew we’d win in ’68 when we didn’t win in ’67.
We went home for the winter with such resolve, following that disappointment, that I was sure we’d come back in the spring and that it was going to be our year. I don’t think we ever wavered in our confidence, even during our most grueling road trip of the season, which, I promise you, was a severe test. In August we lost five of six games on a trip to New York and Chicago—all by one run. We also played a 19-inning tie that had to be entirely made up two days later as the first game of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees.
Talk about a long day. John Hiller pitched nine innings of scoreless relief in that tie game, which was called because of a 1:00 am curfew. Putting us in an even worse mood was the fact that at the beginning of the trip we lost Dick McAuliffe to a five-day suspension for charging the mound in a brawl involving Tommy John. Spinning our wheels the entire time while he was out, we definitely missed Mac. In the opener of the series at Yankee Stadium, Tom Tresh hit a two-run home run in the second inning from which we did not recover in a 2–1 loss.
With a runner on in the first inning of the second game, Roy White connected off of Denny McLain, and that, too, was enough to beat us. Mel Stottlemyre didn’t strike anyone out yet somehow went the distance with a four-hitter. We lost the third game 6–5 when Pat Dobson blew a 5–1 lead in the sixth. And I didn’t help matters by being terrible—I mean absolutely terrible—in the series finale, walking seven before exiting with no outs in the fourth. This is how bad I was: I allowed a leadoff single in the first inning, then walked three in a row. When I also walked the first two batters I faced in the fourth, including the pitcher, my day was done. We lost 5–4.
Making matters worse, we lost the last game of the trip 2–1 in Chicago when Luis Aparicio of the White Sox hit a two-out, walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth. This was the season’s speed bump for us. We’d gone on the trip with a seven-and-a half game lead over the Baltimore Orioles but came home with just a four-game edge. Not only that, we were suddenly losing close games
Were we worried? I don’t think so. But the Orioles were red hot. In their last 62 games, they’d gone 42–20 while we’d been 38–24. The Birds were steadily creeping closer. Getting home from Chicago, we were greeted by a Detroit Free Press headline saying “AL Lead Shrinks to 4.” Alarms were being sounded. Fans were getting nervous.
It was gut check time for us, to be sure, and we responded like the champions we were destined to be. In the next 10 games, we were 8–2 while the suddenly stumbling Orioles went 3–7. Two one-run losses in a row at home to the last place Washington Senators were setbacks for them, especially a blown three-run lead in the second game. Then they lost two of three to us in a series that was called their last gasp.
Just like that, we were up by nine games again. Instead of fretting, fans began to predict when we would clinch the pennant. That stretch of 10 games—after we’d been cold and the Orioles hot—was crucial. Denny McLain won three of them, lifting his record to 28–5. In two more starts, he would win his 30th.
Dobson won two consecutive games in relief in Oakland— the first on Bill Freehan’s home run in the 10th. The second was a four-run rally against the A’s in the ninth. We were again playing the caliber of baseball we had for most of the season, clawing until the final out. My biggest contribution during those 10 games was a three-hit 2–0 triumph over the California Angels, a game in which I struck out 12 and retired 20 in a row at one point. I lost my next start but then threw two consecutive shutouts as pennant fever embraced us all. “It happens every year,” I told reporters after the 2–0 win. “The weather cools down, and here comes my sinking fastball. It acts like a ‘dry spitter.’”
It was after this game that I began hearing questions about possibly getting a start in the World Series. “Yeah, I figure I might start Game 3 here,” I said.
We hadn’t clinched yet. But we were back on the right path—and would stay on it.
I also threw a two-hit, 6–0 shutout against the Angels in Anaheim on September 9. You know, I never threw a no-hitter in my career—or even a one-hitter. But this was one of my three career two-hitters. Two of them were for the Tigers, but to disprove the belief that I went a full year without doing anything right for the New York Mets in 1976, I pitched the last of my two-hitters for them.
The third of the three shutouts I threw during the pennant stretch was my best game of the season. Denny had won his 30th game the day before, so all the celebrities had left town. But my family was still visiting because it had been “Mickey Lolich Day” at Detroit’s Croatian Hall.
“There must have been 500 people on hand for it,” I said about the honor. “I didn’t get much sleep.”
So I was pretty tired when I took the mound on that Sunday against Oakland. However, after five innings, I already had nine strikeouts (en route to 12), so I did okay. There were two types of motivation at work for me in this game. We reduced our magic number to two by combining our 13–0 win with Baltimore’s 2–0 loss. And my parents had never seen me win a major league game. So with them in the stands, I wanted to be at my best. The reason I said it was my best pitched game—despite allowing one more hit (three) than in my previous start—was that I gave up fewer line-drive outs.
In any case the stage was now set for us to win the pennant. All but one hurdle—actually doing it—had been cleared. Everything was coming together at the right time. Our starters were throwing well, and the hitters were pounding the ball. In our 13–0 win against Oakland, we even used a pinch-hitter late in the game for Freehan, who had already hit two home runs. With 12 games left, we knew we were going to win the pennant; it was just a matter of when. The Yankees were coming to town on a 10-game winning streak. Plus they’d swept us four straight (all by one run) in New York.
They would not want to watch us celebrate. But they would have to.
With a 9–0 lead by the second inning of our first game against the Yankees, it became pretty clear that at some point during their stay in Detroit, we’d be throwing a party. We scored four runs on four hits, a walk, and a passed ball in the first inning. We followed that with five runs on three hits, two walks, a hit batter, and a wild pitch in the second. So much for the Yankees being spoilers.
While cobwebs continued to envelop our bullpen, Hiller went the distance in the 9–1 victory for our 10th consecutive complete game. He did a fine job for us with three consecutive wins in September, by the way. Or as Don McMahon, one of our relief pitchers, put it, “that boy Hiller has done a fantastic job.”
The Orioles also won their game that day, however, so all we did was clinch a tie. But that was fine with us. Time was entirely on our side. Earl Wilson was supposed to start the next night but had to be scratched because of a shoulder problem. Joe Sparma started for us instead.
“When they asked me if I wanted to pitch,” Sparma said, “I said, ‘You’re damn right I do.’”