From Cobb to Cabrera, the history of the Detroit Tigers is rich with memorable players who were part of memorable moments, but perhaps none will ever be revered as Al Kaline. “Mr. Tiger” holds a special place in Tigers history, one that was sealed when he helped lead the Tigers to victory in the 1968 World Series.
The 1968 Tigers’ magic number on September 17 was one. An eager crowd of over 46,000 packed Tiger Stadium on a Tuesday night, ready to witness history. In the last season before the playoff system was implemented, all that was needed to advance to the World Series was either a Tigers win or a Baltimore Orioles loss. The Tigers hosted the New York Yankees, while it would be up the Boston Red Sox to handle the O’s.
The Tigers and Yankees were tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. With two out, manager Mayo Smith sent Kaline into pinch hit for Norm Cash. Kaline walked, and that would be the impetus for another of the come-from-behind rallies that the ’68 Tigers were famous for. A single from Bill Freehan and a walk to Gates Brown loaded the bases for Don Wert. For fans listening to the radio, the voice of the Tigers, Ernie Harwell, described what happened next.
"“It’s a line shot. Base hit, right field. The Tigers win it! Here comes Kaline to score and it’s all over! Don Wert singles. The Tigers mob Don. Kaline has scored. The fans are streaming on the field, and the Tigers have won their first pennant since nineteen hundred and forty-five. Let’s listen to the bedlam here at Tiger Stadium!”"
(Actually, the pennant had already been won before Wert’s single. Unbeknownst to all but a few people in the ballpark, the Orioles lost. The result wasn’t posted on the scoreboard, however, as stadium officials were rightfully afraid of a celebratory mob storming the field. They didn’t want to risk a forfeit. Knowing that fans liked to bring transistor radios to the ballpark, Harwell and partner Ray Lane also kept the final score to themselves. None of that takes away from the majesty of Harwell’s call, of course.)
It was perfect that Kaline had scored the winning run. A dependable veteran known as “The Line” to his teammates, he was a player that everyone looked up to and respected. The 33-year old had come a long way since joining the Tigers out of high school in the summer of 1953. In early 1968, he played in his 2000th career game. On May 19, in the second game of a doubleheader, he hit the 307th home run of his career, which broke Hank Greenberg’s franchise record.
Aside from those moments,1968 had been a tough season for Kaline. He missed over a month of action after suffering a six-inch hairline fracture on his right forearm when he was hit by a pitch on May 25. Hindered by a miserable April at the plate, he was only hitting .257/.369/.382 at the time.
In Kaline’s absence, the first place Tigers opened up their lead in the AL and thrived with a younger outfield of Willie Horton in left, Mickey Stanley in center, and Jim Northrup in right. When he returned, Kaline began sharing time at first base with Norm Cash before Smith started working him into an outfield rotation. (He ended up missing more time in late August and early September due to a pulled groin muscle.)
Little by little, Kaline’s bat had started to come around as the season progressed. He finished at .287/.392/.428, but there was uncertainty about how Smith would be able to fit him into the Tigers’ World Series lineup against the St. Louis Cardinals. Kaline tried to preemptively answer that question. With what Detroit Free Press Sports Editor Joe Falls described as “hurt in his eyes” and “wounded pride in his voice”, Kaline stated,
"“I don’t deserve to play in the World Series. It’s killing me, but I know what Mayo is up against. I’ve waited all my life to get into a World Series, but he’s got to go with the kids. They deserve the chance to play – they’re the ones who have been winning the pennant. I don’t see how Mayo can put them on the bench.”"
Initially, Smith thought about trying Kaline out at third base and moving Wert from “the hot corner” to shortstop in the regular season’s last 10 games. Kaline wasn’t sure how well he’d do there, but said he was willing to give it a shot. Those plans never materialized, though, once Smith had time to imagine what it would be like to have Cardinals speedsters Lou Brock and Curt Flood taking advantage of Kaline’s inexperience at third with bunt after bunt after bunt.
Instead, in what would become the most famous decision of his managerial career, Smith moved Stanley from center to short and slid Northrup from right to center. (Northrup had begun the season in center while Stanley shared time at first base with Cash, and then he became the Tigers’ regular right fielder after Kaline got hurt in May.) As Stanley got acquainted with his new position in the last few games of the season, Kaline expressed his gratitude. He said,
"“I can thank Mickey for my chance to play at least one game…I can appreciate the tough spot that Mickey is in. It’s a tough place to play. Mickey could have backed out of the whole thing…It really showed me something the way he went all out to do the job.”"
The Free Press scored a ‘good get’ when Kaline agreed to write about the World Series for the newspaper, even as he played in it. Before the excitement got underway, he reflected about what it meant to finally reach the Series for the first time. Kaline wrote,
"“Nobody has to tell me what it’s like to play for a loser…Even when I’d have a good season and we’d finish far down in the standings, I’d feel good about playing well, but then I didn’t feel good. It was a strange feeling…I’ll be truthful. I never thought we had the kind of team to win any pennants around here. I mean not until these last two years….That’s why this pennant has meant so much to me. I would have hated to have gone through my entire career and not play on one winner…Of course it hurt me not to play more than I did. But I’ll tell you this is something I wouldn’t have missed for my life. If I would’ve had to sit on a bad team, well, that would’ve killed me. Now I’m glad to do whatever I can to help us keep winning.”"
The 1968 World Series began in St. Louis on October 2. Kaline liked Busch Stadium, having played in an All-Star Game there two years prior. He gave Free Press readers his review of the ballpark in his column. The field (which hadn’t yet been converted from grass to AstroTurf) was in good condition, and he explained why that would be important. He wrote,
"“You’ve got to charge ground balls hit to the outfield here because St. Louis is a running team, and they’ll take the extra base on you. If the field was in bad condition, you’d be worrying about the ball taking a bad hop and getting past you.The infield is very hard here – almost liked baked clay – and the ball goes through in a hurry. I like that because I hit a lot of ground balls.”"
The Tigers would be facing Cardinals ace Bob Gibson, an imposing and hard-throwing right hander who dominated the National League all season long. In “The Year of the Pitcher”, the 22-game winner led the NL with a 1.12 ERA, 13 shutouts, and 268 strikeouts. Through the advanced metrics that were created many years later, it was discovered that he also led the league in ERA+ (258), FIP (1.77), and WHIP (0.853).
Batting third in the Tigers’ lineup, Kaline struck out swinging at a Gibson curveball to end the first inning. In his second at-bat in the fourth, NBC announcer Curt Gowdy gave the national television audience a nice introduction to the kind of player that many viewers may have watched for the first time. He said,
"“Kaline’s been a player like Willie Mays. He can beat you so many different ways; with the glove, the bat, throwing, running. Very sound.”"
Kaline worked the count full, dropping to the ground as ball three soared wildly over his head. He looked like was about to swing at Gibson’s next pitch, but hesitated, thinking it would be ball four. Instead, it caught just enough of the outside corner to be a called third strike.
The Tigers hadn’t been able to get anything going against Gibson, but they came close in the sixth. With two out and Dick McAuliffe on first, Kaline didn’t hesitate when he saw Gibson’s first pitch come in. He ripped it down the left field line and cruised into second with a double. McAuliffe advanced to third. Both runners would be stranded when Cash struck out to end the threat.
Kaline’s double was the only extra base hit that Gibson gave up all day. He’d get one more at-bat in the ninth, but struck out for the third time. All in all, Gibson struck out 17 Tigers to set a World Series record that still stands. The Cardinals won Game 1 with a 4-0 shutout.
Afterward, Kaline shared his thoughts with Free Press readers on what it was like to face the mighty Gibson in such a one-sided affair. He wrote,
"“It was just too much Gibson. We weren’t surprised that he threw as hard as he did, but we were surprised that his slider was so good. I think he’s one of the greatest pitchers I’ve ever faced. I feel good that I was able to get a hit off him…The first three times up, he threw me all breaking stuff. I hit a slider, low and away, for the double. I think he took a little something off the pitch. The last time up, he threw all fastballs…I hate to say this, but if he pitches in Detroit, he can be a lot tougher, if that’s possible. We have shadows across the field from the light stands, and it would be even tougher to pick up the ball.”"
In Game 2, the Tigers would face the much less heralded Nelson Briles, who was able to retire the Tigers 1-2-3 in the first. Kaline’s groundout to short ended the inning.
Kaline showed off his defensive chops in the bottom of the first. With two on and one out, Orlando Cepeda sent a flyball deep to the right field corner. Kaline, playing in right center, hustled to track it down in foul territory and impressed both NBC announcers, Gowdy and Harry Caray, with the catch. Caray exclaimed,
"“Fine play by Kaline! He held that ball, made a one-handed stab, and then braced himself with his bare hand as he hit the wall.”"
Gowdy concurred with his partner. He commented,
"“He’s one of the best at going into that right field corner. Time after time, I’ve seen him crash into the stands…Going into that corner on slice drives, there’s been few better in the American League than Al Kaline defensively.”"
The Tigers took a 5-1 lead into the seventh. Kaline led off the inning with a sharply hit single to center off Steve Carlton. It was his first (and the Tigers’ 10th) hit of the day. He advanced to third on Cash’s single up the middle. Appropriately, No. 6 scored the Tigers’ sixth run of the day two batters later when the Cardinals traded a run for a double play on Northrup’s grounder to short.
Neither Kaline nor his teammates were done. As he led off the ninth, Gowdy ran through a list of notable players, including some Hall of Famers, who didn’t get to play in a World Series. Kaline was clearly ready to make the most of his first opportunity to play in one. He singled into left off Joe Hoerner, the Cardinals’ fourth pitcher of the day, and later scored again. The Tigers won 8-1.
It was a fun game for the Tigers, who certainly got a kick out of seeing pitcher Mickey Lolich homer in the third inning. Maybe nobody enjoyed that more than Kaline, who led off his Free Press column by joking,
"“How about that Mickey Lolich? I told him I’m not going to let him use my bats anymore. He’s taking all the hits out of them.Mickey used one of my bats (in Game 2) and you know what happened. He hit his first pro home run and then singled later in the game and went 2 for 4. He liked the bat so much that he took it home with him, and I guess I won’t see that one again.”"
Kaline also commented on the catch that he made against Cepeda in the second inning and described what happened from his perspective. He wrote,
"“Since Orlando is a right-handed hitter, I was playing over toward center, so I had a long way to go. Fortunately, he hit it high and the wind held it up. I could see it was going to drop straight down, but I didn’t know if I could get there in time.I knew it would be close to the wall, but the wall was padded, so I wasn’t worried – then it opened right up. There’s a gate there – there’s some maintenance stuff in there – and the thing opened. That surprised me.”"
With one win apiece, the World Series was headed to Detroit for the first time since Game 3 of the 1945 World Series. It was an excellent day for another Game 3. Kaline thought that the field was in perfect condition, and he said he’d never seen it look any better. He added that the weather was as good as one could expect for early October in Detroit.
Kaline, in his first postseason at-bat at Tiger Stadium, flew out to left to end the first. The game remained scorless into the third. With two out and McAuliffe on second, Kaline broke the deadlock. He drove a 2-2 pitch from Ray Washburn into the upper deck in left field. His first World Series home run gave the the Tigers a 2-0 lead.
By the time Kaline came up again to lead off the sixth, the score had become 4-3 in favor of the Cardinals. He grounded to short. The Cards increased their lead to 7-3 in the seventh. In the bottom of the seventh, the Tigers tried to rally. With two on and two out, though, Kaline’s grounder to short forced Stanley at second. Kaline wouldn’t get another at-bat, and the 7-3 score held up as the final.
The highlight of the day was Kaline’s home run, which he wrote about in his Free Press column.
"“I hit a hanging curveball for my home run in the third. I knew it was gone when I hit it – I hit it real good.I really appreciated that standing ovation from the fans in right and center. I’ve never had an ovation like that in my 16 years in Detroit. It made me feel great.”"
It was a miserable rainy day in Detroit for Game 4. Things got off to a rough start for the Tigers when Lou Brock led off the game with a home run off Denny McLain. An error and two singles led to another run. With Bob Gibson back on the mound for the Cardinals, those were really the only runs they needed.
Kaline was ready for another shot at Gibson, though. In the first inning, Kaline took a healthy swing at a fastball, but missed. He fouled the next two pitches back. After a curve that was low and outside, Kaline stayed alive by fouling off another pitch.
Then he connected and sent the ball soaring to right center. The speedy Curt Flood, who was playing in left center, raced for the ball, but it bounced off the tip of his glove. Kaline had his second double of the Series against Gibson. NBC’s Gowdy said that if Flood had made the catch, it “would’ve been the catch of the Series”. Kaline would be stranded on second, though.
The Cardinals added two more runs in the top of the third, and Kaline again tried to get something going in the bottom of the inning. He singled, but went no further. With the Cards up 6-1 in the sixth, he lined to short to lead off the inning. The Cardinals erupted for four more runs in the eighth. Kaline’s groundout ended the bottom half of the inning, as Gibson easily set the Tigers down 1-2-3. After another 1-2-3 in the ninth, Gibson had his second win against the Tigers.
With the 10-1 victory, the Cards took a 3-1 lead in the Series. Only twice before in World Series history had a team come back from that deficit to win a Series.
Lolich was back on the mound for Game 5, which got off to another dubious start as the Cardinals pounced for three first inning runs. The Tigers got two back in the fourth. Kaline’s single in the sixth was the beginning of what became a bases loaded threat, but he would be stranded on third.
The Tigers got another threat going in the seventh. Back-to-back singles by Lolich (who was again using one of Kaline’s bats) and McAuliffe, followed by a walk to Stanley, loaded the bases for Kaline. In the NBC broadcast booth, there was excitement in George Kell’s voice as he noted that the fans were coming alive as his future broadcast partner, “the old pro” Kaline, strode to the plate.
After a swing and a miss at a Joe Hoerner fastball, Kaline struck. He hit a single into right center off the end of his bat. Lolich and McAuliffe scored. The Tigers had a 4-3 lead. It would prove to be an important turning point for the Tigers. Both Kell and Gowdy agreed that the hit may have been the biggest of Kaline’s career. Cash singled Stanley in, and the Tigers went on to win 5-3.
"“Al Kaline justified all of the position shuffling once and for all as sent home the two decisive runs with a bases loaded single in one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the park.The light towers swayed as the crowd of 53,634 roared their tribute to the longtime hero, enjoying his greatest moments in the Series for which he waited so long.”"
Kaline again used his Free Press column to describe the moment from his perspective and share his thoughts about what it all meant to him. He wrote,
"“That wasn’t one of my hardest hits, but it was one of the sweetest ones. I was just tryng to get a base hit – hit it up the middle or hit a fly to center, just to get the run in from third to tie the game. I felt if we tied it, we’d win it.Joe Hoerner has been pitching me fastballs away all the time, and I was looking for it. I didn’t try to pull it, because I might hit into a double play. I wasn’t excited or nervous then. I enjoy hitting with men on base.It’s difficult to say how much winning that game meant and the ovation the fans gave me when I went back to right field. They’ve been so good to me and to us that we just couldn’t lose all three games in our park…It was a thrill to hit the home run (in Game 3), but the lead didn’t hold up, and we didn’t win, so it lost its satisfaction. I got more of a thrill out of this single because we won the game.”"
With renewed vigor, the Tigers took the World Series back to St. Louis. The Tigers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 6 against starter Ray Washburn in the second. One inning later, the game changed dramatically. McAuliffe led off the third with a single, and Stanley walked. As Kaline came up for his second at-bat of the game, NBC’s Caray offered a bit of foreshadowing. He said,
"“This is a situation in which they could certainly build up a comfortable cushion. They have their big hitters coming up with runners on base. The Cardinals’ bullpen is visibly engaged.”"
Kaline took the first pitch, which was high. As Caray reminded viewers that Washburn had given up a homer to Kaline earlier in the Series, the Tigers’ veteran again got the better of the Cardinals’ righty by singling to center. McAuliffe scored, and Stanley took third. That was the end of the day for Washburn.
Cash greeted reliever Larry Jaster with a single on the lefty’s first pitch. Stanley scored, and Kaline took third. Horton walked to load the bases for Northrup, who hit four grand slams in the regular season. He promptly added a World Series grand slam. The Tigers led 8-0. They had just scored six runs in the inning, there weren’t any outs, and the Tigers weren’t done building that comfortable cushion that Caray had mentioned.
The Cardinals attempted to start over with a new pitcher, and Ron Willis replaced Jaster. As the third inning continued, Kaline found himself up again, this time with two on and two out. He shot Willis’ first pitch into left field for a single that scored both runners, Wert and McAuliffe. For the second time in an inning, Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst pulled a pitcher who’d just given up a hit to Kaline.
Dick Hughes would become the Tigers’ fourth victim in the inning. The hit parade continued as Cash drove Stanley in with a single that sent Kaline to third. Kaline scored his second run of the inning on a Horton single.
When the smoke cleared, the Tigers had put a 10-spot up on the board. They tied two World Series records that had been set by the 1929 Philadelphia A’s, most runs in an inning (10) and most batters in an inning (15).
No. 6 added an exclamation point to Game 6 with a solo home run off Steve Carlton in the fifth. Kaline reached base one more time after being hit on the left elbow by the first pitch he saw in the eighth. In the field, Kaline was the busiest that he’d been in the Series, racking up seven putouts. The final score was a mammoth 13-1.
The Tigers had bounced back to force Game 7. In the Free Press, Kaline wrote,
"“I’m proud of the way we’ve come back, showing everyone that we do have a good team and we’re representing a good league. I just can’t put my finger on how the comeback came about. We’ve just been doing it all year.”"
In Game 7, the Cardinals finally managed to keep Al Kaline hitless and off the bases for the first time in the Series. It didn’t matter. Mickey Lolich outdueled Bob Gibson, and the Tigers won 4-1.
The Tigers were World Champions. From the point in Game 5 when they took the lead on Kaline’s 2-run seventh inning single, they never trailed in a game again. Although Lolich certainly earned his World Series MVP award, Kaline could be considered as a credible runner-up. He hit .379/.400/.655, and led the Tigers in hits (11), doubles (2), slugging percentage (.655), and OPS (1.055). He tied for the team lead in runs (6), home runs (2), and RBI (8).
Kaline looked back at the experience in his Free Press column. He wrote,
"“At the start of the Series, I remembered what Tony Kubek said about playing in the World Series, that you’ll never be as nervous in your life as you are the first game, until the seventh game – and then it’s worse. The worse for me, and I think all of us, was the first game. After that, we settled down. I wasn’t nervous today.There wasn’t the wild celebration in the clubhouse that we had after winning the pennant, but inside I was as happy and excited…It’s been my greatest year in baseball. I’ll never forget it.”"
As memories are shared and stories are passed down from one generation to the next, like classic folklore, no Tigers fan who appreciates the history of those who wore the Olde English D will ever forget Al Kaline or the 1968 Detroit Tigers.