Gates Brown’s pinch-hitting prowess was a key component in the success of the 1968 Detroit Tigers.
Surprisingly, “The Gator” almost wasn’t a Tiger in 1968. In the waning days of spring training, the battle for the last spot in the Tigers’ outfield came down to Brown, who’d been with the team since June 1963, and rookie Wayne Comer, who debuted as a September call-up in 1967. Veteran Lenny Green, a Detroit native who joined the Tigers in ’67 after Gates Brown’s wrist injury, was also in camp as a non-roster invitee and had an outside shot at making the team.
Brown was a left-handed hitter on a team that had plenty of lefty bats, and so it appeared as though the right-handed hitting Comer had the edge. Green was also a left-handed hitter, but Tigers manager Mayo Smith had started using him at first base to increase his value off the bench. Bob Hoerner of the Lansing State Journal wrote,
"“There’s a lot of talk about the Tigers trading Brown, but it seems no other team wants him. While all the swap talk is going on, Brown, although he’s far from happy about the trade situation, just keeps getting base hits.”"
With the Tigers unable to deal Brown away, it was also reported that he was in danger of being cut. In the end, Comer was optioned to Toledo, and the Tigers didn’t pick up Green’s contract. Years later, Brown recalled getting the good news – and his reaction. He said,
"“After spring training, they tell me that I just made the team (and) that it had come down to me or Lenny Green. Nothing against Lenny, but I thought they were crazy. I was an angry man. I was going to show ’em once and for all how wrong they were about me.”"
Brown got his first chance to avenge the perceived slight in the Tigers’ second game of the season on April 11. The Tigers hosted the defending American League champions, the Boston Red Sox. The game was tied 3-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Jon Warden, who had pitched two innings of scoreless relief for Detroit, was the scheduled leadoff hitter against Boston’s John Wyatt. Smith called on Brown to pinch-hit. The game had been tied since the bottom of the sixth, and Smith had already used left-handed pinch-hitters Eddie Mathews and Tom Matchick earlier in the game. With two on in the eighth, Wyatt struck Matchick out to end a Tigers threat.
If “The Gator” was frustrated that he wasn’t his manager’s first choice in a key situation earlier, he took it out on Wyatt. After watching a curve ball bounce in front of the plate, Brown unleashed a game-winning swing on a fastball. Will McDonough of The Boston Globe wrote,
"“The ball left the park in an instant, traveling into the upper deck (in right field) before Brown could get halfway to first base.”"
It was the second walk-off home run of Brown’s career. He said he didn’t feel any pressure in that situation and quipped that he’d been under pressure all his life. Knowing how close he’d come to being a former big leaguer, he added,
"“I needed it. I need all I can get.”"
For the Tigers, it was their first win of the season and the beginning of a nine-game winning streak. Wyatt, who would join the Tigers later in the season, said,
"“I thought I threw it in a good spot – down below where you should throw to a man like that…He must have been guessing on me. He went right down after the ball and picked it up.”"
For Warden, it was a memorable day. The Tigers’ pitcher was making his big league debut. He probably thought things couldn’t get much better after he struck out future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, a Triple Crown winner in 1967, to end the top of the ninth. Brown’s homer made it even more special, as Warden was credited with the win. The two teammates remained friends until Brown’s death in 2013. Warden recalled how often “The Gator” came through in key situations. He said,
"“He was by far the best pinch-hitter I ever saw. He was a miracle worker.”"
Brown struck again on May 19 at home against the Washington Senators in the first game of a doubleheader. The game was tied 4-4 in the eighth. With runners on first and second, two outs, and pitcher Fred Lasher due up, Brown grabbed a bat to pinch-hit. He laced a single to left and drove in the decisive run in a 5-4 Tigers win. It was his fifth hit in 10 pinch-hit appearances. While talking with a reporter after the game, “The Gator” shrugged off his early season success and said that he thought he had a better season in 1966, when he had 13 pinch-hits.
As the first place Tigers started to take control of the American League, Brown was starting to realize that he was having a pretty solid season, albeit in his usual limited role. By June 11, Brown was hitting .526/.591/.895 in 22 plate appearances. He said,
"“I don’t know what it is. I was doing everything wrong last year, but everything seems to be going right this year. I’m just lucky I guess.”"
In the “Year of the Pitcher”, a little luck at the plate certainly didn’t hurt. At that point of the season, Willie Horton was the only Tigers’ regular who was hitting relatively well. He led the team at .289, while fellow outfielders Jim Northrup, Al Kaline, and Mickey Stanley were hitting .258, .257, and .250, respectively. It was appropriate that the Tigers’ top two hitters were roommates on the road, Brown explained,
"“We don’t just look at each other. Willie and I discuss baseball, with the main subject of hitting the ball.”"
Brown continued his hitting ways in July, with four hits in seven pinch-hit at-bats coming out of the All-Star break. The biggest of those came on July 23 in Washington. The Tigers had tied the Senators 4-4 in the top of the eighth on walks to Kaline and Bill Freehan, followed by Jim Price’s RBI single. With two on and two outs, Brown pinch-hit for starting pitcher Denny McLain. Brown’s single to right drove Freehan in with the go-ahead run. It was a close play, though, as the ball popped out of Senators catcher Paul Casanova’s mitt when Freehan collided with him. The Tigers added an insurance run later to take a 6-4 win.
Manager Smith offered some fine praise for “The Gator”. He said,
"“Brown has three things going for him. Brown believes he can hit, Brown knows he can hit, and Brown does hit.”"
The Tigers maintained their grip on first place as the season rolled into August. On August 9, the Red Sox returned to Tiger Stadium. They got reacquainted with Brown when he smacked a pinch-hit solo home run in the eighth inning off righty Lee Stange. That cut a Boston lead to 5-3, but the Tigers weren’t able to rally beyond that.
Brown almost got another chance to do some more damage against Stange the next day. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Red Sox up 3-2, Stange walked Dick Tracewski to lead off the inning. Brown was introduced as a pinch-hitter for Fred Lasher. “The Gator” represented the possible go-ahead run. With Brown’s homer the day before still top-of-mind, Boston manager Dick Williams quickly went to his bullpen. He brought in a lefty, Sparky Lyle, which prompted Mayo to send up the right-handed hitting Kaline instead. That kind of maneuvering stood out. Teammates noticed. As pitcher Earl Wilson described,
"“No one will ever know how many games he affected because the other managers knew he was in the dugout and would arrange their strategy to keep him off the field.”"
If the Red Sox thought they’d dodged a bullet by avoiding Brown, that sense of relief wouldn’t last much longer. A crowd of over 49,000 packed Tiger Stadium for a Sunday afternoon doubleheader on August 11. The first game got off to a rough start for the Tigers when the Red Sox scored four runs off Wilson in the first inning, thanks to a pair of two-run homers. He was pulled after six batters. Relievers Joe Sparma, Jon Warden, Don McMahon, and Lasher kept Boston off the board while Detroit chipped away at their visitors’ lead, one run at a time. Don Wert’s RBI triple in the eighth tied the game 4-4.
The game went into extra innings and became a battle of the bullpens. Mickey Lolich and Lyle matched each other with scoreless frames in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. Lolich also threw a scoreless thirteenth, but had to escape a bases loaded jam. While the lefty Lyle toiled away, Brown wasn’t going to get a chance to pinch-hit. The Red Sox finally made a pitching change and sent Stange out for the bottom of the thirteenth. However, with Kaline, Horton, and Freehan due up, Brown had to bide his time. Those three went out 1-2-3, and the game continued on.
Lolich pitched a clean inning in the fourteenth. Wert led off the bottom half for the Tigers by lining out to left, and Tracewski fouled out to the third baseman. That brought up Lolich’s spot in the lineup. With Stange still on the mound, it was finally time for “The Gator”. He’d been getting antsy. He said,
"“I knew in that first game that I was going to get called on sooner or later to pinch-hit, and I must have walked 50 miles from the bench to the dressing room back and forth to ease the strain. I was scared all day, and that is unusual for me…I knew there were a lot of fans out there, and I did not want to let them down.”"
Two days earlier, Brown had homered off Stange. One day earlier, Stange had been pulled when Brown came up to pinch-hit in a key late inning situation. Now, with the game on the line in the fourteenth inning, Stange stayed in, even though the Red Sox still had a lefty, Bill Landis, available in their bullpen. Knowing he was facing a pitcher that he could take deep, Brown said that he was looking for a pitch that he could hit out. After two pitches, he got it. He said he saw a fastball that was fading away. Brown connected and lined the ball into lower deck in right. For the second time in 1968, “The Gator” had launched a pinch-hit walk-off homer against the Red Sox. He admitted,
"“I did not hit that home run ball very good. I was a little surprised that it carried into the stands.”"
There was almost some controversy, however. As Brown made his way toward home plate, where the rest of the excited Tigers were waiting to mob him, it looked to some in the press box that he had not touched the plate. Brown claimed that he did touch it with his toe, but apparently it was close enough that home plate umpire Marty Springstead later cautioned Brown about it, just for future reference.
The homer was Brown’s 16th hit in 27 pinch-hit at-bats. That gaudy (in a good way) average of .593 prompted George Cantor of the Detroit Free Press to write that Brown “has raised pinch-hitting to an art form”. There wasn’t much time to savor the victory, though, as there was still a second game to be played. Brown got the start in left field and hit cleanup.
The Red Sox broke a scoreless tie in the nightcap on a two-run homer from Reggie Smith in the seventh. The Tigers tied it in the eighth on a Norm Cash single that scored Mickey Stanley and Brown, who had walked. Boston beat up on Tiger relievers John Wyatt and Jon Warden in the top of the ninth and took a 5-2 lead. Cantor wrote,
"“…The big crowd, already weary from the marathon opener, started leaving the stadium. Those who stayed saw an inning they’ll tell their grandchildren about…”"
Jim Price led off with a walk. Then, with one out, consecutive singles by Freehan, Dick McAuliffe, Stanley, and Kaline tied the game 5-5. All of that happened against three Red Sox relievers. Perhaps feeling desperate, Williams called for Lyle, his trusty lefty, who had thrown 5.2 innings in the first game. The first hitter that was due up against him was Brown. A day earlier, Mayo had sent in a pinch-hitter for Brown when Lyle entered the game. Brown remembered. He said,
"“I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was coming out, and I sure was happy when nobody appeared.”"
With runners at the corners, the Red Sox infielders played in, ready for a possible play at the plate. While the fans still in the park may have been hoping that “The Gator” would go deep again, Brown said that he was “just looking for a piece of the ball this time” and added,
"“I like hitting in situations like that. With the infield drawn in, and less than two out, the pressure is on the pitcher. He’s got to get the ball over.”"
Brown looked at ball one. He made contact with the second pitch and dribbled it down the first base line, just underneath the glove of first baseman George Scott and into right field. Stanley scored the winning run, and for the second time that day, the Tigers’ players and fans celebrated a walk-off hit by “The Gator”. Each one was different, but equally effective.
After nearly seven hours of baseball, it’s doubtful that anyone left the ballpark thinking about how the day began with Earl Wilson getting rocked. Years later, Wilson talked about how much he appreciated Brown’s contributions that season. He said,
"“The way Gates Brown used to pinch-hit was unbelievable. You knew if it got down to winning the ballgame, a man on second or third, Gates was gonna get a base hit. It just seemed like it was automatic. You didn’t see too many times when he failed. Obviously, he must have failed sometimes, but I can’t remember ’em…He was probably as instrumental in us winning that thing as anybody on the ball club.”"
With a big series win over the defending AL champs, Detroiters started feeling like something special was brewing at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. The front page of the next day’s Free Press featured a picture of Brown being congratulated by Lolich and Horton after his walk-off home run. The headline of the article underneath the photo read “Tigers Fans Are Getting That World Series Fever”. The first place Tigers led the Orioles by seven games. The Red Sox were in third, trailing by 12 games. Although the players believed, as far back as spring training, that they were good enough to be a World Series team, Gates played it cool for the press. He said,
"“Oh, no, we haven’t got the pennant tucked away or anything like that. But did you ever see such a come-from-behind team as this one is?”"
Thanks to “The Gator”, the Tigers picked up their 11th and 12th walk-off wins of the season in the doubleheader sweep. By that point, they’d also snatched five road wins by coming from behind in the top of the ninth. They weren’t able to work any of that comeback magic in a five game series in New York in late August, however. The Yankees beat the Tigers by a run in four of the five. One of the games, a doubleheader nightcap, ended in a 3-3 tie at 1:00 am after 19 innings due to an American League curfew. For Brown, the highlight of that series was a pinch-hit double on August 25. It was his 17th pinch-hit of the season, which tied a Tigers record set by Vic Wertz in 1962.
Brown actually went into a brief slump after that, going hitless in his next seven pinch-hit plate appearances, although he did walk twice. That didn’t stop one of the country’s top baseball columnists, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times (who would be awarded the J. G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987), from acknowledging what Brown had been doing throughout the season. Murray penned an effusive column about “The Gator” that was picked up by newspapers throughout the country. He wrote,
"“Every time Gates Brown comes to bat, the game is up for grabs. So is the pennant. The other pitcher is coming in with his ‘A-pitch’. The outfield is up on their toes…Getting a hit is like escaping Alcatraz. Every precaution has been taken against it. He is crawling through barbed wire under ammunition. He’s not up there to move up the runner…He hits the ‘A-pitch’ farther than some guys hit the batting practice pitches. He strikes out so seldom that pitchers are convinced he could get wood on a cultured pearl, or a machine gun bullet.”"
The AL pennant was indeed up for grabs on September 17. The Yankees were in town, and the Tigers’ magic number was down to one. All they needed was a win or an Orioles loss to advance to the World Series in the final year before the playoff system was instituted. The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth. Yankees reliever Steve Hamilton retired the first two batters that he faced, and then the Tigers began to claw back. Kaline walked. Freehan singled. As Jim Price strode to the plate, as a pinch-hitter for light-hitting shortstop Ray Oyler, the Yanks went to the bullpen. Right-hander Lindy McDaniel took over for the lefty Hamilton.
Mayo Smith must’ve chuckled to himself, as the Yankees apparently forgot that the Tigers’ skipper had an ace in the hole, an ace named Gates Brown. Brown was announced as a pinch-hitter for Price, and the crowd of over 46,000 at Tiger Stadium erupted in applause. Four pitches later, Brown walked to load the bases. That kept the inning going for Wert, who singled Kaline in with the winning run. The come-from-behind Tigers had done it once again.
As the jubilant Tigers celebrated their newly won American League championship in the clubhouse, George Kell handled the post-game interviews for the television audience. He introduced “The Gator” as “the greatest pinch-hitter in the world” and asked Brown about his at-bat. Brown said McDaniel didn’t give him too much to hit and confirmed that he had the hit sign on for the 3-0 pitch. Brown also had an amusing quote for another of the reporters on the scene. He said,
"“Man, I sure would like to see the lineup for the next game. There’s going to be a lot of headaches in it.”"
Luckily for everyone in the Tigers organization, the next day’s game was rained out. With the World Series looming, there was really one loose end to tie up. Brown was still tied with Vic Wertz for the franchise record for pinch-hits in a season. That last domino fell on September 21 in Washington. Batting in place in Lolich in the eighth inning, “The Gator” ripped a double into right field to claim the record as his own. No other Tigers pinch-hitter has topped it yet. Although it didn’t affect the outcome of the game like so many of his other hits throughout the season did, Brown’s 18th pinch-hit of 1968 was a nice footnote in the Tigers’ 100th win of the season.
As a pinch-hitter that year, Brown hit .450/.542/.850 (18 for 40) with eight walks, three home runs, five doubles, one triple, and seven RBI. He only struck out once as a pinch-hitter. He led the majors in pinch-hits and tied the Mets’ Ed Charles for the major league lead in pinch-hit home runs. Overall, he hit .370/.442/.685 with a 234 OPS+ (all career highs).
“The Gator”, whose spot on the team was in jeopardy before the season had proven to the Tigers how wrong they’d been about him. Appreciation for his achievements ran deep. The Standard City Club, a civic organization, presented Brown with a new Chevrolet before a game in late September. He was moved to tears. Brown said,
"“Really, with all the stars on this team, a 31-game winner (Denny McLain), Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, and they chose me. It’s a real compliment”"
Brown only came to bat once in the World Series. In Game 1, he pinch-hit for pitcher Pat Dobson in the eighth against St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson. Gibson turned in a dominating performance, striking out 17 Tigers. Brown wasn’t one of the strikeout victims, though. He recalled the encounter years later and said,
"“He had a beautiful cracklin’ slider, and his fastball was movin’. I got three pitches from him. The first two were balls. Then he threw me a hard, tight – I believe it was a fastball. I swung at it, and I flied to left.”"
The Tigers went on to beat the Cardinals in seven games. The offseason also proved to be exciting for Brown. He had lunch at the White House. He met Bob Hope and Ed Sullivan, a pair of that era’s notable television personalities. Those were things that Brown couldn’t have imagined nearly a decade earlier when the Tigers signed him out of prison. As he reflected on the whirlwind the following spring, he shared what it meant to him on a deeper level. He explained,
"“It always gives me goose bumps. I sit there and remember so much that I shiver a little. But more than anything else, I think of what it meant to my mother and father. I can never make up for the all the grief I have given them in my life…You know, you can do bad things in the big city and nobody ever knows about them. But do something wrong in a small town and everybody knows. That’s what my mother and father had to live with, and that’s why I was so happy. I could finally give them something else to talk about.”"
The 1968 Detroit Tigers enjoyed a special season that will never be forgotten. It may have been more special to Gates Brown than anyone else.