Today is Friday, August 13. It’s a date that has special significance for Motor City Bengals’ resident historian, who was born on a Friday the 13th in August once upon a time. In celebration, here are four occasions in his lifetime that this box on the calendar proved to be unlucky for Detroit Tigers opponents.
Apologies to any superstitious readers who have triskaidekaphobia.
Friday, August 13, 1976
Vern Ruhle rooted for Al Kaline and the Detroit Tigers when he was growing up in Coleman, Michigan. He made his big league debut in September 1974, just in time to be the soon-to-be retired Kaline’s teammate. In 1976, Ruhle was in his second full season as a Tigers pitcher. The right-hander drew the starting assignment in this road game against the Kansas City Royals. He had been hittable but able to limit damage. Coming into this evening, opponents were hitting .285 against Ruhle in 23 starts, but his ERA was a respectable 3.76. A lack of run support factored into his 6-9 record. In seven of those losses, the Tigers scored two runs or less for him.
Ruhle was strong through the first five innings. He gave up only a second-inning single and a third-inning walk. One of those baserunners was wiped out on a failed steal attempt. Meanwhile, Royals right-handed starter Al Fitzmorris also handled the Tigers pretty easily. Willie Horton reached on an error by Kansas City shortstop Freddie Patek to lead off the second. Rookie Jason Thompson walked to lead off the fifth, then stole second base. It was the first steal of his career. That had been it for the Detroit offense.
The tide turned for the Tigers in the top of the sixth. Chuck Scrivener, Detroit’s ninth-place hitter, walked to lead off the inning. Ron LeFlore’s single, the Tigers’ first hit, sent Scrivener to third. Ben Oglivie put the Bengals on the board when he drove his teammate in with a sacrifice fly to center. Fitzmorris got out of the inning with a couple infield groundouts, and the Tigers settled for a 1-0 lead. Patek singled off Ruhle to begin the bottom of the sixth, then stole his 43rd base of the season. Frank White singled, which sent Patek to third. Then White stole second. Future Tiger Al Cowens grounded out to shortstop Tom Veryzer, but that drove in the tying run.
One of the game’s key plays happened next. Amos Otis broke his bat delivering a single into right that Rusty Staub fielded. White, who was on third, went halfway home on contact. He was called back by his third-base coach, who thought Staub was going to make the catch. When the ball dropped in, White took off for home again. Staub, who was in his first year with the Tigers, wasn’t known for his defense. In fact, this was the only season he played in the outfield for team. He spent the remainder of his time in Detroit strictly as a designated hitter. In this instance, though, Rusty rose to the occasion. He fired a laser to catcher Johnny Wockenfuss, and White was tagged out.
The inning continued for future Hall of Famer George Brett. While he was at the plate, Otis became the third Royal in the inning to steal second base. Ruhle got Brett to pop out to third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez in foul territory to end the Kansas City threat. Detroit struck again in the top of the seventh. With two outs, Veryzer doubled. Wockenfuss atoned for his role in letting the Royals run wild on the bases in the sixth. He knocked a double into left field and Veryzer scored the Tigers’ tie-breaking run. After the seventh-inning stretch, Ruhle set the Royals down 1-2-3.
LeFlore led off the eighth with a single. That prompted a pitching change. Royals manager Whitey Herzog, a former Tigers player, called on lefty Steve Mingori to face the left-handed hitting Oglivie. Tigers manager Ralph Houk decided not to burn a pinch-hitter, and Oglivie laid down a sacrifice bunt to send LeFlore to second. Staub’s single drove in LeFlore in with a valuable insurance run. The two biggest bats in the Detroit lineup had come through nicely. Staub topped the 1976 Tigers with 176 hits, and LeFlore was right behind him with 172. Rusty led the team with 96 RBI, and Ronnie led the way with 92 runs scored.
Ruhle got through a scoreless eighth to keep Detroit’s 3-1 lead intact, although he gave up a couple singles. The third out in the inning was the second key play of the game for the Tigers. Oglivie made a superb diving grab in left-center to rob Otis of a hit and keep the Royals from scoring. Afterward, Herzog acknowledged that the catch “killed us”, but Houk said that Ben was a good outfielder who never surprised him. Describing how it unfolded, Oglivie commented,
"“The ball wasn’t hit as good as I thought it was at first. The ball got in the lights, but I got a fairly good jump. I backhanded the ball close to the ground, very close to the ground. I made sure the webbing of my glove was off the ground.”"
The Royals weren’t about to go quietly, though. Brett doubled to lead off the bottom of the ninth. That was it for Ruhle. Houk summoned his chief fireman, lefty John Hiller. Detroit native John Mayberry greeted with him a single that scored Brett. Hal McRae followed with a single. Jim Wohlford bunted toward first base, but Thompson was able to scoop up the ball and make the throw to Rodriguez at third to nab Mayberry. Cookie Rojas’ flyout to left moved pinch-runner Tom Hall to third. With the tying run 90 feet away, Hiller struck out Buck Martinez with a changeup to end the game and earn his 11th save. The Tigers escaped with a 3-2 victory, and Ruhle picked up his seventh win.