The 1961 Detroit Tigers’ 100th Win Was an Odd One

Former Detroit Tigers Jake Wood (L) and Willie Horton during the Tigers second annual African American Legacy Award Ceremony honoring Jake Wood in 2010. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Former Detroit Tigers Jake Wood (L) and Willie Horton during the Tigers second annual African American Legacy Award Ceremony honoring Jake Wood in 2010. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /
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With a starting lineup that featured guys with nicknames like Chico, Bubba, Rocky, and Bobo, the 1961 Detroit Tigers achieved a cool and important historical milestone in the season’s penultimate game.

A very good 1961 Detroit Tigers team was on the verge of 100 victories on September 30. The franchise hadn’t had a 100-game winning team since the 1934 American League champions won 101. Prior to that, the 1915 Tigers won exactly 100. With two games left in the season, the ’61 Tigers had a shot at becoming the third Detroit squad to reach that milestone.

The ’61 Tigers, like 1915’s, would finish no higher than second place even with a 100th victory. The Yankees clinched the AL championship 10 days earlier. New York had already thwarted Detroit’s chances of winning the pennant by sweeping a crucial three-game series between the teams at Yankee Stadium to begin the month. That sent the once-contending Tigers into a tailspin. The losing streak that began in the Bronx reached eight games. Despite that ugly setback, a 100-win season was still within in reach.

Pre-Game

On the last day of September’s action, 8,668 early birds braved cold and rainy conditions in Minneapolis to see if the Twins could stop the Tigers from reaching triple digits in the win column. The two teams squared off at open-air Metropolitan Stadium at 10:25 that Saturday morning. Baseball was being served for breakfast so as not to conflict with that afternoon’s football game between the University of Missouri and the University of Minnesota.

Tigers right-handed rookie pitcher Howie Koplitz drew the starting assignment, his first in the big leagues. The three studs in the Detroit rotation, Frank Lary (23-9, 3.24 ERA, 1.155 WHIP, 127 ERA+, 4.3 bWAR), Don Mossi 15-7, 2.96 ERA, 1.182 WHIP, 139 ERA+, 4.0 bWAR), and Jim Bunning (17-11, 3.19 ERA, 1.131 WHIP, 3.8 bWAR), had already completed their work for the season. Bunning started the series opener against the Twins the night before and went four innings in a game the Tigers won, 6-4, in 10 innings. That was win number 99 for Detroit.

Detroit Tigers
Jim Bunning was a spectator for the 1961 Tigers’ 100th win. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

A September callup, Koplitz had pitched a total of seven innings in his first three appearances for the Tigers. He was 23 years old, but he looked approximately 20 to 30 years older in the photo that Topps used for his 1962 rookie card. Koplitz was the 1961 Minor League Player of the Year. Writers and broadcasters from the National Association bestowed the honor upon him after Koplitz went 23-3 with a 2.11 ERA and threw a no-hitter for the Class AA Southern Association’s Birmingham Barons. The prospect led all hurlers in the Detroit organization in innings pitched (230) and WHIP (1.035).

Catching Koplitz that morning was another rookie, Bill Freehan. The two hadn’t been teammates in the minors that season. Freehan signed with the Tigers back in June, fresh off the University of Michigan campus. The catcher then split time between the Class C Duluth-Superior Dukes and the  Class A Denver Bears. Freehan reported to the Tigers on September 6 but didn’t see his first action until the 26th. This was the 19-year-old Freehan’s third big league game and second start. In his debut, an 8-5 loss to the Kansas City A’s, Freehan caught nine innings, singled twice and drove in a run. He followed that up with a ninth-inning, pinch-running appearance in this series’ Friday night opener.

Freehan (Detroit) and third baseman Steve Boros (Flint) were the only two Michiganders in the Tigers’ starting lineup. The Twins could boast three in theirs; center fielder and leadoff hitter Lenny Green (Detroit), left fielder Joe Altobelli (Detroit), and pitcher Jim Kaat (Zeeland). The pride of Paw Paw, Charlie Maxwell, was on the Tigers’ bench that morning.

First-year Tigers manager Bob Scheffing left a couple other big bats on the bench. First baseman Norm Cash sat out. The left-handed hitting Cash hit .333/.453/.585 in 36 games against left-handed starters in 1961. He probably could’ve handled the southpaw Kaat. A morning ballgame might have been harder to handle for Cash, who would become known as the life of the party on the 1968 Tigers team.  He was sitting on a .359 batting average for the year. The two hits he went on to collect in the Sunday afternoon season finale bumped him up to the league-leading .361 that Cash is still remembered for today. He also led the AL with a .487 OBP and 1.148 OPS. With a 201 OPS+, there’s no doubt that Cash was a monster at the plate in ’61.

Right-fielder Al Kaline missed his seventh start in a row. He’d only played sparingly in the last week due to a sore knee. 1961 had been a good season for “Mr. Tiger” (139 OPS+). His 8.4 bWAR topped the 8.2 that he accumulated in his spectacular batting-title winning season of 1955. The 26-year-old Kaline led the American League with a career-high 41 doubles. His .324 average (second on the team), 190 hits, 116 runs, and 302 total bases were the future Hall of Famer’s high-water marks for the 1960s.

Play Ball!

Chico Fernandez, the Tigers’ shortstop, stepped in first against Kaat. Game-time temperature was reported to be 42 degrees. Fernandez was wearing gloves on both hands. He usually hit seventh or eighth in the Tigers lineup. This was Fernandez’s 12th game leading off. He handled the small-sample-size role well for Scheffing. For the season, Fernandez had 18 hits in the leadoff spot, including the single to right field that began this morning’s contest.

Batting second was center fielder Billy Bruton. The Tigers acquired him prior to the season in a trade that sent second baseman Frank Bolling to the Milwaukee Braves. He brought a veteran presence to a fairly young Detroit lineup. The average age of the Tigers’ regular position players, sans the 35-year-old Bruton, was 26.1 in 1961. He also brought championship experience to the contending Tigers. Bruton hit .412/.545/.588 in the 1958 World Series and led Braves hitters in all three categories.

Bruton laid down a nice sacrifice bunt that Kaat fielded, and Fernandez moved into scoring position. Bubba Morton, starting in right field in place of Kaline, stepped to the plate. Morton delivered the kind of big hit that only a guy named Bubba could deliver. He doubled to center and drove Fernandez home. The Tigers took a 1-0 lead.

(There have been four Tigers who were known as Bubba. The first was Bubba Floyd, who played three games at shortstop for Detroit in 1944. Bubba Phillips arrived in 1955, departed after the season, and returned for a couple more seasons in 1963. The Bubbas Morton and Phillips were briefly Tigers teammates in early ’63 but never appeared in the same starting lineup together. Bubba Trammell eventually came along in 1997.)

Rocky Colavito was up next. The left fielder was a powerful force in the Tigers lineup in 1961 (157 OPS+, 7.6 bWAR). His team-leading 45 home runs, 140 RBI, and 129 runs were career highs for “The Rock”. The 86 homers that he and Cash combined to hit that season were pretty impressive, although they paled in comparison to the 115 that the Yankees’ Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combined to hit. Colavito was also a workhorse for the Tigers. He was the only player to appear in all of Detroit’s games that year.

Colavito singled. Morton appeared to score on the play but was called out for not touching third base. Boros, the rookie third baseman from the University of Michigan, singled. He’d gotten off to a good start and was hitting as high as .358 on May 14 before coming back down to earth. Boros only played for the Tigers through 1962, but he returned to the organization as the coordinator of minor league instruction in 1996. He was promoted to director of player development in 2002. The following year, Boros became a special assistant to general manager Dave Dombrowski. Boros retired at the end of 2004.

Boros’ single put two on for fellow rookie Wood. The night before, Wood’s two-run, 10th-inning single provided the margin of victory in Detroit’s 99th win. He finished third on the team in hits (171), trailing only Cash (193) and Kaline (190). Among American League rookies, Jake tied Dick Howser of the Kansas City A’s for the most hits. The young Tiger was also good on the base paths. Wood led the American League with 14 triples and led the Detroit with 30 steals. For his efforts, Jake Wood made the ’61 Topps All-Star Rookie Team.

Wood singled to right-center to keep the first inning going for the Tigers. Colavito scored. Green erred in fielding the ball, and that allowed Boros to score. Wood ambitiously tried to make it a three-run play. Right fielder Bobby Allison tracked the ball down and successfully hit his cutoff man, shortstop Jose Valdivielso, whose throw nailed Wood at the plate. That ended the inning.

Despite two baserunning mistakes in the inning, the Tigers handed a 3-0 lead to Koplitz. The lead was quickly endangered. Green, a future Tiger, singled. Billy Martin, the former Tiger shortstop and future Detroit manager, delivered a single that sent Green to third. With runners on the corners, Koplitz got a big first out by striking out future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.

Altobelli almost grounded into an inning-ending double play. He hit the ball to Wood, who dropped it while trying to tag Martin at second. Wood wasn’t able to even salvage the out at first. Altobelli beat his throw. Green scored on the play, and Wood was charged with an error. Minnesota had new life and took advantage of it. Allison singled Martin in and Altobelli took third. Former Tiger Bill Tuttle tied the game at 3-3 with a sacrifice fly to center. The Twins took a 4-3 lead on Valdivielso’s single. Koplitz finally got out of the first inning by striking out Kaat, the ninth Twin to bat in the frame.

Kaat retired the Tigers 1-2-3 in the top of the second. It was Koplitz against the top of the Twins’ lineup all over again in the bottom half. He got Green to fly out to center and induced a foul popout to right off Martin’s bat. Killebrew made sure that the Detroit rookie didn’t pitch a 1-2-3 inning. He avenged his earlier strikeout by drawing a walk. Altobelli singled to center, but Koplitz struck out Allison to end the inning.

Fernandez led off the third with a single. Kaat balked while facing Bruton, who then drove Fernandez in with a single. The Tigers were back on top, 4-3. Bruton was somehow able to reach third on Morton’s groundout to short. Colavito knocked Bruton in with a single. In a matchup made in the Mitten State, Kaat walked Boros. That the end of the day for Kaat. Reliever Lee Stange got Wood to fly out. There were two down.

Bobo Osborne, Norm Cash’s fill-in at first base, was up. He might have been known as Larry on his baseball cards, but in the hearts of Tigers fans, he was Bobo. (He’s also Bobo on Baseball-Reference, just as former Tigers pitcher Bobo Newsom is.) Osborne walked to load the bases and extend the inning. Freehan walked to force in Colavito. The Tigers’ lead grew to 6-4. Koplitz grounded out back to Stange to end the Detroit rally, but each team had now sent nine men to the plate in an inning.

After a long inning in the dugout while his teammates went to town, Koplitz pitched a scoreless bottom half in the third. Stange kept the Tigers off the board in the fourth. Koplitz got Green and Martin out on a pair of infield popups to begin the bottom of the fourth, one to Fernandez and one to Wood. That turned out to be Martin’s last plate appearance in the game. The next day, he played in his last big league game.

That brought up Killebrew, who menaced American League pitchers all season long. His final numbers in 1961 included 46 home runs, 122 RBI, a 1.012 OPS and a 162 OPS+. “Killer” caused no harm in this at-bat, however. Koplitz retired Killebrew on a line drive that Bruton gloved, and the Detroit rookie got his first 1-2-3 inning.

Osborne doubled in the fifth for the Tigers, but nothing came of it. The Twins threatened in the sixth. With two outs, Koplitz walked Altobelli and gave up a single to Tuttle. That put runners on the corners, but Koplitz struck out Valdivielso to end the inning.

Koplitz returned to the Tigers’ dugout and traded his glove in for a bat. He led off the top of the sixth by grounding out to short, and then that was it. With one out in the top of the sixth, the game was halted by what Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press described as a “chilling drizzle”. Play never resumed. Koplitz summed up his performance by saying “I didn’t know where the ball was going in the first inning. After that I was all right. My control improved.”

Just like that, the Tigers’ 100th win of the season was complete. It only took the teams and hour and 46 minutes to play the game’s 5 1/3 innings. It was also the Tigers’ second straight 6-4 decision over the Twins.

Post-Game

The weather wasn’t clement enough for a full baseball game in Minneapolis on that particular Saturday, but it was suitable enough for football. At least the baseballers missed the snow and slush that developed by the end of the afternoon’s college gridiron matchup. The Missouri Tigers beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 6-0, so it was a good day in town for visiting teams with that nickname.

Win number 101 for the 1961 Detroit Tigers was an 8-3 trouncing of the Twins on Sunday, October 1, to bring the season to a close. The weather, sunny and 40, was slightly better. A five-run, first-inning Tigers rally put the Twins away early. Paul Foytack pitched a complete game. Freehan got another start behind the plate. He got a pair of hits and drove in two runs. Kaat actually came back and pitched the eighth inning for the Twins.

At the time, that tied the 1961 Tigers with the 1934 team for the most wins in a single season in franchise history. There is one key difference between those two groups of ballplayers. The ’34 team played a 154-game schedule. In 1961, the first year of MLB’s expansion era, teams began playing the now-familiar 162-game schedule. Due to a rain-shortened tie game in June that was replayed in July, the Tigers actually played 163 games that season and finished 101-61-1, eight games behind the Yankees.

Only two Tigers teams have topped the 100-win mark since 1961. The 1968 World Champs won 103 games, and 1984 World Champs surpassed them with 104 wins.

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