’68 Tigers salvaged a bad year/Paul Peterson

It has often been called “a crack in the mirror of time.” The year was 1968 and it was full of just about every bad thing you could imagine. There was political unrest just about everywhere. Assassinations of major national figures. And wars all over the globe.

But it was also the year the Detroit Tigers won an American League pennant and a World Series title.

If you were around in those days, you probably listened to legendary Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell describe the games as only he could.

It could have been at a cabin at remote Twin Lakes in the Upper Peninsula. On a stair stoop in hardscrabble East Detroit. Or on the front porch of a trendy Bloomfield Hills neighborhood.

I listened to the reassuring tones of Harwell that summer while working in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale – and waiting for the imminent call from my draft board.

The games came over loud and clear from WJR in Detroit, although some nights it required a trip to Lake Shore Drive to find a perfectly clear signal.

The Tigers were coming off a season in which they should have won the pennant. Only a pair of doubleheader splits against the lowly Angels on the final weekend of the season kept them from the throne room in 1967.

But the 1968 team had it all. There were stellar players like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton and Jim Northrup in the lineup day after day.

In those days, managers played their best players at least 150 games a season. Not like today when regulars get “rested” every few days for some obscure reason or another.

But the pitching in Motown that season was really the story. Outspoken but talented Denny McLain showed the way with his sparkling 31-6 record.

Earl Wilson and Mickey Lolich were also strong starters. And the backup hurling featured future U.P. resident John Hiller and Joe Sparma among others.

“Storming Norman” Cash was my personal favorite. A lefthanded hitting first baseman with power, the colorful Cash hit more homers over the rightfield roof at Tiger Stadium than any other player ever did.

But the brash McLain, who made the front page of Time Magazine in mid-summer, was the headline-maker. An accomplished organist, he even made an appearance on national television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Little did we know he would be making headlines in 1970 on alleged bookkeeping charges. The ultimate example of a million-dollar talent and a ten-cent head, McLain would end up in jail a decade later for his part in another shady deal.

After breezing through the American League, Detroit was a heavy underdog to the powerful St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Pitcher Bob Gibson was seen as nearly unhittable and his 1.12 ERA was testimony to that.

After losing three of the first four games, the Tigers rallied back behind Lolich’s clutch pitching to win it all against Gibson. There was joy all over Michigan.

The 1968 Tigers, now with less hair and bigger waistlines, were honored this past weekend at Comerica Park on the 45th anniversary of their big season.

And they were again lauded for saving Detroit after the deadly riots the year before.

But they helped more than the town that long ago season … they salvaged a very bad year for many people.