1968 Detroit Tigers were not a team of destiny

Tigers’ owner John Fetzer with manager Mayo Smith in 1968.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the 1968 Detroit Tigers ran away with the American League pennant on their way to a World Series win against a very good group of St. Louis Cardinals. The ’68 Tigers had a power-packed lineup filled with veteran hitters, from Dick McAuliffe and Al Kaline to Norm Cash and Willie Horton. They had two completely dominant starting pitchers in Denny McLain and World Series hero Mickey Lolich. And they ended up having a deep bullpen that gave Mayo Smith plenty of options on those occasions when his starters didn’t carry the load.

The benefit of hindsight allows us to see how great the ’68 Tigers were in winning it all. It’s tempting to say that those Tigers were destined to win the championship, but in reality, there is no such thing as “destiny” for a major league team. The games must be played, injuries must be minimized, and a sufficient number of games must be won in order for a team to claim both a pennant and a World Series.

In looking back at what was written about the Tigers during the spring of 1968, we find out that it was not all that clear that the Tigers were the best team in the major leagues, let alone the American League. They had several “issues” that spring, and enough concerns that the media cast doubt on their ability to win the pennant. Certainly, no one among writers or broadcasters was predicting a runaway for the Tigers from the rest of the American League.

As the Tigers worked their way through spring training in 1968, one of their biggest question marks involved the status of veteran first baseman Norm Cash, who had finished the 1967 season in an odd platoon with Eddie Mathews. Some writers speculated that Cash could lose the job outright to Mathews, or might end up platooning with converted outfielder Mickey Stanley, a player who was undergoing intensive hitting training under batting coach Wally Moses. Cash hit well that spring, spurring Tigers beat writer Watson Spoelstra to write about “the need” for Cash to play every day during the season. Spoelstra believed that Cash would hit left-handers, if only given the opportunity to do so.

Well, Mayo Smith did not heed the advice of Spoelstra. On Opening Day, the Tigers faced Boston Red Sox left-hander Dick Ellsworth. Sure enough, Cash sat on the bench that day, while Stanley played first base and batted leadoff, picking up three hits in five at-bats.

At that point, no one could have known that Cash would reassume his status as an everyday first baseman by late April and would only occasionally sit down against left-handers. Similarly, no one could have known that Stanley would have become the Tigers’ regular center fielder by late May, and would be starting at shortstop (of all positions) during the World Series. As it turned out, Cash and Stanley both emerged as key players, expanding beyond the roles forecast for them on Opening Day.

In addition to the first base conundrum, the other big question concerning the Tigers that spring involved their bullpen. As Spoelstra pointed out in The Sporting News, the Tigers lacked a clear-cut “stopper,” 1960s parlance for what we would today refer to as a “closer.” When asked about who would be called upon to put out late-inning fires, the manager offered a brutally honest response near the end of spring training. “I don’t know who my stopper is in the bullpen,” Smith told Spoelstra. In a league featuring more established stoppers like Jack Aker, Sparky Lyle, Al Worthington, and Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, the Tigers clearly lacked a pitcher of equivalent stature.

Given the situation, Smith decided to make some adjustments. First off, the Tigers dispatched one of their aging veterans, sending 36-year-old Hank Aguirre to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a late spring cash transaction. That made room for an extra young pitcher to be included on the roster. Smith decided to carry three young, unproven relievers on his Opening Day staff: right-hander Daryl Patterson and left-handers Les Cain and Jon Warden. In the meantime, Smith nurtured two other young veterans, Pat Dobson and John Hiller, giving them expanded roles, including repeated turns in the late innings.

As it turned out, Smith did not rely on one dominant stopper. Instead, he used a bullpen-by-committee, giving save opportunities to eight different relievers over the course of the season. No pitcher registered more than the seven saves accrued by both Dobson and Patterson.

Smith’s bullpen-by-committee worked beautifully, as he mixed and matched a host of relievers in late-inning situations. Four of his young relievers ended up with earned run averages below 3.00. The midseason acquisitions of Don McMahon (in July) and John Wyatt (in June) also contributed to the surprising bullpen. And on a team where starters logged a heavy dose of innings, the bullpen didn’t have to carry the load, but simply filled a complementary role to a T.

Other developments in spring training of ’68 also made news. When camp opened, Smith declared the shortstop position to be a battle between incumbent Ray Oyler and career utilityman Dick Tracewski. Oyler beat out Tracewski for the job, only to be cascaded with boos on Opening Day at Tiger Stadium. By October, Smith had made the daring switch from Oyler to Stanley, a move that worked out well for the Tigers in deepening their lineup against the formidable pitching staff of the Cardinals.

Additionally, there was a spring development that will come as completely surprising. Earl Wilson pitched so well during the Grapefruit League season that Spoelstra and other Tigers beat writers declared him the ace of the staff, ahead of McLain and Lolich. That was another situation that would change—drastically. By the World Series, Lolich and McLain had clearly established themselves as the bellwethers of the staff, with Wilson pushed to the relatively quiet role of No. 3 starter.

With questions regarding shortstop, the bullpen, and first base, it’s fair to ask the following: how did the Tigers look according to the preseason prognostications? In an interview with Spoelstra, Bill Freehan offered a fairly objective assessment in which he felt that the race would come down to three teams: Minnesota, Baltimore, and Detroit. Freehan refrained from calling the Tigers the favorites, but felt that they would definitely be in the mix for the title.

In one of its April issues, The Sporting News offered a capsule summary in which it called Freehan the “best catcher in the AL,” and stipulated that Cash, McAuliffe, and [Don] Wert “must have better years [than they did in 1967].” On the whole, the capsule summary gave the Tigers their “best pennant chance in 23 years,” a reference to the world championship season of 1945.

While The Sporting News tabbed the Tigers a strong contender, the publication did not make them overwhelming favorites to win the American League pennant. In fact, the magazine didn’t make the Tigers favorites at all. Conducting a survey of 239 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, The Sporting News predicted that the Tigers would finish second, behind the Minnesota Twins, a team that featured a young Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, and Harmon Killebrew. Chicago and Boston, according to the poll, would finish third and fourth, respectively. So the idea that it was inevitable that the Tigers would win the pennant in 1968 turns out to be pure fallacy.

A notable non-writer offered a more optimistic viewpoint. Retired star Tony Kubek, at the time broadcasting for NBC Television, made a public appearance in Detroit during the preseason. As part of his speech to a large crowd, Kubek offered his admiration for the hometown team—particularly their signature player. “I’m picking the Tigers to win,” said Kubek, “because of Al Kaline.” Kaline was coming off a typically fine season, in which he batted .308 and forged an OPS of .952, both impressive numbers for a pitching-dominant era.

Among baseball experts, the opinion offered by Kubek seems to have been in the minority. Based on the consensus, the Tigers were not yet world championship caliber.

But as it turned out, Mr. Kubek knew more than The Sporting News and those 239 writers.