In the course of the 1968 regular season, the Detroit Tigers came from behind to win in their last at bat no fewer than 28 times – i.e.: in well over a quarter of their 103 victories. Almost half the time that they put a game in the win column, they’d come from behind at some point or other.
Maybe that was why – in spite of the lousy weather, in spite of the fact that Tigers were down to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to one, in spite that two of those losses had been in the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium – on October 7, 1968, of the 53,634 fans sitting there shivering at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, there wasn’t one who was ready to write off the home team.
It had been a long weekend. On Saturday, the Tigers dropped Game Three, the first World Series game to be played in the old ball park in twenty three years, by a lopsided 7-3 score. Sunday had been even worse. The invincible Denny McLain got clobbered 10-1.
In Game Five, it was the fifth inning and the Tigers were trailing 3-2. The pressure definitely was on, and it was about to get worse. Lou Brock not only was on base, he was edging off second, ready to fly all the way home on anything that even looked like a base hit.
Brock’s speed was legendary. So far in the series, he’d stolen at least one base in every game – seven in all. In Game Two, he’d stolen two bases. In Game Three, three. Bill Freehan had only managed to throw him out exactly one time.
Julian Javier was at bat, and Lolich fired the ball toward the plate. Javier’s swing sent a line drive into left field – all that Brock needed.
Willie Horton, playing left field, generally was pulled in the eighth or ninth for defensive reasons. (In fact, before the 1968 Series was over, Willie would be taken out of the game in the late innings a total of four times.) But this was still the fifth inning, and Willie, bad knees and all, charged toward the ball. All over Detroit and Michigan, people held their breaths.
Even in Detroit, it’s difficult to explain the absolute nature of the support for the Tigers during that magical season. It wasn’t just the fans in the stadium who were fixed on the play. Life stopped for a moment. Men and women in offices and restaurants, children and teachers in schools, shoppers in stores, housewives and invalids – even people on street corners clutched transistor radios, took deep breaths and crossed their fingers.
Willie fielded Javier’s ball cleanly on one hop, and then, without breaking stride, he reached back and threw. Willie’d started up as a catcher, and he had a little better arm than most left fielders do. The ball came into the infield on the fly. It went straight past the cutoff man, Don Wert, and bounced just once before it smacked hard into Freehan’s mitt, about chest high. Freehan spun with the catch and blocked the plate.
And Lou Brock didn’t slide.
Today, the world knows that Lou Brock didn’t slide – but what gets forgotten is that this wasn’t a momentary oversight on Brock’s part. All season long he hadn’t bothered to slide into home plate – scorning opposing team attempts to throw him out. One more time, Brock came home standing up straight. At the very last moment, he tried to reach the plate with his left foot. But he didn’t slide, and he couldn’t reach around Bill Freehan. The Tiger catcher stood there as solid as a wall, ball in hand, waiting to tag the runner.
The tag came down. “Yer OUT!” cried umpire Doug Harvey.
It all happened in a heartbeat. The Cardinals poured out of their dugout, screaming. They shouted. They argued. It made no difference. Brock was still out. There was still one more out in the inning, but anything after that spectacular play at the plate meant little. The Cardinal rally was over, and they didn’t score again in the game.
The Tigers went on to win by a score of five to three. Then they traveled to St. Louis, where they won games number six and seven. In all the rest of the World Series, the Cardinals managed to score just two more runs against the Tigers. When they came back home to Detroit at the end of the week, the 1968 Detroit Tigers were the World Champions of major league baseball.