How Billy Martin and Umpire John Rice Cost the Tigers the 1972 Pennant

One of the most crushing defeats in Detroit Tigers history occurred on October 12, 1972 when the Tigers lost 2 to 1 and the American League Championships Series 3 games to 2 to the Oakland Athletics on a chilly afternoon at Tiger Stadium.

I was 17-years-old and had skipped school with two friends in anticipation of seeing the Tigers win their 6th American League pennant and their second World Series appearance in four years.

What is most infuriating is that the heartbreaking loss is arguably attributable to questionable moves by Tiger manager Billy Martin and a horrible call by first base umpire John Rice.

The day before the Tigers had one of their most famous comeback wins in their history when they evened the series 2-2 after trailing in the bottom of the tenth inning 3-1. With the bases loaded and two outs Jim Northrup drove lefty Dave Hamilton’s 1-0 pitch onto the warning track over the head of the pulled in right fielder Matty Alou for the game winning single. Northrup had of course been one of the ’68 World Series heroes with his game winning triple in Game 7.

I can remember watching that game in my journalism class as we went absolutely crazy after Northrup’s clutch hit. My feet barely touched the ground when I walked home from school absolutely thrilled that I had tickets the next day to see the Tigers win the pennant!!

Years later Northrup told me that Tiger manager Billy Martin, (who he absolutely despised), had celebrated long into the evening at The Topper Restaurant and Lounge in Dearborn and showed up in the locker room a half hour before game time.

In a surprise move Martin penciled in catcher Duke Sims to play left field, despite the fact that he had only played in the outfield a handful of times that season and benched slugger Willie Horton.  Meanwhile Bill Freehan played behind the plate with a bad finger.

With the cold wind blowing in from left field the game turned into a pitching battle between Tiger lefty Woodie Fryman and the A’s Blue Moon Odom who was later relieved by Vida Blue.

The Tiger scored their only run of the game in the first inning and in the second inning Oakland tied the game on a double steal when Reggie Jackson slid around Freehan at home. Jackson tore his left hamstring and was sidelined for the remainder of the game and the World Series.)

And then Oakland got what turned out to be their winning run in the fourth inning thanks to a blown call by first base umpire John Rice, and a bobbled throw by Sims in left field.

George Hendrick left off the fourth with a ground ball deep to shortstop Dick McAuliffe whose throw was in the dirt to first baseman Norm Cash who adeptly snared the ball. Although replays show clearly that Hendrick was out by two steps umpire John Rice called him safe later claiming Cash had pulled his foot off the bag. Martin, Cash, and Freehan went nuts. Northrup actually told me that the call was so blatantly wrong that he even wondered if Rice was on the take. (Duke Sims later said that a ball he hit that day down the right field line was a home run that Rice said went foul.)

With two outs and Hendrick on second Gene Tenance then hit a single right to Duke Sims in left who was handcuffed with the ball at the waist. Slow to recover, he threw to Freehan at home but Hendrick scored. Norhrup told me: “He (Sims) shouldn’t have been out there, but Billy played him. It’s not the player’s fault. It’s the manager’s fault. Should have, would have, could have, whatever. But if we had Duke behind the plate where he belonged and Willie out in left field, I believe we’d have won Game 5.”

And then in the bottom of the ninth trailing 2-1, and one out Norm Cash singled to give Tiger fans hope. Coming to bat to face lefty Vida Blue was Northrup, a clutch hitter if there ever was one who had been the hero the day before.

But playing the lefty/righty percentages, and despite the fact that Northrup had already hit a single off of  the lefthander, (and his game winning hit the day before was off of a lefthander) the hungover little manager brought in right handed hitting Mickey Stanley to bat for Northrup. (As much as Stanley was a fabulous fielder, you cannot name me one example where Stanley had a clutch hit with a game on the line.)

Sure enough, Stanley hit a fielder’s choice forcing Cash out at second and then Tony Taylor hit a deep fly ball to end the game, the season, and a trip to the World Series.

You could hear a pin drop at Tiger Stadium.

The euphoria that erupted the day before was now replaced by the drone of a helicopter hovering over the ballpark as frustrated fans jumped onto the field and threw firecrackers.

To come so close. Damn it! That is a loss I never got over. And I know for sure I’m not the only one.