We’re approaching the 68th anniversary of Al Kaline’s debut with the Detroit Tigers. It came on June 25, 1953, in a ballpark that isn’t there any more, against a team that doesn’t exist any more. That’s how long ago it was.
While there are few people remaining who remember that June day in Shibe Park in Philadelphia when Kaline entered the game as a defensive replacement to face the Philadelphia A’s, there are many who remember the 1968 Tigers, for whom Kaline was a star.
The 1968 Tigers hold a special place in the hearts of Detroit sports fans. It’s a special team for a generation that came of age in the 1960s, the ones who remember Detroit’s difficult times during the race riots, the folks who remember a different time in the city. Those people, mostly 70 years or older now, remember a never-say-die team that seemed to rally day-after-day that warm summer to win the ’68 pennant.
It was the last season when there was a true pennant race. Maybe that’s part of the appeal of the 1968 Tigers. The following year baseball flubbed it up by carving the league into divisions. Anyone since who has said their team is in a “pennant race” during the regular season is wrong. Don’t trust them.
Where Are The 1968 Detroit Tigers Now?
The 1968 Tigers entered the season with a determination to prove themselves, after having lost the pennant the previous year on the final day of the season. They won 103 games, many of them with exciting late-inning rallies. The Tigers were underdogs in the Fall Classic against the defending world champions Cardinals. In Game One of the World Series they struck out 17 times against St. Louis ace Bob Gibson. A few days later the team was hopelessly down three games to one. But the clubhouse wasn’t in despair.
“We were the type of team all year that fought back,” said outfielder Jim Northrup. The Tigers did fight back: winning an epic Game Five, rocking the Cards in a Game Six rout, and riding the left shoulder of Mickey Lolich to victory in Game Seven. For the first time in more than two decades, the Tigers were World Champions.
The ’68 World Series championship is special because it happened when Detroit was recovering from turmoil. It’s indelible because of the character of the team, a team that never gave up. Just like the city of Detroit.
Where are the members of the 1968 Detroit Tigers now? Let’s take a look.
Gates Brown: Six times during the ’68 season, the Gator delivered game-winning pinch-hits. He was a ball of muscle with a short left-handed swing. He was a unique man with a goofy sense of humor and a troubled childhood who made himself into one of the game’s greatest hitters off the bench. After his playing career, Brown served as a coach for Detroit from 1978 through 1984, earning another ring with the ’84 champs. He retired to Michigan and was often seen at autograph shows. He died in 2013 in Detroit.
Les Cain: A rookie in ’68, Cain was a tall, strong left-handed pitcher. He got into eight games for the Tigers that season, four as a starter. He was not on the World Series roster. The following season Cain suffered a shoulder injury, which unfortunately was the trend for his professional career. His final season was 1972 when he was a starting pitcher for Billy Martin’s Tigers for the first few weeks of the season before going down with a sore arm. He never pitched in the big leagued again. Cain later successfully sued the Tigers for having forced him to pitch when his arm was hurt. He won a landmark civil case and the State of Michigan ruled that the Tigers would have to pay him $111 a week for the rest of his life. He currently resides in Richmond, California.
Dave Campbell: Born in Manistee, Campbell played college baseball for the University of Michigan before signing with the Tigers. The middle infielder played parts of three seasons for Detroit, appearing in nine games in 1968. His only hit of the ’68 season was a two-run homer in August against the Indians in a Detroit victory. Campbell, who was nicknamed “Soup,” played eight seasons in the majors, mostly as a utility infielder. He entered broadcasting after his playing career, and has worked for the Rockies and Padres and in studio for ESPN. He is known as “The Bronze Warrior” for his tanned appearance on camera.
Norm Cash: The popular, fun-loving Cash was the left-handed power in the Detroit lineup for more than a decade. He blasted 373 homers for the Tigers, playing his final game in 1974. He briefly served as a broadcaster in Detroit, but he died in 1986 at the age of 52 when he fell off a dock and drowned off the shore of Beaver Island.
Bob Christian: A rookie outfielder, there wasn’t much playing time for Christian in 1968. He appeared in three games in September for Detroit. He was left unprotected on the roster at the end of the season and purchased by the White Sox. He played parts of two seasons for Chicago, hitting four home runs. Sadly, his life was cut short by leukemia, and he passed away at the age of 28 in 1974.
Wayne Comer: For about three months in 1968, Comer served as a backup outfielder for Mayo Smith’s Tigers. His big hit was a home run against the Red Sox at Tiger Stadium on August 11, in a game the Tigers later won on a pinch-hit homer by Gates Brown. Comer was a young player and the Seattle Pilots selected him in the 1969 expansion draft. He played center field and hit 15 homers for the Pilots in their only season, which was also Comer’s only chance to play regularly. According to biographer Brian Borawksi, Comer “continues to live in his hometown of Shenandoah, Virginia. He got to see all three of his sons play college baseball and is the proud grandfather of six granddaughters and three grandsons.”
Pat Dobson: It took Dobson a long time to get to The Show, but once he did he stuck around. Dobson was an inexperienced pitcher who couldn’t crack the Detroit rotation in 1968, so he saw action in 37 games out of the bullpen. He also started ten games and had a nice 2.66 ERA in the championship season. In 1969 he was dealt to the Padres in a trade that brought Joe Neikro to the Tigers. Later, in Baltimore, Dobson was one of four pitchers to win 20 games for the Orioles in 1971. He pitched his final game in 1977, winner of 122 games. He worked for more than two decades as a pitching coach and scout. Dobson died from leukemia in 2006.
Roy Face: In contract to Dobson, the 40-year old Face was at the end of his career in 1968 when he appeared in two games for the Tigers in September out of the pen. Face had a brilliant career, saving 191 games and leading the league in that category three times for the Pirates. He is still living, at the age of 93, in western Pennsylvania.
Bill Freehan: Freehan was runner-up in AL Most Valuable Player voting in 1968, and he had a superb career, spending all 15 years with Detroit. He and Mickey Lolich served as a battery in 324 games, a record since 1900. After retirement he took a job as the head baseball coach for his alma mater, the University of Michigan. Freehan guided the Wolverines to the College World Series twice during his tenure. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in his 70s and is reportedly in Hospice care in his home in Northern Michigan.
Lenny Green: Though he rarely got a chance to play, the 1968 season was special for Lenny Green, a black man born in Detroit. Green latched on with the Tigers in spring training, and he was called up in June to give the team outfield depth. The 12-year big league veteran got into only six games for Detroit before getting released. But when the team played Games Three, Four, and Five in Detroit, Lenny was in the stands, cheering on his hometown team and his former teammates. He never played big league ball again, retired in Detroit, and died in 2019 on his 86th birthday.
John Hiller: The left-handed Canadian was a very valuable pitcher for Mayo Smith in ’68: starting 12 games and relieving in 27 others. He pitched 128 innings and posted a 2.39 ERA to go along with nine victories. The best was yet to come for Hiller, who went on to be arguably the best relief pitcher in franchise history, saving a league-best 38 games in 1973, less than two years after suffering a major heart attack. He spent his entire career wearing the Old English D, and retired to the upper peninsula, where he still lives today.
Willie Horton: The man they called “Willie The Wonder” made the iconic defensive play of the World Series in 1968, throwing out Lou Brock at home plate to help preserve a Game Five victory for the Tigers. Horton hit 325 home runs in his career, 262 of them as a member of his hometown Tigers. He currently serves as a special advisor to the president of the Detroit Tigers, a position he has held for more than two decades.
Al Kaline: In 1968, Kaline was the veteran star on the talented Tigers, but he almost didn’t get a chance to be a big part of the championship season. In May, Kaline broke his forearm, missing several weeks. When he returned, manager Mayo Smith shuffled his outfield to make room for the former batting champion. In the Fall Classic, Kaline hit .379 with a pair of home runs. He went on to collect more than 3,000 hits and earned the nickname “Mr. Tiger.” After his playing career, Kaline spent virtually his entire retirement as a member of the organization, as a broadcaster, special coach, and advisor to the front office. The Hall of Famer died in 2020.
Fred Lasher: A roommate of Tommy Matchick, Lasher was a tall, strong right-handed reliever. He pitched in 34 games out of the pen in 1968, and appeared in the World Series, tossing two scoreless innings. Lasher was traded to Cleveland in 1970, but a sore arm shortened his career and he threw his last pitches in the big leagues in 1971 when he was still only 29 years old. He operated a drywall business for several years and now resides in Merrilan, Wisconsin.
Mickey Lolich: The popular Lolich became the hero of the Fall Classic when he pitched three complete game victories against the Cardinals in 1968, including Game Seven. Lolich won 217 games, all but 10 as a Tiger, and retired with more strikeouts than any lefthander in American League history, a record he held for more than four decades. He owned and operated a donut shop in Michigan for years, but has retired and now splits his time between Florida and his native Oregon with his wife Joyce.
Tommy Matchick: Like Dick Tracewski, Matchick served as a utility infielder for Detroit in ’68. It was his first full season in the big leagues, and while he wasn’t much of a threat with a bat, Matchick was a fantastic defender at short, second, and third. In July at Tiger Stadium, Matchick hit a game-winning homer against the Orioles in the bottom of the ninth inning, a home run that epitomized the “never quit” spirit of that team. He had a good year for Detroit in 1969 before bouncing to several teams over the last four years of his major league career. Matchick currently lives in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, his hometown.
Eddie Mathews: The other Hall of Famer on the ’68 Tigers, Mathews was a late-season acquisition from the Braves and only made it into 31 games at the end of the season. He did appear in two games in the World Series, his final appearances in the major leagues. He retired with 512 home runs and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978. Mathews managed the Braves for parts of three seasons in the 1970s. He was selected as one of the top 100 players of all-time by The Sporting News in 1999. He died in 2001 at the age of 69.
Dick McAuliffe: With his unusual batting stance and moxie, McAuliffe was a popular player in the 1968 World Champs. He spent 14 seasons with Detroit, hitting 192 home runs and making three All-Star teams. He retired to Connecticut and ran his own business after retiring from baseball. After a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, McAuliffe died in 2016, at the age of 76, after suffering a stroke.
Denny McLain: The hard-throwing right-hander won 31 games in 1968, and remains the last pitcher to top 30 victories in a season. He won the Cy Young awards in both 1968 and 1969 for the Tigers before his career took a nosedive due to injuries and controversies. McLain eventually washed out of the game, and suffered several legal setbacks in retirement. He lives in suburban Detroit today where he takes care of his ailing wife.
Don McMahon: The Tigers got McMahom for the stretch drive in exchange for Dennis Ribant from the White Sox. McMahon was an experienced relief pitcher with more than 600 games under his belt when he became a Tiger. He pitched brilliantly down the stretch (2.02 ERA in 20 games after July 26). He pitched until he was 44, but left Detroit in 1969. He died of a heart attack while pitching batting practice at Dodger Stadium at the age of 57 in 1987.
Jim Northrup: The man his teammates called “The Silver Fox,” Northrup had a thrilling 1968 season. In one stretch he blasted three grand slams in a week, and he hit five in the season. He hit a pair of homers and drove in eight runs in the World Series. He played 12 years in the majors, 11 of them in a Detroit uniform. He served as a broadcaster for the Tigers into the 1990s, but died in Grand Blanc in 2011 at the age of 71.
Ray Oyler: Known for his excellent defense, Oyler played 111 games at short for the Tigers in 1968, all while being roommate to controversial Denny McLain. Oyler’s anemic bat led manager Mayo Smith to move Mickey Stanley to shortstop for the World Series. Oyler was drafted by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft and played one final season for the Angels in 1970. He retired to the Seattle area but suffered a fatal heart attack January 26, 1981, at age 42, at his home in Redmond, Washington.
Daryl Patterson: A tall, strong right-hander from California, Patterson was an outstanding rookie out of the bullpen in 1968 for the Detroit Tigers. He had a five-year career, his last season coming in 1974 for the Pirates. Patterson worked for Pacific Gas & Electric for more than two decades and is now retired and living in Clovis, California.
Jim Price: The backup catcher to Bill Freehan in 1968, Price spent parts of five seasons in the major leagues, all of them as a Tiger. Like former teammates Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley, Price played briefly for the Detroit Caesars slow-pitch softball team owned by Mike Ilitch in the 1970s. Price, who lives in the Detroit area, transitioned into a career as a broadcaster, and has served on Detroit’s radio team since 2002.
Dennis Ribant: A Detroit native, Ribant worked out of the bullpen for the Tigers in the first half of the ’68 season, but was traded to the White Sox in late July for Don McMahon. He is retired in Newport Beach, California.
Jim Rooker: Appeared in just two games in relief for the 1968 team. Rooker went on to a fine career, winning more than 100 games, most of them for the Pirates in the 1970s. He spent years as a popular broadcaster for the Pirates, but is now retired and living in Florida.
Joe Sparma: The forgotten #4 starter on the 1968 team, Sparma won 10 games that season. He struggled the following season and was out of the majors a year later. He suffered a heart attack in 1986, and died at the age of 44 in Worthington, Ohio.
Mickey Stanley: The versatile Stanley switched from center field to shortstop in the World Series in a daring move that paid off for the Tigers and allowed Al Kaline to return to the outfield. A native of Grand Rapids, Stanley played his entire career with Detroit, retiring in 1978. He later operated his own building company in the Detroit area and retired to Genoa Township, where the 78-year old lives today.
Dick Tracewski: A useful infielder who had an eight-year major league career with the Tigers and Dodgers. Tracewski became a minor league manager and later big league coach in the Detroit organization. He served under four managers in 24 seasons as a coach for the Tigers, a franchise record. He earned a second World Series ring in 1984 as a member of Sparky Anderson’s staff. Twice, “Trixie” filled in as interim manager when needed. He retired after the 1996 season. He splits his retirement between Michigan and Florida.
Jon Warden: While his playing career was brief and somewhat less than notable, Jon Warden has enjoyed a fantastic post-career as a baseball ambassador and Tiger fan favorite. The relief pitcher injured his arm and saw his playing career aborted, but he’s been a popular figure at Tiger Fantasy Camps and other MLB Alumni events for years. He lives with his wife in Ohio.
Don Wert: The quiet but feisty third baseman is retired in his native Pennsylvania.
Earl Wilson: Wilson won 22 games for the Tigers in 1967, and 13 in 1968, but somewhere along the line he lost the confidence of manager Mayo Smith. In Game Three of the World Series, Wilson was shaky, surrendering three runs in less than five innings in a Game Three loss to the Cardinals at Tiger Stadium. His teammates and his manager could see that Wilson was not up to the task of handling the pressure of the spotlight. The big right-hander did not appear in the series again. He won a total of 121 games in 11 seasons in the major leagues, his final season coming in 1970. He established several successful companies in Detroit and later served as an ambassador for the game of baseball. He died of a heart attack in Southfield, Michigan, at the age of 70 in 2005.
John Wyatt: Acquired by Detroit in a deal that sent Jim Rooker to the Yankees in mid-season. Wyatt pitched well for the Tigers in his short stay with them. A couple weeks shy of his 63rd birthday, he died after a heart attack at his Omaha, Nebraska home in 1998.