Only 13 players in the history of major league baseball have hit two grand slam home runs in one game. Interestingly, ten of them were in the American League.
Fans of the Detroit Tigers will remember that Jim Northrup accomplished the feat in the world championship season of 1968.
The date was Monday, June 24. The Tigers were in Cleveland to play the Indians in cavernous Municipal Stadium, also known as “The Mistake by the Lake.”
It was the final game of a five-game series with the second-place Indians. The Tigers had arrived for the opener on Friday with a comfortable 8 1/2-game lead in the American League. It was a grueling loss for Detroit in the opener; Northrup’s double in the 13th inning plated Mickey Stanley to put the Tigers up 3-2. But with two outs in the bottom of the frame, Cleveland’s Tony Horton hit a two-run walk-off home run.
The Tigers were shut out on Saturday, and again in the first game of a doubleheader on Sunday, shrinking their league lead to 5 1/2 games. But Joe Sparma pitched well in the nightcap, a 4-1 Detroit win.
Unlike his team, the 28-year-old Northrup had been awful so far in ’68. He entered the Monday finale batting only .225, with an OPS of .657. He hadn’t hit a home run in over two weeks. He had batted primarily in the third slot for much of the early season. Manager Mayo Smith, however, in an effort to take some of the pressure off his young right fielder, had decided to move him down to seventh.
Denny McLain was on the mound for Detroit, seeking his 13th win against only two defeats. The Indians countered with rookie southpaw Mike Paul, without a victory in his short career. It promised to be a tough matchup for the left-handed-hitting Northrup, who never hit lefties particularly well.
Bill Freehan, playing first base this day, quickly got the Tigers on the scoreboard with a two-run single in the opening inning. McLain got nicked in the home half for two hits and a run, and things stood that way until the top of the fourth.
Leading off for the Tigers was catcher Jim Price, who, at 26 years old, was in his second full big-league season. Price took Paul deep for a home run, the first of his career, to give Detroit a 3-1 advantage. One inning later, Cleveland’s Duke Sims singled in a run off McLain to close the gap.
Detroit pulled away in the fifth. After a leadoff walk to Stanley, the Indians brought in a new pitcher, right-hander Eddie Fisher. The Tigers loaded the bases, and up came Northrup. He was happy to see Paul out of the game; Northrup had struck out twice against the lefty, once with the bases full in the first inning. On the first offering from Fisher, Northrup blasted a grand slam. It was the fifth home run of his career with the bases loaded. By the time the inning was over, the Tigers had a 9-2 lead.
But they weren’t done. Freehan led off the next inning by getting hit by a Hal Kurtz pitch. Willie Horton doubled, and was taken out for pinch-runner Wayne Comer. Kurtz then plunked third baseman Don Wert on the helmet with a fastball. Wert hit the dirt, and eventually had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. Pinch runner Ray Oyler came in to run for him at first base. Cleveland manager Alvin Dark went to the mound to take out Kurtz.
That brought up Northrup, batting again with ducks on the pond. The new Cleveland hurler was Bill Rohr, a 22-year-old lefty. Northrup welcomed him with another grand slam, again on the first pitch.
He walked in his final plate appearance, finishing the game with eight RBIs. Later, Northrup admitted that Mayo Smith wasn’t even planning on playing him that day. But, he added, “I talked him into it.”
McLain cruised the rest of the way, and the Tigers, after a little bump on the road, escaped Cleveland having made a 14-3 statement.
Northrup used the two grand slams to transform his season. Including that game, until the end of the 1968 season, he batted .294 with 13 home runs and 57 RBIs, and an OPS of .859.