A key figure in the Detroit Tiger’s magical 1968 season was left handed hitting outfielder Jim Northrup who is best remembered for his two out, two run seventh inning triple off of Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson that broke a scoreless tie in game seven of the World Series. With a 4-1 win, the Tigers captured their first championship in 23 years. The day before, Northrup’s fifth grand slam of the year highlighted a ten run third inning as the Tigers tied the Series with a 13-1 victory.
The “Gray Fox” led the 1968 Tigers in hits with 153 and in RBIs with 90 (3rd in the American League). His .536 slugging percentage in the World Series included a tremendous blast into Tiger Stadium’s upper deck centerfield bleachers off of Gibson in game four.
The following year Northrup led the team in batting with a .295 average. In an August contest against Oakland, he became the first Tiger since Ty Cobb to go six for six. He finished the hitting spectacle with a dramatic 13th inning game winning home run over the Tiger Stadium roof.
Born in Breckinridge, Michigan, Northrup was a small college All-American quarterback at Alma College where he was a five sport athlete. He declined offers to play football for the Chicago Bears and New York Titans and instead signed with the Tiger organization in 1961. The 1964 International League Rookie of the Year soon became an integral part of the Tigers’ powerful lineup. He played for Detroit from 1964 to 1974 before being sold to Montreal and finishing his 12 year major league career with the Orioles in 1975.
Besides running a successful manufacturers representative business, from 1985 to 1994 Northrup was a color analyst for the Tigers on cable television. He is now retired, but is still involved with charity work. Northrup, 68, lives in the Detroit area with his wife Patty and their three children.
How frustrating was it to lose the ’67 pennant on the last day of the season?
JIM NORTHRUP: It was tough but we had some bad breaks that year. I was batting around .340 when I got the mumps from my son, lost about 15 pounds and missed three or four weeks. I’m sure I would have won at least a couple of games. Kaline missed a few weeks with a broken finger after slamming his bat in the bat rack and McLain was out for a couple of weeks in September. But I knew we were going to win it in ’68 and nothing was going to stop us because we knew how good we were.
How much pressure did you feel when you replaced Kaline in right field after he broke his arm early in the ’68 season?
JN: I knew I couldn’t replace Al Kaline. He and Roberto Clemente were the best righfielders in the game. But somebody had to play right field, and I wasn’t worried about it because I was a pretty damn good outfielder.
On June 24th 1968 you had a break out game when you hit two consecutive grand slams in Cleveland. What do you remember about that game?
JN: I remember it was my son’s birthday and I wasn’t supposed to play because I was in a minor slump. Wally Moses (first base coach) said Mayo Smith (manager) thought I was pressing. I said to Wally, “I’m not pressing, you tell him not to bench me’ and Mayo put me in. The first time up, the bases were loaded and I took struck out. You talk about a hot ticket. I talked my way into the lineup just to strike out. But the next two times up in consecutive innings I hit grand slams on the first pitches. I told my son he needed more birthdays.
You hit five grand slams in ’68 including three in one week and one in the World Series. When you had the bases loaded, were you always swinging for the fences?
JN: I was just trying to hit it hard, but if you try for a grand slam, what happens most of the time is you’ll strike out swinging at bad pitches. I just waited to get a good pitch. The World Series grand slam was against Larry Jaster, and he never got me out when I faced him in the minors. It was a 2-0 count, and with the bases loaded, I was looking for a fastball down the middle because what else was he going to throw in that situation?
How would you describe your hitting style?
JN: I was a natural low ball, left field hitter and I had to learn to hit to right because of the strike zone. I would have been a natural national league hitter because the strike zone was lower and they didn’t call the high fastball. Wally Moses and I spent an hour every day working in spring training learning how to hit the high inside pitch and I learned to cut my swing. Wally told me it wouldn’t make me a pull hitter, it’s just going to allow you to hit it so they won’t throw you that pitch. Today the strike zone is a postage stamp, and boy would my eyes have lit up if I had that.
The distinguishing mark of the ’68 Tigers was of course the uncanny ability to come from behind, when you consider the team won 40 games after being tied or behind from the seventh inning on and captured the World Series after being down three games to one. What was it about that team that enabled it to come back so often?
JN: We just figured if we were anywhere close we were going to win and the other teams knew it too. We had a pretty damn good hitting ball club, people just didn’t give us credit for the way we could hit in the clutch. Look it, we had Kaline and Cash, and I had a pretty good stick. Willie Horton was no fun to face, and he could hit it a mile and generally did. Dick McAuliffe was a terrific player and he was out there to whip you and you’d better know it. He took no guff from nobody and he was a hardnosed player. Just look what Gates Brown did pinch hitting.
How would you describe Mayo Smith as a manager?
JN: He didn’t hold any conferences, and he didn’t come into the locker room screaming and yelling. Mayo had been a chief scout for the Yankees and he knew talent. He knew our talent and just let us play which was ideal. He never came into the locker room screaming and throwing food all over the place like Billy Martin did. He was perfect. He just put out the lineup and went into the dugout and let us win. But Johnny Sain (pitching coach) and Hal Naragon (bullpen coach) did a lot for us.
What was Johnny Sain’s secret to success?
JN: He was twenty years ahead of his time. Sain wouldn’t make the pitchers run. Johnny said ‘we don’t run the ball past the plate, we have a pitching staff, not a track team.’ Johnny and Naragon were always positive and never said a negative word. The pitcher’s loved them and they believed in them because they could teach.
What was it like playing behind Denny McLain that year?
JN: I never saw anyone like him. Denny was a magician. He wasn’t afraid of any hitter, and had tremendous confidence and great stuff. Denny had a rising fastball that would fool you. It looked like it was straight but then it would rise just enough, a half inch or an inch and you would usually pop it up. I’ll never forget a game against Washington, Denny throws a fastball, upper deck. Next batter, first pitch, fastball, upper deck. Mayo comes out to the mound and Denny didn’t see him. Denny then turns and says, ‘what in the hell are you doing out here? Get out of here, you don’t have anyone in the bullpen as good as me.” Mayo turned right around and went back into the dugout. He struck out the next batters, all on fastballs. That was Denny. He had complete confidence in what he threw.
What would you say about Mickey Lolich?
JN: Like Denny, Mickey was a hell of a competitor. He was as good a lefthander as I’ve ever seen and I’m glad I never had to face him. He had a vicious curve ball. Carl Yastrzemski could not hit him and didn’t want any part of him. We had a great staff when you also consider that we had guys like Earl Wilson, Joe Sparma, John Hiller, and Pat Dobson.
You were involved in a big brawl that year in Oakland when Jack Aker hit you. What happened?
JN: We had tied the game, and Aker hit me in the back of the head on the first pitch so I charged the mound. We kicked the crap out them. After the game Aker called me in the locker room and apologized. We didn’t have too many brawls because we were big and had Willie Horton and Gates Brown. There were very few teams that wanted any part of us.
Tell us about the brilliant World Series move by Mayo Smith where he put Mickey Stanley at shortstop so Kaline could start in the World Series?
JN: There was no question that Al was going to play right field, he deserved it, and he was the best right fielder in baseball. I remember saying to Mickey, ‘if you want to play in the World Series you’d better play shortstop because the St. Louis starters are all right handed. I said, ‘ Kaline’s playing right, I’m in center, Willie’s in left, and you’ll be left out unless you play short. Mickey was the best all around athlete on the team, and he could play anywhere, he was that gifted. Most people don’t know that he hurt his arm playing shortstop. After that when he was in center, the cut off guys had to go out deeper so he wouldn’t have to throw it that far.
How deflating was it to lose game one of the Series when Bob Gibson set a World Series record by striking out 17 Tigers?
JN: On that day Gibson had the nastiest stuff I have ever seen. He had a rising fastball and a nasty breaking ball. We knew the Series wasn’t over and we just didn’t give up. I remember before we faced him in game seven Mayo Smith was giving us a speech about Gibson, and Norm Cash said, ‘don’t worry about it, I checked the phone booths, he’s not Superman, he wasn’t in any of them.’ Everybody just cracked up. Norm always kept everybody loose with his sense of humor. He was the greatest teammate you could ever have.
Would you describe your at bat in game seven when you hit the two run triple off of Gibson?
JN: I was looking for the fastball because he liked to get ahead of you and I thought I hope he throws it for a strike because I can’t let him get to that wicked breaking ball. It was a little bit high but I hit a bullet to center and I knew nobody was going to catch it. Even though Flood slipped a bit, even Gibson didn’t think Flood would have caught it. But that’s history. I’m just glad I have a ring because there are a lot of major leaguers who don’t. You have to be at the right place at the right time and we were just destined to win it all in ’68.