Joe Sparma was so much on his manager’s black list that he’d opted to eat Sunday’s game day dinner more or less by himself, instead of with his teammates. Al Kaline had been injured so often he’d missed a third of the season. Don Wert was playing every day, all right, but he was hitting .198. Earl Wilson, the scheduled starter, had a bum shoulder, and nobody knew how bad it was until almost game time.
It was September 17, 1968, and the Tigers were gearing up to face the Yankees. It wasn’t so much that they needed the win. The Orioles were eleven games out of first, and would be mathematically eliminated before the Tiger / Yankee game was over, but the ’68 Tigers weren’t the sort to let somebody else do their work for them – especially not the Boston Red Sox. “We knew Baltimore had lost [to Boston],” Dick McAuliffe told a State Journal reporter, “but we didn’t want to back into a pennant – not this team.”
A little before 8:00pm, Joe Sparma, not looking where he was going, walked straight into his manager. “Joe, can you pitch tonight?” asked Mayo, by way of greeting. At least that explained why Mayo was where he was, instead of sitting in his office or on the bench. Wilson’s shoulder had proven to be a show-stopper. Sparma had exactly ten minutes to warm up.
Sparma had lost his spot in the regular rotation a month before. Yanked from a game, he blew up to sportswriter Joe Falls. Mayo “has no respect for me; doesn’t like me, doesn’t trust me,” and so on. Joe went straight to Mayo Smith for a response, and he certainly got one. “I can’t start him and I can’t relieve with him.” Mayo shook his head in frustration, and he wasn’t smiling. “What am I supposed to do? Take him out back and shoot him?”
It definitely wasn’t a pretty relationship. Eating lunch in splendid isolation with Denny McLain and traveling secretary Vince Desmond, Sparma was so depressed that even Denny tried to help him. “Cheer up,” he said. “You know, Joe, I bet you’re going to pitch the big one for us.” There was no beer in the clubhouse until after the games, but Desmond was tempted to check Denny for sobriety.
Now eight o’clock was upon them, and there were 46,512 fans on hand to see Sparma square off against Yankee starter Stan Bahnsen and his 2.05 ERA.
Square off Joe did – in more ways than one. Through the fifth inning Sparma had faced only sixteen men. The only Yankee to reach base had been Mantle, and he was erased in a first-inning double play. In the bottom of the fifth, Freehan singled and moved to second when Tommy Matchick grounded out. Coyote (Don Wert) flied out, and it looked as if the inning was over, but Sparma singled sharply to center field, and Freehan came home to put the Tigers ahead, 1-0.
The game stayed that way until the ninth inning. Sparma pitched to only 27 men through eight innings, but five Yankees came to bat in the ninth, and they pushed a run across before Mantle struck out to end the inning.
Modern-day baseball fans rarely see the kind of machinations that used to characterize the management of close games. The September 17 classic is a perfect example of what is missing from baseball forty-plus years later.
Steve Hamilton, pitching in relief of Bahnsen, got Jim Northrup on strikes. Willie Horton grounded to third.
With two out, Mayo put in Al Kaline to pinch hit for Norm Cash, even though Cash was two for three on the day. Nobody could beat Al Kaline when it came to flatly refusing to be an easy out. Kaline walked. Bill Freehan singled – runners on first and third.
Ralph Houk had been tossed in the top of the ninth, and so it was third-base coach Frankie Crossetti who brought in Lindy McDaniel, a right hander, to pitch to Jim Price, who was pinch hitting for Tommy Matchick. Perfect! McDaniel had to pitch to at least one man, and Mayo had control of the matchup. He yanked Price before he even swung a bat and put in legendary pinch-hitter Gates Brown.
The Gator walked. Ernie Harwell’s call is the stuff of which legends are made:
This big crowd here ready to break loose. Three men on, two men out. Game tied, 1-1, in the ninth inning. McDaniel checking his sign with Jake Gibbs. The tall right-hander ready to go to work again, and the windup, and the pitch…He swings, a line shot, base hit, right field, the Tigers win it! Here comes Kaline to score and it’s all over! Don Wert singles, the Tigers mob Don, Kaline has scored…The fans are streaming on the field…And the Tigers have won their first pennant since nineteen hundred and forty-five. Let’s listen to the bedlam here at Tiger Stadium!
It was the Tigers’ 29th come-from-behind victory that season, and their seventh straight win. The next day, the front office announced mail order plans for ’68 series tickets.
Sparma and Smith were still on the outs. As a matter of fact, Sparma pitched only a third of an inning in the World Series and confirmed his manager’s worst fears, giving up two earned runs and earning an unenviable 54.00 ERA in post-season play. But for one perfect night, a very good guy and better than decent all-around pitcher had more than his fifteen minutes of fame. Sparma ended up with a five hitter and a place in the record books, and the ’68 Tigers were well on their way to immortality.