The Day the 1968 Detroit Tigers Clinched the Pennant

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.”

Joe Sparma 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.

13 replies on “The Day the 1968 Detroit Tigers Clinched the Pennant

  • Dave Stanton

    Great article Karen! Brings back alot of memories. I was 12 years old and at the game that night. It’s probably my fondest memory as a child. I really liked the ‘behind the scene’ details of what led to Sparma getting the start that night and his relationship with Mayo.

    Thanks again,
    Dave

    Reply
  • Paul Malc

    Great story Karen, and a fine tribute to the memory of Joe Sparma. There is one comment I’d like to make regarding Al Kaline being “injured so often”, as you indicated, that he’d missed a third of the season. It’s true that Kaline did miss 60 games in 1968, but he wasn’t injured ‘often’. Early in the season he was hit by a pitch thrown by Lew Krausse of the Oakland A’s. That pitch broke his arm and caused him to miss 50 of his 60 games, consecutively. So you see, it was really one injury that caused Kaline to miss nearly one third of the season. The only reason I even know this is that I’m working on a framed tribute to the 1968 Tigers, and found this out researching the top players for the 1968 Tigers. It was Kaline’s injury that allowed Jim Northrup a chance to shine that year.
    Thanks for a great story –
    Paul

    Reply
    • Kellie Northrup lydic

      I would love to read what you wrote about Jim Northrup being able to shine in 1968. He was my dads brother and my uncle.

      Reply
  • Dave Newell

    I was there along with my friends Bob “The Boss” Busby Tom “The Judge” Eskew and Joe “The Chief” Frisch the night(9/17/1968) the Tigers won the 1968 American League Pennant after the final out we all went over the the Tiger dougout along with hundres of fans on to the field it was Great—I was even on Chanel 2 news with the late great sportscaster Ray Lane seeing me on TV that night So Cool.

    Reply
  • jeff davis

    I was at this game,12yrs old & Tiger maniac!! One of the best nights of my life! Poured on to the field and took home a small piece of sod that I kept alive for 4-5 yrs. After we cruised Woodward in my Dad’s 66″ mustang convertible hooping & howling. My brother and me sitting on top of back seat yelling!! Thank you Bob&Sharon Davis( my parents) for taking us to this great game!!

    Reply
  • Mike Damico

    We were just talking about this game at work and discussing who had gotten the winning hit. I was 14 and I had been at the game and it has always been one of my favorite memories growing up. I swore that it had been Wert, but, one of the guys I worked with said it had been someone else. So I decided to look it up…the crazy part about this is that in the story it talks about Vince Desmond. Vince was my dad’s 1st cousin! It was neat to see that in the story.

    Reply
  • Mark K8VF

    For all his talent, Kaline was no stranger to adversity, beginning in 1954 when he ran into a wall chasing a fly ball and spent five days in the hospital. Kaline fractured his cheekbone in 1959. He also fractured his right collarbone diving for a catch on May 26, 1962, and was benched for two months, returning to play with a game-winning single. Showing no further break in his momentum, Kaline finished that abbreviated season with twenty-nine home runs and ninety-four runs batted in. But injuries continued to plague Kaline throughout his career, sidelining the hitter for some 200 games over fifteen years. In June 1967, for instance, Kaline broke his hand after jamming his bat into a bat rack after striking out. He missed twenty-eight games that season.

    The Tigers on a Tear
    Indeed, Kaline had missed much of the 1968 season nursing a broken arm while the Tigers were roaring to the top of the American League standings. But he recovered in time to take his place in the World Series, which pitted the Tigers against the National League St. Louis Cardinals.

    Reply
  • tigers68

    I was 17 that year…went to a bunch of games that summer including McLain’s 30th win…Hiller’s 1-hitter and the pennant clincher and with my buddies stormed the field when the game ended…one of my friends is pictured in the next day’s paper climbing the screen behind home plate…was ecstatic that Kaline scored the winner..he was my boyhood hero and is still my favorite ballplayer of all time.

    Reply
  • Cindy Birdwell

    I was at the game, too! I was 7 years old, but I remember being with my dad on the field after we won. I remember all the teenagers (hippies?) ripping up the grass for souvenirs and my dad told a cop and he said, “they’re celebrating, man!” I also remember a big Tiger picture all lit up on the wall. Does anyone remember that? My mom also saw my dad and me on the tv news walking across the field. I had worn a purple plaid dress and it stood out. Such a great memory!

    Reply
  • valerie elliott

    Loved that story Karen. I recall after the 68 season Sparma was pitching a no hitter…I was working at Sears….luckily, the ladies room was just beyond the TV dept. I made many trips there that afternoon … wow! The power of Sparma was something to behold….if only he could control it! I recall he walked a bunch of guys, but escaped each inning with no hits, no runs…2 out in the 9th…fly ball…oh no, Mickey Stanley couldn’t get to it (I swear it could, should have been caught). Earlier that year, I drove my sisters to their dance lesson at Miss Harriet’s…in front a new business, a gym owned by Kaline and Sparma!!!! This Tiger fan and new reporter for Bentley HS paper boldly went in seeking a story. There was Joe Sparma inviting me to sit down, talk and share a pizza dinner. Over the moon. I hoped that fly ball would land in Stanley’s glove and hand Joe his no hitter…alas, it went in the books as a one hitter.

    Reply

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