The mysterious case of the 1968 Detroit Tigers road uniforms

DETROIT: No one works for the Detroit Tigers any more who was with them 50 years ago. No one can explain the strange mystery that surrounds that championship team. No one can answer the riddle. And Columbo isn’t available to work on the case.

Is there something odd about their World Series win? A controversy surrounding their title? Nope. It’s the uniforms.

What the heck was going on with the Tigers’ road uniforms in ’68?

They remain one of the most popular uniforms in the history of the franchise. The grey roads from 1968 have a simple “DETROIT” block-lettering across the chest. No stripes on the pants, simple dark navy stirrup socks. Understated, and well, to use the word again…simple.

The road jerseys are a popular item at Detroit Athletic Co. in Detroit, only a short Willie Horton-style throw from the former site of Tiger Stadium. You can order a ’68 jersey and have the good folks at Detroit Athletic put whatever number you want on the back. #6 for the great Al Kaline, #23 for Horton, #29 for Mickey Lolich, the World Series hero. In a special feature that only appeared for a few years on Tiger uniforms, the number was also on the sleeve, and Detroit Athletic Co. will sew your desired uniform number (anyone you want) on the right sleeve.

But that’s not entirely accurate because not all of the ’68 Tigers had their numbers on the right sleeve. Some had their number on the left sleeve of their road jersey. But why? That’s the mystery.

There seems to be no method for why some Tigers had their number on the right shoulder sleeve (like Kaline, Lolich and Denny McLain), and some had it on their left (Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup). Two Tigers had their sleeves change: Willie Horton and Don Wert wore their numbers on the right some games and on the left in others. There were four road games during that series, and Horton wore his #23 on his right sleeve in Games One and Six, and on his left in Games Two and Seven. Why?

Fortunately we have the video from all four road games of the ’68 Series and after watching them I was able to make a list:

Right-Sleeve Tigers:
Gates Brown
Norm Cash
Al Kaline
Mickey Lolich
Willie Horton (Game One, Game Six)
Dick McAuliffe
Denny McLain
Jim Price
Mayo Smith
Mickey Stanley
Don Wert (Game One, Game Seven)
Tony Cuccinello (coach)
Wally Moses (coach)

Left-Sleeve Tigers:
Bill Freehan
John Hiller
Willie Horton (Game Two, Game Seven)
Don Wert (Game Two, Game Six)
Earl Wilson
Jim Northrup

Why did Willie Horton wear his uniform number on the right sleeve in some games during the 1968 World Series and on the left in others.

I contacted the Tigers to see if they could solve this mystery. I had to call a few times, even reaching out to a few old friends who used to work for the club. No one had an answer. Jim Schmakel is the clubhouse manager for the Tigers and he’s in his 40th season in that role. A clubhouse manager would be able to solve this mystery, but unfortunately Schmakel has only been with the team since 1978. That’s the year he took over for PioDiSalvo, who briefly held the job after the ’68 guys moved on. I was unable to locate the clubhouse staff from the 1968 team.

In conversations with members of that team I’ve been unable to solve the mystery of the sleeves. Jon Warden doesn’t know, neither does John Hiller. Mickey Lolich, via his wife Joyce, has no recollection as to why the team sewed some numbers on the right and some on the left. I’ve exchanged emails with uniform experts and historians at the Baseball Hall of Fame, none of them knows. Many people I contacted were unaware of the inconsistency.

This year the Tigers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 champs with several events at Comerica Park. Earlier in September several of the remaining members from the team were on hand for a ceremony. All of them were given replicas of their ’68 road uniforms. There was the Hall of Famer Al Kaline in the ’68 road uniform with a #6 on his right sleeve. There was Lolich with his iconic #29 on the right sleeve. There was Willie, coming out with the use of a cane, wearing his #23 on the right sleeve. Every one of the old timers had their numbers on their right sleeve. Even Bill Freehan, who never wore the #11 on his right sleeve in the 1968 World Series. The Tigers got it wrong during that ceremony. I know they felt they got it right by being “uniform”, but I would have loved to have seen Freehan and Wert and Horton with their numbers on their left sleeve. I would have gotten a kick out of that.

The Tigers have worn the ’68 road uniforms a few times in homage to that magical season, most recently this past summer when they wore the throwback road uniforms at home. The numbers were on the right sleeve, as if they were completely unaware of this crucial controversy. How could they be so obtuse when such an important mystery has yet to be solved? Move over Bigfoot. Swim aside Loch Ness Monster. We want to know what the hell is going on with the Detroit Tigers 1968 road uniforms.

The iconic photo from the 1968 World Series shows the inconsistency in Detroit’s uniforms that season.

The way I see it, there are at least five possible explanations for the 1968 Road Uniform Mystery.

#1. The Throwing Arm Theory

Al Kaline threw with his right arm, so did Denny McLain. They both wore their numbers on the right sleeve. Ah, but Bill Freehan and Jim Northrup were also righthanded, but their numbers were on the left. Theory refuted.

#2. The Batting Side Theory

Maybe the numbers were meant to be on the side facing away from the pitcher? Kaline’s back arm was his right, and Northrup’s was his left. But why did Dick McAuliffe have his #3 on the right sleeve, which faced the pitcher from his lefthanded stance? Puzzling, and theory smashed.

#3. The Personal Choice Theory

Is it possible that for some reason the Tigers let each player choose the sleeve for their number? Did Freehan prefer the left sleeve? This is easy to confirm: I spoke with four former Tigers and none of them recall being asked which sleeve they wanted their number sewn on. Debunked.

#4. The Michigan Connection Theory

Freehan and Northrup both had their numbers on their left sleeves. Both were Michigan natives, as was reliever John Hiller, who never got into a road game in the Series, but still had his #18 on his left sleeve. This theory looks pretty good. It would even explain why Horton played two games with his number on the left and two with it on the right: Willie was from Virginia but he grew up in Detroit. Is it possible for some reason the Tigers were trying to reward Michiganders with a left sleeve distinction? For some cosmic Mitten State reason? Alas, it can’t be.

Earl Wilson, who started Game Three at Tiger Stadium for his only appearance in the Series, had his #16 on his left sleeve, and he was born in Louisiana. Also, Don Wert wore his #8 on his left sleeve for two road games and he was from Pennsylvania. Plus, Mickey Stanley is from Grand Rapids, so why did he have his #24 on the right sleeve instead of the left? This theory is interesting, and it almost passes muster, but it’s ultimately debunked.

#5. The Chaos Theory

This theory states that the sleeve number mystery is a result of random forces that have no explanation. Maybe no one will ever know what happened. Maybe the numbers appeared on sleeves where they were supposed to appear according to some universal force we can’t understand. Maybe the seamstress charged with sewing the numbers was drunk.

The number on the sleeve has only appeared on Tiger jerseys for a few years here and there. In 1972 the team changed the road uniforms to the orange-and-blue pullover polyesters with stretch waistbands. They discarded the grey roads and the sleeve numbers. The mystery was buried, but some of us will never rest until we get an explanation.