After the pivotal fifth game, all the momentum in the ’68 World Series belonged to the Tigers. Denny McLain started Game Six and went all the way, not allowing a St. Louis Run until the ninth inning, while the perennially light-hitting Detroiters hammered out no fewer than 13 runs, ten of them coming in the third inning.
Thus, Game Seven would be for all the marbles. Bob Gibson, St. Louis ace and future Hall of Famer, hadn’t pitched since Game Four. He was more than ready to go. For a manager whose stock in trade was to do very little in terms of managing, Mayo Smith had made some interesting decisions as the series approached, not the least of which was playing outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop – a position he’d never played in organized ball, either major league or minor league. Now Mayo had to start somebody against Gibson. Earl Wilson, Game Three starting pitcher, was due up. But the Cardinals had hit Wilson hard; he’d only lasted five innings his last time out. And Mickey Lolich? The Tigers had won three games, and Mickey had won two of them. Mickey also was a workhorse, and the “pitch count” thankfully had not been invented. Mayo went with his lefty.
Game Seven was scoreless for six innings. Then, with two out in the seventh, Cash and Horton singled, and Jim Northrup hit a bases-clearing triple to center when Curt Flood turned the wrong way on the ball. Northrup eventually came home on a Bill Freehan double, and that was all she wrote until the ninth inning, when the Tigers added an insurance run. The Cardinals finally got on the board in the bottom of the inning on a Mike Shannon home run, but that was it – all the Redbirds could muster. Tim McCarver popped up to Bill Freehan, and it was all over. The final score was 4-1 Detroit. On October 10, 1968, after a 23 year hiatus, the Tigers had brought home a World Series Championship.
If it were possible for anybody to be happier than the people of Detroit, it would have to have been the Tigers themselves. Having to celebrate on the road didn’t curb the frenzy in the least. The flow of champagne was reminiscent of the Great Flood. Guys who weren’t already wet enough from the bubbly somersaulted into the whirlpool bath.
“Man, oh, man!” Willie Horton kept saying. “I looked over the top of the left field roof in the seventh inning, and there was Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Christmas came early! Man, oh, man! I’ve never been this happy in my life. Never! Never! Never! Man, oh, man! … It’s just like being a kid on Christmas!”
Julio Moreno, a batting practice pitcher, took off his uniform and put on his good suit, ready to catch the plane back to Detroit. This was a serious mistake. Mickey Stanley and Dick McAuliffe promptly picked him up and tossed him into the whirlpool. Willie grinned at Moreno and started singing “Jingle Bells.”
So many people crowded the airport in Detroit to celebrate the Tigers’ arrival that, once the plane landed, the airport had to be shut down. The bus carrying the team from the plane headed back to Tiger Stadium so that the players could pick up their cars and start to work their way home. It was late in the evening, but the city streets still were so full of celebrants – representing every imaginable walk of life – that the bus was crawling. All over the city and suburbs, the following morning’s papers carried the headline, “WE WIN!!!” Many would be delivered with handwritten messages from newspaper carriers scrawled above the headline. “Good Morning, Tiger Fans!” a Brighton, Michigan newspaper boy wrote over and over, until he’d shared his joy at the Tigers victory with every person on his route.
And yet, the focus wasn’t on the winning game. People still talked about the play at home plate in Game Five. “It lifted us,” Bill Freehan told reporters.
Over the winter, Horton got even more credit for the throw, but typically, he wouldn’t leave it at that. “It wasn’t just one man’s effort,” he kept saying. There were good scouting reports. The team had advance warning that Brock usually didn’t slide. And Freehan, after all, had made the actual play. It was his signal to the cutoff man that let the throw come all the way to the plate. Years later, when The Detroit Tigers: A Movie was made, Willie was still protesting. “[The play on Brock?] We all did things as a team,” he said. “I made the throw, but it was the combination of Freehan, Don Wert, and Willie Horton and the support of Mickey Stanley [at shortstop]” that made the difference.
He couldn’t have said it better. The 1968 Tiger victory was as purely a team victory as baseball has ever seen.