Would Old Age & Treachery Beat Youth & Talent? 1968 vs. 1984

It’s a question guaranteed to ensure that the conversation stays as warm as the weather is cold, come hot stove league time. People have been talking about it for a couple of decades now, and they’re not much closer to resolving the issue than medieval philosophers were when they tried to decide how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. This year, because the’84 team has just hit a milestone anniversary, the argument has started up a little early.

Just what would happen in a head-to-head confrontation between the 1968 come-from-behind Tigers and the 1984 wire-to-wire champions?

1968 1984In a straight statistical comparison, on the surface of it it’s not that hard to make it look like the “blessed” boys (remember Al Ackerman, and his, “Bless you, Boys”?) of ’84 would whip the Boys from Syracuse in a cakewalk. The ’84 club hit more home runs, won more games, had a lot higher batting average, and carried a five-man pitching rotation in which the weakest link was a guy with a 3.74 ERA over 101 innings. If that rotation struggled, the top two relief specialists were looking at 32 and 14 saves respectively.

But it’s not that easy. Baseball games generate more statistics that about any other sport, but statistics don’t even begin to tell the story, especially not this time.

Let’s talk for a minute about team batting averages. In 1984, as a team, the Tigers were batting .271. In 1968? Are you really ready for this? The club average was .235. That’s not a misprint: .235. In 1984, the team pushed 784 runs across the plate. In a season that was two games longer than the ’84 regular season, the 1968 Tigers scored just 640 times.

And yet, the ’68 club had 103 wins and finished 12 games in front of Baltimore. The ’84 team had 104 victories and were 15 in front. That’s not much statistical separation, is it?

So how did they do it? If a statistical argument is necessary, we can throw ERA into the mix – 2.71 in 1968, a relatively high 3.49 in 1984, but even that doesn’t explain away across-the-board deficits in just about every other category.

The reason the 1968 Tigers won is that they damned well DID. Whenever they had to.

It didn’t hurt that the Boys from Syracuse had played together so long that almost everybody on the team knew exactly what to expect from his teammates. Nine guys on the field played together in as smooth an ensemble as – well, as Tram and Sweet Lou in ’84. It didn’t hurt that, no matter who was on the left side of the infield, Norm Cash was going to give him a consistent target to throw to at first. It didn’t hurt that ’68 had a decent turn of power – 185 home runs to the ’84 team’s 187, and this was in an era when there wasn’t quite as much rabbit in the ball (*61 had come and gone, but the ball was still horsehide). Denny McLain’s 31 wins didn’t hurt, and neither did Mickey Lolich’s reliability and resilience…and strikeout pitch. It certainly didn’t hurt that the second baseman was a guy who not only got on base on called third strikes with some regularity, if memory serves, at least once he did it by diving headfirst at the bag. [Whether it was on a dropped third strike or not, Dick McAuliffe remains the only player this writer has ever seen make a necessary (and successful) headfirst slide into first base.]

In 1968, everybody on the field was a scrapper, and each man could reach back and come up with a little extra when he needed it. Fans never knew who the hero would be on a given day, just that there would be one. It was like having a whole team of Ty Cobbs – only the Tigers were doing it with less talent. It was just certain that somebody would seize an opportunity and the rest of the team would hang on to the resulting advantage. In a world where a freckled kid like Tommy Matchick is providing Kirk Gibson-like heroics, and where the shortstop hits only about enough that his average matches the proof of the liquor he drinks (but he still gobbles up opposition grounders like a two-legged vacuum cleaner) anything can happen.

The ’84 Tigers had Gibby and they had momentum, but as a team they had far less experience with adversity, far less practice with doing the impossible. What did Phil Niekro have on his shirt that time? “Old Age and Treachery will Overcome Youth and Skill Every Time?”

It’s been pointed out that it takes a different kind of ballclub to bring home all the marbles in a straight pennant race – a different kind to succeed after first winning a league championship, a different kind yet again, when a club has to deal with today’s wild card and playoffs. This is true, of course, but, in a way, it is yet another kind of statistical argument. It’s based on rules – rules of psychology and common sense, and good management. The rules did not apply in 1968. ’68 vs. ’84? The smart money stays with old age and treachery.

2 replies on “Would Old Age & Treachery Beat Youth & Talent? 1968 vs. 1984

  • kizer78

    All of your statistical arguments are slanted, of course the ’68 team had a lower batting average, their pitchers had to bat. Also, the offense was down across the entire league. But you didn’t even need stats, since the ’68 team was just a bunch of winners. I will see your Matchick and raise you Dave Bergman.

    Personally, I think the ’61 team was better than either and I would give the ’72 squad a chance because they had the best manager in Tiger history .

    • Dan Holmes

      Billy Martin the best manager in Tiger history? That’s quite a statement. Not an argument you hear many people make, but we do agree he was quite a manager.

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