After just missing the World Series the previous season, the Detroit Tigers won 103 games and the pennant by 12 games. The Detroit Tigers dominated “the Year of the Pitcher.” Fittingly, a pitcher led the team to the pennant. That season, Denny McLain won 31 games. Despite McLain’s dominance, the team became known for its dramatics winning 30 games in their last at bat.
Pitching dominated 1968. Don Drysdale set a record for consecutive scoreless innings. Bob Gibson finished with a 1.12 earned run average (ERA). In Detroit, Denny McLain became the first 30 game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. The 24-year-old went 31-6 for Detroit with a 1.96 ERA. He completed 28 games and pitched 336 innings. For his efforts, McLain won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
McLain anchored a strong starting staff. Mickey Lolich won 17 games and struck out 197. Veteran Earl Wilson added 13 wins and hit seven home runs. Wilson’s home run percentage topped the league leaders. Joe Sparma went 10-10 to round out the staff. Sparma feuded with manager Mayo Smith and was benched for nearly a month. He returned to pitch the pennant clincher. Altogether, Detroit’s four starters completed 53 games.
While McLain led the pitching staff, Willie Horton led the offense. Detroit’s “Willie the Wonder” finished with 36 home runs, drove in 85, and batted .285 when the league average was .230. He was the man people looked to for a big hit. The left fielder finished fourth in the MVP voting.
Horton was one of four above average outfielders in Detroit. Mickey Stanley won a gold glove in center. Jim Northrup played in right and drove in 90. He also hit five grand slams that season including two in consecutive at-bats and three in one week. Al Kaline was limited to 102 games after breaking his arm. He played 70 games in right field. To date, Kaline and veteran Eddie Mathews are the only Hall of Famers from the 1968 Tigers.
Kaline played 22 games at first base in 1968, but Norm Cash anchored the regular infield. “Stormin’ Norman” hit 25 home runs in 127 games. Second baseman Dick McAuliffe led the league in runs scored. In August, McAuliffe charged Tommy John after being hit by a pitch precipitating a full scale brawl. Shortstop Ray Oyler hit .135, but was a great fielder. Third baseman Don Wert rounded out the infield and drove in the pennant winning run. Detroit’s bench made up the slack when starters like Wert, Cash, and Kaline missed time.
Eddie Mathews finished his career with Detroit. He hit over 500 career home runs and provided pop off Detroit’s bench. Detroit’s greatest weapon off the Bench was Gates Brown. Gator hit .370 with a .442 OBP. His OPS was a whopping 1.127. Brown led the league in pinch hits and sparked many rallies. On August 11, he had the game winning hit in both games of a double header.
Despite the heroics, the season began with a thud. Detroit lost to Boston on Opening Day. However, they came back to win the next day. After the Opening Day loss, Detroit ripped off nine straight wins. At the end of April, Detroit stood at 12-5 and led the American League by a game.
Detroit fell out of first on May 3. On May 10, McLain beat the Senators 12-1 propelling the Tigers to first place to stay. The team did not relinquish the lead. A week later, Jim Northrup’s grand slam beat Washington after the Tigers squandered the lead in the ninth. Two days later, Al Kaline became Detroit’s all-time home run hitter. He remains the all-time leader to this day. Unfortunately, he broke his arm after being hit by a pitch on May 25. Lolich finished May with a one-hit shutout and 1-0 win. Horton’s homered for the games only run. At 28-16, Detroit lead the league by 2 ½ games.
Horton was not Detroit’s only home run hero. On June 24, Jim Northrup hit grand slams in consecutive at bats. The Tigers won 14-3, but lost Don Wert for a couple of games after a beaning. Wert never fully recovered, but Northrup remained hot. On June 29, he hit his third slam of the week helping McLain to his 14th win. At the end of June, Detroit was 7 ½ games up.
McLain’s great year continued into July. He finished the month with six wins. On July 27, the right hander notched his 20th victory. In between starts, McLain headlined a lounge act and drank cases of Pepsi Cola. He may be the most flamboyant athlete in Detroit sports history. That history includes Dennis Rodman. On July 31, McLain won his 21st game and Detroit’s lead stood at seven games.
The dog days did not slow Detroit. On August 11, Gates Brown won both games of a doubleheader with clutch hits. On the 16th, McLain scored his 25th win. On August 22, Detroit scored some revenge for a game in mid-June. On June 15, White Sox pitcher Tommy John beaned four Tigers. The Tigers faced him again and did not back down. John brushed back Dick McAuliffe. After some jawing, the Tiger charged John, injuring the pitcher’s shoulder, and ending John’s season.
Violence was not limited to the diamond in 1968. The Tigers played the White Sox in Milwaukee on August 26. The American League relocated the game because of the violence at the Democratic National Convention. The teams returned to Chicago the next day, but violence continued. McLain’s near perfect season continued as well. On August 28, he won his 26th game.
The streets of Chicago were surreal. The Tigers faced a surreal incident in New York on the 25th. The Tigers blew a 5-0 lead and lost 6-5. Former Tiger outfielder Rocky Colavito won the game. He pitched 2 2/3 innings and actually retired Al Kaline. Despite the Twilight Zone feel to the end of August, Detroit ended the month at 85-51 and led Baltimore by six.
The Orioles visited Tiger Stadium at the end of August for a three game series. The teams split the first two games. Earl Wilson won the first game pitching a four-hitter, hitting his fifth home run, and driving in four. They played the third game on September 1. Detroit won 7-3 behind Denny McLain.
McLain continued to roll. On September 14, he scored his 30th win, but Detroit had to score late. Reggie Jackson cracked a pair of home runs to give Oakland the lead. In the ninth, Al Kaline scored the tying run on an error and Willie Horton drove in the winning run with a single. McLain won the game 5-4.
Three days later, Detroit clinched the pennant. According to the script, they won it in the ninth. Joe Sparma pitched a complete game and Don Wert drove in Al Kaline with the winning run. The fans stormed the field to celebrate the team’s first pennant since 1945.
The regular season witnessed one more interesting incident involving the Yankees. Mickey Mantle was looking to move into third place on the all time home run list. On September 19, the Tigers held a comfortable lead in the 8th inning. McLain relayed the message that he was going to let Mantle hit the milestone home run. Mantle missed the first pitch. He did not believe McLain and was waiting for something other than a fat fastball. Eventually, Mantle hit the ball out. The next batter, Joe Pepitone, asked for a fat one as well. McLain knocked him down.
The Detroit Tigers won the pennant on September 17. They won an epic World Series against the Cardinals. The series tends to overshadow the epic regular season. The Tigers won 30 of their 103 victories in their final at-bat. Denny McLain won 31 games. Gates Brown hit .370. Al Kaline became the team’s all-time home run leader. The personal achievements gave way to the team. In the end, the 1968 Tigers became one of baseball’s all time great teams.