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The '68 Tigers: A Team to Cherish

By Tim Wendel, May 24, 2013
The 1968 Detroit Tigers meant more to the ravaged city of Detroit than a simple game of baseball during the long hot summer months. Here author Tim Wendel, whose highly acclaimed book on the team, 'Summer of 68', tells us why.

“Cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake to go.”

That’s my answer when people ask why the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who battled back from a three-games-to-one deficit to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, remain so beloved in Michigan and parts of the Midwest.

That restaurant order is what pitcher Mickey Lolich usually tells the waitress when she asks Gates Brown. Lolich won three complete games in the ’68 Series, and Brown was Detroit’s top pinch hitter of that era. The two have known each other since they played in the Tigers’ minor league system.  Back then, Brown couldn’t enter restaurants in the South because of the color of his skin. Lolich became the guy who took his order and brought the food back to the team bus.

Mickey Lolich, won 17 games during the 1968 season but his 3 victories in the Worlds Championship, the last in the deciding 7th game against Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, punctuated his extraordinary year.

Lolich and Brown, as well as such Tigers greats as Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Al Kaline, have been getting together for lunch since their improbable victory in 1968 — a triumph that helped save what was left of the city of Detroit.

In ’68, the gods were angry, very angry, as the nation was rocked by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and most major U.S. cities experienced rioting. It’s often forgotten that Detroit saw such burning and looting, the worst episodes of urban violence since the Civil War, the season before. How the Tigers players responded then and re-rose to the occasion in 1968 will be forever remembered in Michigan.

In the simmering and explosive July heat, riots erupted in downtown Detroit.

When the Detroit riots broke out in late July 1967, the Tigers were playing a home doubleheader. The sky darkening with smoke told them something had gone tragically wrong in their city. Between games, Lolich received orders to join his National Guard unit and spent that evening and several more patrolling downtown Detroit. 

Tigers slugger Willie Horton, who grew up in Detroit, tried to stop the rioting by himself. Still in his uniform, Horton rushed to the intersection of 12th and Clairmount streets, where the riots had begun and near where the ballplayer had grown up. He stood atop a car and pleaded with the mob to stop.

“People knew immediately who I was,” Horton told me decades later. “What I remember today is that they were so concerned for me, that I might get hurt. It looked like a war out there. I’ve never seen stuff like that — burning buildings, looting, smoke everywhere.”

Even though Horton didn’t single-handedly stop the riots, people in the Detroit area never forgot his courage. Horton now works in the Tigers’ front office and when he makes his rounds at Comerica Park in Detroit or walks the streets of downtown, people recognize him and say thank you. Thank you for simply having the belief that a hometown guy in a baseball uniform could change things.

Many of the old Tigers still live in the area, getting together for their lunches of burgers, fries and shakes. In essence, they belong to a time when ballplayers still lived among us. A time before the money got so big and the stars moved to gated communities, far beyond the everyday glimpse of the rest of us. 

One of the major shifts in recent years -— dare we say a tragedy? — is that we can see so many of the games on television. Between cable and the Internet, we can track down the latest highlights of our favorite stars. Yet the odds of that professional athlete living down the street from us ranks somewhere between unlikely and impossible now.

I visited Detroit many times while researching my book, Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball, And America, Forever.  The city still bears the scars of the riots and subsequent neglect due to white flight. So many buildings have become deserted and then torn down that great swaths of empty space remain. The city has urged people to move closer together so such services as electricity and water can be better utilized. Some advocate bringing in farmers and having them plow the empty lots into productive fields.

Driving through Detroit these days often borders upon the surreal. It’s like watching a film that breaks off time after time to reveal only a blank white screen where an iconic American city once stood. One moves through a landscape with built-in pauses, giving everyone plenty of room for reflection and regret.

Perhaps that’s why the ’68 Tigers remain so important here. Why the ballclub honored them on May 25 at Comerica Park. In the dizzying swirl of today, that memorable ballclub from the past still remains a tie that binds a region together. It may take some prompting at times, but people still remember and treasure the great Tigers team.

As the fans file inside for another game at Comerica Park, many headed for some of the most expensive seats in Detroit’s new downtown ballpark, a heavy-set guy sits at a long table outside the luxury suites.

“Don’t be shy,” he says. “C’mon, get your own autograph from ‘The Gator.’ Have something to take home.”

Many don’t at first recognize the aging ballplayer. Some even go well past the table where he signs for what most players today would consider chump change. But then something clicks and their gait slows and they turn, saying something like, “Gates Brown, is that you?” Or, “Hey, I remember that game when you. . . .”

The hitting of Gates Brown (left) and Willie Horton (right) were major reasons why the Detroit Tigers captured the pennant in 1968 than went on to win the Worlds Championship. This photograph of the two popular stars was taken that year by re-known photographer Don Wingfield.

And just like that, William James “Gates” Brown has them in the palm of his hand again. Not bad for a guy who learned to play baseball in prison, of all places. Brown was arrested for breaking and entering at 18 and sentenced to a short stretch in Mansfield (Ohio) State Reformatory. Movie buffs may recognize Mansfield as the setting for the film The Shawshank Redemption. Brown played on a team there and was visited by Pat Mullin, the Tigers’ top scout. After Brown crushed a long home run with Mullin watching, the ballclub signed Brown to a $7,000 contract when he was paroled. 

Once Brown was asked by somebody unaware of his background what he took in high school. “I took a little English,” he replied, “a little mathematics, some science, some hubcaps, some wheel covers.”

During the World Series, the Tigers bested the National League Champion St. Louis Cardinals in seven games after trailing in the Series, three games to one.

On another afternoon at Comerica Park, Brown signs black-and-white photographs of himself for fans of all ages. As with all the old Tigers, the past once again becomes real, something anyone who remembers those days can hold dear again. Even though Detroit repeated as World Series champions in 1984 and reached the Fall Classic again in 2006 and 2012, this Tigers team remains the favorite of some many in Michigan.

“I remember that big home run you hit against the Red Sox in ’68,” somebody says.

“That set the tone, didn’t it?” Brown replies.

And just like that we’re in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine, heading again for 1968 and that season for the ages. The time when a ballclub stood strong for its city.

 

 

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