1968 Detroit Tigers: Accessible Heroes

My 13-year-old sister Claudia became something of a celebrity stalker in 1968, when every kid in my family and on our block was obsessed with baseball and the Detroit Tigers, who were in a heated pennant race and would go on the win the World Series.

One summer afternoon, she jumped on her purple Schwinn bike and decided to make the hour-long ride from our house in northwest Detroit to the home of Tiger catcher Bill Freehan in suburban Southfield. Her girlfriend Sharon went along on the adventure, after the two of them consulted the local phone book to confirm Freehan’s address.

His wife answered the door.

“Bill’s not home,” she told them. “Come back tomorrow.”

So they did.

Freehan was already at the ballpark when they stopped by the next day, but his wife said he had set aside some autographed photos for them.

bill freehan pix.jpgMy sister has hung on to her photo of Freehan for the past 50 years through international moves that have included stints in Spain and Saudi Arabia. It’s a memento of a giddy, joyful time and a team that helped to heal Detroit after the devastating 1967 civil disturbance that left 43 people dead and parts of the city in ruins.

The Tigers officially will celebrate the 50thanniversary of their World Series win in September, but my family has already started to mark the occasion, mainly by sitting around our kitchen tables and reminiscing.

Our favorite memories include how relatively easy it was to get to our heroes, simply by riding a bike to their home (never in a gated community or with security guards) or by hanging around a Detroit bar.

Just a few days ago, my brother Mike came over to my house with an armload of memorabilia from those glory days and stories about getting autographs from his Tiger heroes Norm Cash, Joe Sparma and Jon Warden at the Lindell AC bar at Cass and Michigan Avenues in downtown Detroit – when he was seven years old.

The childhood treasures that Mike has guarded for 50 years were preserved in a black folder compiled by Claudia with a “Go Get ‘Em Tigers” bumper sticker (a giveaway by the National Bank of Detroit) on the cover. There was even a vinyl record entitled “The Year of the Tiger ’68,” which chronicled the team’s triumphs, also given out to eager fans by the bank.

Tiger team photos.jpgThe folder was stuffed with yellowed newspaper clippings from the sports sections of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, along with ticket stubs, team photos and a September 13, 1968 Time magazine that featured Tiger pitcher Denny McLain on the cover. Mike also brought his coveted Al Kaline wooden bat, a freebie given to kids during Bat Day that year.

We marveled at the now politically incorrect headlines that probably would never get by a copy desk today.

“A Happy Riot in Tigertown,” read a September 18, 1968 headline in the Detroit News, with a story that said: “Detroit had a riot last night – 1968 style. Tiger baseball style. It started at Michigan and Trumbull, inside Tiger Stadium, as Detroit clinched its first American League pennant in 23 years.”

We pored over such esoteric information in the clippings as Freehan’s need to change his uniform as many as four times during “a double header in muggy weather” and the fact that the Tigers celebrated the 1968 pennant win blue-collar style with champagne and “a few cases of Stroh’s” beer. We were reminded that the day McLain pitched his magical 30thwin, he had “two eggs up, sausages and one Pepsi” for breakfast.

I dug through my jewelry box and came up with the $2 Tiger charm bracelet I bought under the stands at Tiger Stadium in 1968. I still wear it to every game, my personal version of a rally cap.Tiger charm bracelet.jpg

My father, a Detroit police lieutenant at the time, got the family into some of the Tiger games we attended that year by “flashing his badge” at the ushers and handing out a few cigars – a common practice encouraged by the Tiger organization to put plainclothes cops in the stands. There was always the concern that fans would storm the field after big wins – or losses – and extra security might be needed.

But getting us into the games became my father’s new method of family bonding and a way of keeping his unruly kids off the streets. It worked. It was the best summer of our lives.

If I had been able to track down Tiger relief pitcher Pat Dobson’s home address, I would have been on my purple Schwinn bike, too. I had a mad crush on the right-hander and spent a lot of time during pre-game warm-ups trying to snap photos of him outside the bullpen.

Tiger personal photos.jpg
That’s Pat Dobson in the lower right photo.

Years later, when I worked as a reporter for People magazine, one of my assignments was to write profiles of major league players, including Tiger first baseman Cecil Fielder and Mark Hutton, a New York Yankee and the first Australian to start and win a major league baseball game.

I not only got to see things from the inside of the Tiger dugout, but I even got to check out Fielder’s two refrigerators in his Grosse Pointe Farms kitchen and his bedroom (where the People photographer and I set up the Fielder family photo with nine-year-old Prince on the king-size bed).

Prince weighed 162 pounds at the time and would go on to be a major leaguer like his father. The master bedroom was covered in mirrors, so that Fielder could “see himself from every angle,” he told me. The profile was entitled “Livin’ Large.”

I even had a chance business encounter with Jim Price, the backup catcher for the ’68 Tigers. I told him about my teenaged crush on his teammate and he responded: “Oh, we used to call him ‘The Cobra,’” and gave me a lascivious wink.

Our heroes may have been human, after all, but in our memories they are enshrined in a moment when Detroit seemed to have recaptured its lost innocence.

As Barbara Stanton’s October 11, 1968 front-page story in the Free Press read after the World Series win: “The sky was bluer, the sunshine brighter and the sweet madness of victory rode on the air like something you could feel, taste, touch, grasp once and hold forever, learn once in a lifetime and remember ever after.”

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