This year’s World Series began this week. I don’t have a rooting interest in either Boston or Los Angeles although both clubs have managers of color (Alex Cora for the Red Sox, and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts). However, this wasn’t the case 50 years ago this month.
1968 was a life-changing year in America. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and funeral in April pushed back baseball’s opening day. An all-city school patrol field day remained on schedule at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium where I, as a sixth grader, saw the Detroit Tigers come from behind and defeat Boston in the team’s first win of the season.
A month later our hometown Tigers landed atop of the American League and remained there for the rest of the 1968 season, winning 103 games and its first American League pennant in 35 years.
As did the city, I survived just a year earlier one of the worst civil disturbances in U.S. history that started just blocks from my home in July of 1967. We Detroiters don’t call it a riot.
The Tigers later lost the 1967 AL pennant on the season’s final day in the “Great Pennant Race of ’67.” The starting nucleus of players, several of whom had grown up in Michigan, had been in place since 1965, including Willie Horton, who grew up in my neighborhood and was the Tigers’ only Black starter.
“The Tigers did inspire the city and brought people together, and gave them something to root for.”
Among us Black youngsters, Horton was the man. He left the ballpark still in uniform, drove to the epicenter of the ’67 disturbance, stood atop the car and implored the enraged protesters to go home. He wasn’t successful, but nonetheless the gesture is forever seared in Motown annals.
“I did it because it was what I was supposed to do. I didn’t think anything about it,” Horton told a packed room of Black sports journalists in Detroit as he accepted one of six NABJ Sam Lacy Pioneer Awards in August. I introduced myself afterwards. It was my first time ever meeting him in person — 50 years later is never too late.
The Tigers’ championship run a half-century ago, capped by winning the 1968 World Series in dramatic and historic fashion, was a healing salvo for a fractured city. The players said as much, reports Brendan Donley who, traveling by car or by plane, spoke to many of the surviving team members of both Detroit and St. Louis and assembled their accounts in An October to Remember, 1968 (Sports Publishing).
“They weren’t claiming they saved the city, but they were all glad they done their part,” Donley told me last week in a phone interview. The Tigers “did inspire the city and brought people together, and gave them something to root for.”
Detroit stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat St. Louis in seven games. Horton in Game 5 made the Series’ pivotal play when he threw out the Cardinals’ legendary speedster Lou Brock at home from left field. The Tigers later won that game and the next two as well.
“We talked about that play,” Donley recalled.
Horton and two other teammates threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Tigers-Cardinals series this September as the ’68 Tigers were honored in the new Tiger Stadium. “We lost some of the guys, [but] having those guys out on the field, listening to their stories sitting in the dugout, was really special,” Detroit Manager Ron Gardenhire told me. “They’ve been there and done that.”
The last World Series played before the advent of divisions, playoffs and the DH took place 50 years ago. I’m proud and lucky to have seen it, albeit on black and white television. Donley’s new book, an instant classic, helped restart those memories.
“The book is about looking back and looking at what was…a meaningful time,” Donley said.
A future column will be devoted to Willie Horton then and now.