Way back in March, I was approached by the Baseball Hall of Fame to write a story for their website as part of a World Series special they planned on putting on. It was supposed to commerate the 35th anniversary of the 1968 Tigers Championship Team, and it centered around Mickey Stanley’s move from the outfield to the infield.
For whatever reason, the story never was put up on their website, and I’m not sure if it’s ever going to be. So, I’m going to put it up here for your enjoyment. Constructive criticism is welcome.
I’d like to thank Dan Holmes, who gave me the assignment and is in charge of the Hall of Fame’s website. He was a big help, and is a good guy. Also, my Uncle David (an English teacher) proofed it for me and helped get it most of the way there for me. Something about the second paragraph bugged me, and I couldn’t quite get it right. But here it is…
Short at Short – Mayo Smith’s World Series Gamble
The City of Detroit had gone 23 years without a Tiger’s team even playing in the World Series. In 1967, the Tigers missed out on a chance to win the pennant by the slimmest of margins. Could Mayo Smith bring his team around and challenge for the pennant again in 1968? Many thought the Tigers were the better team in 1967 despite coming up short, so the 1968 team had a lot to prove going into the season and down the stretch..
The 1967 American League pennant race was regarded as one of the closest pennant races of all time. Four teams, The Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins, would still have a shot at the pennant going into the final week of the season. In the final game regular season game against the California Angels, the Detroit Tigers finished by losing the second game of a doubleheader. In the final at-bat, Tiger’s infielder Dick McAuliffe grounded into a double play with runners on first and second base with the Tigers down by three runs. This was only the second time in 675 plate appearances that McAuliffe grounded into a double play during the entire season. A victory in that game would have forced a one game playoff with the Boston Red Sox for the AL pennant. Unfortunately, this Tiger team would have to wait one more year to get their chance in the World Series.
1968 has been coined the year of the pitcher. Between Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned runned average, Denny McClain’s 31 victories, and Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 batting average, the lowest ever to win a batting crown, the league would eventually lower the pitchers mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. 1968 was also the final year before going to a divisional format and the institution of a playoff system to get to the World Series.
The Tiger’s clinched the 1968 American League pennant on September 17, 1968. From the time the Tigers clinched the pennant to the time they squared off with the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, one of the more unusual managerial decisions in baseball history would be made and eventually validated.
Throughout the season, Mayo Smith shuffled his four exceptional outfielders, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley, and the future Hall of Fame player Al Kaline, in order for all of them to receive playing time. Al Kaline would eventually end up on the disabled list, limiting him to 102 games during the season. Mayo Smith was also plagued by poor hitting from his shortstops. Roy Oyler played the majority of the time at shortstop. Oyler was an exceptional defensive shortstop, but he hit only .135 during the season. Tom Matchik (.203) and Dick Tracewski (.156) also played shortstop as Mayo Smith struggled to find someone who could provide offense at that position.
With the season coming to a close, Mayo Smith moved his Gold Glove center-fielder, Mickey Stanley, to shortstop while allowing his other three outfielders to start every day. Mickey Stanley had only played infield sporadically during the year, with most of his time at first base. Smith was hoping that Stanley, one the best pure athletes on the team, would be able to fill the spot. In the remaining six regular season games, with the American League pennant already clinched, Mayo Smith played Stanley at shortstop to see if he could play the position.
The experiment got off to a rocky start. Stanley made two errors in that first of six remaining regular season games, but Smith’s decision begun to bear the fruit of validation. In the final five games of the regular season, Stanley went on to start all five, not making an error in any of them.
In Game One of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Mayo Smith, with the advice of Tiger’s general manager Jim Campbell, started Stanley at shortstop. Stanley went on to be the starting shortstop in all seven World Series games, and made errors in only two of those games.
The 1968 Detroit Tigers had many heroes in their come from behind seven game series with the Cardinals. Most notably would be Mickey Lolich’s three complete games victories. Although it’s hard to evaluate exactly what Stanley’s move to shortstop made on the overall makeup of the World Series, the Tigers offense definitely came up big when they needed it. Stanley went on to hit a modest .214 in the World Series, but Horton (.304 batting average, 6 runs scored, and 3 runs batted in), Jim Northrup (.250 batting average, 4 runs scored, and 8 runs batted in), and Al Kaline (6 runs scored, 8 runs batted in, and a team leading .379 batting average) made major offensive contributions during the series. It was the Game Seven starting centerfielder Jim Northrup, playing in Mickey Stanley’s usual position, who hit a two run triple in the top half of the seventh inning to put the Tigers ahead for good. It was also Al Kaline, the starting right fielder in Game Five that saw the Tigers down three games to one, who hit a two run seventh inning single, that gave the Tigers a 4-3 lead, allowing the Series to continue on for one more game. Whether Kaline would have even seen much time in the Series would have been in question had Stanley played centerfield.
The end result was the first Tiger’s championship since 1945. Mickey Lolich went on to be named the series most valuable player, but, it’s another Mickey who went on to make an interesting footnote in one of the most dramatic World Series’ to date.