The cheers were led in the clubhouse by a hulk of a man with champagne stinging his eyes, a 36-year-old slugger so giddy from being rescued from last place that he didn’t care that he wasn’t eligible to play in the upcoming playoffs.
Frank Howard—Hondo, The Capital Punisher—towered, literally, over his Tigers teammates and his 6-foot-7 frame was, briefly, a monument to what the team was celebrating.
The 1972 AL East race was similar to the one the 2009 Tigers are engaged in now: a bunch of teams who weren’t doing anything to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
The Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, and Orioles entered September within two games of each other. The Orioles were in first place, but they were wobbly. They had fine pitching, though.
The Tigers, it was determined, needed some more offense. Their pitching was fine, too.
Getting maybe even more familiar?
There was a slugger available from a last-place team—a man who’d tasted some success early in his career with the Dodgers, but who’d experienced mostly losing with the Washington Senators. Now, Howard was with the Texas Rangers, who moved from Washington, but who were still losers.
The Rangers were a full nine games out of fifth place in the AL West when they sold Howard, mostly a first baseman after years as an outfielder, to the Tigers late on August 31.
MLB rules stipulated—they still do—that a player be with his new team before midnight on the 31st in order to be eligible for the post-season.
Howard didn’t make it. He reported to the Tigers on September 1.
But he was so happy to go from purgatory to a pennant race that it didn’t seem to bother him.
“I’ll be the biggest cheerleader,” he said, and his words had literal meaning, too. Howard was 6-foot-7 and weighed well over 250 pounds.
Manager Billy Martin used Howard fairly regularly down the stretch as first the Yankees, then the Orioles faded from view.
That left the Tigers and the Red Sox.
Howard’s biggest day was on September 13, when he went 3-for-4 with a homer and four RBI as the Tigers beat the O’s, 6-5, to leapfrog past Baltimore and into second place.
The 1972 season had been shortened because of a players’ strike in spring training which shaved games off the April schedule. It was determined that those games would simply be forgotten, and that meant teams would, by the end of the year, end up playing varying amounts of games.
That imbalance would play a huge role in the ’72 AL East race.
The Red Sox came to Detroit for a showdown series during the season’s final weekend. The Bosox were a half-game ahead of the Tigers, having played one less game than Detroit.
The Tigers won Game 1 behind a 15-strikeout performance by Mickey Lolich. Now the Tigers were in first place by that tiny half game.
The next night, the Red Sox scored a run in the first inning, and that 1-0 lead held up until the sixth. Jim Northrup singled home Norm Cash to tie it.
In the seventh, Al Kaline singled home Dick McAuliffe, who had doubled with one out. Then Kaline eventually scored a couple batters later, thanks to a Red Sox error. The Tigers led, 3-1 as the Tiger Stadium crowd of over 50,000 roared.
Frank Howard as a hulking Senator
Lefty Woodie Fryman, another terrific late-season acquisition, pitched into the eighth inning before being relieved by Chuck Seelbach.
Seelbach pitched a perfect inning-and-a-third, earning his 14th save. Fryman’s record since being acquired from the Phillies moved to 10-3.
The Tigers had clinched the division with the win, because they were one-and-a-half games ahead of the Red Sox with one game to play.
Boston won the season finale, making their record 85-70 against the Tigers’ 86-70.
Think the Red Sox would have liked the opportunity to play a 156th game against someone who they should have played had the strike not occurred?
MLB’s decision bit the Red Sox in the heinie. Why baseball didn’t announce sometime in September that if such a situation occur at the end of the year, a game would be made up—perhaps by drawing a team out of the hat and pitting the Red Sox against it, so they’d play the same number of games as the Tigers, well, we can only imagine.
But the Tigers took it, happily.
Howard was, indeed, the Tigers’ biggest cheerleader as they went up against the Oakland A’s in the best-of-five ALCS.
Oakland won Games 1 and 2 in California, then flew to Detroit hoping to sweep the Tigers.
But the Tigers battled back, winning Games 3 and 4, before succumbing in a 2-1 heartbreaker in Game 5 at Tiger Stadium.
Reggie Jackson, who slid home with the A’s first run in Game 5, tore up his hamstring and missed the ’72 World Series, which Oakland captured over Cincinnati. Ironically, Jackson’s replacement in that decisive ALCS game, George Hendrick, ended up scoring the winning run.
As for Frank Howard, he stuck with the Tigers for the 1973 season before retiring.
On my birthday in ’73—the start of a yearly tradition where we went to a Tigers game every August 6 (the Tigers’ schedule always seemed to cooperate that way)—Howard clubbed a thrilling, two-out, two-run homer in the ninth inning to tie the game against the Yankees on NBC’s “Monday Night Baseball.” The Tigers won in extra innings. That win put them in first place, but they weren’t able to hold it. The Tigers fired Martin later that month.
Howard hit 12 homers in 227 AB with the ’73 Tigers as their right-handed hitting DH, platooning with the lefty-swinging Gates Brown. The new DH rule was made for guys like the aging Howard and the defensively-challenged Brown.
The ’72 divisional race was the last hurrah for the core of Tigers who won the 1968 World Series. Sticking too long with those players, the bottom fell out in 1974 and a painful rebuilding process began.
Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat in that manner, eh, with the 2006 core?