Published March 10, 2017
This summer, the Boston Red Sox are planning to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team, which in one year went from ninth place to pennant winners, only to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in a bitter seven-game World Series.
I suppose if the Tigers can mark the tin (1oth) anniversary of a World Series loser with a celebration at Comerica Park, then why can’t the Red Sox do so at Fenway on the golden anniversary of Yaz and Company?
Of course, 1967 holds a different meaning to grizzled Tigers fans. If the Red Sox call that year their Impossible Dream, the Tigers can tag 1967, “A Dream Shattered.”
It could have been back-to-back Cards-Tigers World Series.
Many folks have called the 1968 Tigers championship team well-timed, for the healing powers it had over a city still simmering from the race riots of the year prior. Nothing like a pennant-winning baseball team to bring people together during the hot summer months.
Fifty years ago this summer, the Tigers, against the backdrop of tanks and the National Guard roaming the streets of the city, led their faithful on a roller coaster of emotions as they chased the ’67 flag. If the ’68 team had healing powers, the ’67 Tigers merely added to the emotional drama of a tempestuous summer.
The big leagues hadn’t yet split into divisions in 1967. There was one pennant. There was no wild card, no divisional series. If you finished first, you were in the World Series, period. It was baseball’s hardened, merciless way of determining post-season participants until 1969.
Six years prior to 1967, the Tigers won 101 games—yet finished eight games behind the Yankees. How’d you like to root for a team that won 101 games but didn’t get anything for it come October?
Several members of that ’61 Tigers squad were still bitter and still toiling for the team in 1967, when the Bengals became embroiled in one of the fiercest pennant chases in modern baseball history.
There were the Red Sox, of course, who finished next to last in 1966. There were the Chicago White Sox, who won 83 games in ’66. There were the Minnesota Twins, who lost to the Dodgers in the 1965 World Series and who finished second in the league in ’66.
And there were the Tigers, who were coming off a tragic 1966, when they lost two managers to health and eventual death over the summer. Yet the ’66 team managed to win 88 games.
The four teams entered the stretch in 1967 like a pack of thoroughbred race horses running the Kentucky Derby, all separated by no more than a couple of noses.
On September 1, the standings looked like this:
Minnesota 74-58 (-0.5)
Detroit 74-59 (-1.0)
Chicago 73-59 (-1.5)
Two weeks later, on September 15, the Red Sox, Twins and Tigers all sported 84-64 records. The White Sox were 83-66, 1.5 games behind.
It was the days of the transistor radio, and on any given day in Detroit during that frenzied race of ’67, you could see folks with the gizmos pressed against their ear, wherever you went—the grocery store, in the park, even in movie houses. Everyone wanted to keep track of the Tigers game.
But as the finish line neared, one of the key Tigers pulled up lame. Or, he may have been made so, on purpose.
In mid-September, starting pitcher Denny McLain revealed a mysterious foot injury, knocking him out of action for most of the season’s final two, crucial weeks. McLain won 17 games in 1967, but he won zero games after August 29, pitching poorly in September before the foot injury was disclosed.
McLain’s ineffectiveness and eventual loss from the rotation for a couple of weeks dealt the Tigers a severe blow to their pennant hopes.
After the season, the cause of Denny’s foot injury was rumored to have been due to a mobster stomping on McLain’s foot because of a gambling debt—something that McLain to this day refutes, despite evidence otherwise.
Meanwhile, without McLain in the rotation, the Tigers soldiered on, still very much in the hunt along with their three pennant rivals.
On the eve of the final weekend of the season, the race looked like this:
Detroit 89-69 (-1.0)
Boston 90-70 (-1.0)
Chicago 89-70 (-1.5)
It was at this point that Mother Nature reared her head.
Friday’s Tigers-California Angels game in Detroit was washed out due to rain. A doubleheader was already scheduled for Sunday as a result of a prior rain out, meaning that on Saturday and Sunday, the Tigers and Angels would be forced to play two straight twinbills.
But if the Tigers could win all four games, the pennant would be theirs, no matter what the other teams did.
Alas, the Tigers and Angels split on Saturday. A scheduling quirk gave the Red Sox and Twins Friday off before the two teams would battle it out on Saturday and Sunday at Fenway Park. On Saturday, Boston beat Minnesota.
Going into the season’s final day, things looked like this:
Detroit 90-70 (-0.5)
Chicago 89-72 (-2; eliminated)
Basically, since the Twins and Red Sox were playing each other, whichever team got to 92 wins was going to at least tie for the pennant. But that meant that the Tigers would have to sweep the Angels on Sunday. Anything less and the baseball season would be over in Detroit, no matter what happened in Boston.
The Red Sox beat the Twins, 5-3, behind Jim Lonborg’s 22nd victory of the season. The Fenway Park crowd mobbed their heroes on the field, knowing that the Red Sox had clinched at least a berth in a one-game playoff.
But there was more to Sunday than just the Twins-Red Sox game.
In Detroit, the Tigers beat the Angels in game one, 6-4, behind Joe Sparma’s 16th win. Boston had 92 wins, the Tigers had 91, with one game to play.
The Red Sox paced their clubhouse, listening to the Tigers game in Detroit on the radio. Many players didn’t even bother to change out of their uniforms or shower. No one left Fenway. Transistor radios abounded in the stands.
Tigers manager Mayo Smith frantically burned through eight pitchers in the Sunday nightcap, including starter Mickey Lolich in relief, trying to keep the pesky Angels at bay. But California hung eight runs on Tigers pitching, and led 8-5 going into the bottom of the ninth.
Tiger Stadium perked up when Bill Freehan doubled and Don Wert walked to start the ninth. Just like that, the tying run came to the plate with nobody out. Red Sox players and fans were beyond nervous.
After a series of pitching moves and pinch hitters, Jim Price ended up facing lefty George Brunet. Price lofted a fly ball to left. The crowd roared for a moment, but quickly realized that the ball wasn’t hit very deep. One out.
What happened next is forever burned into the memory of Tigers fans who are old enough to remember it—and many more younger ones who’ve read and heard about it.
Dick McAuliffe, he of the unusual batting stance, banged a ground ball to second base. Not once in over 660 plate appearances in 1967 had Mac grounded into a 6-4-3 or 4-6-3 double play. This would be an awful time to break that streak.
Angels second baseman Bobby Knoop, a fine fielder throughout his career, delivered a perfect toss to shortstop Jim Fregosi, also known for his stellar glove work. McAuliffe charged down the first base line as 38,000-plus fans at Tiger Stadium and about that many in Fenway Park gasped and held their breath.
Fregosi fired to first baseman Don Mincher. The throw nipped McAuliffe by a half-step.
Game over. Season over. Hopes and dreams, over.
Red Sox players and fans went wild. There would be no one-game playoff; the Red Sox had realized their Impossible Dream.
For the Tigers, a Dream Shattered.
Baseball, they say, can be a cruel game. And no crueler did it seem for Tigers fans than on October 1, 1967, when a pennant would have gone a long way toward distracting folks from the rancor of the summer.
But the healing for Detroit would have to wait until next year.
After the game, Tigers skipper Smith told reporters what he said to his team.
“I told them they went down battling like champions. And they are champions in my book.”
About 12 months later, the Tigers were indeed champs—in everyone’s book.
But on 10/1/67, losing a pennant that had been so near their grasp, seemed to not allow any Tigers player or fan to think about the next day, let alone the next year.