Published Feb. 3, 2018

If there’s anything that should stick in the craw of a Tigers fan who admires the 1968 World Champion team, it’s that the signature play of that year’s World Series, thanks to the media and the so-called experts, is associated with a player of the opposing team.

It sure did bother Jim Northrup.

Even though the ball flew off the bat of Northrup, the eventual game-winning triple that the Grey Fox hit off the great Bob Gibson in the seventh inning of Game 7, a majority of the non-Tigers baseball fans you would poll would come up with the name Curt Flood way before they would Northrup. I would bet that many wouldn’t even be able to tell you who hit the ball that Flood, the Cardinals center fielder, couldn’t track down.

Flood stumbled, no question about it. The films show it, the memories of those who saw the play tell it and even Northrup himself concedes it.

But what the Fox vehemently protested until his death was the notion that Flood’s misstep in any way helped award Northrup with a triple. The hit drove in two runs and was the catalyst of a three-run rally that broke a scoreless tie. The Tigers went on to win the game, 4-1, and wrapped up the franchise’s third world championship.

“No bleeping way!”

In my TV producing days, I was talking to Northrup one day in 1998. We were in a local cable television studio, waiting to shoot a show about sports collectibles that Fox was co-hosting with sportswriter Jim Hawkins.

I made the mistake of bringing up the World Series triple in this manner—because I wanted to know, once and for all.

“So, could Flood have caught that ball had he not stumbled?”

It was a loaded question, granted. And Northrup gave me a loaded answer—complete with expletives.

The veins in his neck shot out and his face turned red. Then he started to bellow. Yes, bellow.

“Let me tell you something! There’s no bleeping way that Flood could have caught that bleeping ball! I hit it 20 feet over his bleeping head!”

The films, while confirming Flood’s stumble, also seem to confirm Northrup’s recollection. Neither Mays, nor Griffey Jr. nor any other Gold Glove center fielder could have possibly caught up to Fox’s drive, which was a frozen rope.

Hawkins and I moved on to another topic, or at least we tried to. Northrup was all wound up. He continued to rant about how the play—the biggest of a classic World Series—had been slanted toward Flood’s misstep and not toward the quality of Northrup’s hit.

I can confirm that the play’s legacy truly bothered Northrup to the point of obsession.

But he was right to be annoyed. The triple is basically known as the “Curt Flood play.” I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone outside of Detroit call it the “Jim Northrup hit.”

Flood absolutely could not have caught Northrup’s hit unless he grew 10 feet and revved up a motor.

Image result for jim northrup 1968 world series
Northrup rockets his triple off Bob Gibson in the seventh inning of Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.

Fox always had an opinion

Northrup, a Michigan kid from a town called Breckenridge, was never shy to share his feelings on any subject. I had the pleasure of speaking with him on many occasions in my roles as TV producer and sports journalist and never did any of our conversations not include a rant by Fox on something or another.

He didn’t like Jim Campbell, the Tigers GM. He hated playing for Billy Martin, yet loved Earl Weaver in Fox’s brief time as an Oriole. Northrup told me that he was the one who suggested interleague play in the 1960s but was rebuffed by Campbell.

“We already have interleague play,” Northrup said Campbell told him. “In spring training.”

Northrup also didn’t care for ex-teammate Jim Price, telling me that Price was a phony. Northrup despised pitch counts. As for the DH, Northrup was fine with it but said, “If they brought in the DH a few years earlier, Gator Brown would have been the best DH of all-time.”

As for Denny McLain, who won 31 games in 1968? Northrup called Denny a con man who even cheated at cards on the team plane. Northrup also cited a scheme Denny roped some of his teammates into involving a paint company that McLain was trying to promote. Several Tigers teammates lost cash in that “endeavor.”

It’s time now to remember Northrup, who passed away in 2011, and other members of the ’68 Tigers, as we are now, unbelievably, entering the 50th anniversary of that team’s conquering of the baseball world.

The calendar doesn’t stop, does it?

“Well, we should have won it in 1967,” Northrup told me flatly, as if daring me to argue, which I did not.

1968’s roots were planted a year earlier

The 1967 AL pennant race continues to be one of baseball’s finest and most dramatic.

The Impossible Dream Red Sox, the Tigers, the Twins and the White Sox—all four of them—careened down the stretch in mid-September, separated by no more than a couple of games on any given day.

The final weekend necessitated that the Tigers and the Angels play back-to-back doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday. If the Tigers could somehow win all four of those games, they’d win the pennant outright. But the Tigers could do no better than a split with the Angels on Saturday.

As it happened, the Red Sox beat the Twins on the final Sunday, which meant the Tigers needed to sweep the Angels to force a playoff game against Boston. After winning the first game, the Tigers couldn’t quell the Angels’ bats and dropped the nightcap, 8-5. Dick McAuliffe infamously grounded into a game-ending double play, his first of the entire season.

That heartbreak, on the heels of the riots in the city that summer, slugged the Tigers in the collective gut. But it steeled them; they reported to spring training in 1968 with a chip on their shoulder the size of a meteor.

“We knew we couldn’t be beat,” Northrup said. “Nobody was going to win the pennant besides us, I can tell you that.”

The Tigers pretty much led the league all summer, regaining first place in early-May and never looking back. They frustrated the Orioles, their closest competitor, with one big win after the other over the O’s, just when it looked like Baltimore might overtake the Tigers.

As it appears that the 2018 Tigers won’t be much to write home about, you’ll see several columns in this space throughout this baseball season about the 1968 team and some of the many colorful characters that made up that beloved group of ballplayers.

Few were more colorful than Jim Northrup—literally, as I recall the beet redness of his face as he railed about “the Curt Flood play.”

Sorry, Fox. I meant “the Jim Northrup hit.”

 

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