Published Mar. 24, 2018
Third in a series of columns on the 1968 World Series Champion Tigers
In Mickey Lolich’s mind, he was an inspiration to the couch potato baseball fan.
“I figure if they see a guy like me doing well, it will give that fat guy on the sofa someone to cheer for,” the portly Mickey once said.
Lolich, the rubber-armed hero among heroes of the 1968 World Series (MVP), outdueled the great Bob Gibson in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series on two days’ rest, earning his third complete game victory of the series. But Lolich was an unlikely hero of sorts, and not just because of his added girth.
The pitching darling of the ’68 Tigers was, of course, Denny McLain—he of the 31 victories. Lolich was Robin to McLain’s Batman. But midway through the season, Robin was in trouble.
In consecutive starts in late-July, Lolich lasted just five innings combined, surrendering eight runs on 14 hits. His ERA for the season was over 3.7, which in the pitching-dominated year of 1968 was unsightly.
Those two outings led to the unthinkable. Manager Mayo Smith yanked Lolich from the rotation.
The banishment lasted about three weeks, during which Lolich pitched out of the bullpen. Smith gave Mickey another shot in the rotation, and down the stretch, Lolich made nine starts, won six of them, and posted an ERA south of 2.5.
Robin was back.
Still, heading into the Fall Classic, no one looked at Lolich as the one who would save the Tigers’ bacon. Why would they, despite his 17-9 record? The World Series was supposed to be about McLain against Gibson, he of the 1.12 ERA.
More on that later.
Rising through the ranks
Lolich was signed by the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1958 at age 17. He was a Portland, Oregon kid. In those days, MLB teams didn’t rush many players to the big leagues. There were only 16 teams in the majors at the time. Jobs were hard to come by.
So it was with Lolich, who toiled for five full seasons in the minors before finally getting his chance with the Tigers in May 1963. The game was played at Tiger Stadium, against the Cleveland Indians. Lolich struck out Max Alvis, who was a rookie slugger for the Tribe in those days.
The 1968 Tigers were a culmination of a bunch of players who came through the minor league system together. Just like the 1984 champions—before teams’ payroll capacities created a haves and have nots scenario.
Lolich was part of that core. He blossomed in 1964, going 18-9 with a 3.26 ERA in 33 starts. The lefty eventually formed a powerful 1-2 punch in the rotation with the right-handed McLain as the ’60s moved along.
After a bad 1966 (14-14, 4.77 ERA), Lolich lowered his ERA to 3.04 in ’67, though his 14-13 record didn’t necessarily reflect the improvement.
Grandiose effort not enough in 1967; unlikely hero in ’68
It was a mobster’s rumored foot stomp that thrust Lolich into the spotlight in 1967.
McLain came down with a mysterious foot injury in September, when the Tigers were in the throes of an intense pennant chase with the Red Sox, White Sox and Twins.
The cause of the injury was rumored to be a gambling debt that the flamboyant McLain owed. A mobster supposedly stomped on McLain’s foot, causing him to miss a few crucial starts.
Enter the durable Lolich, who made seven starts in 26 days, going 6-1 with an ERA of 1.59.
But it wasn’t quite enough, as the Tigers lost the pennant on the last day to the Red Sox.
Lolich’s mid-season struggles in 1968 got lost in the shuffle as the Tigers were never seriously threatened in their pennant quest, keeping the Orioles at arm’s length all year. And when it came to Tigers pitching, it was all McLain.
Except in the World Series.
McLain was so-so in Game 1, though in fairness Gibson was exquisite, striking out a World Series-record 17 Tigers.
Lolich started Game 2 and not only did he defeat Nelson Briles, Lolich smacked a home run, which was the first four-bagger in his professional baseball career. Nobody was more surprised by the dinger than Lolich himself, who missed first base on his home run trot, having to go back to touch it.
McLain started Game 4 in Detroit and was shelled as the Tigers fell into a 3-1 series hole. In the bright lights of the big stage, the Tigers’ ace was choking. And all Lolich kept doing was throwing complete game victories.
He did it again in Game 5, which is overshadowed by the famous Lou Brock play at the plate, which turned the game in the Tigers’ favor, sending the series back to St. Louis with the Cards leading, 3-2.
Smith started Earl Wilson in Game 3, but as the series moved along it was the McLain and Lolich show.
McLain started Game 6 and he finally showed up, winning 13-1 and throwing all nine innings.
It didn’t take a degree in mathematics to know that if Smith chose to go with Lolich in Game 7, Mickey would be pitching the biggest game of the season and of his career on two days’ rest.
It wasn’t unheard of for Lolich and other innings eaters of the day to pitch on two days’ rest, but that was during the regular season.
The Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax pitched Game 7 of the 1965 World Series on the road on two days’ rest, and he dominated the Twins.
Another lefty was about to give it a shot in 1968 in St. Louis. Against Gibson, who along with Brock was famous for being fantastic in October.
Lolich wasn’t originally set to go all nine innings. Manager Smith had a well-rested Wilson and the entire bullpen at his avail if need be. Starting in the fourth inning, Smith began asking Lolich how he was feeling every time Mickey returned to the dugout. And every time Lolich said he felt fine, though a little fatigued.
The game remained scoreless after six innings. The tension could only be cut with a meat cleaver.
In the seventh, the Tigers exploded for three runs, keyed by Jim Northrup’s two-run triple.
Smith let Lolich finish without asking anymore how the lefty felt.
The Tigers won, 4-1, and what Tigers fan can’t instantly recall the image of the tubby Lolich leaping into the arms of catcher Bill Freehan?
The three CG wins earned Lolich Series MVP honors. Just a few months earlier, when he was demoted to bullpen duty, who could have imagined such a thing?
Last of a dying breed; an unhappy New Yorker
Lolich was the last of the true Herculean pitchers. In 1971, he started 45 games, completed 29 and tossed 376 innings, winning 25 games. Normally that’s a unanimous Cy Young Award year, but Lolich lost out to Oakland’s young Vida Blue in an election that still burns the old-timer Tigers fans.
As the Tigers declined in the ’70s, the old guard from 1968 were being purged from the roster. Some retired. Some were released.
Lolich was traded, to the Mets after the 1975 season, for outfielder Rusty Staub.
Lolich was miserable in New York, where the Mets were also on the decline. He didn’t take well to the big city and big media. He was homesick for Detroit. He didn’t pitch all that well for the Mets, which didn’t help.
Discouraged, Lolich retired after one season with the Mets. But the retirement was short-lived. He only sat out one season before returning in 1978 with the San Diego Padres at age 36. The Padres turned him into a reliever.
Lolich pitched for two seasons in San Diego then hung up his beer gut for good.
Good, but Hall doesn’t call
Lolich’s career has spawned some Hall of Fame talk, especially in Detroit. He won 217 games and struck out over 2,800 hitters, which for several years was the all-time record for lefties until Steve Carlton broke it. The 1968 World Series added to his lore, but the voters never really gave Lolich serious consideration.
Doesn’t matter. Lolich is one of the most beloved Tigers of all time. Perhaps fittingly, Lolich opened a doughnut shop in northern Oakland County after he retired and it was very popular.
So what was Lolich’s secret to maintaining his rubber arm?
After he retired, Lolich said his postgame routine consisted of a shower with scalding hot water on his arm until it was beet red. It was “a little secret” shared with him by none other than Satchel Paige.
And what does old number 29 think of the modern era pitcher?
“The dinosaurs are dead, I realize that. I’m a dinosaur,” he said back in 2016. “But I’m a firm believer (the pitchers) are coddled nowadays.”
But Lolich’s words weren’t that of a “get off my lawn” old-timer.
“It’s the money they are making and the multi-year contracts. If a guy has a four- or five-year contract, they have to pay him even if he gets hurt. So they cut back on what they think is less strain on his arm, and you don’t see the innings they used to turn. They think it’s better over the long term, but I disagree.”
Of course he would. If Lolich was considered fat, then he was fat from consuming innings. He threw over 3,600 of them in the big leagues.
But out of those 3,600-plus innings, it was the 27 that he pitched in the 1968 World Series that will forever imprint his legacy on the hearts of Tigers fans the world over.
Prior columns in the series