Published Sept. 23, 2018
It’s an irrefutable fact that the further away we get from a landmark moment, the fewer people are around who experienced it, first hand.
It’s kind of frightening, but we’re headed that way with the 1984 Tigers.
Thirty-four years isn’t a short period of time.
Yet that’s nothing compared to those who thrilled to the 1968 Tigers, whose 50th anniversary of their world championship was celebrated this season at Comerica Park—interrupted briefly by the congratulations showered upon Alan Trammell and Jack Morris on their Hall of Fame elections.
Sadly, we’re losing fans who moved the turnstiles at Tiger Stadium to the tune of over two million in 1968—the first time that milestone was reached in franchise history.
But this column isn’t intended to depress you—despite my attempts to do so thus far.
The comparison is often made between the ’68 and ’84 champs—mainly because the 1935 and 1945 World Series winners aren’t anywhere near identifiable to today’s baseball fan, and 1984 remains the last baseball team of glory in Motown.
It’s a lesson in futility to compare teams of different eras, though it’s fun to try.
On the field: a toss up?
Can we really decide between Bill Freehan and Lance Parrish? Well, sure—but cases can be made for both as being the best catcher on the two championship teams.
We can all agree that Trammell was better, all-around, at shortstop than poor Ray Oyler. But the old-timers won’t necessarily concede that Tram’s double play partner, Lou Whitaker, is a slam dunk winner over 1968’s Dick McAuliffe, who in many ways was the heart and soul of his team.
Was Denny McLain of ’68 better than Jack Morris of ’84? Perhaps, but who was a better “big game” pitcher? McLain won 31 games 50 years ago, but he was pedestrian, at best, in the 1968 Fall Classic. Meanwhile, Morris made his name by turning in great performances in “must win” situations.
Would you take Mickey Lolich over Dan Petry? Most would, but what do you do between Earl Wilson and Milt Wilcox as the best no. 3 starter?
In a battle of lefty relievers, do you take 1984’s Willie Hernandez over John Hiller? Well, Hernandez won the league Cy Young and MVP Awards, but Hiller was the Swiss army knife of pitchers who pitched a complete game, one-hitter in spot start duty.
See the conundrum?
So with the 1968 anniversary celebration officially in the books with today’s home season finale, and rather than debate the merits of the ’68 and ’84 teams on the field, let’s compare the impact each championship club had on its fan base.
Intangibles: the ’68 team wins, hands down
It says here that while the 1984 team captivated Tigers fans all over the world with its 35-5 start, the 1968 team was, by far, the most dramatic and fascinating—and thus it gets the vote as being the most electrifying of all the Tigers championship teams.
I hate to play the Riot Card, but it’s hard to ignore.
I fear that it’s almost becoming cliche to say that the ’68 Tigers “brought the city together” following the ugliness of 1967’s civil unrest. But facts are facts. Metro Detroiters needed something to rally around in 1968, which was a year of turbulence across the country—from the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, to the craziness of the scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to the continuing of the “living room war” in Vietnam.
The Tigers provided that, but they also rebounded from baseball heartbreak.
The 1967 pennant race was a doozy, with four teams—Detroit, Boston, Minnesota and Chicago—all still alive in the final week. And the Tigers lost a chance for a one-game playoff with the Red Sox by losing the nightcap of a Sunday doubleheader to the California Angels at Tiger Stadium. It had been 22 years since the last Tigers pennant.
The 1983 Tigers finished second as well, but they weren’t really a threat to the Orioles. No heartbreak.
The ’68 Tigers won over 30 games in their final at-bat, and overcame seemingly endless deficits from the seventh inning and beyond. Led by the heroics of pinch-hitter extraordinaire Gates Brown, the Tigers were baseball’s Cardiac Kids.
While the ’84 Tigers were never seriously threatened by the second-place Blue Jays—the lead always seemed to be between 7-10 games all season—the ’68 Bengals held off the Orioles with one come-from-behind victory after the other. The hallmark of the ’84 team was to jump on opponents early, often in the very first inning. The ’68 Tigers beat you late, in dramatic fashion.
Bottom line: there was really no drama after the 35-5 start in 1984. Even the playoffs and World Series had a fait accomplit feeling.
The comeback drama in ’68 continued in the World Series, when the Tigers overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Cardinals—with two of those games in St. Louis, including Game 7 against the legendary Bob Gibson.
1968: no newspapers? No problem
The trouble with all these histrionics was that they were played out in a vacuum of sorts, because the Detroit newspapers went on strike for most of the summer. No Internet, no live streaming, no cable TV. Tigers fans in 1968 had the radio, and pretty much the radio only; televised games accounted for only about a quarter of the 162-game schedule.
But it doesn’t take anything away from the drama. The transistor radio was in its glory in 1968, and Tigers fans toted them everywhere—to the beach, to the park, even sneaking them into movie theaters and restaurants, to keep up with their Tigers.
Did the 1984 team spawn a theme song? The 1968 club had two of them—one for the team, and one for star pitcher and tickler of the keyboard McLain.
Some sample lyrics:
We’re all behind our baseball team, go get ’em Tigers!
World Series bound and picking up steam, go get ’em Tigers!
and, from “There’s Never Been Any Like Denny McLain”:
His pitch on the organ was perfect, and he never lost any poise;
With eyes 20/20, watch near-sighted Denny win all of the baseball awards!
The ’84 Tigers were sexy beasts—national rock stars with nearly every game broadcast on cable TV and with no newspaper strike robbing them of ink; the ’68 team was a group of drinking, partying characters who sandbagged it for the first six innings every night.
Now while I’m older than most of my dear readers, I’m still not old enough to remember the 1968 team—I was five. And I remember quite clearly, the 1984 heroes. So my opining isn’t coming from any “get off my lawn” perspective. In fact, it would be easy for me to be biased toward the team I remember from the summer I turned 21. But I have to be honest with myself, and with you: the 1968 Tigers cast a spell on the city of Detroit that really hasn’t been replicated on the sports landscape since. And I’ve seen eight world championships won by Detroit teams.
It says something that even half a century later, the ’68 Tigers continue to be romanticized by fans—and not just by the grey haired.
Sexy leading men vs. character actors
Was it McLain’s 30 wins? Lolich’s three victories in the World Series? Gates Brown’s heroics? The shifting of center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop for the Fall Classic? McAuliffe’s celebrated fight with Tommy John? Relief pitcher Daryl Patterson entering a crucial game with the Orioles with the bases loaded and nobody out, and striking out the side? The securing of a ring for the great Kaline after 15 years?
The 1984 Tigers were a great team, though one-hit wonders, ultimately. Their 35-5 start will never be forgotten.
But that team ran away and hid after 40 games. They bulldozed through the postseason with a 7-1 record. There was never any real doubt that they would ultimately win the whole thing.
The 1968 Tigers weren’t anointed in May. They won games, and the pennant and eventually the World Series, the hard way. They channeled their anger and disappointment from 1967—including shouldering the unwanted burden of being a healing ointment to a city—and persevered.
For all that and more, there really is no contest when determining which of the two most recent Tigers championship teams left a more indelible mark on the city and its baseball denizens.