Column: For Better and Worse

For Detroit Tigers, 2009 a long way from 1968
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

And so, it’s done. The Detroit Tigers’ once promising season ended Tuesday in a cataclysmic collapse.

In the American League’s Central Division, Sports Illustrated had picked the Tigers to finish next to last. But by September, they had built a seemingly insurmountable seven-game lead. The team was a tonic for a troubled town in a troubled time. Some pundits even claimed the Tigers season was a metaphor for a Motown renaissance. They started comparing this team to the 1968 Tigers, and the role they played in healing a city that had been torn apart the summer before.

On July 23, 1967, the long-simmering tensions between the police and the people finally boiled over into a full-blown race rebellion – or riot, depending on whom you ask – that lasted five days, the worst in American history.

Enter the 1968 Tigers.

They jumped out in front of the pack early on, and stayed there the rest of the season. That might sound boring, but they won almost a third of their games in their last at bat. Even better, the hero could be almost anybody, on any given night, from big stars to no-names. The team had character, and captured the city’s imagination.

It helped that many of the ‘68 Tigers had grown up dreaming of playing for their hometown team, guys like Bill Freehan, the All-Star catcher from Royal Oak, and the entire outfield of Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley and Willie Horton, who won a city baseball title playing for Detroit’s Northwestern High.

Even transplants like Mickey Lolich, “Stormin’” Norman Cash and Gates “Gator” Brown would all make Michigan their home long after their careers were over. The love affair between the 1968 Tigers and their town was as real and deep as it was needed.

When the Tigers faced the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, however, few gave them much of a chance. After they lost three of the first four games, almost no one did.

But the cornered Tigers clawed back, game by game. In game five, Bill Freehan blocked Lou Brock from touching home plate. In game six, Jim Northrup hit a grand slam. And in the deciding game seven, Mickey Lolich, one of the fattest pitchers ever to take the mound, gave up only one run – his third complete game victory of the series.

The Detroit Free Press headline read, “WE WIN!” And that’s how it felt. This split city had come back together that summer – all over a baseball team.

The years since have not been kind to the Motor City. It now suffers from severe segregation, a dying auto industry and almost four decades of stunningly cynical leadership. You can say Nice Things About Detroit all you want. This town needs far more help than any baseball team can provide.

Still, this year’s Tigers were a pleasant distraction. They played hard and they had great chemistry, thanks to good guys like Brandon Inge and Placido Polanco. But over the past month they suffered a breakdown of historic proportions, capped by Miguel Cabrera’s drunken Saturday night that ended in domestic abuse.

It was an ugly end to a buoyant beginning.

In 1968, the Detroit Tigers did more than you could ask of any team. Yet Detroit’s leaders couldn’t match their effort.

This year, the Tigers fell short – but if the current leaders can finally begin to rebuild Detroit, that would be a trade worth making.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Rod Johnson
    October 10, 2009 at 12:00 am | permalink

    Cabrera’s got to go.

  2. By Gene Ward
    October 10, 2009 at 10:07 am | permalink

    There will be many who believe Cabrera should be traded. Not so. Why trade someone with his talent to play elsewhere? Why not assist him with his alcohol problem–and he does have a problem–rather than have him hit home runs for another team? I know I would not have wanted to walk into my locker room and endure the silent treatment after blowing a .25 seven hours before one of the biggest games of my career. Lesson learned–

  3. By Rod Johnson
    October 10, 2009 at 9:26 pm | permalink

    I would agree with you if he would ever, once in his life, learn not to swing at the first pitch.