’68 World Champion Jon Warden grateful for his only season in big leagues

Jon Warden was a hard-throwing rookie in 1968.

In the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, the only player who did not make an appearance in the Fall Classic was 21-year old left-handed reliever Jon Warden.

But as disappointing as that was for the Ohio native, nobody was more grateful to wear the old English D in that magical season when the Tigers lead by Denny McLain, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and World Series MVP Mickey Lolich came from behind to win games 30 times in their last at-bats before capturing the championship after being down 3 games to 1.

Warden had surprisingly made the Tigers when the team broke camp after he led the team in strikeouts, despite having played just two seasons in A ball as a starting pitcher at Daytona Beach and Rocky Mount.

As it turned out, due to arm problems, 1968 would be his only major league season.

But what a fine cup of coffee it was.

In the second game of the season with the game tied 3-3 and two outs in the top of the ninth Tiger manager Mayo Smith summoned Warden from the bullpen to face none other than the previous season’s Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski who had belted two homers in the Opening Day loss to the Red Sox.

“Bill Freehan came out to the mound to give me some words of wisdom. He says, ‘Hey don’t let this guy beat us with a home run.’ I’m thinking, ‘No kidding Bill. Really? I’m shakin’ all over but I went to 3 and 2 on Yaz and threw him a hanging slider. His eyes lit up, then he takes a helluva a swing and misses. My first batter and strikeout in the majors.”

In the bottom of the ninth the Tigers recorded their first victory of the season and for Warden the first of his career when Gates Brown pinch hit for him and homered to win the game 4-3.

In the first two weeks of that magical season Warden made baseball history when he became the only relief pitcher to win games in his first three appearances, a record that still stands today.

“After we lost on Opening Day then won nine straight, it was like,’ we are going to do this.’ Every player came to the park going ‘how are we going to win this one today.’”

Warden went on to finish the season with a 4-1 record over 37.1 innings of work and a 3.62 ERA.

“Denny McLain and I went 35 and 7. It was ‘Ward and McLain, and pray for rain,’ says Warden with a chuckle. His keen sense of humor has made him a popular speaker and provided him with a career as a key participant at various baseball fantasy camps where he does a dead on impression of baseball clown Max Patkin and often serves as the Judge of the “Kangaroo Court” . (He once told a Tiger Fantasy Camper wearing a black eye patch, ‘Hey buddy, this is the Tigers’ Fantasy Camp not the Pirates.”)

Despite having warmed up on three different occasions during the World Series, Warden never did get the call to appear in a game.

“I thought in the fourth game when it was raining and we were getting our asses kicked that I would get the call. Every other reliever had pitched in that game. My coach Hal Naragon and I were sitting in the bullpen dugout and he said, ‘well if the phone rings I guess it’s for you’. But the phone never rang. I was thinking c’mon let me face at least one guy. But I was very blessed just to be there,” says Warden who made the minimum major league salary of $10,000 before receiving $10, 936 for his World Series share.

Of all his World Series memories one in particular quickly comes to mind.

“One thing that really stands out for me was seeing Norm Cash in the locker room holding a bat on his shoulders before game 5 when we were down three games to one and telling us, ‘Hey let’s just go out and get a win for our fans. We have to win at least one game at home for them. Let’s just go and play hard and don’t do anything different.’ We knew we were never out of it and when Lou Brock didn’t slide at home and Willie Horton threw him out that turned it all around for us.”

A week after the Tigers won the championship he was picked up by the Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft but tore his rotator cuff during spring training in 1969. He bounced around in the minors with different organizations before finally quitting in 1974, one year before earning an education degree from Ohio State.

“I was so blessed to have the talent and be in the right place at the right time on a great team and doing something every kid dreamed of,” says Warden. “I was a one year guy on a great team and because of being on the ’68 World Championship team I make more money off of baseball related functions then I ever did when I was playing.”

Warden has some sage advice for some of the younger Tiger players like Drew Smyly who this week will be experiencing the World Series.

“Enjoy the time that you are here, stay healthy and save your money. Every pitcher has to understand that we’re one pitch away from our last one. Like life in general, tomorrow is not guaranteed. My motto is, have fun while you can.”

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.