At some point on Saturday night, Mickey Lolich will be on the field at Comerica Park in front of tens of thousands of Tiger fans. He’ll get a loud ovation as one of the stars of the ’68 World Championship team, as well he should.
For legions of Detroiters, the image of Lolich on the mound for the final out of the ’68 World Series will forever be burned into their memory. On Saturday, the Tigers are honoring that club 45 years after their thrilling World Series victory.
Lolich emerged as the hero of that Fall Classic, winning three games, including Game Seven. He was a big part of that team, a team that Detroit still clings to all these years later. A team that won a title just one summer after the city was rocked by terrible riots. A team that delighted fans with their come-from-behind magic all summer long, and saved their biggest comeback for October.
Al Kaline was the icon on that team – a legend in the final phase of his Hall of Fame career, but still a great ballplayer. There was Denny McLain, the marvelous right-hander with the high leg kick who won 31 games and did it on his own terms, for good and for bad. There was also Willie Horton, a hometown kid who was the first black star the Tigs ever had. We can’t forget Bill Freehan, Mickey Stanley, John Hiller, Norm Cash, and Jim Northrup – it was a team with many good ballplayers.
But Lolich, more than any of them, is associated with that ’68 Series. Ask him about it today, and Mick will point out with pride that he’s the only left-hander to ever toss three complete game wins in a World Series. But that season is just one chapter in Lolich’s baseball story. A story and a career that he keeps in perspective.
“I tell people that there were a lot of things that went right for me to get to the big leagues,” Lolich said this week in an interview from his home outside Detroit. “[All along the way], things fell into place that helped me out.”
Lolich also had talent, of course. He was armed with a fastball that whizzed toward the plate in the low-to-mid-90s, and he had stamina. Over the course of his 16-year career, Mickey never shied from taking the baseball, and he only missed one start due to injury (after he was plunked with a line drive).
It was that eagerness and fearlessness that led to Mickey becoming the hero of the ’68 Series. After winning Games Two and Five, Lolich came back on two days rest to start Game Seven, where he proceeded to outduel Bob Gibson. Relief help? Lolich didn’t need it. The southpaw completed all three of his starts, going 27 innings while allowing just 5 runs and striking out 21 batters. He did that over the course of 8 days! It’s safe to say we’ll never see another World Series performance like that again.
As much as Lolich will enjoy seeing his former teammates this weekend in Detroit, and as much as he likes to tell some of the stories about that season, there’s a small part of him that wishes his ’68 Fall Classic performance didn’t dominate his legacy quite so much.
You see, Mickey was barely 28 years old when he won those three games in the ’68 Fall Classic. He’d won 83 games to that point in his career, and for him the best was yet to come. In ’71, Lolich won 25 games and struck out 308 batters, finishing 2nd in Cy Young voting and 5th in the MVP race. He pitched 376 innings that year – a total that most starting pitchers today would take two years to accumulate. In ’72, Mick won 22 more and was 3rd in Cy Young voting as he helped lead the Tigs to the AL East title. He won 16 games the next two seasons, giving him at least 15 victories in 8 of 11 seasons. He was a big game pitcher. In the 8 biggest games of his career (three games in the ’68 Series, two in the ’72 Playoffs, and the last three in the ’72 pennant race), Mick was 5-2 with a 1.54 ERA. He pitched 12 innings in one of those games! In 1975 he won his 200th career game, and he captured 217 in all during his career, which also included three All-Star Game selections. Every few years, his name appears on the Veterans Committee for the Hall of Fame, as he usually makes a short list of “old-timers” who earn another look from Cooperstown.
Mick will be the first to tell you that he wasn’t a superstar. As he told me a few years ago, he was “a beer drinker’s idol”, with his famous belly and workmanlike approach. Frequently he encounters fans who tell him that they used to plan their trips to the ballpark so they could specifically see him pitch. “That’s about as good a compliment as you can get,” Mickey says.
Timing can be everything, and for Lolich it was both a blessing and a curse. He was in the right place at the right time in ’68, given the opportunity to pitch not one, not two, but three times in the World Series. He met the challenge and earned his place in history. But, his career also fell into a period of time where he bumped up against other forces that overshadowed his other achievements. In ’68, McLain got most of the headlines for stellar pitching. For the next few years, McLain got the headlines for his shenanigans off the field. After Lolich was traded to the Mets prior to the ’76 season, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych came along to have a phenomenal rookie season. For many fans who started to come of age in the mid-1970s, The Bird was their hero. They hadn’t seen Mickey Lolich in his prime, when he was like a human pitching machine, churning up innings, striking out batters, taking the ball every four days. As a result of that, and the shining feat he achieved in the ’68 Series, the totality of Mickey’s career is unappreciated.
A few years ago, at a baseball dinner they were both attending, Lolich and former Cardinal Lou Brock found time to chat about the ’68 Series. Brock told Mickey that prior to the Series, the Cardinals were going over scouting reports and spending a lot of time talking about McLain. Finally after a few minutes of this, St. Louis’ right fielder Roger Maris, who had spent much of his career in the American League, stood up. “McLain, McLain, McLain,” Maris reportedly said. “You can talk about McLain, but you better remember that left-hander they have over there. You better watch out for him.”
That left-hander will be on the field Saturday. Watch out for him, will you?