Mayo’s big gamble: The Mickey Stanley Experiment

Moving center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop remains the biggest gamble in World Series history.

Moving center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop remains the biggest gamble in World Series history.

Jim Leyland’s decision to use Jhonny Peralta as a platoon left fielder for the Division Series against the Oakland A’s has drawn comparisons to a similar decision made by another Detroit Tiger manager 45 years ago. In reality, what Mayo Smith did with Mickey Stanley was far more daring than any current position shifting with Peralta.

First off, Peralta is only being asked to play left field against left-handed pitching. Furthermore, it is generally easier for established major leaguers to move from the infield to the outfield than vice-versa. In contrast, Mayo Smith asked Mickey Stanley to move from the outfield to the infield (a far more difficult proposition) and to do so throughout the entire World Series with the Cardinals. So let’s take a look at what happened four and a half decades ago.

The late-season return to health of Al Kaline, who had missed two months with a broken arm, left Smith in a quandary. He wanted Kaline in the lineup for the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, not only because of Kaline’s popularity and legendary status in Detroit, and not only because of pressure from the Detroit writers, but because it gave him another offensive weapon to use against the Redbirds.

Yet, Smith didn’t want to bench any of his young outfielders. Willie Horton provided power, an imposing bat and a strong arm in left field. Mickey Stanley, a decent hitter who handled the bat well, played center field better than anyone did on the Tiger roster. Jim Northrup, Detroit’s sometime starter in center, seemed more comfortable in right field and gave the club a much-needed home run threat from the left side of the plate. Simply put, none of the Tiger outfielders looked like a logical candidate for a postseason benching. None of them deserved the demotion, either.

Smith considered another possibility: how about moving Kaline to another position? Smith pondered putting his venerable star at first base, but he realized that would only weaken the infield defense while removing the dangerous left-handed bat of Norm Cash from the lineup. Smith gave more serious thought to putting Kaline at third base, in place of Don Wert, a fine defender who was slumping at the plate. Wert had been scuffling since being hit with a beanball in midseason. In particular, Wert was flailing against right-handers, and didn’t figure to break out of his slump against St. Louis’ two right-handed aces, Bob Gibson and Nelson Briles.

Smith pondered the move of Kaline to the hot corner. The switch would help the Tigers’ offense, while maintaining the presence of Horton, Stanley, and Northrup in the everyday lineup. It was a daring move, a risky move, but one that might pay dividends against the Cardinals’ pitching staff. Nah, Smith finally said to himself. He couldn’t take such a defensive risk at the most important time of the season. Kaline had played third base only briefly during his 16-year career. Besides, St. Louis figured to exploit Kaline’s inexperience by bunting repeatedly in his direction. The Cardinals two fastest players, Lou Brock and Curt Flood, featured bunting skills par excellence. How in the world could Kaline be expected to mount a defense against such a bunt-and-run tandem?

Still, Smith wanted to get Kaline’s bat in the lineup—somehow, somewhere. Thinking creatively, the manager concocted an alternate plan. Realizing that one of his young outfielders had unusual athletic ability, Smith informed general manager Jim Campbell of a three-headed proposal. Kaline would return to the lineup—in right field. Northrup would switch from right field to center field, his original position. And over the final week of the season, Stanley would leave center field to play the infield fulltime. Not third base, as Don Wert’s replacement, but at shortstop. Stanley would take the place of the light-hitting Ray Oyler, who had batted only .135 with a grand total of 12 RBIs during the regular season.

Though a fine defender, Oyler was one of the worst hitting regulars in baseball history. His OPS of .399 in 1968 remains stunning, even in the context of the Year of the Pitcher. He had no speed, little power, and a remarkable inability to reach base.

Still, Tiger beat writers questioned Smith’s rationale, along with his sanity. How could he bench his best fielding shortstop for a novice at the position? Prior to September, Stanley had made only two appearances at shortstop; both were in late-August and both were for less than a full game. How could he move a young outfielder to a position almost completely foreign to him?

Over the final week of the season, Stanley played every day at shortstop. He handled himself well enough to convince Smith that he was worthy of playing the position in the World Series. “Aw, Stanley’s a good athlete,” Smith assured the press. “He can do it.”

Just when Smith seemed to have the writers convinced that he thought it was the right move, he started to hedge. “Anyway, that’s just how we’ll start [the Series],” Smith cautioned the reporters. “We may change after one game.” Mickey Stanley had just received the most tenuous boost of confidence.

With Oyler out of the lineup and Stanley, Horton, Northrup and Kaline all in, the Tigers seemed better prepared to handle the tough pitching of a hallmark Cardinals staff that featured Gibson, Briles, and Ray Washburn.

Contrary to popular legend, the Stanley experiment did not turn out to be an all-encompassing success. What gets lost in this story is Stanley’s play in the World Series: he wasn’t particularly outstanding. Though he did start all seven games, he batted only .214, drove in no runs, and committed two errors, though the pair of miscues did not lead directly to runs for the Cardinals.

The real benefit to making the switch of Stanley to shortstop was that it allowed the Tigers to play their three best hitting outfielders: Horton in left, Northrup in center, and Kaline in right. So the move helped, tremendously to say the least, from that standpoint.

Let’s look at the production that the threesome provided the Tigers in the Series. Horton hit .304, drew five walks, hit a home run, and even threw out Lou Brock at the plate on a critical fifth-inning play in Game Five. Northrup batted only .250, but clubbed two home runs, including a game-cinching grand slam in the sixth game. Kaline was even better than Horton and Northrup. He collected 11 hits, batted .379, and matched Northrup with two home runs and eight RBIs. Without all of those fine performances, the Tigers might not have ended up sliding by the Cardinals in a taut, seven-game affair.

Even Oyler found a role in the Series. Though he did not register a single at-bat against the Cardinals, he did make four appearances as a defensive caddy, each coinciding with a Tiger victory. So while Stanley struggled in his role, the other four Tigers that emerged as part of Mayo Smith’s master plan all fulfilled their duties to the hilt.

Smith was sometimes criticized for not managing enough, for not being creative, and for too often just “letting his players play.” Well, that was not the case in the fall of 1968. As former Tiger Jon Warden, who pitched out of the bullpen that summer, has said of his 1968 manager, “Mayo Smith made some bodaciously crazy moves, and they all would work out.” None was more bodacious than moving Mickey Stanley to shortstop, and none was more successful.

Indeed, it all worked out very well.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.