Eddie Mathews went out a winner with ’68 Tigers

Eddie Mathews hit nine home runs and provided valuable leadership for the 1968 Detroit Tigers.

Eddie Mathews hit nine home runs and provided valuable leadership for the 1968 Detroit Tigers.

Ty Cobb was not a man who was easily impressed. He made an exception for Eddie Mathews.

“I’ve known three or four perfect swings in my time,” the Peach said after watching the taciturn Texan whip a Louisville Slugger around at the plate. “This boy’s got one of them.”

Standing straight as a dinner knife in the batter’s box, the left-handed Mathews had remarkable wrist and forearm snap. This enabled him to practically pull the ball out of the catcher’s mitt and over the fence in right, Milwaukee Braves manager Charlie Grimm said. “His hands don’t seem to move more than six inches,” Grimm marveled.

Mathews played a total of 67 games for the Tigers in 1967 and 1968, the twilight of an illustrious Hall of Fame career. The final nine of his 512 career home runs were hit while wearing a Detroit uniform.

Mathews was the only man to play for the Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, and Atlanta Braves as that franchise bounced around in the post-World War II era. The slugging third sacker led the National League in home runs twice, in 1953 and 1959, each time finishing runner-up in the Most Valuable Award voting. He was usually good for 35-45 home runs, 100 ribbies, and 100 walks each season. He was a perennial All-Star who, along with slugging mate Hank Aaron, led the Braves into back-to-back World Series appearances against the Yankees. The Braves won in seven games in 1957, then lost in seven the following October. After 15 years with the Braves, Mathews began the ’67 season with Houston.

The Tigers obtained Mathews from the Astros in August 1967, giving up reliever Fred Gladding. Manager Mayo Smith wanted Eddie not only for his bat, but for his steadying influence. Playing first base, third base, and pinch-hitting, he hit a half-dozen home runs in little more than a month, as the Tigers fell just short of winning the pennant on the last day of the season.

Mathews announced the 1968 season would be his last. On May 27, 1968 at Anaheim, he hit a pair of home runs off California’s Sammy Ellis. They were numbers 511 and 512, and the last of his career. They allowed him to pass Mel Ott to become fifth on the all-time home run list, trailing at the time only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams. Catching Ott was one of his goals going into the season.

The other was going out a champion. Here, too, he succeeded. Willie Horton recalled Mathews as “an important clubhouse guy, and his leadership was important heading into the World Series.” Mayo Smith respected Mathews, so the younger players often used him as an intermediary to approach the manager with their problems or suggestions.

Before Game One, Horton, Mickey Stanley, and Jim Northrup were nervously sitting in the clubhouse. “Eddie came in and shooed us out on the field,” Horton recalled.

“Go out and have some fun,” Mathews told them. “Enjoy being in the World Series.”

Mathews got into only two games in the Series—the first and the fourth—facing the seemingly invincible Bob Gibson each time. In four plate appearances, he went 1-for-3 with a walk—not bad, all things considered. He watched from the bench as the Tigers finally got to Gibson in the seventh game, then had a smoke and grinned as others went mad with joy in the clubhouse afterwards. Steady Eddie immediately announced his retirement; ten years later he earned his plaque in Cooperstown.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.