Sometimes an artifact takes on tragic overtones. That is certainly the case with Charlie Dressen’s 1966 jersey, which is part of the collection of 40,000 three-dimensional artifacts in the Hall of Fame’s collection. This was the Detroit Tigers jersey that Dressen wore during the final season of his managing career—and the final year of his life. It was only a few months after Dressen wore this Tigers’ jersey during a game that the longtime baseball man died from the effects of a heart disease, beginning a cycle of tragedy during one of the most difficult seasons in Tigers history.
Dresssen’s association with the Tigers began in the middle of the 1963 season. At the time, he was scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the meantime, the Tigers were struggling under manager Bob Scheffing; through their first 60 games of the season, they had won 24 games and lost 36. Rather than let the season spiral further out of control, Tigers management fired Scheffing and received permission from the Dodgers to bring on Dressen, who had enjoyed previous success as a manager in Brooklyn.
Dressen could rub some players and some of the media the wrong way because of his extreme level of confidence, which often spilled over into cockiness. As noted managerial expert Chris Jaffe has commented, Dressen was essentially the Bobby Valentine of his time. But like Valentine, Dressen knew how to lead. He was often able to transfer his confidence onto his players. And that’s what he did with the Tigers. Almost immediately, the fiery Dressen turned the Tigers around. Taking over a young team with undeveloped talent, Dressen led the Tigers to a record of 55-47 over the balance of the season, pushing the Tigers into a tie for fifth place in the standings. Just as importantly, Dressen helped nurture some of the young talent at hand, including Bill Freehan and Dick McAuliffe, and two pitching prodigies, Mickey Lolich and Fred Gladding.
In 1964, the Tigers continued to show improvement under Dressen. Though they were not ready to win the American League pennant, they played above .500, finishing a respectable fourth with a record of 85-77. Dressen continued to work young players into the equation, including a 25-year-old Gates Brown and a 22-year-old Joe Sparma, who augmented the already impressive corps of youth.
In 1965, Dressen and the Tigers seemed on the cusp of serious contention in the American League. But spring training did not go smoothly. Now 70 years old, Dressen suffered a heart attack, which was described at the time as a “minor coronary occlusion.” Minor or not, the heart attack forced Dressen to the sidelines and necessitated the hiring of Bob Swift on an interim basis. Swift managed the Tigers for the first 42 games of the season, guiding the club to a record of 24-18 and keeping the team within three games of first place. By then, Dressen felt well enough to return to the Tigers’ dugout.
Under Dressen, Willie Horton blossomed and Denny McLain developed into a staff ace, helping the Tigers to a record of 65-55 under their returning manager. But the Tigers fell short of the desired pennant, instead settling for 89 wins and another fourth-place finish. Would the Tigers have played better without the distraction of losing Dressen? It’s an inevitable question, impossible to answer, but certainly reasonable to believe that there was considerable negative impact to losing a respected field manager for more than a month.
The Tigers began the 1966 season with promise. Dressen felt better, and the team won its first five games of the season. But then came another setback. In May, with the Tigers in third place and sporting a record of 16-10, Dressen suffered his second heart attack, this one more serious than the first. Once again forced to the sidelines, Dressen was hospitalized. As he recovered from the heart attack, he was stricken with an infection in one of his kidneys. Shortly thereafter, Dressen suffered a third attack. This time, his heart gave out; the fatal heart attack took Dressen at the age of 71.
Unbelievably, more tragedy struck the Tigers later that summer. Bob Swift, once again summoned as an interim manager, became ill with what was initially diagnosed as food poisoning, but turned out to be inoperable cancer of the lungs. Forced to leave his position as manager, Swift would die in October. (A third manager, Frank Skaff, came aboard to finish the season.) Remarkably, the Tigers found a way to finish third in a mediocre American League, but fell short of preseason expectations.
Somehow, Dressen’s jersey, which he last wore in May of ’66 before his heart attack, made its way to Cooperstown. It’s relatively small jersey; Dressen was only five feet, five inches tall. But it’s really a beautiful piece that is emblematic of 1960s baseball. It’s made from flannel, an uncomfortable material for players and managers to wear, but a material that looks good on photographs and generally holds up well. It’s a jersey made by the Wilson Company, which produced uniforms for most of the 16 teams at the time. Showing relatively little wear, the jersey features the standard Old English “D,” on the front, along with two vertical lines of black piping and seven buttons.
Dressen’s jersey not only serves as a lasting reminder of what uniforms from that era looked like, but it helps tell the story of a man who wanted to keep managing, even into his seventies and even with a recent history of heart trouble. Perhaps Dressen, given his age and his health, should not have been managing at all in 1966. In today’s game, the front office might have insisted on retirement. But for a lifelong baseball man like Dressen, a man who wanted to be on the fied, I suppose he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
To learn more about the Hall of Fame’s collection, visit the Pastime Digital Collection at www.baseballhall.org.