Michigan author Tom Stanton remembers the 1968 Tigers

Tom Stanton’s most recent book is “Terror In the City of Champions”

As a writer, I’m invariably asked about other writers and authors whose work I enjoy. One of the first names that comes to mind is Tom Stanton, a Michigan-based author who has written four books on themes that are in some way related to the Detroit Tigers’ franchise. With his clear but thoughtful writing style, the highly readable Stanton has penned excellent works on the subject of Ty Cobb, the 1972 Tigers, the final season in Tiger Stadium history, and a highly anticipated visit to Cooperstown. His most recent book, Terror in the City of Champions, is only tangentially related to baseball, but has also earned critical praise for its “first-rate reporting” of a secret society that infiltrated Detroit in the 1930s.

In continuing my yearlong celebration of the 1968 Tigers, the 50-year retrospective would not be complete without a few thoughts and opinions from the Michigan-based Stanton, who also co-founded The Voice newspapers and now teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy. I recently posed a few questions to Stanton about the 1968 season, what he remembers firsthand, what he has come to learn over the years, and the role that those Tigers may have played in repairing a fractured city.

Markusen: Tom, you were very young, eight years old I believe, at the time of the 1968 season. What first-hand memories do you have of the Tigers’ first world championship of your lifetime?

Stanton: I remember very little of the 1968 season. I was seven years old, and most of my memories of that year have been passed down through family lore and community legend. I have some snippets: getting to watch part of a World Series game in our third-grade classroom, being at a game (supposedly the one where Denny McLain fed Mickey Mantle the home run) with my dad and brother on a cool evening and burning my tongue on hot chocolate, and seeing toilet paper strewn in the trees in celebration after our team won. Not much to cling to there for a baseball author. But most of those men remained with the Tigers and grew into my heroes in the coming seasons. They were part of the 1972 run, which I recall vividly.

Markusen: As you’ve grown older, what have you come to appreciate most about the 1968 team?

Stanton: I embrace the notion that the victory coming one year after the 1967 race riot/ rebellion did have some healing powers. I know several historians downplay the societal significance of that winning season, and I don’t want to oversell it. But it came during a volatile year in our nation’s history and after a terrifyingly deadly one in our city the previous summer. The heroes of that team were white players and black players and, thus, had some ability to appeal to fans of both races. It mattered, in my view. Tim Wendel’s book Summer of ’68 deals nicely with some of these issues.

Markusen: The ’68 Tigers had their fair share of characters: Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Gates Brown, Denny McLain, among others. Did you have a favorite player among the ’68 Tigers, and why that player?

Stanton: Mickey Lolich cemented his Detroit reputation with those three World Series wins and captured a spot in my heart. It helped, too, that he looked a bit like my dad, with dark hair and a slight beer belly. He wasn’t a Detroit guy, but he looked like one — a blue-collar dad who might be found changing his car oil in the driveway, like everyone else where I lived. Most fans were expecting the 1968 World Series to be a pitching duel between Denny McLain, with his 31 wins, and Bob Gibson. And here Lolich stepped into the hero’s role. He remained one of my favorites, a dominant Tigers pitcher through the mid-1970s, compiling ungodly totals. (Just look at those complete games and innings pitched.) Willie Horton was another. In fact, except for McLain, who was traded in 1970, I grew up with all of the key players from that team.

Markusen: For some reason, the ’68 World Series remains underrated. There were so many great moments, including the Willie Horton throw, the Jim Northrup fly ball that eluded Curt Flood in Game Seven, the surprisingly good defensive play of Mickey Stanley at shortstop. For you, was there a particular moment or play that stood out as especially memorable in the ’68 Series?

Stanton: You pegged the two that stand out most for me: Willie’s throw and Stanley’s play at shortstop. Manager Mayo Smith’s selection of Mickey Stanley, a center fielder, to play shortstop was bold. And it turned out to be brilliant, because it allowed Smith to get the bats of Horton, Northrup, Norm Cash and Al Kaline all into the lineup. Our team was stronger for it.

Some folks forget that Kaline was injured for a good chunk of the season (missing nearly six weeks with a broken arm), and Smith was hesitant to disrupt the good thing he had going in his outfield (minus Kaline). Post-injury, Smith was working Kaline into the lineup, sometimes breaking Cash at first. Kaline ended up being a crucial offensive force in the series.

And about Willie’s throw: It was just perfect. The play was important in terms of momentum, as well. But let’s also give catcher Bill Freehan — who I think is historically (along with Lou Whitaker) the most under-appreciated Tiger nationally of the past half century — his due for outplaying Lou Brock in that moment.

Markusen: To this day, Mayo Smith has never received much credit for guiding the team to the pennant and the World Series win over the Cardinals. Critics claim that he was too laid back, with some even going so far as to claim he was “asleep at the switch” much of the time. Do you think the criticism is fair, or does Mayo deserve a little more recognition for doing what no Tiger manager had done since the 1940s?

Stanton: Bottom line: He won. He deserves some credit — for staying out of the way, if nothing else. The argument is that anyone could have won with that team. But maybe what the team needed was a low-key guy like Mayo Smith. I think the Mickey Stanley decision alone should insulate Mayo Smith from too much criticism. It proved crucial. A lot of managers would not have made that call.

One criticism of Smith is that he let McLain run over the team — that he broke rules with relative immunity. McLain was a wild horse, who simply became too important to the team’s fortunes for Mayo to risk trying to rein him in fiercely. Mayo looked the other way with some incidents. But in the end, McLain won 31 games. Here’s a contrarian way to look at it: The resentment some teammates felt toward McLain may have been a motivating force, certainly in Lolich’s case, who sometimes had a chip on his shoulder where McLain was concerned.

Markusen: You mentioned this earlier, but there’s long been debate about the impact that the Tigers of 1967 and ’68 had in helping to heal a community torn by racial strife. Some of the skeptics say that the Tigers had little impact, while others, like Willie Horton, believe the Tigers did help the city heal at a difficult time. Tell us more about your thoughts on this debate?

Stanton: I fall on Willie’s side on this one. He grew up here. He knows the city. He’s a legend here, and he was connected to the black community, of course. He took an active role during the time of turmoil, going into the streets in his uniform. Looking through the nostalgic lens of history, we may inflate the team’s importance. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that some good resulted. The Tigers were not a point of dissension racially at that stage. Willie Horton, Gates Brown and Earl Wilson; they all played significant roles. And it was a team that repeatedly came from behind, which helped. (For the season, the Tigers won 40 games by either coming back or breaking a tie from the seventh inning on.)

Markusen: Tom, you’ve written well about many Tiger-related subjects, including the 1972 pennant race and the final season of Tiger Stadium. Have you considered writing a book about the ’68 team, which is arguably the most beloved in Tiger fandom?

Stanton: I’ve considered it but I’m not sure what more I could add at this point. Kaline, McLain, Horton, and Lolich have all told their stories in book form with the help of a parade of journalists. The late George Cantor, a well-known Tigers beat reporter from 1968, wrote an excellent portrait of that year, and there have been several others as well. Given this is the 50th anniversary, I may have missed my chance.

Markusen: Final question, Tom. What is next for you? Do you have a book in mind after the critical and best-selling success of Terror in the City of Champions?

Stanton: I’m exploring a few. The two most likely books are quite different. One would be a World War II baseball story, the other a fan memoir of Elton John’s final tour. We’ll see.

Markusen: Those two topics are as about a diverse as one could imagine. We look forward to seeing one of them in print in the coming years. Thank you, Tom.

To find out more about Tom Stanton’s writing, visit his web site, www.tomstanton.com. His latest book, Terror in the City of Champions, remains in print and is available from Lyons Press. To purchase the book, visit Amazon.

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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.