The Tigers once proved to be just the ticket for fans

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Given the current plight of the team, it only seems like 50 years ago that the Tigers last captured the imagination of a city and a state.

As expected, the 2018 edition of Detroit’s baseball club is producing a bumper crop of losses in the early going of the season, setbacks that figure to mount to near-record levels before the local Boys of Summer take their winter break.

A half-century ago, it was a far different picture, then framed in star-struck terms for a city desperate for a glimmer of good news following the tragedy of 1967 when Detroit erupted in flames and violence during a July uprising that claimed 43 lives.

In the summer of 1968, the Tigers proved to be a welcome tonic for a shattered city, waltzing to the American League pennant behind 31-game winner Denny McLain, an organ-playing right-hander who dispatched batters as easily as he quenched his thirst with at least a dozen Pepsi-Colas a day.

McLain, who that year became the Major League’s first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934, won the MVP and Cy Young Award for his pitching prowess. That season he was the brightest star in a Detroit galaxy that included the likes of future Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Earl Wilson, Gates Brown, and Mickey Stanley.

As the son of a lifetime Tiger fan, I inherited my father’s love for the Detroit team, attending as many games as the family budget would allow during my formative years in the ’60s when the Yankees, Twins, and Red Sox made a habit of spoiling our summer fun.

But ’68 was different, refreshingly so. After losing the season opener, the Tigers rattled off a nine-game winning streak, setting the stage for a 103-victory season and a first place finish by 12 games over the runner-up Baltimore Orioles.

The pennant hungry team, which came within a whisker of winning the 1967 American League title, made a habit of late-inning heroics in ’68, rallying for 30 wins in the last at-bat, including McLain’s 30th victory against the Oakland A’s on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon in late September.

I was there that day, soaking up the baseball drama in an obstructed view seat that was part of the charm – and madness – of Tiger Stadium. A few weeks later, my father and I would return to “The Corner” of Michigan and Trumbull for game five of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League champs who were on the verge of claiming a second straight world title.

My father, who had witnessed Detroit’s World Series appearances in 1934 and 1935, had pulled a few strings to snag the ’68 tickets, paying top-dollar for the choice seats behind home plate.

Today, a prime ticket to the World Series might fetch two grand on the secondary market, perhaps even more if a New York or L.A. team is involved. But 50 years ago this fall, the price of World Series ducat was considerably less.

Eight bucks was the price per ticket, which seems particularly mind-boggling, even when factoring in the ravages of inflation. Needless to say, we got our money’s worth that crisp October day, which began with Jose Feliciano singing a Latin jazz version of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a rendition that stirred more than a few baseball pots across the nation.

While Feliciano struck an interesting chord during pre-game festivities, the Tigers seemingly were inspired to find their voice later on, staging a three-run rally in the seventh inning en route to a 5-3 victory that cut the St. Louis lead in the Series to 3-2.

The Detroit win sparked a Tiger turnaround, thanks largely to the pitching of Series MVP Mickey Lolich, who outdueled Cardinal ace Bob Gibson in the deciding game seven in St. Louis.

I had the good fortune that momentous day to watch the happy outcome on a black and white TV that my high school algebra teacher – who doubled as the school’s baseball coach – had smuggled into class, figuring that we could be spared the joy of quadratic equations until another day.

He was right, of course, as the World Series win left a lasting memory in my mind, one that I will enjoy reliving later this season when the Tigers still left standing from that championship year take a 50-year bow at anniversary ceremonies on Saturday, Sept. 8 in Comerica Park, fittingly in a game against St. Louis.

I better snag a ticket.

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