Tigers

Fifty years ago I fell in love for the first time. Being of late-middle age now, this happened to me on the cusp of pubescence. But it wasn’t some pockmarked adolescent or shaggy rocker who snagged my heart. Nope, the object of my undying affection back then was the greatest team in baseball history: the 1968 World Series champions, the Detroit Tigers. My hometown heroes.


I’m just going to pause here to allow all the non-Michiganders to finish voicing their protestations, obscene and otherwise. Of course, everyone has his or her all-time favorite team, whose veneration often has more to do with the golden glow of nostalgia and lost youth than any objective measure. So it is with my Tigers of a half-century ago.


That scrappy team, which boasted the likes of pitcher Denny McLain (the sport’s last 30-plus-game winner) and slugger Al Kaline, couldn’t have come together at a more vital moment for Detroit. The previous summer, the city had exploded in a frenzy of civil unrest; I awoke one July morning to smoke rising in the distance and National Guard tanks patrolling the streets. Years of seething resentment in the African-American community against police brutality, segregated housing, substandard schools and black unemployment had finally erupted into one of this country’s most violent urban revolts. The results were devastating: 43 people dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrested and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.


For me, a white girl living in a solidly middle-class and racially integrated sliver of the city, this was shocking. I wasn’t so self-absorbed as to have been oblivious to the civil disturbances that convulsed other U.S. cities during the long, hot summer of 1967. But as the quintessence of adolescent awkwardness—mossy braces, pointy blue sparkly glasses, seriously compromised sartorial sense--I was more focused on just trying to fit in than on racial inequality and social injustice.


Lacking any real athletic ability, I had initially become interested in sports as a way of currying favor with my father. A deeply mercurial man whose moods turned on a dime, Dad spent much of his free time yelling at Detroit’s professional teams on television. Bonding over sports seemed a safe way of engaging with him, one that wouldn’t spark his sometimes- violent temper. The dilemma was finding the right one.


To me, football bordered on boring. Basketball, too, held little interest. Even hockey failed to seize my imagination—and this in a town where you could see not only Gordie Howe’s Red Wings, but because of Detroit’s proximity to Ontario, weekly television broadcasts of “Hockey Night in Canada” on the CBC, as well.


But baseball: now here was a sport that was accessible, even to a nerd such as myself. My embrace of it coincided, quite literally, with the onset of puberty—a cosmic change that soon elevated the game beyond just a means of eliciting parental attention. That summer of 1968, with newly minted hormones coursing through my blood, I suddenly realized all those baseball players were men. Athletic men. Athletic men in tight uniforms.  A point underscored every time Stormin’ Norman Cash, the Tigers’ first-baseman, strode up to the plate and, looking straight into the camera during televised games, invariably adjusted his crotch before assuming his batting stance.


My older sister, obviously afflicted with the same chemical need to swoon, plastered her bedroom with pictures of the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits that she clipped from teen magazines. I had McLain, he of the balletic pitcher’s kick, and Willie Horton, the home-run hitting phenom, taped to my walls, carefully culled from the pages of Sports Illustrated. But my deepest devotion I reserved for the Tigers’ catcher, Bill Freehan. An All-Star for 11 seasons and five-time Golden Glove winner, Freehan had attended the University of Michigan; here were brawn and brains! What could be more attractive to a bookish dweeb?


Beset by adoration and nerves, I began knitting Freehan a scarf early in the summer: six rows of black yarn, six rows of orange yarn. Tiger stripes. No matter that the team’s official colors were navy, orange and white.  Clacking those needles together was meant to be calming while listening to games on the radio. (Television broadcasts not being a daily thing in those prehistoric times.) But so many of the Tigers’ matchups that year were squeakers, which prompted near-obsessive knitting; as the season progressed, the scarf took on proportions more suited to the neck of a brachiosaurus. It soon spilled out of the knitting bag and dragged behind me along the floor like a serpent crawling on its belly, accumulating dust and dirt and maybe a colony or two of insects burrowing into its expanse.


But what a season!  Of the Tigers’ 103 wins, 40 were in the seventh inning onward—and 30 of those in the team’s last at-bat. Many of the come-from-behind victories occurred when the Tigers were playing night games on the West Coast—zero dark thirty in Detroit. At that abandoned hour everyone in our house was long asleep, the only noises a whirring of the fan in my bedroom and a chorus of crickets outside. I’d be under my covers with an illuminated flashlight, listening to my little black transistor radio through a single earplug. The ninth inning: last chance for the Tigers to score. Which usually brought Gates Brown, a whiz of a pinch-hitter, off the bench. I’d cross my fingers and hold my breath to near asphyxiation—then suddenly hear the magical crack of a bat and Ernie Harwell, the mellifluous, Georgia-lilted voice of the Tigers for decades, intone, “That one is long gone!” And I’d let out a shriek, waking my younger sister who was sleeping in the other bed. “MOM!” she’d bellow. “Lynda’s listening to the game again!”


Following the Tigers that summer, I felt a sense of boundless expectation, of endless possibility. Not something I’d often experienced in a home characterized more by bickering than bliss. But even my mostly dysfunctional family couldn’t escape the euphoria. The growing tension between my parents notwithstanding, we actually went to a few games together at Tiger Stadium, an iconic fossil that boasted steel support columns and an overhanging upper deck—all strategically placed to obstruct your view. It wasn’t as if we were suddenly transformed into a Jewish version of the Cleavers. But at least we now had something we could agree on.


Detroit, too, pulled together after a fashion. To be sure, the racial divisions that had riven the city the previous summer still smoldered; rumors of imminent explosions abounded. Nonetheless, a relative peace held as people were transfixed by the team’s success. And when the Tigers clinched the American League pennant on Sept.19--the last season before the advent of divisions-- the town did, in fact, erupt. But this time in pure jubilation.


Of course, these things never turn out the way you expect them. The Tigers faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series; Denny McLain, with his stunning record of 31-6, a 1.96 ERA, to say nothing of the Cy Young and American League Most Valuable Player awards, was a sure bet to demolish them. Fat chance. McLain choked, losing the first and fourth games to the Cardinals’ magnificent pitcher, Bob Gibson. (Although McLain did win the crucial sixth game, to keep the Tigers’—and my-- hopes alive.) An unlikely hero, in the person of pot-bellied pitcher Mickey Lolich, lumbered in to save the day, winning three miraculous games—including the seventh and last.


By the season’s end, my family—like so many other white, middle- and upper-middle class families—abandoned Detroit for the suburbs, taking with them desperately needed tax revenue and helping to seal the city’s fate from which it would take a half-century to begin to recover. In some ways, that act sealed my family’s fate as well. I couldn’t know it then, but the change set me on my way out of the Midwest, never to look back.


My father would soon leave my mother for another woman and move to England to start a new life. The next year, the Tigers would finish a distant second to the Baltimore Orioles in the newly created American League East; it would take them another 15 years to win the World Series again. (And none since: 34 years and counting.) Denny McClain would begin his organ-playing, lounge-lizard downward spiral into addiction and jail time. And the impossibly long and shockingly striped scarf, which was never sent to Bill Freehan, would be lost forever when my mother sold her house.


But all that was in the future. Instead, for a brief, shining moment in those tumultuous and tragic times fifty years ago, my team, my city and my family were one.

Virginia Hendryx