In reviewing the history of the Detroit Tigers, I often think about the best seasons to be a Tigers fan. So, I am writing a series of posts listing the top 20 seasons in Tigers history. There is no specific formula for determining the best seasons, but there are some criteria which I consider carefully. Playoff appearances, especially those leading to world championships are, of course, important. Team dominance as measured by winning percentage and run differential also carries a lot of weight.
While most of the teams on the list did win a lot of games, this is
not simply a ranking of the best teams statistically. Sometimes, a
non-winning season stands out because of great individual achievements
or because the team was unique in some way. I wanted every decade to
be represented and since the Tigers have had a couple of poor decades,
this was a challenge. However, the Tigers have managed to put
together at least one campaign each decade which was memorable even if
it was not a great year in terms of wins and losses and some of those
seasons will also be included.
The entire list of 20 seasons can be found here.
In a city still troubled by the 1967 riots, the 1968 Tigers gave people something to rally around. After being eliminated on the last day of the regular season in 1967, they destroyed the competition in 1968 finishing with a 103-59 record, 12 games ahead of the second-place Orioles. The Tigers then capped the season with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
So, the 1968 season had social significance, one of the most dominant Tigers teams ever and a suspenseful finish. It was only one of four championship seasons for the franchise, but all those elements together were enough to make 1968 the best year to be a Tigers fan. In fact, most fans that I have talked to who experienced both the 1968 and 1984 seasons believe that1968 was the more memorable season of the two.
The 1968 season is called "The Year of the Pitcher" for good reason. The MLB batting average was just .237 and teams averaged 3.42 runs per game, the lowest since 3.38 RPG in 1908. Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski led the AL with a .301 average and Cardinals fire baller Bob Gibson led the majors with a 1.12 ERA. There was so little offense that the pitchers mound was lowered and the strike zone was shrunk after the season.
The Tigers allowed a league low 492 runs and ace right hander Denny McLain led the way. McLain won 31 games that year making him the only MLB pitcher in the last eight decades with at least 30 wins in a season. He posted a 1.96 ERA in 336 innings, struck out 280 batters and led the league with 28 complete games. The Tigers also received strong contributions from Earl Wilson (19 ERA+ in 224 innings), Mickey Lolich (17 wins, 197 K) and swing man John Hiller (126 ERA+).
Offensively, the Tigers led the league with 671 runs scored despite an injury limiting star right fielder Al Kaline to 350 at bats. They batted just .235 but their total of 185 home runs was about 40% higher than any other team in the league. Leading the home run parade were outfielder Willie Horton (36), catcher Bill Freehan (25), first baseman Norm Cash (25) and outfielder Jim Northrup (21). Horton also led the team and finished third in the league with a 165 OPS+. They had enough offense to overcome an anemic .135 batting average and 20+ OPS from starting shortstop Ray Oyler.
The Tigers faced the Cardinals in the World Series in what would be billed as the battle of aces - McLain versus Gibson. However, McLain didn't have a great series and Lolich stole the show with three victories. The series is also remembered as the one where Tigers manager Mayo Smith boldly moved center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop so that a healthy Kaline, Northrup and Horton could play the outfield.
The Cardinals toyed with the Tigers in taking a three to one series lead behind a 17-strikeout performance from Gibson in game one and easy wins in game three and four. Lolich kept the Tigers alive with a win in game two.
The Tigers then made one of the greatest comebacks in World Series history winning the last three games. In game five, they scored three runs in the seventh to beat the Cardinals 5-3 with Lolich earning his second win of the series. The Bengals then scored 10 runs in the third inning in a 13-1 rout in game six. finally, Lolich out pitched Gibson as the Tigers won 4-1 in game seven.
Thus, the Tigers won their third world championship in dramatic fashion to end what was the most memorable season in franchise history.
Some of data for this article were gathered from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org