South Portland, Maine— 1968 was arguably the most tumultuous year in modern U.S. history.
Jan. 23: North Korea captures the USS Pueblo
Jan. 30: North Vietnam launches the Tet Offensive
March 16: Robert Kennedy announces he's running for President
March 31: President Johnson announces he won't seek a second term
April 4: Martin Luther King is assassinated
April 4-5: Detroit streets erupt in fire and unrest following MLK’s assassination
June 5: Robert Kennedy is assassinated
Aug. 28: Democratic National Convention in Chicago Unrest inside and outside results in police and National Guardsman clubbing and tear-gassing anti-war protesters
Although my father and I lived just 50 miles northwest of Detroit in Holly, Michigan at the time of these earth-shattering events, we were in psychological isolation. All around us was a world of unrest, yet we might as well have been in another universe as the only thing that really mattered was the Detroit Tigers magical 1968 baseball season.
There was something very special with the heroic performances taking place that year inside the green walls at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, Tiger Stadium, that was surrounded by fires, turmoil, and unrest. Detroit, like the rest of the country was being torn apart by racial divide, political upheaval and the assassinations of two leaders who were trying to heal America. However, inside the sacred walls of Tiger Stadium, black and white, rich and poor, young and old were all coming together behind the historic performances of Al Kaline, Willy Horton, Mickey Lolich, Denny McClain and a cast that believed in destiny.
My father took me to Tiger Stadium at least 10 times that year. Whenever we went to games, the hour or so drive down to the stadium was to me like the trip down the yellow brick road toward The Emerald City.
Chief among MLB pitchers in 1968 was the Tiger's phenom Denny McClain. The 1968 total of 31 victories by McClain was the last time a victory total has reached 30 in MLB.
Denny was quite a character. Besides being baseball's most prolific pitcher that year, he was an accomplished organ player, and an avid soda drinker (consuming at least a case of Pepsi a day). In those days there were no closers. Starting pitchers were expected to pitch a full 9 innings every fourth day.
1968 was also the last year in the career of one of baseball’s greatest players of all time, Mickey Mantle.
On Sept. 19, 1968, McClain and Mantle would be a part of what is one of Baseball's most touching and unique moments. On that day McClain would gain his 31st victory (a record unlikely to ever again be equaled), and Mantle would hit his 535th home run allowing him to pass Jimmie Foxx at that time for third place on the all-time home run list.
The achievement for the record books of these two milestones, however, was not what made this game special.
The game between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees played on that afternoon of Sept. 19, 1968 was a makeup game from the previous night’s rainout.
At the previous game played on Sept. 17, the Tigers had clinched the American League Championship by beating the Yankees and would be going to the World Series (where their destiny would be complete by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games). This set the whole world of Tiger land into pandemonium. Even non baseball fans could not keep from being caught up in the celebration enveloping the entire state of Michigan. Every man, woman and child was embraced with euphoric joy on that special night.
Mickey Mantle was nearing the end of his storied career and it had been rumored this would be his last season. If so, Sept. 19 would be the last time he played at Tiger Stadium.
The prospect of Denny McClain having the opportunity to record 31 wins for the year ensured that Sept. 19's game would not be anti-climactic. So we decided to make the trek down to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull one last time in 1968.
Because this was a makeup game not many showed up (attendance was 9,063). In all our many years of attending games at Tiger Stadium, we had never purchased box seats because the cost was $3.50, which was too much for our budget then. We would usually sit in unreserved grand stand seats that were priced at $1.50. Occasionally we would spring for reserved seats priced at $2.25.
After parking in the backyard of a neighborhood home/converted parking lot that had the sweet smell of honeysuckle, we hurried toward the stadium. As we approached the box office, my dad said, “I think we'll get reserved seats today.”
After conveying this to the box office attendant, he replied, "Because of the rain out, I have two box seat tickets on the front row right by the visitors on deck circle. Do you want them?" Do we? Well yes! This was the first time my dad and I ever sat in a box seat at Tiger Stadium.
Sitting on the edge of the field that day was an awesome experience.
The Tigers were rolling in this game and by the eighth inning had a commanding 6-1 lead with Denny McClain well on his way to a historic 31st win.
In that 8th inning, a few days from retirement and tied with Jimmie Fox for third place with 534 career home runs, Mickey Mantle patted his bat with rosin (the flying dust almost reaching us) and made his way from the on deck circle to home plate. This would most assuredly be his last career at bat in Tiger Stadium.
Jim Price, the backup catcher for the Tigers catching that day, was summoned out to the mound at McClain's request.
According to a book published years later, McClain told Price that he wanted to let Mantle "hit one.” Price told Mantle what was up but apparently Mickey didn't believe him.
After the first pitch was taken for a strike, and the second was fouled off, we saw McClain motion with his arm over the upper part of his chest.
According to Price, at this point Micky believed him and replied, "High and tight, mediocre cheese."
The next pitch was indeed high and tight with mediocre cheese.
Mr. Mantle torched this pitch into the right field upper deck.
We stood applauding the legend at the cue of McClain who was clapping while Mantle circled the bases.
After Mickey had rounded third base and was headed toward home, he looked toward the mound and tipped his hat ever so slightly in a sign of deep admiration.
The lesson from this story is not one of personal achievement, it's about professional esteem. It is a moment I'll never forget.
Theodore Lewis, former CEO of the Guam Memorial Hospital, is now based on Maine, where he is exploring Uber adventures and collecting stories about life. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org