Saturday, 26 April 2014

Herb Score and 57 Years Ago

Herb Score, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago photo
(United States Public Domain)
It was inevitable. Some said it was bound to happen…

The 1950s pitching sensation, Herb Score, had a tough start in life. At three years old, his legs were crushed when he was run over by a bakery truck. A few years later, he contacted rheumatic fever and had to miss a full year of school. But he recovered from both setbacks. Growing up, Herbert Jude Score turned into a tall redhead with Hollywood looks on a six-foot-two, 185-pound frame.

Score loved baseball. A converted outfielder, he found he could throw smoke from the mound. At 18, he threw six no-hitters for his Lake Worth, Florida high school team. The next year, 1953, Cleveland Indians scout Cy Slapnicka--the same scout who discovered Bob Feller two decades before--signed Score for a $60,000 bonus. In the minors, Score moved up to Indianapolis of the AAA American Association in 1954, where he won 22 games and struck out 330 batters in only 251 innings deploying a terrifying fastball and a wicked curve.

Next year, as an Indian, Score won 16 games with only 10 losses. Throwing in 227 innings, his 245 strikeouts led the American League and was a major league record for rookie hurlers for 29 years (until New York Mets Dwight Gooden threw 276 strikeouts in only 218 innings in 1984). It was the first time in history that a regular starting pitcher averaged more than one strikeout per inning. Although he was voted 1955 AL Rookie-of-the-year by a wide margin, Score’s 154 walks in 227 innings did seem to be a concern for Indians’ management.

What would Score do the next year? Would he improve? Would he find the plate? There’s a term out there in sports called the “Sophomore Jinx.” Like everyone else, Score had to deal with it. It’s like this…usually, if a player has a great first year, the opposition finds his weak points in a hurry and his second year may end up not so great. Either the player adjusts in his third year and beyond, or he’s gone.

In 1956, Score worked hard to improve his control, with the result being a better ratio of 129 walks in 249 innings. He also won 20 games, lost nine, struck out 263 strikeouts and recorded a 2.53 ERA. Score seemed well on his way. In March 1957, the Boston Red Sox offered Cleveland GM Hank Greenberg $1 million for Score, but Greenberg turned them down flat, replying, “Score may become the greatest pitcher in history.” It sure looked that way. “We wouldn’t sell him for $2 million,” Greenberg added, anticipating Score was on a straight path for Cooperstown as the left-handed version of fireballer Bob Feller.

Going into May 1957, Score was at 2-1, with a 2.00 ERA, one shutout, and 39 strikeouts in 36 innings. Again, he was terrorizing batters. But, Herb Score had a fatal flaw. A bad habit picked up in high school where he would throw his fastball so hard that he’d end up facing away from the plate (towards the third-base side of the diamond) for a split second or two  during his follow-through. If he heard a crack of the bat, he would then look behind him to see where the ball was hit. Pitcher Early Wynn, Score’s teammate in Cleveland, said on more than one occasion, “One of these days, he’s going to get killed out there.”

Infielder Gil McDougald was probably the most underrated New York Yankees player of the 1950s. He broke into the American League in 1951, hitting 14 homers and .306 as a regular, and was voted the league’s Rookie-of-the-Year. In one particular game, he batted in six runs in one inning. He topped off the season by hitting a Grand Slam homer in the 1951 World Series against the miracle New York Giants, making him the first rookie to hit a Grand Slam in World Series play. He could do it all--hit and field. An MVP contender most years, he could play second, third, and short equally well. In 1956, he helped preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game when Dodgers Jackie Robinson lined a shot off Andy Carey’s glove at third. At shortstop, McDougald quickly grabbed the ball and threw the fast Robinson out by a step.

Up to 1957, McDougald had played in two All-Star Games, at second base and third base. One thing he was well known for was his rocket line drives up the middle. But he also had some pop in the bat, evidenced by netting at least 10 homers a season since breaking into the league. McDougald was at the top of his game in 1957, coming off a .311 year in 1956, and was now the team’s regular shortstop.

Then…the inevitable did happen

The Yankees and the Indians met for a night game 7 May 1957 before 18,386 fans at Cleveland’s massive Municipal Stadium. The 23-year-old Score took the mound, and got the lead-off batter in the first--right-fielder Hank Bauer--to ground out to Al Smith at third. Second in the order, McDougald approached the plate. McDougald had an odd, yet unique open batting stance where he’d keep his feet far apart and dangle the end of his bat half-way down to his waist.
Gil McDougald, 1954 Bowman baseball card
(United States Public Domain)

On a 2-and-2 count, the next pitch was a low fastball that McDougald met solidly. Either Score didn’t see it or he couldn’t react in time. The ball smashed into the right side of his face, shattering bones and nearly popping his eye out. The crowd gasped as Score dropped on contact, his glove covering his face, blood coming from his nose, eye, and mouth. The ball skidded over to Al Smith, who threw to Vic Wertz at first. McDougald didn’t bother running it out. Instead, he made a B-line for the injured Score. Players and trainers from both sides raced for the mound, while the public address announcer blurted, “If there is a doctor in the stands, will he please report to the playing field!”

Mickey Mantle, the next batter up, saw it all, only a few feet away. In his book, Mickey Mantle, My Favorite Summer 1956 by Phil Pepe, Mantle said, “I remember hearing pow--pow, the bat hitting the ball, then the ball hitting Score. Just like that, almost with no time in between.”

Conscious through it all, Score was carried off the field on a stretcher and driven to the nearest hospital. There, he was diagnosed with a lacerated right eye lid, damaged right eye, broken cheekbone and broken nose. While recovering, he received thousands of letters from well-wishers. One California man even went so far as to offer Score one of his eyes. McDougald, shook up by it all, told teammates and reporters, “If Herb loses the sight of his eye, I’m going to quit the game.” Score did recover enough to leave the hospital after three weeks, but didn’t pitch for the rest of year, experiencing headaches, blurry vision and problems with depth perception.

Score was never the same pitcher after the McDougald line drive. But he tried to get back on track. Some experts at the time said he adjusted his pitching motion to be ready defensively, thus taking off the velocity he once had. But Score insisted he didn’t change anything, and that he threw his arm out in early 1958 on a damp day in Washington, after a good start to the season. Score played five more years in the majors and retired following the 1962 season with the Chicago White Sox at the age of 30. He never did regain his old form. After a 38-20 won-loss record in his first two years, his next five were a disappointing 17-26. But, to this day, Score holds the record for the lowest hits-per-nine-innings ratio in major league history at .710.

Gil McDougald finished 1957 with a decent .289 at the plate and another All-Star selection, while  fifth in MVP voting. But he too wasn’t quite the same after that 7 May 1957 night. His batting average dropped to the .250-range by the end of the decade. He played until 1960, then retired as a Yankee once he heard that management would not protect him in the up-coming expansion draft for the 1961 season. The Washington Senators eventually did choose him. He was only 32.

In a 10-year career, McDougald was a lifetime .276 hitter, a 5-time All-Star, all with the Yankees, with Casey Stengel his only manager. He was on eight pennant winners and five World Series championships. To show his versatility, McDougald played 599 games at second, 508 games at third, and 284 games at shortstop. He led AL infielders in double plays on three different occasions, one each at his three infield positions.

In 1964, Herb Score found a new career in broadcasting Cleveland Indians games. First on local TV for four years, then switching to Indians’ flagship radio station WWWE, with their strong 50,000-watt signal that covered  30 states and a major portion of Canada. He retired from color commentating in 1997 as the much-loved voice of the Indians. Earlier in the year, he was asked by a reporter for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer to reflect on the fortieth anniversary of the “incident.” Score had no regrets. “I’ll be married 40 years in July,” he replied. “That’s the only anniversary I think about.”

Score was seriously injured in a car accident in 1998 that resulted in a very difficult recovery period. Then, to make matters worse,  he was incapacitated with a stroke in 2002. He died on Veteran’s Day, 11 November 2008. Score could’ve been the best southpaw ever, better than Sandy Koufax, some believed.
If only?…what if?…I guess we can’t think about it…

Gil McDougald was not without his own physical misfortunes. In 1955, while at second base during batting practice, he was struck in the left ear by a ball off the bat of teammate Bob Cerv. McDougald collapsed and was taken to a hospital. He missed a few games, then returned to the lineup, but gradually lost the hearing in his ear. Over the course of time, he also lost the hearing in his right ear until he was totally deaf by the 1980s.  He became a recluse. Then he underwent a procedure called a cochlear implant that restored his hearing completely. After that, he became a paid spokesperson for the procedure and he began to see more of his friends, family, and Yankee teammates again. He died of prostate cancer in 2010 at the age of 82.

For their remaining years, McDougald and Score kept in touch with each other and were best of friends. It’s strange sometimes how fate can bring two opponents on the ball field together.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Last Great Gold Rush

The Klondike routes (United States Public Domain)
It took two ships, the Portland and the Excelsior, reaching Seattle and San Francisco, respectively, in mid-July 1897 to fuel the biggest human stampede in North American history. The previous August, gold had been discovered on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Word had spread quickly to other prospectors in the area and they rushed to stake claims on every available nearby stream and creek. Due to the remoteness of the land and winter socking the miners in, the outside world hadn’t heard the news until these two treasure ships arrived on the west coast loaded with gold taken from this new magic land called the Klondike.

The residents stood in awe, as men and women arrived on the Seattle and San Francisco docks with their “pokes,” some in suitcases so full of gold that it took two people to carry them. The next day, the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer read “Gold, Gold, Gold, Gold!”

The Klondike Gold Rush was on!

The news of potential riches could not have come at a better time. The mid-1890s had seen a North American financial recession. Banks failed. Large corporations collapsed. Labor strikes ran rampant, and the jobless rate swelled. However, gold was still a stable commodity at $20 an ounce. Over a million people worldwide made plans to bolt for the unknown north to seek their fortune, and over 100,000 people actually got up the nerve to try it. As for routes, three options were available, keeping in mind that Canada’s North West Mountain Police demanded that all comers to this remote territory had to be self-sufficient and arrive with a year’s worth of food or they would be turned away.

First, there was the all-water route from Seattle and San Francisco, up the Alaskan coast,  entering the Yukon River off the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle, then up the river to the newly-established boomtown of Dawson City, Yukon, a 4,700 mile one-way trip. Barges, coal ships, freighters, paddle wheelers, fishing boats of all kinds were put into service, loaded to the hilt to accommodate those who were willing to take the perilous journey. At first, an average ticket cost $150 a pop ($4,000 today). Within a year, the price rose to $1,000. Over 1,800 attempted  this route in 1897. A good number of the ships sank while many others were stuck along the way when the river froze over in mid-October. Only 43 people stumbled their way into Dawson by year’s end, the majority of those half-starved and badly weather-beaten.

Second, there was the all-Canadian route across land, keeping to the interior. Some people thought this one was the patriotic way, while others chose it to simply avoid federal customs officials. One of the paths started in Edmonton. It crossed the Peace River and entered the Canadian northern territories. Before the rush, Edmonton was a sleepy town of just over 1,000 souls. At the peak of the excitement in 1898, its population quadrupled with supply depots springing up everywhere. Another route originated from Ashcroft, BC, through the mountains. There was also an all-American way that disembarked at the Alaskan port of Valdez which required the gold seekers to cross the notorious Valdez glacier. Only a handful made it over alive. All of these interior attempts ended up as journeys to hell, taking upwards of 18 months to complete.

Third, and the most traveled way, was the grueling, but safer trip over the mountains through Dyea and Skagway, two port cities less than five miles apart at the northern end of the Alaskan Panhandle. Dyea took you up and over the Chilkoot Pass, while Skagway took you through the White Pass. On the other side was Lake Bennett and Lake Lindeman. Then, the prospectors had to build a raft that would take them and their one-year worth of supplies 500 miles downriver to Dawson and the adjacent gold fields.

Only about 40,000 of the original 100,000 who had set out actually made it to the Klondike via all the mentioned routes combined. By this time, the best claims were taken, anyway. Only 15,000 became miners. The others either turned around and went home or stayed to work.

Dawson was quite the boomtown. Predominately American, it went from nothing to tens of thousands in three short years. When gold was first discovered on Bonanza Creek in 1896 and the Yukon miners got word of the new strike through the miner grapevine, Dawson’s population jumped to a tent city of about 500 people by year’s end as winter had socked it in from the outside world. By that time, plots of land were selling for $500 each, the equivalent of $400,000 today. With the influx of stampeders in early 1897, Dawson’s population rose to 5,000, then soared to over 30,000 by 1898 as the outside world caught the gold bug.

The grueling Chilkoot Pass (Canadian Public Domain)
Dawson had 24-hour saloons, casinos, and houses of prostitution. Unlike most American frontier towns of the past, there was very little crime, thanks to the North West Mounted Police and their gun-free policy within the city limits. Front Street, the center of Dawson’s business district, was a mix of tents, warehouses, log cabins and other hastily-built structures. In the spring, the streets turned to deep mud and by summer flies and mosquitoes were a constant nuisance. With no fresh water or proper sewage arrangements, health issues were a concern. Dysentery and typhoid broke out in 1897, but were corrected somewhat in 1898 by piping in fresh water from the Yukon River further upstream. However, typhoid never did completely disappear. Scurvy or lack of Vitamin C was a serious threat, striking down several hundred. At the height of the gold frenzy, land along Front Street was fetching $20,000 ($16 million today). Sawmills worked 24 hours a day to satisfy the demand for lumber in the land of the Midnight Sun.

Gold dust was the common currency. Commodity prices were through the roof. Apples at $1 each. Eggs at $3 each. Nails at $30 a pound. Cans of butter fetched $5 each. Champagne went for $60 a bottle. The better hotel rooms cost $6.50 a night and an average meal that was served on linen tablecloths with silver utensils was $5. A shave could cost you $1.25.

With the many wood buildings in Dawson, fire was a constant menace.  Two majors fires broke out in 1897 and 1898, both started accidentally by the same dance-hall girl, Belle Mitchell. But the worst blaze occurred 26 April 1899 when a saloon caught fire during a strike by the newly-formed Dawson Fire Brigade. It seems that with all the wealth around town, the town fathers didn’t see fit to pay their fire fighters a decent wage. Over 100 buildings were destroyed, the damage reaching over $1 million in the day’s money.

But a new Dawson rose up. A more cultured one. All the buildings were reconstructed in a late-Victorian style with tougher framing, walls, and windows inside of a mere two months, in time for American flags to flap in the breeze three months later on 4 July, when the town of 75 percent Americans celebrated its heritage. By then, Dawson was the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, with population estimates somewhere between 35,000-45,000. This “San Francisco of the North” had running water, electricity, telephones, steamed heat, movie theatres, schools, hospitals, churches, hotels, three newspapers--the Nugget, the Midnight Sun, the Dawson Miner--and opera houses that brought singers and other forms of entertainment to the district.

The Klondike and Dawson in particular had a long list of characters and notables who were present during this great gold rush. Wilson Mizner was a confidence man who bilked prospectors of their money through various schemes, one of those being “badger games.” He later opened one of Hollywood’s hot spots, the Brown Derby Restaurant. Jack Kearns arrived in Dawson as a teenager. In the 1920s, he became the manager of heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, and later light-heavyweight Archie Moore. Sid Grauman was a paper boy in Dawson. A few years after his return to the States, he opened one of Hollywood’s most famous landmarks, Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

Writer Jack London contracted scurvy in the Klondike and returned to the States to write his two masterpieces, Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906).  Another writer Rex Beach was in town. Also influenced by the remote north, he later wrote his best-selling The Spoilers (1906). Tex Rickard, along with Wilson Mizner, promoted many Dawson boxing matches. Rickard later rebuilt Madison Square Garden to help promote his new National Hockey League team in 1926, the New York Rangers. He also built Boston Garden in 1928 which became home to the NHL Boston Bruins.

Another character was “Klondike Joe” Boyle, a Canadian adventurer and World War I Allied spy and hero in Romania for helping the country with relief efforts following the war. He organized the Dawson City Nuggets hockey team in 1905 which took a punishing trip by dog sled, steamer, and train to Ottawa to challenge the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup. Exhausted and bruised from the tough journey--bruised from the jarring dog sled--the Nuggets were trounced 9-2 and 23-2.

“Arizona Charlie” Meadows, a former western scout and performer in  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, opened the lavish Palace Grand Dance Hall in Dawson, complete with a polished Mahogany bar. Renovated in the 1960s, it still stands today. Alexander Pantages worked in town for a time as a janitor and a waiter before becoming a part-owner of a saloon with his lover, dancer-entertainer Kate Rockwell, of “Klondike Kate” fame. Returning to the United States, he opened a string of successful Pantages Theaters across North America, featuring the latest film and vaudeville acts.

Waiting at the Post Office, Dawson City, Yukon, 1899 (Canadian Public Domain)

Many women headed north too. The most successful of them all was Ethel Berry. Born Ethel Dean Bush, and raised on a farm in the Central Valley of California, she married her childhood sweetheart Clarence Berry in March 1896 when she was 23. For their honeymoon they trekked over the Chilkoot Pass into the Yukon. Now, there’s a honeymoon for you. That same year, they were a few of those lucky ones who struck it rich, well before the stampeders smothered the area. Clarence was lucky enough to have been bartending upriver at Forty Mile Creek when George Carmack--whose discovery started all the mass mania--had entered the establishment and bragged about the news of his personal strike on Bonanza Creek. The Berrys immediately packed up and left. Their claim along Eldorado Creek turned out to be one of the most valuable pieces of Klondike property.  A year later, while most miners were housing themselves in canvas tents, the couple’s two-story cabin built on No 5 Eldorado Creek was the most prestigious on the Yukon River tributary.

When the Portland docked in Seattle that fateful day in 1897, Ethel and Clarence had over $100,000 worth of gold stuffed in their belongings. The press descended on the couple and promptly called Ethel “The Bride of the Klondike,” highlighting her in papers all over the world. As a result, scores of women went north, inspired by her story. While a good number of Klondike Kings squandered their money, the Berrys were two of the few who invested their new-found riches wisely, later buying up other claims throughout the Yukon and Alaska, namely Fairbanks after the 1903 gold strike there. Back in California, they founded Berry Petroleum Company in 1909, a firm still in existence today. Clarence died in 1930, while Ethel lived on as a millionaire widow until 1948, when she passed away at the age of 75 in Beverly Hills, California.

By August 1899, the Klondike Gold Rush had ground to a halt. Prices were dropping steadily. Of the 100,000 who had originally set out on the stampede, only 4,000 had actually struck any significant amounts of gold. Prospectors from nearby creeks were now seeking work in town after their claims had turned up empty. But there was no work to be found. Too many people, not enough jobs. Everyone waited for something…anything…

Then, rumors came up the Yukon River from the west--news of a gold strike on the Bering Sea. Within a few days, the rumors were confirmed. Gold had been discovered on the beaches at Nome, Alaska, a town so far north that it was above the tree line. In one week, 8,000 people fled Dawson to seek a new fortune. One gold rush ended and another started. More and more people left for Alaska, mainland Canada and United States in the coming weeks and months. Upon Dawson’s incorporation as a city in 1902, the population had shrunk to barely 5,000. And it dropped even further after World War II when the Alaska Highway construction missed the legendary site by 300 miles.

According to the 2011 census, Dawson had 1,300 residents. With gold mining and tourism its main industries, Dawson attracts 60,000 visitors each year. For decades now, the price of gold has been allowed to float on the open market, thus bringing modern day prospectors back to the Yukon with their big rigs to find the “Mother Lode,” if there ever was one. Dyea, Alaska, once a robust boomtown of 7,000 during the Klondike Gold Rush, is a ghost town today, only a few broken-down structures and three cemeteries remain. Aided by surrounding deep waters, nearby Skagway, with its population of 900, is an important seaport for Alaskan cruise ships.

Here’s a couple of points...

The modern-day locals like to call their town Dawson, while outsiders call it Dawson City, in order to separate it from Dawson Creek, BC, which is Point Zero of the Alaska Highway.

Also, the word Klondike originated from the Indian word “Thron Diuck,” meaning “Hammer Water.” Early settlers couldn’t pronounce the words properly, so they came up with…you guessed it…KLON-DIKE.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The 1984 Detroit Tigers

Shortstop Alan Trammell, 1984
(Topps trading card used courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc)

I was 32 in 1984, married with 2 kids, and with a good-sized mortgage to boot. Moustaches, mullets, and big hair were the fads. Republican Ronald Reagan was President. Conservative Brian Mulroney was our Prime Minister here in Canada. Former Liberal PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau announced his retirement from politics. “About time” was our family response. The Soviet Union made it known to the world that it would boycott the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The McIntosh personal computer was splashed on the market, changing technology forever. Sales of George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, first written in 1948, had a massive rebirth in sales. It was also the “Year of the Tiger.” Detroit Tigers, that is.

In 1983, the Detroit Tigers had finished 6 games behind the World Series champs Baltimore Orioles in the American League East. I was working for the Loblaw’s grocery chain then and I remember by boss, Jerry, telling me after the season was over that the team to watch out for in the future was my Detroit Tigers. I had to agree. I had been a Tigers fan since their come-from-behind 1968 championship. I had enjoyed myself watching games at Tiger Stadium with my wife’s family since 1976. I actually took my son, Barrie, 7 years old at the time, to his first game at Tiger Stadium that 1983 summer, a game against the Baltimore Orioles. By osmosis, I guess I helped to shape him into a Tigers fan, too.

The 1983 team took root in 1978, when the Tigers had brought up 4 youngsters from the minors…second-baseman Lou Whitaker, shortstop Alan Trammell, pitcher Jack Morris, and catcher Lance Parrish. Not bad for one year. These 4 were the nucleus. Next came the tweaking. Pitchers Aurelio “Senior Smoke” Lopez and Dan Petry were added in 1979, along with manager Sparky Anderson in mid-June, fired by the Cincinnati Reds after the 1978 season for winning only 92 games. It was his second-straight second-place finish after collecting World Championships for the Reds in 1975 and 1976, which was the first time a National League team had taken back-to-back championships since John McGraw’s 1921-22 New York Giants. Anderson had decided to quit managing after the firing, but Tigers GM Jim Campbell was persistent. “He was the best man I could find,” Campbell said, “and I wanted him badly.” In Detroit, Anderson vowed to bring home a pennant winner in 5 years. Then rookie outfielder Kirk Gibson joined the club in 1980, another excellent addition.

The Tigers had a new sole owner for 1984 in pizza king Tom Monaghan, a handsome 47-year-old born and bred Michigan boy from nearby Ann Arbor. He was a self-made success story of colossal proportions, and he wasn’t afraid to spend money to hire the right people. After serving in the US Marine Corps as a young man, he borrowed $500 and opened his first pizza shop in 1960. By 1984, he was the chairman and president of Domino’s Pizza, Inc., the world’s largest pizza delivery chain at the time with 2,000 franchises and projected sales of $600 million for 1984. When he took over the reins of the Tigers in October 1983, he told the press, “It’s a lifelong dream come true. I never wanted to own the Yankees or Angels or any other team. I just wanted the Tigers.” At one time he wanted to play shortstop for them. “When I realized I would never be able to do it, I did the next best thing in buying them.”

The broadcasters were already legendary figures in the game. Ex-Tigers Al Kaline and George Kell teamed up to handle the television side of things for WDIV-TV, while Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey took to radio on the flagship WJR. I remember the WJR signal was so strong that my son and I could pick it up at times in our driveway in Burlington, Ontario more than 200 miles away. Clear as can be some nights, and for several innings. New to the scene that year was Pro Am Sports System (PASS) Cable TV where Larry Osterman and ex-Tiger catcher Bill Freehan shared the duties.

And, of course, we can’t leave out where the Tigers played. Tiger Stadium, that rusty old steel girder on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull built in 1912 and added onto with 2 large pre-war renos to where it now had 51,000 seats in 1984. Yeah, sure, it was old, but we loved it. A dump, but a historic dump. Ticket prices in 1984 were $9 for box seats, $7.50 for reserves, $5 for grandstands, and $3.50 for bleachers.  Our favorites were any seats in the upper deck, where you could almost lean onto the playing field. One time my son and I were in the first row on the first-base side and we could clearly hear the Detroit first-baseman swear when a line-drive banged off his shins.  

Prior to the start of the 1984 season, Jim Campbell made 2 significant deals. First, he signed power-hitting free agent DH-first baseman Darrel Evans on 17 December 1983, the Tigers first million dollar free agent. Then Campbell pulled off  the clincher the following March before spring training was over when he grabbed reliever Willie Hernandez and slick-fielding first-baseman Dave Bergman (the one who did the swearing mentioned earlier) from the Phillies for Glenn Wilson and John Wockenfuss, the man with the last name that you had better pronounce properly after a few drinks. Wockenfuss, tired of his pinch-hitting role and not playing on a regular basis, wanted out and said that a trade would suit him just fine. So, the Tigers accommodated him.

As spring training was drawing to a close, it appeared to many in the press that Detroit had a very good team, at least on paper. Managed by Sparky Anderson in his 5th year now, the silver-haired 50-year-old was given a new contract in the off-season. He had Dave Bergman, Darrell Evans, Steve Garbey (sometimes at third) at first. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell at second and short. Tom Brookens and Howard Johnson at third. Behind the plate was Lance Parrish. In the outfield was Kirk Gibson, Larry Herndon, and Chet Lemon. The notable extras were John Grubb, Rusty Kuntz, and Ruppert Jones, who joined the club in May. The starting pitchers were Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Juan Berenguer, Milt Wilcox, and Dave Rozema. In the pen stood the lefty Willie Hernandez and the righty Aurelio Lopez, plus Doug Bair. The coaches consisted of  Dick Tracewski, Billy Consolo, Alex Grammas, Gates Brown, and Roger Craig, a staff that represented 53 years of major league playing experience, plus another 61 years in the coaching and managerial ranks. The Tigers finished spring training with a not-so-great 11-17 won-lost, the second worst record in the American League. But, what’s spring training? That’s where a manager experiments, lets the rookies play, and such…

Then someone rang the bell in April. The Tigers won the first 9 games of the season, 17 of 18, then a whopping 35 of their first 40. During the 4th game of the season, Jack Morris threw a no-hitter against the White Sox, beating them 4-0 in Chicago. It was the first no-hitter thrown by a Tiger since Jim Bunning in 1958.  After the first few weeks, my extremely observant boss, Jerry, approached me and said, grinning, “I knew the Tigers were the team of the future…but like this!” I didn’t have an answer for him. I never expected it either. Who did? The closest any American League team came to the Tigers was the Toronto Blue Jays in mid-June when they crept within 3.5 games. Then the Tigers took off again and separated themselves from the rest of the pack with timely hitting and Lopez and especially Hernandez snuffing out the opposition when the starters faltered in the late innings.

The Tigers captured the AL East flag on 18 September by beating the Milwaukee Brewers 3-0. By season’s end, they finished 104-58, and 15 games ahead of the second-place Blue Jays. They set an all-time Tigers home attendance by attracting 2.7 million fans. They had a league-best in 3 team categories…187 homers, 3.49 ERA and 829/643 for-against, and a second-best .432 slugging average. The Tigers were only the 4th team ever to go wire-to-wire in first place and the first since the 1927 New York Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Strangely, no Tiger scored 100 runs, played in 150 games, hit 35 homers or 100 RBIs or had 600 at-bats. Only one batter, Alan Trammell, hit over .300. And no pitcher won 20 games. The pinch-hitters performed when called upon by hitting .312 with 6 homers and 42 RBIs. It was a total team effort. They had 3 Gold Gloves in Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. Kirk Gibson hit 27 dingers and stole 29 bases, making him the first Tiger ever to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases. Six players made it to the American League All-Star Team.

The Tigers weren’t finished with just taking the AL East. It wasn’t until they whipped the Kansas City Athletics three straight in the American League playoff that Sparky Anderson had kept his promise of a pennant in 5 years. Next came the World Series with the San Diego Padres as the opposition. It was no contest, all over in 5 games. Although the Tigers were outslugged .265 to .253, the Tigers hit when it counted including 7 homers to 3 by the Padres, who only scattered hits here and there. The Padres were outpitched too. The Tigers had a stingy 3.07 ERA to San Diego’s 4.71. No Padres starting pitcher got out of the 3rd inning. In fact, Tigers batters blasted Padres starters for a 13.94 ERA. Hotter than a firecracker, Jack Morris won both of his starts with complete games by striking out 13 batters and walking only 3. Willie Hernandez picked up saves in Games 3 and 5, going 2 innings or more each time out.  

The final game of the year, the 5th game of the World Series, seemed to be the epitome of the Tigers season in accomplishing anything they set out to do. At Tiger Stadium, in the bottom of the 8th inning, two runners on, Padres reliever Goose Gossage stood on mound, the ball in his hand, doing his best to convince manager Dick Williams that he (Gossage) could get the next batter, Kirk Gibson, out. Gossage, going back to his 6 years as a Yankee, had owned Gibson from their time together in the American league. Williams agreed with a nod and left for the dugout. Gibson then got all his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame into the next pitch and proceeded to park a 3-run homer (his second homer on the day) in the upper deck to put the game out of reach at 8-4. All 51,901 fans rose as one and cheered wildly. It was the final nail in the coffin for the Padres. An inning later, the fans went nuts inside and outside the park.

Manager Sparky Anderson, 1984
(Topps trading card used courtesy of The Topps Company, Inc)
Sparky now became the first manager in World Series history to win a championship in both leagues. He not only took Manager of the Year honors but was also the first manager to win 100 games in both leagues. Reliever Willie Hernandez took the AL Cy Young and the MVP award, with a 9-3, 1.92 ERA season where he saved 32 of possible 33 attempts. This was back in the days when relievers were real workhorses, and he was a cut above the rest with 140 innings thrown in 80 appearances. Kirk Gibson was the AL Championship series MVP, while shortstop  Alan Trammell took the World Series MVP award with a mighty 9-for-20 and a .450 average, with 6 RBIs, and 2 homers, both coming in Game 4. We can’t forget his outstanding defense and that he also hit .364 against the Royals in the AL playoffs.

My son, Barrie, was in Cooperstown in 2001 for the Hall of Fame ceremonies that inducted Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield, and there he met Goose Gossage signing autographs. Barrie approached Gossage and asked, “Did you really talk Williams into letting you pitch to Gibson?” And the ex-reliever replied, grudgingly, “Yeah, I did.” Barrie asked a couple more questions, but quickly sensed Gossage was getting annoyed. So, he left. Gossage made it to the Hall of Fame 7 years later. I hope he wasn’t so grumpy at his own induction.

It’s strange how things worked out for me in 1984. I had been going to at least one Tiger game each season from 1976 up to 1983. But for some strange reason, I just didn’t get around to going during their championship year. Then, every season from 1985 up to the closing of Tiger Stadium in 1999, I went at least once. Wouldn’t you know it.

From the 1984 Detroit Tigers, 3 players are listed in the Top 20 out of the Top 100 of all-time at their positions, as rated by The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. They are Lance Parrish, the 19th best catcher…Lou Whitaker, the 13th best second-baseman…and Alan Trammell, the 9th best shortstop. But none of these players are in the Hall of Fame. No player from that team is. Pitcher Jack Morris isn’t either, the winningest pitcher of the 1980s and one of the best money hurlers in recent memory. And to think, the keystone combo of Trammell and Whitaker has produced more double plays than anyone else in history. It sure leaves you wondering. Only manager Sparky Anderson is in the hallowed hall and he made it in 2000.

In 1992, Tom Monahan sold the Tigers to another pizza man, Mike Ilitch, the founder of Little Caesars. The Tigers just simply switched pizza companies and moved on to where they are today--annual contenders, despite the fact that their last championship was 1984.