For Lolich, ’68 was his shining moment, but only part of his story

Left-hander Mickey Lolich will always be remembered for his three wins in the '68 World Series, but he had a long distinguished career beyond that.

Left-hander Mickey Lolich will always be remembered for his three wins in the ’68 World Series, but he had a long distinguished career beyond that.

At some point on Saturday night, Mickey Lolich will be on the field at Comerica Park in front of tens of thousands of Tiger fans. He’ll get a loud ovation as one of the stars of the ’68 World Championship team, as well he should.

For legions of Detroiters, the image of Lolich on the mound for the final out of the ’68 World Series will forever be burned into their memory. On Saturday, the Tigers are honoring that club 45 years after their thrilling World Series victory.

Lolich emerged as the hero of that Fall Classic, winning three games, including Game Seven. He was a big part of that team, a team that Detroit still clings to all these years later. A team that won a title just one summer after the city was rocked by terrible riots. A team that delighted fans with their come-from-behind magic all summer long, and saved their biggest comeback for October.

Al Kaline was the icon on that team – a legend in the final phase of his Hall of Fame career, but still a great ballplayer. There was Denny McLain, the marvelous right-hander with the high leg kick who won 31 games and did it on his own terms, for good and for bad. There was also Willie Horton, a hometown kid who was the first black star the Tigs ever had. We can’t forget Bill Freehan, Mickey Stanley, John Hiller, Norm Cash, and Jim Northrup – it was a team with many good ballplayers.

But Lolich, more than any of them, is associated with that ’68 Series. Ask him about it today, and Mick will point out with pride that he’s the only left-hander to ever toss three complete game wins in a World Series. But that season is just one chapter in Lolich’s baseball story. A story and a career that he keeps in perspective.

“I tell people that there were a lot of things that went right for me to get to the big leagues,” Lolich said this week in an interview from his home outside Detroit. “[All along the way], things fell into place that helped me out.”

Lolich also had talent, of course. He was armed with a fastball that whizzed toward the plate in the low-to-mid-90s, and he had stamina. Over the course of his 16-year career, Mickey never shied from taking the baseball, and he only missed one start due to injury (after he was plunked with a line drive).

It was that eagerness and fearlessness that led to Mickey becoming the hero of the ’68 Series. After winning Games Two and Five, Lolich came back on two days rest to start Game Seven, where he proceeded to outduel Bob Gibson. Relief help? Lolich didn’t need it. The southpaw completed all three of his starts, going 27 innings while allowing just 5 runs and striking out 21 batters. He did that over the course of 8 days! It’s safe to say we’ll never see another World Series performance like that again.

As much as Lolich will enjoy seeing his former teammates this weekend in Detroit, and as much as he likes to tell some of the stories about that season, there’s a small part of him that wishes his ’68 Fall Classic performance didn’t dominate his legacy quite so much.

You see, Mickey was barely 28 years old when he won those three games in the ’68 Fall Classic. He’d won 83 games to that point in his career, and for him the best was yet to come. In ’71, Lolich won 25 games and struck out 308 batters, finishing 2nd in Cy Young voting and 5th in the MVP race. He pitched 376 innings that year – a total that most starting pitchers today would take two years to accumulate. In ’72, Mick won 22 more and was 3rd in Cy Young voting as he helped lead the Tigs to the AL East title. He won 16 games the next two seasons, giving him at least 15 victories in 8 of 11 seasons. He was a big game pitcher. In the 8 biggest games of his career (three games in the ’68 Series, two in the ’72 Playoffs, and the last three in the ’72 pennant race), Mick was 5-2 with a 1.54 ERA. He pitched 12 innings in one of those games! In 1975 he won his 200th career game, and he captured 217 in all during his career, which also included three All-Star Game selections. Every few years, his name appears on the Veterans Committee for the Hall of Fame, as he usually makes a short list of “old-timers” who earn another look from Cooperstown.

Mick will be the first to tell you that he wasn’t a superstar. As he told me a few years ago, he was “a beer drinker’s idol”, with his famous belly and workmanlike approach. Frequently he encounters fans who tell him that they used to plan their trips to the ballpark so they could specifically see him pitch. “That’s about as good a compliment as you can get,” Mickey says.

Timing can be everything, and for Lolich it was both a blessing and a curse. He was in the right place at the right time in ’68, given the opportunity to pitch not one, not two, but three times in the World Series. He met the challenge and earned his place in history. But, his career also fell into a period of time where he bumped up against other forces that overshadowed his other achievements. In ’68, McLain got most of the headlines for stellar pitching. For the next few years, McLain got the headlines for his shenanigans off the field. After Lolich was traded to the Mets prior to the ’76 season, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych came along to have a phenomenal rookie season. For many fans who started to come of age in the mid-1970s, The Bird was their hero. They hadn’t seen Mickey Lolich in his prime, when he was like a human pitching machine, churning up innings, striking out batters, taking the ball every four days. As a result of that, and the shining feat he achieved in the ’68 Series, the totality of Mickey’s career is unappreciated.

A few years ago, at a baseball dinner they were both attending, Lolich and former Cardinal Lou Brock found time to chat about the ’68 Series. Brock told Mickey that prior to the Series, the Cardinals were going over scouting reports and spending a lot of time talking about McLain. Finally after a few minutes of this, St. Louis’ right fielder Roger Maris, who had spent much of his career in the American League, stood up. “McLain, McLain, McLain,” Maris reportedly said. “You can talk about McLain, but you better remember that left-hander they have over there. You better watch out for him.”

That left-hander will be on the field Saturday. Watch out for him, will you?

17 replies on “For Lolich, ’68 was his shining moment, but only part of his story

  • Martin Maag

    Remember every game…was 8 years old and thought the world revolved around the Detroit tigers… Lolich was a super star! He belongs in the Hall and he belongs there Now!

  • Russ Tillman

    Well said as usual Dan. Also note that Mickey is in 18 place of alltime strikeout leaders ahead of the great Cy Young! Bob Gibson is number 14. Mickey, like Trammell should be in the Hall of Fame not only for his career stats, but how he played the game and what he did in key games.

  • Russ Tillman

    I forgot to mention that he is also number 3 in all time lefthand strikeout leaders only behind Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton.

  • kizer

    People cry all the time about Morris not being in the hall… Wahhhhhh…Lolich is far more deserving

  • kizer


    1) Lolich
    2) Cash
    3) Trammel
    4) Whitaker
    5) Heilmann
    6) Sparky
    7) Gibson
    8) Freehan

    Without even trying there’s 8 …Im not saying they all deserve a statue . . . just that they all deserve one more than Willie Horton.

  • Gary Steinke

    Another good one Dan. kizer the statue of Horton isn’t going anywhere, so please stop crying about it. I was at the game yesterday (Saturday) and before the celebration on the field, the ’68’ Tigs had a Q&A with the fans and you were able to see them up close. One thing one couldn’t help but notice was the smiles on their and the fans faces. (Well, the older fans faces) and I was one of them, I’m still smiling today.

  • Mike

    No true Detroit Tigers fan will bash Willie Horton.
    So just stop.
    Of course Lolich deserves one as well. For his whole career and for the 8 days when he was in the American spotlight in 1968. He should also be enshrined in Cooperstown before we lose him. We should also not forget that only those tough A’s teams of that day kept us out of the series at least two more times.

  • chris revard,jr

    I was 10yrs old. My Dad would come home from work during the game, then go back to after game. He kept detailed score of every pitch of all 7 games.(which I still have). It was a great time to be a tiger fan.

  • Rick

    Kizer, I have to disagree with your choices of Sparky and Gibby. They do NOT belong up there with Tiger icons. Let’s NOT forget when Sparky wasn’t given a good team he just up and quit in the middle of a season. NEVER and I repeat NEVER reward a quitter! Gary, lucky you to be there yesterday. I was lucky to be there 5 years ago when they did the 40th anniversary celebration. As for Mickey Lolich one cannot dispute what he did in his career. However, as I traveled the state to get autographs on my 68 w.s. cards I found Mr. Kaline, Horton, Freehan and especially Denny McLain to be not only friendly but greatly appreciative of their fans. But when I finally got a chance to meet Mickey Lolich not only was he rude and inconsiderate I found him boorish and a snob. I was GREATLY disappointed in him. It was like , give me your money and get going. I witnessed him sign 10 items and never once look up or acknowledge any fan! I went away thinking what an ass!

  • Guy

    1968: Just returning in May from active duty I followed that incredible team all summer long. This was the team of my youth and you never forget that thrilling ride. Kaline’s base hit in the 5th game – the seasoned pro realizing a career defining moment. Not swinging for the fences but, as ever, the consumate team player, stoking a single to bring us back from the edge of the pit.

  • Brian Nylaan

    Thank you guys for all the wonderful work you do on the Internet. Without you and StubHub, I would have missed last Saturday, a very special time for a very special team.

  • mark renner

    I was 11 watching detroit in 68 after they barely lost out in 67. they lost every game in preseason i think. then won it all. i rode bus number 6 to school. i was in the 6th grade. I was born oct 6 56. so guess who just happened to be my favorite tiger player wearing number 6?

    BTW Detroit is the last true champions of base ball. the following yr expansion happened and detroit didn’t protect everyone. the division system started for the right to meet the nl in the world series. Cal miller and curt flood challenged the labor clause in baseball contracts. agents/lawyers/owners dominated the game as players began to trade uniforms for money quicker the k-dash did her men!

    to baseball is sad. IMO its talent is watered down and over managed. money has corrupted all the players. there’s zero loyalty. then no motivation to perform with guaranteed income. Being hit by a pitch was an art form ron hunt mastered. Today baseball is about feelings/snubs/hangnails/. what used to be part of the game is gone like practicing sliding into bases in spring training.
    money players get protected more by owners. 5 starters is a jike. pitching every 5 days for 2003m is a joke. not lasting for only 23 innings in four starts over a 20 day period is wrong!

    p.e.d.s cheaters on top of greed. purity is a long forgotten icon I used to believe in as a youth. Baseball is still baseball in word and basics. from there those who put there own spin on what it means to them as they play it makes me sad.

  • Rick

    Mark, nice comments and I totally agree with all. Of course the biggest offender to all of this was and continues to be the over seer bud Selig! What a buffoon and money grubbing sob! He almost single handed has ruined the game we all grew up loving. Guys if you haven’t read it I would suggest picking up the book “The Tiger’s of 68” by George Cantor. a terrific book on the Tig’s of 68!

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