It is one of the most enduring love affairs in sports. The city of Detroit, and indeed much of southeast Michigan, was captivated by the world champion 1968 Tigers for good reason. Beyond their heroics on the field, they helped to heal a city whose psyche had been jolted by the riots of 1967. I was born in 1968, and thus not a part of the generation that grew up following Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, and Bill Freehan. My team was the 1984 Tigers. But I can appreciate a good story when I read one, and the ’68 crew was full of them.
That is why I was so glad to have recently stumbled across George Cantor’s definitive book The Tigers of ’68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions.
It is not a new book. It was first published in 1997, but fell out of print for many years. It was re-issued earlier this summer, complete with a slick new cover design, by Taylor Trade Publishing, out of Lanham, Maryland. For fans of that ’68 Tiger team (and they are legion), the re-release of this book is wonderful news.
Cantor, who passed away in 2010, was the perfect writer to tackle the subject. He was a reporter, columnist, and editor for nearly forty years, with both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. He was the Tiger beat writer in 1968 for the Free Press. Despite the newspaper strike in Detroit that lasted 268 days that summer, Cantor was a keen observer of the rollicking Bengals of 1968.
There has been a conspicuous lack of books written about that championship team. Cantor believed that was because “over the years, their achievements have slipped into a memory hole between the exploits of the 1967 Red Sox of the Impossible Dream and the 1969 Miracle Mets. These were the darlings of the East Coast media and a Detroit team just couldn’t compare.” That they didn’t repeat as champions also hurts the team, at least by the national perception. Many baseball historians view them as a one-year wonder, a club that took advantage of a down year by the mighty Baltimore Orioles of that era, and the collapse of the Yankee Empire.
Regardless, the 1968 Tigers featured some of the most colorful characters ever to play the game, which is part of the team’s lure. For Tiger fans that were around when it all happened, Cantor’s book will kindle fond memories. The book is a window into a time when major league baseball players were working stiffs who lived in the neighborhood, when there was no fraternizing between opponents, when pitchers threw 300 innings a season, and when fans came out to the ballpark to pay attention to baseball, not to sip tall pink daiquiris and try to get seen by the kiss-cam.
The Tigers of ’68 were nothing if not pranksters. “Maybe the most notorious shared caper of this team,” Cantor recalls, “was the Plane in the Pool. It has passed into team legend as the epitome of what hard work, team play, and a certain degree of strong waters can achieve.” The practical joke consisted of completely disassembling a wooden replica of an antique aircraft, which had been display in the lobby of the team hotel in Anaheim, California. In classic cloak-and-dagger style, the team surreptitiously re-assembled the plane, then lowered it into the hotel pool. The plan was for the plane to float on the water; instead, it sunk. It is the classic 1968 Tiger story. Can anybody imagine any team, circa 2014, capable of casting aside their own over-paid self-importance, and banding together to pull such a stunt?
Cantor covers all the bases. His book is an exciting chronicle of the season as it played out on the field and in the locker room, but he doesn’t forget the bigger, sociological picture. It is the story of the fellowship between a city that was in desperate need of something, anything, to make it feel good about itself, and a team that came along at just the right time, for just the right purpose. Coming on the heels of the worst summer ever in Detroit, the Tigers of ’68 were a perfect healing balm.
Cantor’s book is a must-read for all Tiger fans, or for anybody who loves Detroit and a good story.