The over-the-hill gang

Battling Billy Martin never backed away from a fight, on or off the field.

He one-punched Matt Batts, Jim Piersall, Clint Courtney and Jim Brewer, and demolished Dave Boswell with two punches. At the time of their fight in 1969, Boswell was in the midst of a 20-win season for Martin’s Minnesota Twins, who went on to win the West that season. Upon winning his 20th, all Boswell did was rush to the dugout and plant a kiss on Billy the Kid’s forehead.

By ’71, the two combatants were reunited in Detroit. One year later the Tigers, having taken on Battling Billy’s persona, were fighting for their playoff lives in a four-way battle with New York, Baltimore and Boston in the bustling, hustling American League East.

It was Martin’s kind of race, a gut-fight in which guile counted as much as skill. He could be a brilliant manager, but also a study in contrasts. A sincere man, somewhat overly sensitive and thus easily offended, Martin owned a medieval code of honor which he enforced with a murderous right hook. He coached old-school baseball but was forward-thinking when it came to race relations.

“I’m from a minority, too,” the half-Portugese, half-Italian Martin once said. “I grew up like (the black and Latin players) grew up.”

Like many minorities, Martin had to scrap and scrape for everything he got. He grew up in poverty in Berkley, Calif., the son of a single mother, Joan “Jenny” Martin. His father, Alfred Martin Sr., deserted the family, and Jenny, not wanting her son to share the same name of the man she referred to as the “jackass,” began calling her son “Billy” upon hearing her mother refer to him as “Bello,” Italian masculine for “beautiful.”

Martin was an undersized 18-year-old when Casey Stengel gave him a tryout. Stengel liked what he saw in the scrawny kid, a middle infielder who attacked the game with a zeal writer Ed Linn once likened to a “holy war on every ball hit down to him.”

Stengel, in time, became a father figure for Billy the Kid. The Ol’ Professor taught Martin to take charge on the field, and it was Stengel who brought him up to the Bronx in 1950 over owner George Weiss’ objections.

Martin spent five full seasons with the Yankees before being traded to Kansas City in June 1957. Feeling abandoned again, he refused to speak to Stengel for the next eight years. Billy the Kid’s sensitivity was punctured again when another paternal figure, Twins boss Calvin Griffith, fired him following the 1969 season. He had taken the reins of a talented but fractured club. The Twins had lost to the Dodgers in seven games in the 1965 Fall Classic, and in 1969 boasted future Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew and All-Star Tony Oliva. The team was being torn apart by racial tension but Martin turned the Twins around. His managerial fire and fury fueled Minnesota’s run to its first postseason berth in four years.

Battling Billy was fired at season’s end because of his feuding with other elements of the organization, namely traveling secretary Howard Fox and assistant farm director George Brophy. Martin was out of baseball for a year before taking over the Tigers. Some questioned the Martin-Motown marriage. Billy the Kid’s brassy brand of ball—hit-and-run, run-and-hit, steal and double-steal, suicide-squeeze—seemed ill-suited to a Tigers team that was well-settled in its ways, whose key players were comfortably into their 30s and who had always relied on the long ball.

Detroit had won a World Series four years earlier, and the stars from ’68—Mickey Lolich, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, et al.—were aging. Mayo Smith had skippered Detroit to a World Series title but by 1970 the Tigers had been tamed. Finishing four games under .500 they bore the demeanor of a demoralized club. If they seemed complacent under the laid-back, laissez faire style of Smith, general manager Jim Campbell figured Battling Billy was the guy whose fierce temper could wring one final season of splendor from his aging veterans.

“I think (anger is) definitely one of his assets,” Campbell said then.

Prior to the start of his first season, Martin met with each of his players. Like another Motown sensation, The Temptations, Martin’s message to his team on the eve of his arrival was simple: Get ready, ’cause here I come.

Detroit went 91-71 in Martin’s first season and jumped from fourth to second in the division. The summer of ’72 saw the Tigers spend more than half the season in first place. Under Martin they had become a model of consistency, leading by as many as four games and never trailing by more than 2.5; winning as many as five straight and not losing more than four in a row.

With Kaline and Cash carrying the offense, with Lolich and Joe Coleman keying the mound corps and with Tiger Stadium’s ancient confines crowded with fans—Detroit led the league in attendance—the “Ti-guhs,” as the team’s radio voice Ernie Harwell called them, became a hot ticket.

Harwell, “The Voice of Summer,” provided the play-by-play and Ray Lane the color commentary on WJZ. A Hall of Fame broadcaster who was the voice of the Tigers from 1960-91 and from 1993-2002, Harwell was a native of Georgia known for his charm, southern accent and low-key style. He was also known for classic calls:

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“Two for the price of one for the Ti-guhs!

“Strike! And he stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by!”

Harwell was a part of the family for many Tigers fans. Via radio, they took him into their homes, took him, as Harwell noted in his farewell broadcast, “to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your workplace, and your backyard… sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Ti-guhs.”

Harwell and his radio colleagues—Harry Caray in Chicago; Chuck Thompson in Baltimore; Bob Prince, “The Gunner,” in Pittsburgh; Vin Scully in Los Angeles; Harry Kalas in Philadelphia; the Yankees’ Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White; the Mets’ Lindsey Nelson, Ralph Kiner and Bob Murphy—were pilots and guides, they brought listeners the game. They spoke with a tone and rhythm unique to each man, painting word pictures with clarity and crispness.

“Sometimes,” writer Frank Deford observed, “the games we heard from their lips were better than the games we saw with our eyes.”

For the second time in four years, pennant fever gripped Motown. In 1968, Detroit’s downtown department stores sold everything from Tigers tee shirts to Tigers milk. As fast as cars rolled off the assembly lines of the “Detroit Big Three”—Chrysler, Ford and General Motors—it seemed Tiger fans plastered them with bumper stickers that read “Go Get ’em Tigers!” In 1972, Motown was magical once more. Fans took transistor radios to restaurants, movie theaters and Tiger Stadium to tune in Harwell and Lane.

The Tigers’ whirlwind rise to contending status was set against a backdrop of a city in a downward economic spiral. Detroit’s decline, like its rise, was directly linked to the auto industry. During World War II, Detroit became the “Arsenal of Democracy” called for by FDR. Yet amid the war a race riot in 1943 forecast problems to come. From the mid-1950s into the late 1960s, Detroit lost more than 100,000 factory jobs. Many white people fled the city for the suburbs; factories followed suit, abandoning the city’s black neighborhoods. Tensions exploded in the summer of ’67. For a frightening five days in July, rioters roamed the city setting fires and looting stores and businesses. Some 1,300 buildings were destroyed, 43 people killed and more than 7,000 arrested.

In 1972, Motown, the city’s renowned record label, left for Los Angeles, leaving behind both its 10-story headquarters and the city identified with its enormous success. Crime became commonplace, and Detroit became the homicide capital of the country. The Motor City was now “Murder City.”

The Tigers’ success in ’72 softened the harsh realities of Detroit’s decline. Lolich, Kaline, Cash, Freeman, Coleman, et al. became part of that something special that is autumn baseball.

John Donne, an English poet, once wrote of autumn’s splendor: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”

Nowhere in 1972 was this changing of the season more evident or symbolic than in Detroit, where the Tigers’ success contrasted sharply with their city’s steep decline and where they themselves had gone from a team that had been pushed around to one that was pushing back.

Much like Martin, their dirt-kicking leader, was known to do.

“If somebody out and out pops me,” Martin said at the time, “they better know how to fight because I’m going to beat the hell out of them.”

The Tigers needed that rough-as-sandpaper edge, since one of the game’s edgiest and more hard-fought races in years would come down to its final days. In the division era that began in 1969, the ’72 AL East race ranks with the NL East races in 1973 and ’80 as the one of the wilder and more memorable multi-team races of the pre-Wild Card years. Defending champion Baltimore and the upstart Yankees faded in the September stretch, and Boston, stirring memories of its “Impossible Dream” pennant of 1967, headed for Tiger town—the lion’s den—one-half game in front with three games remaining in the regular season.

Called “The Corner” because of its location on Michigan and Trumbull Avenues, Tiger Stadium in the last days of the 1972 season was The Hot Corner. Built in 1912 and opened on the same day as Fenway Park in Boston, it was originally called Navin Field for Tigers owner Frank Navin. The NFL’s Detroit Lions eventually took up residence in “The Corner,” which served as their home field through the 1974 season and was the site of several NFL championship games and the annual Thanksgiving Day classic.

The American League was known for its aging and antiquated sites and Tiger Stadium, with its time-worn facilities, green wooden seats, steel support beams and obstructed view seats, fit into that category. Like its brethren, The Corner was beloved by Detroit fans due largely to its intimate and historic feel.

Ty Cobb played there and visitors could point to the area around home plate and recall “Cobb’s Lake,” created on the order of the Georgia Peach, who told groundskeepers to water the dirt so his signature bunts would die in the mud. The Corner was where Babe Ruth swatted his 700th career home run, where Lou Gehrig, the “Iron Horse,” voluntarily ended his Iron Man streak, and where Ted Williams won the 1941 All-Star Game with a dramatic upper-deck homer. It’s where Bobby Layne buggy-whipped the Lions to NFL titles, and where Detroit’s defense ruined Vince Lombardi’s perfect season in the famous 1962 Thanksgiving Day game.

With the AL East the only race still undecided, Tiger Stadium was the center of the baseball universe on Monday, Oct. 2. Detroit sent Lolich, its ace and 21-game winner, to the mound for the series opener. The Tigers by this time were minus the services of Freehan, a career 11-time All-Star catcher who had suffered a hairline fracture of his thumb and would miss the final 11 games of the regular season.

Much to the delight of the 51,518 customers crammed into Tiger Stadium, Lolich was immediately staked to a 1-0 lead when Kaline clouted a home run. Boston tied it in the third but another Detroit homer, this by Aurelio Rodiguez, put the Tigers in front to stay. Lolich finished it off, fanning a season-high 15 to put Detroit back in first place by one-half game and clinch at least a tie for the division championship.

The Tigers took their title the next night, Oct. 3, the penultimate day of the regular season. Their summer running out, the Red Sox reached Woodie Fryman for a run in the first. Whirling and spinning on the mound, Luis Tiant silenced Tigers bats until the sixth. Cash opened with a walk, was sacrificed to second by Horton and scored on Jim Northrup’s line drive single to right.

Kaline’s single to left in the seventh made it 2-1 and ended Tiant’s great comeback season. An infield error cost his successor, “Spaceman” Bill Lee, a run. Armed with a 3-1 lead, Fryman pitched into the eighth and then gave way to reliever Chuck Seelbach, who sealed the deal in the ninth when he retired a trio of future stars—Dwight Evans and then pinch-hitters Cecil Cooper and Ben Oglivie—in order.

A continuous chant coursed through Tiger Stadium as Harwell made the call:

“Photographers have lined each side of the Ti-guhs dugout now… Seelbach delivers, here’s a fly ball to right field, here comes Kaline, he’s got it! The Ti-guhs are the champions of the East!”

Oakland won the wild West, a division akin to the rebellious American Football League or the NHL’s rogue Western Division, which featured fists-first clubs like the ferocious Philadelphia Flyers, who were brandishing their knuckles as the up-and-coming Broad Street Bullies, and a St. Louis Blues squad that had the punishing Noel Picard and Plager Brothers.

In each of the ALCS’s first three years from 1969-71, no Western champion had won so much as a single playoff game, much less win the series or advance to the Fall Classic. Despite that, Oakland entered the playoffs favored to beat Detroit. Experts saw the A’s as exciting and young, full of energy and exuberance. The Tigers were experienced but aging, a team of holdovers who had grown thick in the waist and long in the tooth. Detroit was dubbed the “Over the Hill Gang,” a team of 30-somethings led by “granddaddy” Kaline. Noting that the Tigers had gone 86-70, A’s skipper Dick Williams caustically commented that the latter number—70—approximated the Tigers’ average age.

Williams saw the series as one Oakland should win since most of the Tigers’ fire came from a guy who would be spending the series on the sideline—embattled Billy Martin.

Billy the Kid’s tactics didn’t find favor with all of the Tigers. Northrup said some of the Tigers got “sick and tired” of reading Martin’s quotes in the Detroit newspapers in which he said, according to Northrup, “I manage good and they play bad.”

Northrup said that it was too much “I, I, I and Me, me me,” from Martin. “I did not respect him in any way,” Northrup said, “but I had to play. So I ignored what he said and played ball.”

Some of the Tigers were ignoring their manager; all of them were ignoring their critics. Tired of reading that they were “ageless” and, as Murray Chass wrote in The New York Times, “living it up in the old folks’ home,” the Tigers roared into the playoffs by winning seven of their final 10 games. Kaline, a man among men in Motown, injured his wrist and writers had taken to describing the Tigers legend as needing bailing wire and adhesive tape to hold his fingers to his wrist bone. Weary of being written off as an old man, the 15-time All-Star caught fire in the closing weeks of the heated division race, going 22-for-44 in the final 11 games and lifting his average 35 points to .313.

As the A’s and Tigers took the sun-streaked field inside the bunting-bedecked Oakland Coliseum, they were about to embark on one of the most physically draining and emotionally exhausting playoff series in history. Three of the five games would be decided by a run; two of the five would need extra innings to declare a winner. There would be a bench-clearing brawl; an infamous bat-throwing incident; player suspensions; thinly veiled threats; cursing and snarling from both sides; errors by catchers and first basemen playing second base; and a superstar’s season-ending injury on a daring steal of home.

The two teams had a history. On Aug. 22, the A’s put Lolich’s bid to win his 20th game on hold when outfielder Angel Mangual hit a three-run homer in Tiger Stadium. A brawl broke out in the seventh inning, in a bizarre scene foreshadowing the Pedro MartinezDon Zimmer dust-up in the 2003 ALCS, aging A’s coach Jerry Adair and Detroit catcher Duke Sims flailed at each other. When Darold Knowles reached into a pile to try to pull players out, the immensely strong Willie Horton grabbed the A’s reliever and tossed him like a salad.

Lolich versus Hunter in the opener promised a mound match-up of the highest quality. Cash’s home run and a countering sacrifice fly by Joe Rudii that scored Bert Campaneris were the lone runs until Kaline stepped to the plate in the 11th. His homer landed in front of a banner reading “Beware the Tigers” and lifted Detroit into a 2-1 lead.

Lolich headed to the hill to lock it down, but the A’s rallied for a dramatic 3-2 win. The Tigers felt bad, but Ed Brinkman felt worse. The Detroit shortstop’s feet and legs were numb. He had ruptured a lumbar disk and would not play again in 1972.

Game Two was a collision of comeback kids Fryman and Blue Moon Odom. Campaneris opened the Oakland first with a single, then stole second and third and scored on Rudi’s single. In the fifth, singles by George Hendrick, Campaneris and Matty Alou made it 2-0 and finished Fryman. A wild pitch allowed Campy to race home with another run and Reggie Jackson’s two-run double upped the A’s advantage to 5-0.

Odom allowed just three hits in going the distance and did not allow a base runner from the fifth inning on, retiring 16 straight to close out a 5-0 win. Yet Odom’s outstanding effort was lost in the shadows of Campaneris’ at-bat in the seventh.

Leading off against Lerrin LaGrow, Campy dug in while A’s announcer Monte Moore called what became one of the most memorable and bizarre at-bats in baseball history:

Here’s the pitch to Campy… Look out! It hit him right in the leg! Campy is mad and he throws the bat at him!… Billy Martin is having to be restrained…”

Campaneris tried to jump out of the way but the pitch hit him on the left ankle. A’s manager Williams heard the ball bounce off the bone. When he stood up, Campaneris whipped his bat toward the mound. The bat spun like a helicopter blade and A’s writer Ron Bergman recalled the 6-foot-5 LaGrow prudently shrinking to something closer to 3-foot-5 as the Louisville Slugger sailed past his head.

Nestor Chylak, a Hall of Fame umpire and veteran of bigger wars than those found on the baseball field—he was in the Battle of the Bulge and won the Silver Star and Purple Heart—engulfed Campaneris. Chylak initially held Campy back from charging the mound, but then had to protect him from angry Tigers.

It was the most deplorable scene in baseball since Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, facing fellow ace Sandy Koufax, suddenly started hitting Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro in the head with his bat in a 1965 game. Campaneris’ heaving his bat at LaGrow is a scene that would be repeated in reverse in the 2000 World Series when Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens picked up Mike Piazza’s shattered bat barrel in front of the mound and flung it over the first-base line and into foul territory. Piazza was running toward first and believed Clemens had thrown the bat at him.

Chylak ejected Campaneris and LaGrow, and order was finally restored. American League President Joe Cronin told reporters after the game he had not yet decided whether to suspend Campaneris, but he already had. Cronin was just waiting to inform Campaneris first that he was out for the remainder of the series and would be fined $500.

In Game Three in sun-drenched Detroit, Coleman dominated the A’s, striking out a then-playoff record 14 in a 3-0 win. The result was not wholly unexpected. Coleman, a right-hander who had been rescued from the Washington Senators in the Denny McLain trade in 1970, won 19 games for the Tigers in 1972 and fashioned a 2.80 earned run average.

He was, in fact, no ordinary Joe. Coleman won 20 games in ’71 and would win 23 in ’73. His success was due in part to his cooling down of a hot temper.

The 25-year-old Coleman climbed the mound for Game Three wearing a long-sleeved black undershirt beneath his white home uniform with its trademark D in Old English script on the left breast. Despite the brilliant sunshine bathing ancient Tiger Stadium, fall was in full swing and players on both sides wore long sleeves and turtlenecks—the A’s bright green beneath their gold tops; the Tigers black—to guard against the dipping day-time temperatures in Detroit.

It was a beautiful October afternoon for baseball, and the sights and sounds of the historic old ballpark—the emerald green expanse and contrasting forest green of the outfield walls; the alternating light and dark brown dirt of the sun-lit infield and shaded area around home plate; the bright white bases and foul lines; the blurring of men in motion on the field below; the loud thwock of a ball solidly hit; the cheers and chants of the big, colorfully clad crowd—combined to make the game even more vivid.

Ken Holtzman, Coleman’s opposite, ran into trouble in the fifth when he issued a one-out walk to Kaline. Freehan, back from injury and playing in his first game of the series, caught all of a Holtzman offering and doubled past a diving Sal Bando at third. He eventually scored, then further celebrated his return when he drove an eighth-inning pitch from Bob Locker into the shadowy seats in lower left-field.

Amid cool, cloudy surroundings, Hunter and Lolich locked up in another masterpiece in Game Four. In the third, Dick McAuliffe drilled a Hunter fastball off the facing of the second deck in right-center field; with one out in the seventh, Mike Epstein launched a Lolich offering to almost the identical spot. Big Mike punctuated his home-run trot with a short hop on home plate.

The game was still tied in the 10th when Oakland struck for two runs. Trailing by two and with winter beckoning, the Tigers roared back. As more than 39,000 rocked Tiger Stadium, Northrup scraped the steel-gray sky with a deep drive to right over the head of a drawn-in Alou, scoring Brown with the game-winner in a 4-3 final. The old champs’ courageous comeback had the Tigers streaming from their dugout and Detroit fans rushing the field, their arms thrust skyward in celebration.

For the final game, Odom and Fryman met in a rematch of Game Two, and with a crowd of 50,276 cramming Tiger Stadium, McAuliffe opened the bottom of the first with a ground single to right and moved to second when Sims drew a walk. Sims, who started the first two games at catcher for Freehan, was moved to left to give Detroit another left-handed bat in the lineup. With Freehan up, Odom uncorked a low inside pitch. The passed ball advanced both runners and Freehan topped a grounder that scored McAuliffe.

The A’s answered in the second. With Jackson at third, Epstein on first and light-hitting Dick Green at the plate, Williams made the most daring call of the postseason and one of the most exciting plays in baseball: a delayed double-steal.

Moore made the excited call on one of the more memorable plays in playoff history:

“One strike count to Greenie… Here goes the runner from first, the pitch is taken, throw down to second, he’s safe! Here comes Jackson toward the plate, here comes the throw… He is safe! Reggie Jackson steals home but he may be out of it! He crashed into Bill Freehan and he is hurt!”

One of the critical plays of the season was filled with moving parts. Replays showed a charging Tony Taylor taking Freehan’s peg well in front of the second base bag—he cut off the throw after seeing Reggie breaking from third—and firing the ball over the head of a ducking Fryman.

Freehan, a fullback in catcher’s gear, was standing directly in front of home plate when the heavily-muscled Jackson slid in cleats first. Reggie’s left knee buckled as it collided with the bulky shin protector on Freehan’s left leg. Jackson’s face contorted in pain. Rolling over onto his stomach, Reggie reached for his left hamstring. Freehan, face down in the dirt but still clutching the ball, looked up to see Chylak spreading his arms wide in a safe sign. Martin argued vehemently, but film of the play showed Chylak’s call to be correct. His left hamstring torn, Jackson was lost for the rest of the postseason.

More dash and daring—and a disputed call involving first base ump John Rice—allowed the A’s to assume a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Hendrick, who replaced Jackson, opened the inning by bouncing a pitch to deep short. McAuliffe took three steps to his right, gloved the chest-high hopper and gunned it to first. The throw was low and Cash, knowing Hendrick had speed, leaned forward to snare it. His back foot left the bag just as Hendrick’s white cleat crossed it. When Rice called Hendrick safe, Cash spun in disbelief then kicked the dirt in frustration.

NBC cameras indicated that Cash was toeing the bag as Hendrick’s left foot landed on it. The Detroit News’ front-page photo the next day showed as much.

Bando sacrificed Hendrick to second, where he scored on a single to left by Tenace. Sims, a catcher playing the outfield, fielded Gene Tenace’s liner on one hop and rifled a frozen rope that reached Freehan just as Hendrick was arriving. Freehan, Hendrick and the ball came together at the same time but Hendrick was correctly called safe.

Northrup, never a fan of Martin’s managing, thought Billy cost the Tigers Game Five. He believed Martin’s decision to keep Freehan behind the plate despite his injury and to keep Sims in left field weakened the team at two positions and cost the Tigers two critical runs. If Detroit had had Sims behind the plate and Horton in left field, Northrup believed the Tigers would have won Game Five.

The A’s led 2-1 but at the end of the fifth Odom headed for the tunnel rather than the bench; he was hyperventilating.

With Odom struggling, Williams got Blue to warm up in the bullpen. Making his third relief appearance in as many days, Vida battled the Tigers in an intriguing matchup: baseball’s best pitcher in ’71 against the veterans of baseball’s best team in ’68.

From the sixth through the ninth Detroit hit just three balls out of the infield. The Tigers weren’t able to get their bats around quickly enough to catch up with Vida’s blue darter.

In the ninth, Cash singled to right, leading Motown fans to hope for another miracle. In ’68 they had watched their Tigers rally to win in their final at-bat 28 times. Martin sent one of the heroes of ’68, Mickey Stanley, in to pinch-hit for Northrup. Martin’s move stung Northrup. He had two of the Tigers’ five hits, including a single off Blue. Still, Martin went with a pinch-hitter and Blue induced a groundout.

The huge crowd grew restless. Shivering in the shadows of the late-afternoon gloaming, they were stung by the cold, stung by the idea of losing and their season ending, stung by the knowledge that a Michigan winter was setting in and finally, stung by the sight of the roguish A’s in their California gold jerseys. The image of the A’s and of California was pretty low in Michigan at that time. A presidential election was in the offing and California was home to both Republican Richard Nixon and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Bill Walton, head of the famed “Walton Gang” that led UCLA to yet another national championship in April of ’72, was among those arrested on Wilshire Boulevard in May for protesting the war. Oakland, a rebel city housing rebellious teams in the A’s and the NFL’s bad-boy Raiders, was also associated with the Black Panthers and the hippie culture.

From the standpoint of some Tigers fans, there was a lot to hate about the A’s and their California background. Holtzman had a smoke bomb thrown at him while warming up in the eighth; Hendrick was hit in the head by a bottle, hit in the back by a sock-covered rock, hit in the jaw by an ice cube and hit in the glove by a can spurting beer. For some, the mayhem was a microcosm of the rowdy lawlessness of the Detroit riots of 1967. The game was stopped several times in the late innings as fans littered the field with smoke bombs, toilet paper, firecrackers and debris.

With the Tigers down to their final out and Taylor at the plate, Moore made the final call of the ALCS:

“Vida gets set, kicks high, throws… There’s a drive into center field, back goes George Hendrick… He is under it… The Swingin’ A’s have won the American League championship!”

Veteran observers may rank Vida’s vintage performance—four shutout innings, nine infield outs—in Game Five on par with Pedro Martinez’ memorable six innings of shutdown relief against Cleveland in the fifth and final game of their 1999 division series.

Williams waving Blue in from the bullpen—he pitched in four of the five LCS games and would throw in four of the seven World Series games—foreshadowed a future Bay Area skipper, Bruce Bochy, bringing his former ace, Tim Lincecum, on in relief in key situations in the 2012 postseason.

The incredibly intense ’72 playoffs—the first in either league to be extended to the full five games and the only time in history both deciding games were decided by a single run—also proved to be a forerunner of equally dramatic and emotionally draining five-game encounters: Mets-Reds and A’s-Orioles the following October; Yankees-Royals in ’76-’77; Phillies-Astros in ’80; Dodgers-Expos in ’81; Brewers-Angels in ’82; Padres-Cubs in ’84.

A playoff seen by many as a mismatch went down to its final pitch. It is for that reason, the doggedness of this gritty Detroit team, that memories of the ’72 Tigers are cherished by many in Michigan.

Cherished by those who, as Harwell said, followed their beloved team in that “cottage up north, (at) the beach, the picnic, workplace and backyard… sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Ti-guhs.”

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dennis Bedard
dennis Bedard

Well researched and informative.  Note that most of Martin’s fisticuffs took place in and around bars.  The one exception here is when he almost converted Fenway Park into a professional wrestling venue.  I do not agree that Martin turned the Twins around in 1969.  They had an excellent run from 65-70, the one bad year being ‘68.  They always reminded me of a AL version of the 60’s Giants.


Good read.


What? There were other teams in the American League between 72 and 74 than Finley’s A’s? Great article about a playoff series that I never knew anything about.  It’s funny how many LDS and LCS are actually better than the World Series.


Love this story!! Makes me want to watch these players again!!

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider
One thing the author did not mention is that 1972 was a strike year.  The season had been delayed by a couple of weeks and so the teams did not all play the same number of games, resulting in the Tigers winning the division by a half-game over the Red Sox. This is pretty bizarre to me.  Why did baseball not try to make up at least some of the games and at least have the teams play the same number of games? Or at least have the Red Sox play another game, giving them a chance to catch up. … Read more »

This story is just an excerpt from the book .


Fantastic writing on one of my favorite teams of all time.  I must have seen 15 games that year at the Stadium, including the Lolich game in the last series against the Red Sox and Coleman’s shutout in game 3 of the playoffs.  Thanks for reigniting some great memories!


Jim Northrup became a broadcaster for the Tigers and once had this on-air exchange with play-by-play man Larry Osterman after they heard that Billy Martin had once again been fired by the Yankees:

Larry: “That Billy Martin will always be his own worst enemy.”

Jim: “Not while I’m alive.”