Jim Northrup: old school favorite


Late last week, Chris Jaffe provided a nice statistical summary for Jim Northrup, the fine Tigers outfielder who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and finally succumbed to a seizure at the age of 71.

In addition to being a versatile outfielder and the owner of a short and sweet left-handed swing, Northrup was a cult favorite among Tigers fans, a player forever linked to the franchise’s beloved 1968 world championship season.

Northrup had a memorable nickname, “The Gray Fox,” an indication of the premature coloring of his hair. He was also an extraordinarily passionate player, a man who loved to compete, loved to talk, and had a temper.

A’s reliever Jack Aker learned all about that latter quality in 1968; when Aker hit him with a pitch, Northrup considered it intentional and responded by throwing a few punches at “The Chief.”

Northrup likely had a few words for Aker, too. As some of his Tigers teammates have noted, all one had to do was ask Northrup a question, and it would trigger a long discussion, along with some pointed opinions.

It’s no wonder that the Tigers later hired him as a broadcaster, only to have new ownership fire him out of fear that he would be too critical of the new regime.

Northrup also had strong opinions about the way to play the game. An old schooler through and through, he hated to see his teammates fraternize with the opposition. Throughout the 1968 season, as Denny McLain has noted, he scolded teammates when they became too friendly with opposing players. According to McLain, Northrup’s approach helped make the ‘68 Tigers a team of all-out grinders.

That 1968 season produced Northrup’s most notable moment, the triple he hit against Bob Gibson in Game Seven of the 1968 World Series. The two-run, two-out blow, which broke a scoreless tie in the seventh inning, eluded the Cardinals’ gifted center fielder, Curt Flood, who first broke straight across rather than back, and then stumbled before failing to haul in the long blast to left-center field.

While many historians have painted Flood as the goat, Northrup strongly disagreed. He contended that the drive landed 40 feet past Flood and would have eluded him even without the bad route and stumble.

Northrup also had his share of disagreements with one of his managers. He despised Billy Martin, who tended to bench him against some left-handers when Northrup felt he should have been playing every day. (In fairness to Martin, the Tigers did have four good outfielders at the time, with Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Al Kaline all part of the mix.) Northrup also considered “Billy the Kid” an undermining finger pointer who would blame his players when the Tigers lost and then hoard the credit when the team won.

While Northrup was not close to Martin, he was close to many of his teammates, particularly Horton, Norm Cash, and McLain. The Tigers’ coldhearted treatment of Cash in 1974 did not sit well with Northrup. The Tigers decided to release Cash late in the season but didn’t tell him immediately. Cash learned about the move while listening to his car radio on the way to the ballpark.

Furious over the poorly-handled release, Northrup burst into manager Ralph Houk’s office and loudly expressed his resentment. The Tigers responded to Northrup’s loyalty to a teammate by sending him packing the next day, selling him to the Expos for a small sum of cash.

At first, Northrup refused to report. He wanted no part of playing for Gene Mauch, who often had icy relationships with his players. Only after meeting with the Tigers’ front office did Northrup finally concede to make the move north of the border.

Northrup would come back for one more season, with the Orioles, where he loved playing for Earl Weaver. Although he appeared to have enough left in the tank to serve as a useful fourth outfielder, he opted to retire so that he could spend more time with his wife and children.

He remained active, joining a semi-pro softball league and then broadcasting before leaving the game entirely. In his later years, his health suffered enormously. He not only battled Alzheimer’s but also struggled with rheumatoid arthritis.

Northrup could have complained about his health, but he did not. He remained competitive to the end, even in playing cards with other patients at the assisted living facility in which he resided. Though his body was giving out, Jim Northrup’s passion seemed to be as strong as it was in 1968.

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Bruce Markusen is the manager of Digital and Outreach Learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
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Excellent writing.  Having viewed the Northrup double off Gibson yesterday on You Tube, I do think Flood, the greatest centerfielder of the 60s, would have caught the ball had he not erred in his response and approach to the ball.