Every sports fan can remember when he or she first rooted for a team during a memorable season, or witnessed some interesting athletic achievement or game.
Usually such an indelible happening occurs for people somewhere between the ages of 5 and 10.
For me, it took place in a big way in the fall of 1968 – exactly 50 years ago.
That was shortly after I turned 9 years old and was old enough to start fully embracing the joy that sports watching can bring, even though I do recall the famous NFL Ice Bowl of the winter before.
And if you have a team you are pulling for and they do well, that is icing on the cake. That was true with the Georgia football team of that fall, when the Bulldogs won the SEC title in my first full year of paying close attention to them.
But that was not all that happened in sports during those few weeks of autumn and early winter of that year. In fact, I consider myself fortunate that just when I was getting old enough to appreciate sports, quite a few memorable events happened all at once.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to look back on some of these events through information about the actual happenings found online or in old newspapers, and through my memories of following them. They included the World Series, which will be the focus of this story, as well as the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City (yes, they were held in October), the 1968 Georgia SEC championship season, and the memorable Super Bowl III. That was the famous New York Jets’ upset of Baltimore after Jets quarterback Joe Namath predicted a win.
Fifty years later, I can proudly say I was pulling for the Jets – even before the game started.
But in the 1968 World Series, I must admit I was pulling for St. Louis, the team that eventually lost to Detroit.
No matter whom you were pulling for, though, that Series itself received as many cheers as any team did because it went a memorable seven games and was probably among the 10 or 15 most exciting World Series over the last 50 years.
While the World Series that year was engaging, the regular season had not been that way, at least when examining the team races. In what was the last year before the expansion into divisions, Detroit under manager Mayo Smith had finished at 103-59, 12 games ahead of runner-up Baltimore, while St. Louis under skipper Red Schoendienst finished at 97-65, nine games ahead of San Francisco.
Despite the fact the end of the regular season became a yawner when looking at the pennant race, the individual players, particularly the pitchers, still made it a noteworthy time. Detroit’s Denny McLain had reached the high bar of becoming the 13th – and last to date – major league pitcher to win 30 games or more with 31 victories.
Bob Gibson, meanwhile, was continuing his dominating – and almost intimidating -- magic for the Cardinals after helping them win the World Series in 1967. Coming into the 1968 Series, he had an ERA of only 1.12, a modern record.
The pitching had become so dominant that the mound would be lowered the next year.
But the 1968 World Series would actually be remembered for another pitcher besides Mr. Gibson and Mr. McLain. That would be Mickey Lolich of Detroit, who impressed not only with his arm, but also surprisingly with his bat.
Another surprise in the Series came from Detroit manager Smith, who decided to play the better-hitting outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop instead of the sure handed Ray Oyler.
A heart-warming story, meanwhile, dealt with Detroit outfielder Al Kaline, who was enjoying his first World Series since joining the Tigers in 1953. The Tigers as a team had not been there since 1945.
The first World Series game at St. Louis’ Busch Memorial Stadium on Oct. 2 featured a matchup of star pitchers Gibson and McLain. Mr. Gibson got the better of the Tigers in this one with a whopping 17 strikeouts and a 4-0 win.
Like all the games in this World Series, this one was played in the afternoon. World Series games would eventually start being played all at night, with the last weekday World Series game held in 1972 and the last weekend day World Series game in 1987.
In the second game at St. Louis on Oct. 3, the Tigers got right back into the Series with a convincing 8-1 win. Outfielder Willie Horton and first baseman Norm Cash hit home runs for Detroit, but the real star was pitcher Lolich.
This man who was photographed in the paper riding his motorcycle during the Series not only pitched well, but he uniquely also hit the only home run of his major league career and also later walked home a run.
The third, fourth and fifth games moved to Tiger Stadium in Detroit on the afternoons of Oct. 5, 6, and 7.
In a chilly third game, St. Louis won 7-3 with a three-run home run by catcher Tim McCarver. This game featured another unusual batting achievement by a pitcher, as Cardinal reliever Joe Hoerner not only got a save, but he also hit a single from the plate after going hitless during the regular season.
In the fourth game, Mr. Gibson again dominated Mr. McLain to aid a 10-1 Cardinal victory and a commanding 3-1 lead for St. Louis. The Redbirds needed only one more win to clinch the Series, and most observers thought they had another world title basically in hand.
They were still thinking that after Game 5, even though Detroit and pitcher Lolich rebounded with a 5-3 win after surrendering a three-run first inning to the Cardinals following an Orlando Cepeda home run.
As longtime Chattanooga baseball observer Allan Morris noted in one of his columns for the Chattanooga News-Free Press after the fifth game, “The chief thing learned from this year’s World Series is that baseball is a most unpredictable game. What had expected to be a close, exciting battle between two teams that had made runaways of this league has – until midway of yesterday’s game – been dull and one-sided.
“Except for Bob Gibson’s brilliant mound work, nothing much has gone according to dope.”
Mr. Morris had actually predicted before the Series that Detroit would win, and he was about to get his wish, even though it seemed unlikely at the time.
The longtime local sports writer with encyclopedic knowledge also pointed out that several of the Tigers’ players had played for Knoxville against the Lookouts, possibly at Engel Stadium, before the Lookouts had briefly stopped fielding a team after 1965.
A look online shows that Mickey Lolich played for Knoxville, a former Detroit affiliate, in 1960 and ’61, catcher Bill Freehan in 1961, and Denny McLain in 1963.
As the 1968 Series continued to unfold, the Tigers had actually shown that the momentum might be heading their way late in Game 5 when they started making a comeback for the ages. That was when Mr. Kaline hit a two-run single in the seventh to give Detroit a lead it would not relinquish in what would be one of only two victories by the home team in the Series.
Game 5 is also remembered for an unconventional, slower and more Latin- and jazz-like singing of the national anthem by Jose Feliciano, a performance that later drew some protest by traditionalists.
While the teams took a break before Game 6 resumed on Oct. 9, Chattanoogans had plenty besides baseball to follow that week. Marine Pvt. Johnny Vaught of Polk Street had been killed in the Vietnam War fighting, a Riverside High student was involved in a shooting, “Camelot” was playing at Brainerd Cinerama, Red Food Store had opened its new distribution center off Shallowford Road and the 22nd annual Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Show was being held on the back side of Lookout Mountain.
Also, noted pro woman golfer Patty Berg was playing an exhibition at the Signal Mountain golf club, and the governor of California – former actor Ronald Reagan – was speaking at a fund-raiser for Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon at the Read House on Oct. 10.
During Game 6 at St. Louis, manager Smith decided to go again with Mr. McLain, despite little rest and the fact he had not pitched well in his previous two starts.
The move would pay off, as the Tigers won 13-1 with the help of a Northrup grand slam and a Kaline home run.
This would bring what all baseball fans love to see – a Game 7 of the World Series.
On the afternoon of Oct. 10 in St. Louis, the two teams squared off, with Mr. Gibson and Mr. Lolich going against each other for the first time in the Series. With only a short rest, Mr. Lolich had used some kind of strange machine with wires to help his arm get back in shape quickly, news reports said.
For the first six innings, both pitchers pitched well, causing both the scoreless game – and the entire Series – to be developing into a classic.
But sometimes in the World Series, it is the mistakes, and not the great plays, that dominate the memories, and this was about to occur here.
In the seventh inning of a game that would last only two hours, Detroit’s Northrup hit a hard shot to centerfield in the direction of Cardinal player Curt Flood. The usually sure-handed Mr. Flood first moved forward before having to quickly start running back in the other direction.
The move would prove costly, as the ball bounced over his head and would lead to a 3-0 lead for Detroit. This would be all the Tigers needed, as they eventually won 4-1 after standout catcher Bill Freehan caught Tim McCarver’s pop up to end the game – and Series.
Detroit fans were in total joy, while St. Louis ones – including this one – were left in disappointment.
I can still remember watching some of the last game after getting home that afternoon from Bright School and going over to the home of best friend Kurt Schmissrauter down the street in Valleybrook.
His older brother, Joey Schmissrauter, was watching the game and pointing out then or sometime that week how amazing an accomplishment it would be if Detroit came back after trailing 3 games to 1 in the Series. He must have been for Detroit, at least at that point.
My disappointment over the St. Louis loss was short lived, however, as I and many other Chattanoogans would slowly begin aligning ourselves more closely with another team, the Atlanta Braves. And that was about to begin in a big way the following year, 1969, when the Braves, who had started playing in Atlanta in 1966, would win their first-ever West division championship.
But in 1968, all baseball fans looking for a little joy and entertainment amid all the Vietnam unrest, the hotly contest presidential contest and the also-exciting space race found them in the World Series, no matter whom they were pulling for.