The "Fat Man's Hero" and the 1968 World Series
"I guess you could say I'm the redemption of the fat man. A guy will be watching me on TV and see that I don't look in any better shape than he is. 'Hey, Maude,' he'll holler. 'Get a load of this guy. And he's a 20-game winner.'" - Mickey Lolich
In addition to Denny McLain's 31-6, 1.96 ERA season, the pennant-winning 1968 Tigers smashed 185 home runs - by far the best in the majors - during a year when pitching completely ruled baseball.
Detroit's .235 team batting average may look feeble by current standards, but the Tigers were above the American League total of .230. 1968 was so weighted towards pitching that the Yankees finished in fifth place with an 83-79 record despite a record-low .214 team BA.
While his 22-9 record may not reflect it, Bob Gibson's 1968 performance was more dominant than McLain's. That's because the Cardinals ace set a record with his 1.12 ERA that was even lower than the best of the dead ball era. A few more runs at the right moments, and Gibson could have easily finished with 26 or 27 wins.
With such superior staff aces, it's not surprising that the Tigers and Cardinals faced off in the World Series. The Series opened in St. Louis with Gibson and McLain on the mound. The Cardinals scored three runs in the fourth inning, and that was more than Gibson needed.
The intense right-hander racked up a record 17 strikeouts for a 4-0 shutout. Detroit's three errors almost equaled their five hits in the team's first World Series appearance since 1945.
With the publicity-loving McLain grabbing the national spotlight for his 31-win season, the rest of the Tigers staff was unknown outside of Michigan. Number 2 starter Mickey Lolich was no slouch, as he went 17-9 with a 3.19 ERA in 220 innings pitched. A 197 to 65 (better than 3 to 1) strikeout to walk ratio provided one indicator of his skill.
Nelson Briles (19-11) started for the Cardinals against Lolich. In addition to holding St. Louis to six hits in an 8-1 complete game victory, Lolich (a .110 career hitter) slugged the only home run of his career.
"It was a high pitch on a 3-2 count, up by the bill of my cap," Lolich said in a 1988 interview. "I tomahawked it trying not to strike out, and it went over the fence." Known for his sense of humor and willingness to serve as the "fat man's hero," Lolich explained why he never slammed another bomb.
"It's too far to run," he said.
Home field advantage didn't help the Tigers in Games 3 and 4, and the Cardinals took easy 8-3 and 10-1 decisions. Four errors helped sabotage McLain as he lost his second duel against Gibson. Down 3 games to 1, the Tigers turned to Lolich to keep their slim hopes alive.
The lefty got off to a rocky start, giving up three first-inning runs, including a two-run HR by Orlando Cepeda. It proved to be the only poor inning Lolich had during the World Series, as he shut down the Cardinals the rest of the way. The Tigers came back with a three-run seventh inning to win 5-3. Left fielder Willie Horton was the hero for Detroit, as his perfect throw to catcher Bill Freehan cut down speedster Lou Brock trying to score from second base on a single in the fifth inning.
It was back to St. Louis for Game 6. A 10-run third inning allowed McLain to cruise to a 13-1 complete game victory. Who was going to pitch the deciding game for the Tigers? Game 3 starter Earl Wilson (13-12, 2.85 ERA) could go on four days rest, and his seven HRs in just 88 ABs even provided another longball threat in the lineup.
Manager Mayo Smith had already made a daring move during the Series when he replaced weak-hitting (just .135 in 215 ABs) defensive specialist Ray Oyler at shortstop by moving centerfielder Mickey Stanley to the infield. That made room in the lineup for Al Kaline, who missed much of the season with a broken wrist.
Like a riverboat gambler on a roll, Smith passed on the safe choice of Wilson and asked Lolich to go on two days rest.
"Mayo asked me if I could pitch five innings," Lolich recalIs. "I gave him one of those cliched answers like 'I've got all winter to rest.'"
Lolich didn't put in five innings against the Cardinals. He rang up a third straight complete game. Gibson and Lolich matched zeroes for six innings before first baseman Norm Cash and Horton singled in the Tiger seventh.
Left-handed hitting Jim Northrup came to the plate and hit a line drive to centerfielder Curt Flood. Normally one of the best defensive players in the game, Flood misjudged Northrup's smash, which went for a two-run triple.
The Tigers added another pair of runs before Lolich gave up a harmless ninth-inning solo homer to Mike Shannon and won the deciding game 4-1. In 27 innings, Lolich gave up just five runs for a 1.67 ERA, striking out 21 with six walks. Detroit was the fourth team in World Series history to come back from a 3-1 deficit. The home team finished with a 2-5 record in the '68 Series.
Lolich turned out to be far more than a one-time wonder. Frequent negative remarks about his pot belly and Lolich's ability to laugh at himself ("Some people have great bodies and a bad arm. I've a got a bad body and a good arm" and "All the fat guys watch me and say to their wives 'See, there's a fat guy doing O.K. Bring me another beer.'") made it easy to ignore his durability.
The big lefty followed up his Series MVP performance with a 19-11 record in 280.2 IP in 1969. After going 14-19 in 1970, Lolich put together a pair of seasons that destroyed any stereotypes about his physical condition.
During his 25-14, 2.92 performance in 1971, Lolich led the majors in starts (45), innings pitched (376), strikeouts (308) and wins. His 29 complete games led the American League, and no one had tossed more innings since Ed Walsh in 1912.
Sounds like a Cy Young Award performance, doesn't it? Not when 22-year Vida Blue was putting together a 24-8, 1.82 season with the A's, which was enough for him to beat Lolich 98-85 in voting for the honor.
Lolich followed up with 22-14 record and a career-best 2.50 ERA in 1972. He started 41 games and completed 23 in 327.1 IP. Once again among the league leaders in a number of stats, Lolich gave up just three earned runs in 19 IP (1.42) during the American League Championship Series against the A's, but had an 0-1 record in two starts.
The string of 300 IP seasons continued in 1973 and 1974, but the results were a disappointing 16-15 and 16-21 as the Tigers crumbled and fell into the basement. After a 12-18, 3.78 season in 1975, Lolich was traded to the Mets for Rusty Staub.
His 207 wins in Motown make Lolich the second winningest pitcher in Tigers history behind George Mullin (209 Ws). A 217-191 career record doesn't sound like something that an out-of-shape blob could post. Don't let the gut fool you. Mickey Lolich was a strong, durable pitcher who was at his best in the clutch.