Though this time of year the big-four of sports are all up and running—baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—to my mind it’s still baseball season until Yogi Berra’s famous benediction is pronounced: “It ‘aint over ‘til it’s over.” The man was a wordsmith.
This year, I find myself thinking a lot about what was going on 45 years ago—in 1968. It was time of conflict, assassination, national division, international disorder, and cultural explosion.
But I remember it also as a great year for baseball. It was the last year before divisional play began to fill October wall-to-wall. Back then, there were just two leagues—American and National. No divisions. So October baseball competed with Sunday football for barely one weekend.
It was also the year of Mickey.
There was Mickey Mantle, who was retiring at the end of the season after a certain-to-make Hall of Fame career. His last visit to league stadiums became a farewell tour of sorts. I saw him play his last game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit near where I grew up. And when he came to bat for the final time, I saw pitcher Denny McLain throw him a fat pitch designed to let Mickey hit it into the right field stands. When The Mick rounded second base on his final home run trot in Detroit, he tipped his hat to McLain.
It was very cool.
Of course, being a life-long Tiger fan, the mention of the name Mickey immediately brings to mind a guy named Mickey Lolich, a journeyman left-hander who found the ultimate groove that October. He had long pitched in the shadow of teammate McLain, who won 31 games that year (the last man to win 30). But the locals knew he had the stuff. And in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, he pitched game seven on just two days rest and went the distance (that’s nine full innings—there’s no law against this) to lead the Tigers to the World Championship. This was long before baseball discovered “closers,” “middle-relievers,” and “pitch counts.”
But there was another Mickey that year—and he’s one of baseball’s forgotten heroes. His name—and you may have to scratch your head to remember—was Mickey Stanley. He was a gold-glove centerfielder, and a pretty fair hitter.
As the Tigers coasted toward the series that year, manager Mayo Smith knew he had a problem. You see, he had four great outfielders and only three positions: Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup, Willie Horton, and another man destined for the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. His name was Al Kaline, one of the greatest all-around players ever. He came straight to Detroit from High School in 1953, and never spent a day in the minor leagues. In 1955, he became the youngest player ever to lead the league in batting, with a .340 average.
He broke his hand ’68 and missed many games. The outfield performed well in his absence, but Manager Smith knew that this might be Kaline’s only shot at playing in a World Series. So he conceived a gutsy plan.
Ray Oiler was the Tiger shortstop. The guy was amazing with the glove, but couldn’t hit a lick. I mean the guy could strike out in Tee-Ball. So Smith talked to Mickey Stanley and asked him if he’d ever played shortstop. He hadn’t. The two positions were very different.
Nevertheless, Mickey Stanley was moved from outfield to infield just for the World Series. This made room for Kaline in the lineup (this was also long before things like the “designated hitter” and “”Money Ball”). By all accounts, Stanley accepted the role without complaint, demonstrating what it meant to be a team member. He played flawlessly—not a misstep or error.
It was a great example to young ball players, who for many years heard Little League coaches bark: “What do you mean you don’t want to play where I need you? Did Mickey Stanley complain when he was put at shortstop?” Coaches loved Mickey Stanley.
Not long after the ’68 season, baseball began to change. Free agency came, along with more money, money, money. Players moved around a lot more. They started building stadiums where you could actually see the game from any seat (go figure).
I still love baseball. But I wonder if the spirit of Mickey Stanley is anywhere to be found? Not only in baseball—but in America, in general?
[This article was written for VENTURE GALLERIES – DRS]