- Photo courtesy the Detroit Tigers
- By early May, the team was in first place.
Fifty years later, the Detroit Tigers of 1961 — men now in their 70s and 80s — have not forgotten the season that slipped away.
It might have been an immortal year. After all, the team won as many regular-season games — 101 — as any Detroit team to that point. But, instead, it has been relegated to the footnotes of history, overshadowed by pinstriped legends.
The Yankees dominated sports headlines that summer. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle captivated the nation while pursuing Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. New York won 109 games, a figure topped only once in the previous three decades, and captured a tenth pennant in 12 years.
"I always hated them," said Dick McAuliffe, who was then a 21-year-old backup shortstop. "I always thought they had a lot of luck and got a lot of great calls from the umpires."
Based on opening day, it was difficult to imagine the Tigers were in for a special season. They lost 9-5 to the Cleveland Indians, and pitching ace Jim Bunning, who would win 17 games, lasted less than two innings and gave up six runs.
But the pieces were in place. Al Kaline, a star at 26, anchored the lineup, along with Rocky Colavito, who had come over from Cleveland the previous spring. Norm Cash, the hard-drinking Texan, had been with the club only one year and given no indication of the kind of career performance he would deliver.
The starting lineup also included four players (catcher Dick Brown, rookie Jake Wood, Steve Boros and veteran Bill Bruton) who hadn't been with the team in 1960, when the Tigers finished sixth out of eight teams, and one additional player, shortstop Chico Fernandez, who had.
The manager, Bob Scheffing, was new as well, and John Fetzer had just become majority owner. Even the ballpark, a fixture at Michigan and Trumbull since 1912, could not escape change. Fetzer had dropped the Briggs Stadium name in favor of Tiger Stadium.
Whatever the name, the old place remained popular with players.
"It was one of the best ballparks in baseball," said pitcher Don Mossi, who would win 15 games. "In most ballparks, (fans) sit way back from the field, but in Detroit (fans) were right by the field."
Although a number of players donned the Old English D for the first time that season, they weren't unfamiliar to one another.
Several, including Tigers second baseman Wood, spent time together in the minor leagues, forming bonds that would be strengthened in the majors.
In 1960, the Tigers Triple-A affiliate, the Denver Bears, had finished first in the American Association. Wood said it helped that Bears teammate Steve Boros, the Tigers' starting third baseman, was on the field with him for his major league debut.
"There was a core of familiarity that I had, so it wasn't like I was going into a situation where I totally didn't know anyone," he said. "I had a comfort zone, so it wasn't bad."
Still, Wood said his passions were high. "You appreciate veterans on the team who can calm you down because your emotions run the gamut," he said. "They're up one day and down the next."
The mix of youth and experience helped the Tigers shake off their opening day loss and win eight straight games. They found themselves in first place at 17-5 in early May and would remain there for most of June and into July.
"The personalities on the team are what brought us together," Mossi said. "We had some real clowns. We gelled together because we were good friends and had good players."
For Wood, an African-American on a team that had integrated only three years earlier, the friendships meant a lot.
"We had a bunch of guys that came from Southern states, so I don't know what type of contact they had with African-Americans, but they were all right with me," he said. "They helped create a type of environment that was more sociable than aggressive. Those guys treated me like a person."
That didn't stop them from hazing the rookie, though. His first time in spring training, Wood noticed a small box inside a cage next to his locker. Norm Cash told him a mongoose was inside. Curious, Wood approached the box.
"He said to knock on the cage and it would come out," Wood said. "But when I knocked on the cage a big ol' piece of fur jumped out and hit me on the side of the head! You should have seen me running."
It was a year in which rubber snakes in equipment bags and hot-foot pranks in the dugout were common. The jokes "kept things lively," Wood said.
McAuliffe, who was called up from Denver in June 1961, remembers the humor of Paul Foytack, a veteran pitcher. Foytack loved playing gin rummy so much on plane rides that'd he'd refuse to stop even after the plane landed, McAuliffe said. "He'd have one of our teammates hold the cards as they were all still walking and playing," he said.
McAuliffe said the team was always upbeat. "I think the guys were good for one another," he said. "One guy never downgraded anyone on the team. They always rooted for you and they always cheered."
For Wood, the Tigers' quick start had much to do with chemistry. "Any team that's successful has to create the right type of environment and atmosphere to make people feel comfortable," he said. "That's how you succeed."
As the season matured, it became clear the Tigers were superb.
Cash was on pace to win the American League batting title with a .361 average, Colavito was on his way to driving in 140 runs, one short of the league title, and pitcher Frank Lary was having the best year of his career en route to 23 wins.
But it was Kaline, already in the eighth year of a Hall of Fame career, who provided the foundation. He would lead the league in doubles and finish second in the league in batting.
"He hit so well all the time," McAuliffe said. "He was the best right fielder I've ever seen."
Even with the hot hitting, the Tigers were a game and a half behind the Yankees as August turned to September. Maris and Mantle were still chasing Ruth when the Tigers traveled to the Bronx for a pivotal series on Sept. 1.
"When you play the Yankees, you want to beat 'em," said Mossi, who pitched the first game of the series. "You play a little harder. Everybody they sent up to the plate was a good hitter, so I was always on my toes."
Mossi had surrendered only five hits entering the ninth inning. But with two outs in the ninth, he allowed three straight singles. The last scored the game's only run. The Yankees, led by Whitey Ford, won 1-0, and would go on to sweep the three-game series.
"It was unbelievable," McAuliffe said. "It was the best series I've ever seen pitched from both teams."
Five decades later, Wood remembers the games vividly. "It's not like we were outclassed," he said. "They were three close games, and they just came out on top. Maybe it took something out of us mentally, but we just couldn't seem to get back on track."
Detroit tumbled into an eight-game losing streak, and never challenged again for first place. "We were nauseous about what happened in New York," McAuliffe said. "We were a better hitting team but they pitched well against us."
He said the losses hurt more because of the teams' fierce rivalry.
The Yankees went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. No one can know if the Tigers would have done the same had they won the pennant, but Wood said he wouldn't have bet against his club.
"In any situation, with the talent we had, we could have beaten anybody in any given series," he said. "Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity. But I feel we could have beaten [the Reds] if we had the chance."
Within a few seasons, most of the players on the 1961 team would depart to make room for the young players like Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich, who would form the nucleus of the 1968 world championship team — the next Detroit club to win 100 games.
McAuliffe said that, in retrospect, he doesn't remember the 1961 team for failing to win the pennant. Instead, it's the camaraderie and friendship that have stayed with him.
"When we were out to dinner all we'd do is talk about baseball," he said. "In the later part of my career, guys never did that. In 1961 we always talked about it, and that was great. They were all good guys and good players."