The 1961 Tigers won 101 games, but fell victim to the Yankees. New York continued to dominate the American League until the mid-sixties. Meanwhile, the Tigers failed to match their 1961 success until 1968. After finishing second in 1961, they did not seriously contend again until 1967. That season, the Detroiters missed the World Series by a single game. In the interim between 1961 and 1967, Detroit added pieces that made up a core group that eventually won the 1968 World Series.
Following a 101 win season, the Tigers dropped to 85 wins. Although Rocky Colavito had another monster season, Norm Cash suffered a major falloff from his MVP caliber campaign in 1961. His average dropped from .361 to .243 while injuries limited Al Kaline to 100 games. Additionally, the pitching suffered a major falloff despite big seasons from Jim Bunning and Hank Aguirre. That season, Detroit handed the starting shortstop job to Dick McAuliffe. He’d become an all star and remained with the Tigers until 1973.
The decline continued in 1963 as the team fell below .500. Although Cash’s average rebounded to .270, Colavito’s power suffered a drop off. As a whole, the team had six players with double digit home runs led by Al Kaline’s 27. Kaline also hit .312 to lead the Tigers. Despite the failure on the field, the team began adding a core group of young players that season. Twenty-one year old Bill Freehan played 100 games for Detroit in 1963. He went onto become Detroit’s greatest catcher, an all star, and the greatest catcher of the sixties. Infielder Don Wert played 78 games that season before becoming the team’s starting third basemen until 1970. Outfielder Willie Horton played his first 15 major league games. He’d finish with over 2000 games played, play in all star games, and provide thunder in Detroit‘s lineup. The team also added future World Series hero, Mickey Lolich to the pitching staff.
While adding good young players, the team blundered by trading future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning to Philadelphia. Former Yankee Killer Frank Lary left Detroit during the following season. The 1964 team improved slightly from the previous season. In 1964, Detroit added gold glove outfielder Mickey Stanley and one of the great bases loaded hitters in history, Jim Northrup, to the team. Pitcher Denny McLain also joined the Tigers and enjoyed a colorful career.
The following season, Detroit won 89 games. That was not enough to win a pennant, but showed they were on the cusp. Norm Cash hit 30 homers, Willie Horton added 29 and drove in 104. The pitching made a huge difference. Lolich won 15 games, McLain 16, Hank Aguirre 14, and Joe Sparma won 13. The Tigers finished 13 games out of first as Minnesota unseated the Yankees for the pennant.
The Yankee Dynasty ended in 1965. The American League was wide open until the great Orioles teams took over in 1969. Baltimore demonstrated what was to come by winning the World Series in 1966. That season, the Tigers won 88 games and finished third. Eight starters had double digit home runs and Willie Horton drove in 100. Denny McLain won 20 games for the first time. Earl Wilson joined the Tigers to make up for the loss of Bunning. On a eerie note, the 1966 Tigers had two managers die. Chuck Dressen and Bob Swift both resigned over health issues and passed away shortly thereafter. Frank Skaff finished the season and was replaced by Mayo Smith for the 1967 season.
Everything was in place for a pennant run in 1967. The Tigers had the hitting and the pitching. The team’s young players gained valuable experience and learned the game. The 1967 Tigers enjoyed a balanced offensive attack led by Al Kaline’s 25 home runs and .308 average. Earl Wilson won 22 games, Denny McLain won 17, Joe Sparma 16, and Mickey Lolich went 14-13.
1967 was the closest race in history. Boston, Minnesota, and Detroit all finished within a game of each other. Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won the triple crown. He provided the difference in the pennant race. When Boston needed a big hit or great play in the field, Yaz came through. He willed the Sox to the pennant. On the final day of the 1967 season, Detroit played a doubleheader with California. The Tigers needed to win both games to force a pennant playoff. Detroit won the first game, but lost the second. Boston won the pennant. Detroit went home determined to win in 1968.
The 1961 Tigers won 101 games. The next few seasons proved disappointing for Detroit. The Yankees continued to dominant the league through 1964. After the Yankee collapse, the pennant was there to be taken. During this period, Detroit added quality young players. By 1965, Detroit seemed primed to contend. In 1967, they missed the World Series by a single game. However, everything was in place for a championship.