A Eulogy for Detroit Tigers’ Legend Jim Northrup

Yesterday I had the honor of giving a eulogy at Jim Northrup’s memorial service and in tribute to him, I want to share my remarks with Tiger fans:

“ I am truly honored that Patti has asked me to briefly share my thoughts on Jim — of whom I was lucky enough to call a friend.

I like to say that I’ve known Jim Northrup for 46 years. At first it was as a 10-year-old Tiger fan in 1965 when I saw that slender, left-handed hitting outfielder out of Alma College with that beautiful inside outside swing work his way into the powerful Tiger lineup that included the magical names of Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Mickey Stanley, and Dick McAuliffe. They were our “Boys of Summer.”

Jim quickly became known as “The Gray Fox” for his streak of premature gray hair and later “Sweet Lips” by his teammates for his propensity to routinely exercise his 1st Amendment rights.

We all know what a hard nosed, highly competitive person Jim was and that he would not back down to anybody. I am sure that was largely why he was so successful as an athlete and a businessman.

As a player he welcomed the challenge of competition and wanted to be up to bat when the game was on the line. And so often he came through as a clutch hitter.

Besides leading the 1968 Tigers in hits and RBIs, in the ’68 World Series he led the way in Game 6 with a grand slam, his 5th of that magical season and then came through with the greatest hit in modern Detroit Tigers history with his unforgettable triple off of Bob Gibson in Game 7 to win the most exciting World Series of our lifetime.

And later there was that improbable come-from-behind victory in Game 4 of the 1972 playoffs when Jim hit the single in the bottom of the 10th inning to cap a thrilling three run rally.

In an interview I asked him how he was able to succeed under all that pressure. He told me:

“I was there to win. It’s the only reason you play the game. I wouldn’t have cared how much money I was paid,  it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to me. I want to kick your butt. I want to beat you. That’s the way I was raised and that was my attitude. Winning is everything. I hated to lose. That was my Dad. He said, no matter how much success you’ve had, always remember you can always be better. Once you decide you’re not going to be better, you’re not going to be better. I just wouldn’t give in to anybody.”

Whether you agreed with him or not he wanted to share his opinions and he told you honestly where he stood and sometimes where you stood in his eyes.

He was an unequivocal straight-shooter and a stand up guy and I greatly respected him for that. He once said, “I have strong opinions and I’ve never been afraid to take on the authorities.”

There are many examples where Jim was compelled to speak up.

Here is one.

Many of you know about his great love and admiration for Billy Martin……now that was a subject that could set off a firestorm.

Jim liked to tell this story:

When the Tigers were playing in New York and Billy was managing the Tigers, Jim overheard Martin telling then Yankees president Mike Burke in a restaurant that one day he would like to manage the Yankees. Jim was furious, and when the team traveled to Cleveland, he finely decided to confront Martin in a bar.

He said, “Billy, if you don’t want to manage our ballclub why don’t you just leave now.”

Someone once told Jim that Billy Martin was his own worst enemy. Jim replied, “No that is not true. I am his worst enemy.”

Jim loved to reminisce about that great ’68 Tiger team and the camaraderie and closeness his teammates enjoyed. However he also expressed the downside of being a professional athlete and the time of being away from family, that time that you can never get back.

I was very fortunate to find out first hand what a big heart Jim Northrup had and his generosity in helping others.

I first met Jim in 1989 when I served as chairperson for the Iron Man Award Charity luncheon that each year honored a Tiger player and raised money for the fight against ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Jim took a personal interest in the cause and graciously agreed to serve on the selection committee and promote the event during his PASS telecasts. Each year he would call me with suggestions.

As his friend and former brother in law Jim Greenlees said in a recent article, “He was always generous with his time and never turned down anyone asking for anything.” How true.

For years he helped a number of charitable institutions. To name just a few:

Alma College: He helped raise funds for a new baseball field and scoreboard. (The scoreboard is now named the Jim Northrup Scoreboard.)

For years Jim and Bill Freehan volunteered their time to work with

Trails Edge Camp for Ventilator Dependent Children in Pinckney
Camp Quality, (a camp for children with cancer) in northern Michigan)

— Jim also helped Steve Peck raise money to build the Miracle League of Southfield’s beautiful baseball diamond that allows handicapped children to play baseball.

—-For several years Jim and Bill Wischman collected over a ton of clothing, toys and goods that they sent to 15 orphanages in Poland.

The list goes go on and on. One time a neighbor of mine was fundraising for our local symphony and she asked me for a sports item for a charity auction. I asked Jim if he would go down to a Tiger game with four people. He did not hesitate. The winning charitable bidder paid $1,500 for the experience. We met first at the Lindell AC for dinner and then attended the ballgame which we hardly watched as Jim shared many of his stories with some very wide-eyed ’68 Tiger fans.

Jim’s legacy goes far beyond his World Series heroics. He was a man committed to helping make a difference in the lives of others. He was very proud of all his children and so grateful for the love and support from Patti.

I also want to share this with you.

Say what you want about Sweet Lips, but I can tell you that during all the time I saw him over the years with his declining health as he battled the very painful and crippling effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis, not once did I ever hear him complain about his own condition.

He was a legend for all time to fans of the Detroit Tigers, and will live forever in the hearts of his family, friends, and the many children and adults that he helped. We were so fortunate to have had him in our lives.

I greatly appreciated his friendship and I will miss him dearly.

I leave you with what he always said to me at the end of a phone conversation. “Take two and go to right.”

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.