When the All-Stars paid their third and final visit to The Corner on July 13, 1971, the times had changed, inside and outside the ballpark, since Detroit last hosted the event in 1951. Primacy had passed to the National League, which had been more aggressive in signing black players during the intervening 20 years.
The 1970s were a controversial and radical decade, particularly in sports. A minor spat in the week leading up to the 1971 All-Star Game perfectly captured the divisive tone of the era. Heading into the break, each league’s leading pitcher was black. In the American League, Oakland’s Vida Blue was having a sensational rookie season. The flashy left-hander was 17-3 and tops in strikeouts, inviting comparisons to Denny McLain’s 31-win season three years earlier.
In the National League, Pittsburgh’s Doc Ellis had a 14-3 record, which made him the logical choice to start the All-Star Game. His last victory came against the Cincinnati Reds, managed by Sparky Anderson. Afterward, Ellis blasted Anderson and the baseball establishment. “I know I don’t have a chance to start, because Anderson doesn’t like me,” Ellis said. “Besides, they’d never start one ‘brother’ against another ‘brother.’”
Anderson, all set to manage the Reds’ Lee May and several other black stars against Earl Weaver’s American League squad, couldn’t figure out Ellis’ beef. “I don’t know why he said I didn’t like him,” he said. “I don’t even know him. I’ve only spoken with him once–at dinner last winter. I’ll tell you this much: I’d like to have him on my club. And if he didn’t like me, I wouldn’t care.”
When it came time to fill out the official scorecard, Anderson penciled in Willie Mays, playing in his 22nd All-Star Game, as his center fielder and leadoff batter. At the bottom of the card he wrote Ellis’ name as starting pitcher.
The American League’s 28-man roster included four Tigers who were either voted in by the fans or selected by Weaver: Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Norm Cash, and Bill Freehan. At the time, Cash was tied for the league lead with 20 home runs while Lolich was en route to a 25-win, 376-inning season that probably would have earned him the Cy Young Award if it hadn’t been for Blue.
“To participate in the game, representing the Tigers in my hometown with that array of talent, was special,” recalled Freehan, making his sixth straight All-Star start. “Take a look at the players on each of those teams: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, and a lot of others who are either Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers.”
The game was held on a warm Tuesday evening before a packed house of 53,089 fans. The Nationals built a quick 3-0 lead off Blue, as Bench and Aaron drilled opposite-field home runs into the upper deck in right.
In an article leading up to the game, the Detroit Free Press had asked, “Can Any of the Stars Clear Roof?” In the bottom of the third, Reggie Jackson provided the answer. Oakland’s 25-year-old slugger, who throughout his career displayed a flair for the dramatic, was not even supposed to be at Tiger Stadium. But Weaver named him as a last-minute substitute for injured Tony Oliva. Before leaving for Detroit, Jackson had jokingly been warned by teammate Sal Bando, “Don’t strike out and embarrass us.” Now, with Luis Aparicio on first base after a single, the left-handed Jackson was pinch-hitting for Blue.
Ellis, firing nothing but fastballs, built a 1-2 count on Jackson. The tall right-hander came in with another, but by now Jackson had timed his delivery. Jackson wrapped his bat around Ellis’ speedball, then watched in fascination as it rocketed toward the stands in right. The ball rose…and rose…before crashing into the base of the light tower atop the right-field roof. There was no telling how far the ball would have gone if its flight hadn’t been interrupted.
Tigers manager Billy Martin, coaching first base, later disagreed with those who called Reggie’s blast the hardest-hit ball ever. “It didn’t knock the light tower down, did it?” he joked.
The entire stadium was still buzzing when, a couple of minutes later, Frank Robinson sent another Ellis pitch screaming toward the seats in lower right. The second two-run homer of the inning gave the Americans a 4-3 lead they never relinquished.
There was more long-distance hitting to come. Kaline started the sixth inning with a pinch-hit single off Chicago’s Ferguson Jenkins, then scored when Minnesota’s Harmon Killebrew hit a full-count sinker into the upper deck in left. It was the only home run of the night hit in that direction, and it came in the teeth of a stiff wind. The soft-spoken first sacker was batting for Cash, who had fanned in his only two plate appearances.
Kaline’s run turned out to be the winner when Pittsburgh’s Clemente capped the scoring with an eighth-inning solo blast off Lolich, who pitched the last two innings for the save,
The 6-4 victory was the junior circuit’s first since 1962, but just as noteworthy was the home run barrage. Six had been hit, matching the record set at Briggs Stadium 20 years earlier (and tied at the 1954 game in Cleveland). Most impressively, each had been hit by a future Hall of Famer.
In the clubhouse after the game, Jackson ate pizza and accepted congratulations on what had been the mightiest hit on an unforgettable night of slugging. “I couldn’t have hit it any further if I stood at second base and hit it with a fungo bat,” he said.
“The game was memorable in many ways,” observed the next day’s Free Press, “mostly because it was the last of these All-Star classics that will ever be played in Tiger Stadium. We should have our new stadium in another 20 years or so.”