Remembering Jim Northrup: Outspoken leader on ’68 Tigers

jim-northrup-1973-topps-baseball-cardAlzheimer’s Disease is becoming an unfortunate theme with the alumni of the 1968 world champions Tigers. Earlier this year, I learned that Bill Freehan, a mainstay of those terrific Tiger teams of the late sixties and early seventies, is struggling with Alzheimer’s. The onset of the disease is making it hard for him to communicate with others, not to mention how difficult it has become to recall the highlights of his borderline Hall of Fame career.

Just two years ago, the ‘68 Tigers lost one of their key contributors to complications of the disease. Jim Northrup, who played right field for much of that summer, died at age 71. Along with Norm Cash, Northrup was one of the key left-handed hitters who provided balance to a lineup featuring capable right-handed hitters like Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and Freehan.

As seen on his 1973 Topps card, Northrup is flashing the wide smile that epitomized his outgoing personality while showcasing the firm forearms that aided his powerful swing. The bat looks especially small in Northrup’s arms; I’m not sure whether the bat is unnaturally short, or whether it is simply dwarfed by Northup’s Herculean pose for the Topps cameraman.

By 1973, Northrup was nearing the end of his long Tigers’ tenure, which dated back to the early sixties. The Tigers signed him in 1960, convincing him to pursue a career in baseball over quarterbacking opportunities with the Chicago Bears and New York Titans. (Northrup’s football talent gave him a common denominator with longtime teammate Cash, who was pursued by the NFL’s Bears before opting for the diamond.)

A dominant season at Triple-A Syracuse earned Northrup a five-game cup of coffee with the Tigers at the end of the 1964 season. Then came an 80-game struggle in 1965. He finally began to emerge as a contributor in his third season. Playing all three outfield positions for a trio of managers, Northrup hit 16 home runs and slugged a respectable .465. Northrup’s ability to play a competent center field, along with above average ability in left and right field, gave the Tigers an unusual level of depth and flexibility in the outfield.

Northup’s performance dipped in 1967, but he bounced back to post consistent numbers over his next four seasons. That stretch began with his breakout performance in 1968. He played even more regularly, as Al Kaline missed 40 games with a broken hand suffered at the hands of a Lew Krausse pitch. Hitting an impressive 21 home runs in 1968, the famed Year of the Pitcher, Northup upgraded his game to the point of becoming an MVP candidate. He placed 13th in the voting, as the Tigers advanced to the World Series.

It was during that 1968 season that Northrup displayed a well-known intolerance for fraternization with opposing players. As Denny McLain has noted, Northrup hated to see his teammates joke with opposing players during games or between innings. When he saw an offending teammate engaged in such a practice, he scolded him, reminding him that the other team represented the enemy. According to McLain (and others), Northrup’s old school approach helped the ‘68 Tigers became a team of all-out grinders.

Northrup also became associated with the grand slam in 1968. He hit four such home runs on the season, including three during the final days of June. He became the first big leaguer to hit three grand slams within the span of a single week.

Northrup’s dalliance with bases-loaded home runs continued during the postseason. Batting in Game Six of the World Series, he delivered a grand slam that highlighted a 10-run inning against Cardinals pitching. And then in Game Seven, Northrup came to bat in the seventh inning of a tie game and delivered the long fly ball that eluded Curt Flood for a two-run triple. Critics of Flood contended that the Gold Glove center fielder misjudged the fly ball, but Northrup always maintained that it was a legitimate triple that eluded Flood by 40 feet. Whatever the case, Northrup’s timely blow proved to be the turning point of Game Seven, capping off Detroit’s comeback from a deficit of three games to one.

For the Series, Northrup slugged .536 and collected eight RBIs. If not for Mickey Lolich, Northrup might have won the Series MVP.

Coming on the heels of the Tigers’ world championship, Northrup upped his game further in 1969. He was never better than on August 28, when he tormented the Oakland A’s to the tune of six hits in six at-bats, including two home runs. Although the Tigers regressed as a team that summer (from 103 to 90 wins), Northup reached career highs in home runs (25) and slugging percentage (.504), nudging his OPS to a personal best of .866. At the age of 29, he had reached the peak of a solid career.

In 1970, Northrup put up another productive season for Mayo Smith, a manager for whom he enjoyed playing. Northup’s .802 OPS, his moderate patience at the plate, and his continuing versatility in playing all three outfield positions made him a valuable member of Mayo’s squad, in what turned out to be Smith’s final season at the helm.

The 1971 season brought unwanted change to Northrup’s world in Detroit. He now had to endure playing for Billy Martin, whom Northrup came to despise.

On one occasion, Northrup heard Martin telling a sportswriter that he would love to manage the Yankees. That was the kind of talk that burned the outspoken Northrup, who was never reticent to confront teammates, coaches, or managers. Approaching his manager, Northrup essentially told Martin that if he didn’t want to manage the team, then he “should get the hell out.” Martin didn’t appreciate the sentiment, cementing ill feelings between the two passionate baseball characters.

As much as Northrup resented Martin, he showed out-and-out loyalty to his longtime teammates. One of those was Norm Cash. When Cash was released late in 1974, the Tigers did not tell him directly, allowing him to hear the news second-hand. Northrup became enraged. He stormed into manager Ralph Houk’s office, yelling his disapproval over the handling of Cash’s release. The next day, the Tigers decided to show Northrup the door as well, selling him to the Montreal Expos for a small sum of cash. It was hardly the way to show proper appreciation for a longtime Tiger who was simply sticking up for a fallen teammate.

Northrup’s departure was not well-received in Detroit. He had become a popular figure with fans, and one who was highly recognizable thanks to the long gray hair that earned him the nickname, “The Silver Fox.”

Thankfully, Northrup did return to the Tigers as a broadcaster after a successful stint playing professional softball for the Detroit Caesars. Colorful and outspoken, he did well in the broadcast booth, but his brutal honesty rubbed the conservative Tigers the wrong way. The Tigers eventually fired him from the position.

Northrup remained a popular interview subject into his later years, at least until he fell ill with Alzheimer’s. When Northrup died from a seizure brought on the by the disease in 2011, seven members of the 1968 world champions attended the funeral. Almost to a man, they remembered Northrup for his honesty, his toughness, his passion. As much as anybody on those old Tigers, Jimmy Northrup possessed a hell-bent desire to win, a desire that was fulfilled during the final days of 1968.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is a museum teacher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A resident of Cooperstown, he is the author of seven books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ted Williams.