’71 All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium was one of the greatest ever

Roberto Clemente bats in the 8th inning at Tiger Stadium during the 1971 All-Star Game. He homered off Mickey Lolich.

Roberto Clemente bats in the 8th inning at Tiger Stadium during the 1971 All-Star Game. He homered off Mickey Lolich.

The All-Star Game is clearly not what it once was. The two leagues no longer have a distaste for one another, as they did back in the 1970s and 1980s. For some players, the opportunity to play in the game runs second fiddle to a desire for more rest, or a chance to nurse minor injuries. With cable television and Internet viewing offering fans the chance to watch any and all teams, the All-Star Game is no longer a showcase event that gives us a once-a-year look at star players on small market or non-contending teams.

For the life of me, I cannot remember a memorable All-Star Game over the last 15 years, other than the dissatisfying memory of the 2002 game, which was declared a tie because the managers ran out of pitchers after foolishly deciding that everyone had to play, as if it were some kind of Little League game. In general, how many memorable All-Star Game moments have we had over the past two decades? Not many, at least not that I can recall.

The situation was far different in 1971. That was the year that venerable Tiger Stadium, one of my favorites among major league ballparks, hosted the Midsummer Classic for the third and final time. (During the previous two appearances, Tiger Stadium was known as Briggs Stadium.) The old ballpark provided a wonderful setting, with its thick grass, its old-fashioned double deck, and its right field overhang. At a time when the atrocities of artificial turf and cookie cutter stadiums were beginning to seep into the game, Tiger Stadium provided a much-needed throwback to the purer, more aesthetic way that baseball looked in the 1960s.

As the host team of the ‘71 Classic, the Tigers featured four All-Star representatives: Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Mickey Lolich. All four players linked the Tigers to their glorious season of 1968. Not surprisingly, all four received lusty ovations during the pre-game introductions.

Even prior to the first pitch, the 1971 All-Star Game made history. The two opposing pitchers, Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Vida Blue of the Oakland A’s, were both black, marking the first time that African-American starting pitchers had faced off in All-Star history. Prior to the game, Ellis had predicted that such a matchup would never take place. “Ain’t no way they gonna start two brothers against each other in the All-Star Game.”

As it turned out, Ellis was proven wrong when manager Sparky Anderson confirmed him as the National League starter. The individual stories of Ellis and Blue only added to the backstory of the game, Ellis with his frequent verbal popoffs and presence as one of the game’s most controversial characters, and Blue with his remarkable repertoire of a mid-nineties fastball and a baffling overhand curve.

Beyond the starting pitchers, a record-breaking number of 27 minorities (17 African Americans and 10 Latinos) were chosen for the 1971 All-Star Game. The game’s racial composition reflected the integration of major league baseball that had begun to progress rapidly throughout the 1960s. The ’71 All-Star Game was a turning point in the cultural history of the National Pastime.

Both lineups were filled with iconic stars, many of whom had dominated the game during the sixties. The National League lineup featured Willie Mays as the leadoff hitter and Hank Aaron in the No. 2 hole, two of the most intimidating tablesetters in All-Star Game history. Then came the four, five, and six hitters, a line of succession represented by three more Hall of Famers in Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey, and Johnny Bench.

The National League’s corps of reserves showed little falloff, with Roberto Clemente and Lou Brock available as backup outfielders, and pitchers Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Ferguson Jenkins coming out of Anderson’s bullpen.

While not as power-packed as the NL, the American League team boasted its share of Hall of Fame talents, with Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski, Brooks and Frank Robinson, and Luis Aparicio dotting the starting lineup. Off the bench, manager Earl Weaver could find instant firepower in any of three future Hall of Famers: Harmon Killebrew and Reggie Jackson for pure slugging, and Kaline for a dose of .300 hitting. Weaver’s bullpen was also equipped with the likes of Jim Palmer, on his way to another 20-win season.

Once Blue and Ellis made history in the first inning, the offenses began to take over in the second. The National League did the first offensive damage of the night when Stargell was hit by an errant pitch from Blue. Bench then touched up the seemingly invincible Blue for a two-run homer. Hank Aaron added a solo home run against Blue in the third, stretching the Nationals’ lead to 3-0.

The game then took a major turn in the bottom of the third, as Ellis faced Aparicio to start the inning. After Aparicio singled, Weaver called upon Jackson to pinch-hit for Blue. Jackson, a last minute replacement on the roster for the injured Tony Oliva, drove a mediocre Ellis fastball deep toward right-center field. The ball, still on the rise as it flew over the bleachers, caromed off the light tower that perched above the second deck of Tiger Stadium. It was a monumental home run that could best be described as Ruthian.

To the naked eye, Jackson’s home run appeared to have traveled over 500 feet. More specific estimates placed the distance at 520 feet. Reggie claimed he had never hit a ball harder. Kaline said that Jackson’s blast was the hardest he had ever seen hit. Norm Cash said the home run was the longest he had witnessed.

Unfortunately for Ellis, his problems continued that inning. After issuing a walk to Carew, Ellis succumbed to Frank Robinson, who clubbed a fastball the opposite way into the right field stands, giving the American League a 4-3 lead. Robinson, who had gone hitless in his last 14 All-Star Game at-bats, was on his way to winning the game’s MVP Award.

By the eighth inning, the American League had built a lead of 6-3. That’s when one of the four Tigers became involved in arguably the game’s most compelling matchup. Mickey Lolich faced Clemente, one of the NL’s supersubs. Although most of the 53,559 fans at Tiger Stadium were focusing their attention on their hometown pitcher and ace, their collective attention would soon shift to the batter’s box.

Even though Lolich was nursing a three-run lead, he did not appear to want any part of pitching to Clemente. He threw two consecutive pitches well out of the strike zone. Visibly upset with Lolich, Clemente stepped out of the batter’s box and flipped his bat in the air. Lolich delivered another pitch, one that appeared to be riding high and away from Clemente, a difficult pitch for most hitters. Clemente, a classic front-foot hitter, lifted his back leg off the ground and swung at the high fastball.

Swinging with unusual ferocity, Clemente launched the ball deep toward right-center field. The ball carried, and continued to carry, before finally landing in the right field bleachers. Conservatively speaking, the ball carried at least 450 feet, and while it was not as long as Jackson’s home run, it was nearly as impressive.

It was as if Clemente had challenged Lolich to throw him a strike, and when he refused, he simply expanded his strike zone, determined to deliver a hard-hit ball. Clemente showed the capacity crowd at Tiger Stadium and the nationwide television audience that he had little interest in walking; he preferred to show the fans just how well he could hit.

Clemente’s home run was the sixth that night in Detroit. The half-dozen home runs, aided by a stiff wind blowing out at Tiger Stadium, represented a new All-Star Game record.

And how did the four Tigers perform in the game? Though Clemente touched him for the Herculean home run, Lolich looked at his performance positively. “I got the save,” Lolich emphasized to Fox Sports Detroit. “I finished the game.” Additionally, Kaline came off the bench to pick up a hit in two at-bats, scoring one run. The other Tigers had relatively uneventful nights. Cash started at first base, came to bat two times without a hit, and then gave way to Killebrew. Freehan, starting at catcher, went hitless in three at-bats before leaving in favor of Thurman Munson.

On a broader and more significant scale, the American League won the game, 6-4, giving the junior circuit its first victory since the second All-Star game of 1962. But that is not the game’s most lasting legacy. Far more pertinent to the discussion is the fact that 21 future Hall of Famers participated in the game, 12 for the National League and nine for the American League. (A 22nd player, Pete Rose, would almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame if not for his gambling habit.) Furthermore, all six players who homered that night in Detroit eventually reached the Hall of Fame. The group included not only Jackson and Clemente, but also Bench, Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Killebrew.

With its collection of home runs and iconic moments, the 1971 All-Star Game became a game for the ages. Filled with Hall of Fame talents and a diverse melting pot of white, black, and Latino stars, the ’71 Game provided a snapshot into the greatness of the game in the 1960s and early seventies.

It is an All-Star legacy that will be difficult to match for the foreseeable future.

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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.