Video from ’78 Tigers’ game brings back memories of my youth, snow, and baseball

Jason Thompson's double was the game-winning hit in Detroit's 4-3 13-inning victory on June 20, 1978.

Jason Thompson’s double was the game-winning hit in Detroit’s 4-3 13-inning victory on June 20, 1978.

For Michiganders, the year 1978 is remembered for the Year of the Blizzard. That January, for three days, our Mitten was blanketed white under snow. Temperatures plummeted, many people were stranded, Governor William Milliken called out the National Guard for a state of emergency, and my town, Traverse City, was “unofficially closed” due to snow drifts and bone-biting cold weather. I remember it very well, as I was 10 years old. I liked snow, but that was ridiculous.

A few days ago I stumbled across a video on YouTube of a baseball game from June 20, 1978, between my Detroit Tigers and the Blue Jays, played in Toronto. In a rare moment for a grown man who has been jaded by life and circumstance, I experienced something I rarely do anymore – exuberance. Watching that video (it’s the entire 13-inning game, minus commercials) sent me back 35 years to when I was a snot-nosed little fella who wore Tigers pajamas and devoured The Baseball Encyclopedia for casual reading. As I watched the video on my laptop (an unthinkable electronic gadget in ’78 to this 10-year old) over the Internet (which was known only to the military and some Big Bang Theory-type eggheads back then), memories came rushing over me so thickly that I couldn’t possibly formulate them into a cohesive article. So, I’ll just tick off my thoughts about the game and share my memories in short paragraphs.

The Arkansas drawl of George Kell
There has never been a voice and personality like George Kell. From the first pitch to the exciting finish of this game (each team scored in the 9th to send it to extra-innings, or should I sat extry-innings, ala Mr. Kell?), we hear George’s friendly tones. Kell was a master at telling a story, at framing a situation, and at giving insight into the game. He’s really underrated as a broadcaster. Later, in my capacity as a staffer for the Baseball Hall of Fame, I will escort a very old and feeble Kell from the green room to the baseball exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and muster the courage to tell him I was from Michigan and loved to hear him on the television.

You never know who might be a war hero
’78 was the final season of Ralph Houk’s tenure as skipper of the Tigers. I remember him as the first manager I knew as a Detroit fan. I remember how he wore his big, puffy Detroit jacket unbuttoned at the bottom. I remember his tantrums, when he’d often kick dirt and throw his cap. I remember that he wore glasses to read the scorecard and he also smoked a pipe. As a 10-year old I had no idea that he had once been a hero in World War II (his nickname was Major, and he was an Army Ranger). I had no idea that he had once been a very good catcher and that he’d managed the Yankees to a World Series title. I just knew him as the old guy who argued with the umpires and made pitching changes. In this broadcast, Kell and sidekick Al Kaline (stilted as a broadcaster at this point, with weak command that belied his knowledge of the game) discuss how Houk had recently lambasted his team, which was on a losing streak. A month earlier the Tigs had been in first place, but here in June they were 13 1/2 games back of the Boston Red Sox.

Why we’re all a little like Ron LeFlore
We see leadoff man Ron LeFlore, who scores the first run of the game after being singled in by Jason “Rooftop” Thompson. LeFlore looks a little thicker and he’s sporting the mustache that Sparky Anderson will instruct him to shave off the following season. In 2005, LeFlore will come to Cooperstown with my uncle and a friend (oddly) for Hall of Fame Game Weekend when the Tigers play the Red Sox in that exhibition game (which is now defunct). The LeFlore of ’78 looks like he could run down a deer. He’s a man who was “living large” and running with a bad crowd. Drugs, alcohol, and mischief were always on his mind. The LeFlore of ’05 is grey-haired and looks like Flip Wilson. He has a degenerative hip problem that he can’t afford to remedy. The LeFlore of ’05 asks ME if I can help him get a job in baseball, anywhere, in any league. That LeFlore, who stands in the hotel bar with me and my uncles and their friends, is a desperate man who wants to grab any strand he can to connect himself to the game of baseball. The LeFlore we see in the YouTube video is a daring baserunner, an All-Star, a young man who doesn’t think he will ever die. The boy who watched that LeFlore, my pre-teen self, was puzzled when Ron was traded away from my Tigers. I didn’t know about drugs, booze, and chasing women. I didn’t think I would ever get old either, or that anything could ever stop me. We may never get a hip replacement, and we may never be arrested at Tiger Stadium for failure to pay child support (like LeFlore), but we are all a little like him. Life takes us places we could not have foreseen and it does things to us that we have no idea could happen.

Why I think of my daughter when I see Rusty Staub
One of my favorite players is batting third for the Tigers on this June day in 1978: Daniel Joseph Staub. They called him Rusty, or Le Grande Orange in Montreal, or “The Galloping Gourmet” when he plied his hitting trade in New York for the Mets and also ran a four-star restaurant. Staub’s dainty batting stance was one that I perfected (I copied all of the Tigers batting stances, I can still show you Jason Thompson, Milt May, Phi Mankowski, and the ultimate – John Wockenfuss). Years later, as a father, my then wife and I will take our oldest daughter to Montreal to see the Expos play in their final season. It so happened that it was Rusty Staub Bobblehead Night. When I see that bobblehead now I have the luxury of feeling two memories: of being a little boy who loved to watch Staub drive in runs, and of being a Dad who took his daughter to her first baseball game.

Young kids, meet the old pros
As is often the case in baseball games, there’s a generational overlap with this ’78 game. In uniform are Rico Carty for the Blue Jays and Mickey Stanley for the Tigers. Each were past their prime, and Mickey was playing his final season. Young players who would go on to many great things were also on the field, most prominently a trio of Tiger cubs: Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker. Though he seemed ancient in 1978 to my 10-year old eyes, Stanley was only 35 years old, only a year older than I was when my first daughter was born. Mick looks trim and fit (he still does) and he hit a home run in this game. It was the 116th of his career. He would hit 117.

The kids up the middle, or chapter one of the greatest double play duo in baseball history
In the fourth inning, (fast forward to the 37:45 mark) we get to see Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker turn one of the first double plays of their MLB careers. Big John Mayberry is on first when Dave McKay bounces a crisp grounder to second where Sweet Lou goes down on one knee (we’d see that so many times in the next 19 years), swivels his torso toward second, and flips the ball to Trammell, who is right at the bag where he should be, looking very much like a 20-year old. “Let’s see if the kids can turn it,” Kell says. They do. They would turn more than 1,000 double plays together and play in a record 1,918 games as teammates. My 10-year old eyes weren’t skilled enough to know how great the two were and would become. I was still wondering why Mark Wagner and Steve Dillard had been brushed aside. Later in my life, I would meet Trammell several times, most notably at Tigers’ Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, where I saw him sign so many autographs that his wrist was sore. I met Sweet Lou, a few times, once on the field in Lakeland when I was there on press credentials for the Hall of Fame. Lou was in camp as a special instructor and he still looked good in uniform. More shy around people than his DP partner, Whitaker glided right past me and the other media, ignoring us like a breaking ball off the plate.

Creepy umpire stuff
At the 41-minute mark or so, a young girl (a ball girl) comes out onto the field in impossibly tight, short shorts. She is wearing a Blue Jays’ tee-shirt and cap. She’s carrying a thermos – bringing refreshments to the umpires. She ends up chatting with crew chief Al Clark for a while (the cameraman apparently is enamored by her as he stays on it for several seconds), and then – SMOOCH – she gives Al a kiss on the cheek before leaving the field. I can’t imagine this happening today.

That one goes 5,280 feet!
Kell loves to use the word “mile”, as in “Oh, he hit that a miiile” and “Trammell went a mile to try to get that one…” Long before Rod Allen popularized “country strong,” Kell coined “He hit that ball a country mile.”

The original ARod
Aurelio Rodriguez was batting fifth in Houk’s lineup for this game. FIFTH. Could you imagine how loudly current Tiger fans would scream if a batter like Rodriguez was hitting fifth? I loved Rodriguez – no one had a more powerful arm – but he was not known for his bat. The likable third baseman was a master with the leather, though. At the time, my 10-year old self thought Aurelio would play the hot corner forever, but he would only play one more year in a Tiger uniform. He was not around in ’84 to be a part of that championship team, which is a shame because he was one of the most loved ballplayers that Detroit ever had. Several years later, Rodriguez was killed in a bizarre and tragic accident when a car jumped a curb and ran him over while he was walking on the streets of Detroit.

We are going to pump you up!
Even if you only watch the video for a few minutes you’ll notice how small the players look. They’re “people-sized.” They weren’t freakish athletic specimens. I didn’t know it then, but players in 1978 were popping amphetamines – they called them “greenies” – to boost their energy. Whatever help those greenies may or may not have given ballplayers, they didn’t make them bulked up home run hitting and 100-mph fastball throwing monsters. The average middle infielder in 2013 is just a little bit less muscular than Lance Parrish was in his prime.

When watching baseball wasn’t a day-killer 
A few other things that pop out at you when watching this video: batters are in the box ready to hit, they swing at pitches much earlier in the count, and pitchers are throwing more pitches across the middle of the plate. Oh, to have those days back. We might get games under the 3-hour mark again. This game went 13 innings and was completed in only 3 hours and 12 minutes!

On the usage of bullpens in the age of disco
Want to know how different pitching staffs were used just 35 years ago? In this game, starters Steve Baker (Tigers) and Jerry Garvin (Jays) each pitched into the 9th inning even though the game was tied, 2-2. There were no setup men, no 7th inning or 6th inning guys, no situational lefties trotted in from the bullpen. Houk’s bullpen consisted of – wait for it – FIVE pitchers. That’s right, one-two-three-four-five. Today, no self-respecting manager would go anywhere without seven pitchers in his pen. On this day, Roy Hartsfield, the Toronto skipper, called in a reliever in the 9th AFTER his starter allowed two baserunners. Houk allowed Baker to start the bottom of the 9th holding a slim 3-2 lead. After the young righty surrendered a one-out walk, he was replaced by veteran John Hiller. Hiller was the epitome of the relief ace of that era. He came in whenever the game was on the line. They called pitchers like that “firemen” because they came in to stamp out fires. This day, Hiller didn’t get the job done, he allowed a walk and then a two-out single to pinch-hitter Otto Velez to tie the game. That was unfortunate for the Tigers and for the 10-year old me, but what Hiller did next was truly remarkable – he pitched 4 2/3 innings of relief. Canadian John ended up getting the win when Detroit plated a run in the top of the 13th. There’s no question he was the best arm out of Houk’s pen, but he wasn’t used like a “closer”, he was used in the most crucial spot of the contest and then the game was his. It frequently happened in those days, as relievers like Hiller, Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle, Goose Gossage, and Mike Marshall logged many innings in relief, sometimes entering the game as early as the 6th inning.

An ace at the bottom of the deck
One of the pitchers in the bullpen on June 20, 1978, was Jack Morris, an unknown rookie who to that point had made only nine starts for Detroit. He started the ’78 campaign as Houk’s emergency #5 starter (the Major liked a four-man rotation), but he struggled in his three starts and was sent to the bullpen. I didn’t know, as a 10-year old, that Morris (sans mustache) would win 17 games the next season, would develop into the ace of the staff, anchor the Tiger rotation in the magical season of ’84, throw a no-hitter, start umpteen opening day games in a row, win seven of his first eight post-season starts, and become one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. He didn’t seem that much better than Steve Baker or Dave Rozema or any of the other young Tiger pitchers of that time. He was no Mark Fidrych, that’s for sure. But Morris won 225 more games than The Bird.

The corkscrew swing of Steve Kemp
Flip to the 1:13:00 mark to see Steve Kemp at the plate. You don’t want to miss it. The guy never got cheated on a swing. Every kid I knew in my neighborhood tried to perfect the art of swinging violently at a pitch and then catching our helmet as it came off our head because we swung so hard. We saw Kemp do it about five times a week. My 10-year old self really thought Kemp was cool (Fonzie cool). At the last game at Tiger Stadium in 1999, as former Tigers ran onto the field as part of the post-game celebration, my 31-year old self was in the center field bleachers. When Kemp trotted out to left field and doffed his cap to reveal a balding head, I was smiled and cheered enthusiastically. He wasn’t a great player, but he was a pretty good one for a couple of seasons. He was an All-Star when the Tigers didn’t have very many, and he was our All-Star.

Why we never see our Tigers’ stripes
Go to 1:33:45 to see Houk slowly stroll to the mound to replace Baker. You’ll get a treat in that you’ll see the Tiger stripes socks that the team wore back then. Most players pulled their uniform pants down over the stripes of the socks, but Houk (and occasionally Staub, Tram, and Sweet Lou) were known to show their stripes. Within a decade, every ballplayer was wearing the long pants, hiding their socks, and the stirrups were dead. The Tigers socks don’t have stripes on them anymore, and I think that’s a mistake. We should hold on to some traditions. A wonderful online exhibit, Dressed to the Nines, is available from the Baseball Hall of Fame on the evolution of the baseball uniform. It was conceived and constructed by Tom Shieber, who I worked with at the Hall.

The game was exciting too, and sketching ballplayers with my daughters
The aforementioned Wockenfuss turned out to be one of the offensive stars of this game. In the 13th he doubled to center field and one batter later he scampered home on a double by Thompson. The run was the game-winner. I remember getting an autographed photo of Thompson in either 1978 or 1979 when I joined the official Detroit Tigers Youth Fan Club. I don’t know what happened to that photo, but I still have many of my portraits of Tiger players that I drew in those days. My daughters both like to draw and they enjoy drawing baseball players too. I make them choose “old time” ballplayers from one of my many photo books.

Here’s the video, if you have the time to watch the entire thing, treat yourself. It’s worth at least a short glance.

What are your memories of baseball when you were a kid?

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.