After winning the World Series in 1968, the Tigers had slipped under .500 by 1970. A year later, they hired Billy Martin. With the feisty Martin in the dugout, Detroit rose to 91 wins and a second-place finish in 1971. And the 1972 Detroit Tigers took the next step, captured the old AL East and went to the American League Championship Series.
A workhorse rotation was the key to success. Two starters, Mickey Lolich and Joe Coleman, combined for 80 starts—and this was in a season that had a couple of weeks cut off due to a spring training labor dispute. Lolich won 22 games, pitched 327 innings, and posted a 2.50 ERA. Coleman won 19 more, worked 280 innings and his ERA came in at 2.80. With these arms starting over half the games, Detroit was bound to be competitive.
Tom Timmerman finished with a sub-3.00 ERA in his 25 starts. Woodie Fryman only got 14 starts, but he made the most of them, going 10-3 with a dazzling 2.06 ERA. Martin got reliable relief work from Chuck Seelbach. The Tigers finished fifth in the 12-team American League for staff ERA.
The lineup also finished fifth in runs scored. Norm Cash was 38-years-old, but the first baseman could still produce, hitting 22 home runs. The great Al Kaline was 37-years-old in rightfield, and he posted a stat line of .374 on-base percentage/.475 slugging percentage. Bill Freehan was a solid catcher and put up a .354 OPB. Dick McAuliffe set the table and his on-base percentage was .339.
Detroit didn’t have stars in the everyday lineup, at least not with Cash and Kaline at this point of their careers. But they had balance and depth.
The Baltimore Orioles were the hurdle that had to be cleared. In the alignment of the era, the Tigers were in the AL East. So were the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, the latter not joining the National League until 1998. Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee were paired up with Baltimore, the Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees in the East.
There were only two divisions, and only the first-place team went to the postseason. And Baltimore had set an extremely high bar in running away with the AL East each of the last three years. So, it was no surprise when the Tigers lost a pair of early series to the Orioles.
But Detroit’s balance worked in their favor, and they were more consistent. By Memorial Day, the Tigers had nudged out to a one-game lead over the Birds, with the surprising Indians in close pursuit.
The early part of the summer was more of the same. The Tigers lost marquee matchups—two more series losses to Baltimore, and another two to the eventual AL West champ Oakland A’s. But again, the Tigers won the games they were supposed to win. And with the Orioles finally coming back to the pack, that continued to be enough. Detroit was 51-37 at the All-Star Break, still up a game on Baltimore and plus-five on Boston. Cleveland had quickly faded from the race.
Detroit took a home series from Boston out of the break, and their division lead nudged out to 2 ½ games. But August was a cruel month. Perhaps getting outscored 28-4 in a three-game sweep at the hands of a bad Brewer team to open the month was a sign a slump was coming. The Tigers also lost two more series to Oakland. They lost a series to lurking New York and dumped three of four to Cleveland.
In most any other AL East year in the 1970s, this would have sunk Detroit. But Baltimore’s struggles were almost as bad. The winners of August were Boston and New York. By the time Labor Day arrived, the AL East was a full-throttle four-team race, with everyone within a half-game of each other.
The two slumping teams met right out of the September holiday. This time, Detroit won two of three over Baltimore, highlighted by Lolich winning a tough game against Oriole ace Jim Palmer. But the Tigers were swept in a weekend series against the Yankees, at home. Boston had the lead, and Detroit was in third place, two games back.
Something needed to change, and Detroit’s fortunes moved back upward the following week. They took two straight from Baltimore, and then swept Milwaukee. It was enough to pull into a virtual tie with Boston. The Red Sox had a winning percentage of .547 and the Tigers were at .546.
Normally, that small detail wouldn’t matter all that much. But, because of the delayed start to the season, teams would play an unequal number of games. Detroit would play one more game than Boston. As it turned out, that twist of fate would favor the Tigers. But with two weeks to go, that wasn’t yet apparent.
There were still head-to-head battles ahead. After losing two of three to the Indians, Detroit went to Fenway Park for a four-game set. And with Coleman on the mound for Thursday night’s opener, the bats came out on the attack. Cash had an RBI double in the first inning, keying a quick 4-0 lead and a three-hit night for the first baseman. Coleman went the distance in an easy 10-3 win.
On Friday night, the Tigers trailed 3-2 in the top of the eighth. They loaded the bases with no outs. Light-hitting shortstop Ed Brinkman came to the plate. His ground ball to third base turned into a home-to-first double play. The rally was killed and Detroit lost.
But Lolich was on the mound for Saturday afternoon, and the lineup came out swinging early. McAuliffe started the game with a double, the first of his three hits. The Tigers staked Lolich to a fast 3-0 lead. The ace went the distance and Detroit won 7-1.
A rough day from Fryman resulted in a 7-2 loss and a series split on Sunday. Detroit was one game back. There were eight to play. And the final three would be these two teams going head-to-head back at Tiger Stadium.
Baltimore and New York were still close, but time was too short, and the dynamics of Detroit and Boston playing so much head-to-head to end the year effectively froze the Yankees and Orioles out. The Tigers got themselves in position with a little revenge—they paid back the Brewers for that early August disaster by winning three in a row of their own, outscoring Milwaukee 30-6 in the process.
The Red Sox were 84-68. The Tigers were 84-69. It was a de facto best two-of-three for the AL East.
Lolich was on the mound for Monday night’s opener. This game is famous in Red Sox lore for the fact that a Boston rally in the third inning was upended when baserunner Luis Aparacio stumbled rounding third and what might have been a big inning ended with just one run.
But that emphasis does a disservice to Lolich, who tossed a complete-game six-hitter. And to young third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez. With the score tied 1-1 in the fifth, Rodriguez hit a solo home run. In both the sixth and eighth innings, he had a two-out RBI single. The combo of Lolich and Aurelio led the way to a 4-1 win.
Detroit had two chances to win one game. Fryman took the ball. He pitched well, but trailed 1-0 in the sixth. The veteran Cash worked a walk. He was bunted up, and then scored on a base hit by Jim Northrup. In the bottom of the seventh. McAuliffe doubled with one out.
It’s times like these you want the proud veteran at the plate. Kaline delivered an RBI single for the lead. He took second on the throw home and later scored a valuable insurance run. The 3-1 lead held. Seelbach came on for the ninth and appropriately, it was Kaline gloving the final out on a fly ball to right. Detroit had won the AL East.
And they came oh-so-close to winning a lot more in the ALCS against Oakland. It didn’t start well—the Tigers lost the first two games on the road in what was then a best-of-five series. Their back to the wall at home, Detroit got a shutout win from Coleman in Game 3. Trailing 3-1 in the 10th inning of Game 4, the Tigers produced a stunning rally to win 4-3.
Normally, that would make you feel like winning was destiny. But it wasn’t. Fryman pitched extremely well in the decisive Game 5. But the great A’s staff was even better. Oakland won 2-1, took the pennant and went on to win the first of three straight World Series titles.
A loss like that is always painful, but worse was the fact that this marked the end of Detroit’s status as a contender, at least for a few years. Most of the key players—Kaline, Cash, Lolich, McAuliffe, Freehan, Fryman, and Timmerman—were on the wrong side of 30. Detroit was still over .500 deep into 1973, at 71-63. But the Orioles returned to excellence. Martin clashed with the front office and got fired. And not until 1978 did winning baseball return to Detroit.