When the Detroit Tigers won the 1968 World Series, starting pitcher Mickey Lolich jumped into the arms of his catcher, Bill Freehan, to celebrate an improbable comeback. The St. Louis Cardinals, who won the fall classic the year before, led the Tigers three games to one. But Detroit rallied to win the next three games. Lolich pitched two of those games from start to finish.
The left-hander from Portland, Oregon was named the most valuable player of the ‘68 series, and went on to become the Tigers’ all-time leader in strikeouts (2,679), shutouts (39), and games started (459).
50 years later, Lolich still tells stories about his life in baseball. Now, he’s put many of them on paper. Lolich, with help from Baseball Hall of Fame writer Tom Gage, wrote “Joy in Tigertown” in 2018. WDET’s Pat Batcheller talked to Lolich about the book. Here’s a transcript:
Pat Batcheller: Why did you write the book?
Mickey Lolich: I sit around with people all the time, and tell baseball stories about the Tigers and my life and that type of stuff. And people are always saying ‘you should write a book.’ I sort of always put it off. And then I came to realize one day that I had three daughters. And those daughters were quite young during my baseball career and really didn’t know too much about the game or what I did in my lifetime. Then I have grandsons that don’t really know anything about what I did. So I figured I’d tell my life story of how I grew up, what I did in those days that led to me being a baseball player. I also mix in the World Series games 1 thru 7 and what happened in those games. I put the book together and we got it on the market and are getting a lot of compliments about it.
Pat Batcheller: What will readers learn about you that they might not have known before?
Mickey Lolich: Well, maybe one thing—that they saw me pitch left-handed, but I’m right-handed. It sort of shocks people when they learn about that.
Pat Batcheller: How did you become a lefty?
Mickey Lolich: One day I was out riding in Portland, Oregon. That’s where I’m from. I was 2 years old. I was riding my hot-rod tricycle down the sidewalk. And I lost control of it, I went off the curb. And parked there was an Indian motorcycle. And I hit the kickstand and the bike came down on top of me and broke my left collarbone in two places. Well, back in 1942, they just sort of strapped your arm across your chest and wait for it to heal. When they took the bindings off, I had total atrophy in my left arm. It wasn’t working at all. So my parents had an exercise program, moving my arm in front of my chest, and back-and-forth. Then they took to putting it up and over my head like a throwing action. Now, at that age, I was fascinated with picking up little trucks and cars and throwing them with my right arm. And when they saw me throwing things, they’d go, “wait a minute, we’ve got to strengthen his left arm.” So the next move would put my folks in jail now. They tied my right arm behind my back and made me use my left hand. Well, I still wanted to throw those little cars and trucks, so I threw them left-handed. And when I built up good strength in my arm, they untied my arm in the back and let me use whatever hand I wanted to. But I continued to eat, write, or whatever I did right-handed. But when it came to a throwing action, I always threw left-handed. And that’s how I became a left-handed pitcher.
Pat Batcheller: Your career as a Tiger almost ended before it began when you briefly quit baseball at age 21. What led to that decision?
Mickey Lolich: I was playing down in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had a bad outing and things didn’t go real well for me at all. And when the game was over, the manager of the team held a clubhouse meeting, called me up to stand alongside him and, in my opinion, ridiculed me far and above what he should have done. And I said, “OK,” and then they sent me off to Durham, North Carolina to play. Well, the next year, I was pitching AAA for Denver. And I was having a few problems at the beginning of the season. And the general manager in charge of the minors decided to send me to go to Knoxville. I said, “I refuse to go to Knoxville, I will not play for that manager again.” He (general manager Jim Campbell) says “I’m in charge, and you’ll go where you’re going.!” So I got an airplane ticket for Knoxville, I went to the airport, and cashed it in for a ticket to Portland, where I lived. When I got there, I called Campbell and said “I refuse to report to Knoxville and I am retiring from baseball.” And that’s what happened.
Pat Batcheller: Why did you come back?
Mickey Lolich: I got involved in pitching in an amateur game for a local team, my neighborhood team. I pitched relief one night for them. I struck out 16 guys in five innings—the catcher missed a pitch and I had to get the next guy. The headlines hit the paper, and went back east to Jim Campbell. He said, “are you ready to go to Knoxville?” I said, “I told you I’m not going.” He said, “well I made a deal with the Portland team,” which happened to be a Kansas City Athletics affiliate at the time. Campbell said, “they would like to buy you, and I refused to sell you. But I will loan you out to Portland, your hometown team, and you can pitch there if you’ll agree to that.” And I said, “OK, I’ll play there.” And that year I ran into a pitching coach for the Portland team by the name of Jerry Staley, a guy that happened to pitch once for Detroit. And he taught me how to throw the sinking fastball. I never had a sinker, I was just a hard thrower. And it changed my whole life. The next year, I went to spring training with the Detroit Tigers, the big club. I pitched 18 scoreless innings in spring training, but I didn’t make the club. Jim Campbell had to show me he was still the boss. He sent me to Syracuse, where I was for about a month. Frank Lary got hurt on Opening Day and they sent him to Knoxville—I felt sorry for the guy. They told me I was coming up for 30 days to fill in for Frank Lary, and then I’d go back to the minors. Well, that didn’t quite work out. 16 years later, I officially retired from baseball.
Pat Batcheller: In your research for the book, you had a chance to watch replays of the 1968 World Series on YouTube. What do you notice now when you watch games that you pitched that you didn’t notice or didn’t remember before?
Mickey Lolich: Well, first off, it’s the first time I’ve seen replays of the World Series. I’d never seen it. We watched all seven games. The thing I noticed, referring to me, is that I was taught the first three pitches you throw, two have to be strikes. You go right after the hitters. Today, they nibble at the corners way too much. And another thing I noticed was I used to finish games and today, they don’t. They’re geared to pitch six innings and that’s it. Baseball has changed a lot.
Pat Batcheller: Do you watch baseball now?
Mickey Lolich: Yeah, I watch it. I follow the Tigers, you know, to see what’s going on, win or lose. This year’s been a losing season, but don’t worry, they’re rebuilding. We’ll see how long that takes.
Pat Batcheller: Those who talk about the 1968 World Series often talk about how badly Detroit needed something to feel good about after the riots the year before and how the Tigers gave them that. Many of the problems that existed 50 years ago are still here today. Detroit has not yet fully healed. But you had no way of knowing back in 1968 what 2018 would be like. Do you still feel as if you and your teammates did something good for Detroit?
Mickey Lolich: Yeah, we all believe we did something good. I remember there were some police officers who worked at Tiger Stadium. One of them told me that in 1967, you’d see three fellas standing on a street corner, and they were looking for trouble. How they knew, I don’t know, I guess police officers can sense things like that. And then they said in 1968, you’d see the same three guys standing on the street corner and they had a transistor radio up to their ears and were listening to Tiger ballgames. And they’d say, “We think you guys prevented anything from happening again in the summer of ’68.” Now that’s what I was told, and I’m glad I can believe them.
Pat Batcheller: And you were there, of course…
Mickey Lolich: The city of Detroit has come back a lot. The downtown area, you can see all the buildings that have gone up and the jobs that are down there. I’m glad Detroit’s coming back.
Pat Batcheller: You were at the 50th anniversary celebration at Comerica Park. How did it feel to be back with your teammates and in uniform?
Mickey Lolich: Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to pitch. It was a wonderful weekend for us. I have to congratulate the Tigers on doing it first-class. It was wonderful to see the players that I played with. We were all wearing baseball hats, and on those hats, were the numbers and initials of all the Tigers that were on the ’68 team who have passed away. So in our own little way, we’re paying tribute to our former teammates who couldn’t be there on that Saturday. It was done right, and I really enjoyed it.