Best Detroit Sports Team Came Away Empty
By Big Daddy
Of course this is subjective, but I say the 1961 Tigers are the best Detroit sports team to win nothing, and are therefore pretty much forgotten. 1961 was an awakening year for me. I was 9 years old, and this team made my summer something special. My father was a great Tigers fan, attending the hometown World Series in 35, 40 and 45. He was an Opening day lifer and would bring me home the scorecards from the games. He taught me to keep score and how proper scoring gave you the ability to replay the game later and re-live the highlights. He bought me a hard covered scorebook, much like the ones a Little League manager would have. In my new scorebook, I began recording the games, while listening to Ernie and George Kell on WJR. There were many more day games then, and I would sit with my Father after dinner and “replay” that day’s game.
Prior to 1961, the Tigers pretty much stunk in 60 and 59, even trading their manager at one point. Seriously, they traded manager Jimmy Dykes to Cleveland for manager Joe Gordon. However, they did lay some building blocks that led to their 1961 success. In 1959, they stunned the baseball world by trading the reigning batting champion, Harvey Kuenn, to their favorite trading partner, the Indians, for their most popular player. That player was former home run king, Rocky Colavito. That deal was loudly criticized in Cleveland, and reverberates to the present day as the Indians dumbest trade ever. Kuenn panned out there, and was dealt to the National league. He did resurrect himself later as a big league manager with the Brewers, leading them to their only World Series appearance with the famed “Harvey’s Wallbangers”, featuring future HOFers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Colavito went on to career years in homers and RBI’s for the Tigers. Another well below the radar move was the swap with the White Sox, sending minor leaguer Steve Demeter for a raw boned Texan by the name of Norman Cash. Before landing in Detroit, Cash had a little over 100 at bats in the bigs. 1960 was his first year as a regular, and he was mediocre at best. The Tigers also parted ways with Joe Gordon, and hired former Cub manager Bob Scheffing to skipper the team in 61. Rookies Steve Boros (a U of M alum) and speedster Jake Wood were brought up and got a taste of the big time. They also picked up a reliever, banana-nosed Don Mossi…again from the Tribe. The Tigers of 1960 weren’t totally without talent. They had Mr. Tiger, right fielder Al Kaline, as well as fellow HOFer Jim Bunning on their pitching staff.
These were the times when the Yankees ruled the American League, having copped 10 pennants in the previous 12 years. They were fresh off their World Series loss to the Pirates, fueled by Bill Mazeroski’s walkoff homer to win the flag. That loss gave the Yankees the excuse to broom 72 year-old Casey Stengel and bring in Ralph Houk, who later managed the Tigers. The series loss and the new skipper gave them some extra motivation going into the ‘61 season. The Yankees featured the M & M boys, Mantle and Maris, along with Yogi, Whitey, and a solid cast of supporting players. They were the favorites, and all the other teams were far behind. These were the years before divisional playoffs, wild cards and the like. Whoever won the league championship at the end of the regular season advanced to the world series
The 61 season began much like the preceding decade, with the Yankees pacing the field. Unlike prior years, the Tigers hung tough and were only 4 games behind at the all-star break. Second year regular Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Rocky Colavito, were banging out hits like never before, and the pitching staff led by “Yankee Killer” Frank Lary were keeping the Tigers in it. Manager Scheffing converted bullpen arm Don Mossi to the rotation, and he responded with 15 victories at years end. Frank Lary was 23-9, and Jim Bunning pitched in with a 17-11 record. Hank Aguirre was solid coming out of the pen, and the Tigers feverishly worked to keep pace with the torrid Yankees. But alas, no championship was forthcoming.
The Yankees were the story in 1961. Mantle and Maris staged their epic home run crown battle, culminating with Roger Maris breaking the Babe’s single season home run mark with 61. Mickey Mantle went down with a season ending leg injury and finished with 54 dingers. Whitey Ford won the Cy Young with a 25-4 mark, and the Yankees pulled away in September, winning the pennant with 109 victories (which at the time was the 3rd best won-lost mark in history). They went on to blast the Reds, led by young slugger and NL MVP, Frank Robinson, 4 -1 in the World Series.
Lost to history was the Detroit team’s valiant effort that led to a second place finish with 101 victories. Think about that for a minute…they haven’t come closer than 5 games to hitting the century mark the last 3 division leading years. At the time, 1961 was the Tigers’ most successful season in terms of games won to date, including their pennant winning years in 35, 40, and 45. Individual accolades also eluded the team. They had 4 players finish in the top ten for league MVP; Norm Cash finishing fourth, despite winning the batting title with a .361 average, 32 home runs, and 141 RBI. Rocky Colavito had a career best 45 homers and 132 RBI. Frank Lary’s 23 victories, and Al Kaline who chipped in with a .324 avg. to place 7th, 8th and 9th in the voting.
Other stellar years were had by rookie second baseman Jake Wood, whose 30 stolen bases earned him a 4th place in ROY voting, and journeyman shortstop Chico Fernandez, who provided one of the years most exciting moments when he stole home in the 9th inning to win a game against the Senators. Ernie Harwell stated later that that play was his most exciting play call outside of the Tigers pennant winning years.
So, 1961 became but a footnote in Tiger lore. In 1962, they slid to 4th place. Subsequently, they began a rebuilding effort that culminated with the Series victory in 68, when they won 103 games, finally eclipsing the 101 in ‘61.
What is your favorite Tigers team?
What is your favorite Tigers memory?
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