On the eve of the World Series of 1968, most baseball fans, including me, were excited about the impending matchup of two extraordinary pitchers. Detroit's Dennis McLain, 31-6 on the season and the only pitcher to win 30 games since Dizzy Dean in 1934, would go against St. Louis future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA was the lowest in the major leagues in more than half a century. But the matchup fizzled. Gibson pitched well—three complete games, winning two of them, with an ERA of 1.67—but McLain lost two, winning only Game 6. When the favored Cardinals lost in seven games, it was the portly Mickey Lolich who had pitched the Tigers to the championship with his three victories.
This is an article from the Oct. 17, 1988 issue
Lolich was glorious, of course, but many baseball people, including me, felt that the Tigers had won the Series in large part because of another Mickey. In one of the weirder strategic moves in baseball history, Detroit manager Mayo Smith, just a week before the Series, asked his young center-fielder—a former high school pitcher who was in his third full season in the Tiger outfield—to switch positions. Mickey Stanley started all seven games of the World Series at shortstop.
By 1968 I had lived 10 years in Michigan. Gradually I had come to love watching Detroit's baseball club in its small, beautiful, antiquated Tiger Stadium—a baseball park as fine as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, though it never got the adulatory press. As I took my son Andrew to twi-night doubleheaders, I gradually found myself loving not just baseball, but a team again: my players, my team of destiny. In one twi-nighter with Kansas City, we watched a skinny righthander come out of the bullpen, the long man in a hopeless cause, and strike out practically every batter, inning after inning: It was the unveiling of Denny McLain.
As the 1968 season opened, I suspected that the Tigers would be going nowhere, again. There were extraordinary shortcomings—like three-quarters of an infield—but as the season progressed Detroit was boosted by McLain's remarkable pitching, by a strong bullpen and by the emergence of Gates Brown as a consistent pinch hitter. The Tigers won 28 games in their last at bat—and the pennant pulling away.
But Mayo Smith had problems. Ray Oyler, the Tigers' regular shortstop, hit .135 for the season. Even more troublesome was the status of Al Kaline, who had played 16 years for the Tigers without experiencing a World Series. The aging rightfielder contributed relatively little to the Tigers' pennant-winning season. When he broke his arm in May, a young outfield took over. The Boys from Syracuse, as they were called (Syracuse, N.Y., was then the home of the Tigers' Triple A farm club) were left-fielder Willie Horton, rightfielder Jim Northrup and centerfielder Stanley. Horton hit 36 home runs that year; Northrup led the team with 90 runs batted in; Stanley drove in 60 and played the best defensive centerfield in the major leagues. When Kaline returned in July, he played at first for the slumping Norm Cash; but when Cash started hitting again (.317 from July 27 to the end of the season), Kaline became little more than a utility-man. His hitting suffered—his career average was .305 but that season he fell to .287—and when he dropped a fly ball at Tiger Stadium in August, he heard boos for the first time.
Yet it was unthinkable to bench Kaline for the Series. Who would sit down? Smith gave thought to substituting Kaline for Don Wert at third base. Wert had hit a mere .200, but he was a solid defensive player. The Cardinals were a speedy club, and if Kaline played third, the Cardinals would bunt him into early retirement.
It was Cash who first suggested that Smith move Stanley from center to shortstop. Cash and his manager did not get along: First base was an open job as long as Smith managed, and Cash's opinion of Smith's brainpower was available to the public. Yet when Cash spoke about Stanley—"He can play shortstop"—Smith listened to him. It was general knowledge, as catcher Bill Freehan put it, that Stanley was "the best all-around athlete we've got." But it takes more than a talented body to play shortstop.
A few of the Detroit coaches and groundskeepers—and Cash—knew that Stanley, all season long, had been taking thousands of grounders at shortstop before batting practice. He was 26 years old, intense and nervous; every day he was the first ballplayer to arrive at the park. When someone showed up who would hit fun-goes, Stanley worked out taking grounders. He was not auditioning—Stanley loved centerfield—but burning up excess energy. When Cash, among the early birds, strolled out to first base, he watched Stanley nip grounders and felt the sting of Stanley's arm.
One week before the Series, Smith made up his mind to play Kaline in his familiar rightfield spot, put Northrup in center, bench Oyler, and move Stanley from centerfield to short. Stanley would start at shortstop the last six games of the regular season to get ready. In his first game, he made two errors. He also made a novice's mistake. Throwing to first base to complete a double play, he stood on second while Don Buford of the Orioles barreled into him. That night Stanley called at Smith's hotel room: "I asked Mayo if he was sure that this was what he wanted. I said, 'I'm not worried for me; I'm worried for the other players.' Mayo said, 'I know you can do the job; that's good enough for me.' He said, 'You are my shortstop.' "
As the Series drew closer, the buzzing over Smith's decision grew loud. No position switch so eccentric had ever been tried in a World Series, as newspaper columnists noted. It was a managerial prerogative to realign the pitching rotation, they said, but to play a novice at shortstop was bizarre.
The doubts in the press were nothing compared with the doubts inside Stanley; he was not a phlegmatic sort. The night before Game 1 in St. Louis, he borrowed a sleeping pill from his wife, Ellen; in the morning he popped a tranquilizer; then, before the game, he vomited. "I suppose." he told sportswriter Red Smith, "the first damn ball will be hit to me."
It was. He picked Lou Brock's grounder and threw him out. Later he handled double plays, tagged base stealers and handled 31 chances, finishing the Series with only two errors, both questionable, on balls hit deep in the hole. In the sixth inning of the second game he started a difficult double play that got Lolich out of trouble and helped preserve the Tigers' first win. He batted .214, less than his season's .259 but considerably more than Oyler's .135. In the seven games he scored four runs from two walks and six hits, one a triple. More important, Kaline hit .379 with eight RBIs.
It was because of that that the Tigers won, Cash crowed. "I think the whole damn World Series was Mickey Stanley playing shortstop!" he said.
Stanley stayed with the Tigers, his only club, until 1978. Now he makes a nice living as a manufacturer's representative to the automotive industry. "The day I got my release, I was out pounding an doors," he says. "Back in those days we didn't get much money. But it has worked out real well."
I arrived at Stanley's large house in South Lyon (minutes from Ann Arbor, an hour from Detroit) to interview him one morning at 7 a.m. He seemed as full of nervous energy as he was when he was 26. But 20 years after the fact, Stanley could not remember his double plays, his tags, his throws. I asked, "Can you remember the errors?"
He laughed and said, "I remember them vividly. Both of them were balls hit in the hole. During Game 2 in St. Louis, Julian Javier hit one way back in the grass. I dove, got the ball, rolled over—I was in short leftfield by this time—and then I couldn't find the ball. Javier got to second base." Red Smith had expressed his opinion of the scoring: "The resident friends who are moonlighting as official scorers charged Stanley with an error on the best play of the Series thus far."
In the late innings of the Tiger victories, Oyler returned to shortstop, Stanley to center and Northrup to left, while Horton sat down—which improved defense at three positions. But by the end of the Series, no one was worrying about Mickey Stanley at shortstop.
So why not make it a full-time job? The next winter, the Tiger management left Oyler unprotected in the expansion draft, and the Seattle Pilots took him. Stanley found himself penciled in as regular shortstop for the Tigers in 1969. Although he enjoyed centerfield, "I was really looking forward to that, to start a new career playing shortstop." There was another reason: "I thought I could make more money. A .250 hitter playing shortstop is more valuable than a .250 hitter playing centerfield."
But fate intervened. "I went to spring training," Stanley recalls. "Being young and not too intelligent, I...well, the first ground ball of spring training was hit to me in the hole. Instead of fielding the ball clean, getting planted and throwing the ball gently to first, I had to make a foolish low off-balance throw.
"I hurt my arm. My arm was never the same. I didn't play a game all spring training, and when I was Opening Day shortstop, I couldn't throw. I spent the rest of my career with a sore arm, with a bad arm. I don't know how I lasted 15 years. When I moved back to the outfield.... Nobody had ever run on me before. Now, sometimes, people took chances. That was embarrassing."
Playing centerfield, Stanley tried to fake out the opposition, to hide how bad his arm was. He also tried to conceal the damage from his own management. "Were they going to release me because I was not throwing at anything close to major league standards?" he wondered. "I knew how different my arm was. Maybe others didn't know. I didn't advertise it. Every day when the infield was practicing and outfielders were taking their positions, I would not line up in the normal position, but come in 30 feet. I did everything I could to keep people from noticing. How many guys does a centerfielder throw out? If you use your head and charge the ball, cut down on the distance between outfield and infield, by being aggressive...."
Our conversation slowed as Stanley remembered anxious years. As I rose to leave, I could feel him searching for something brighter to send me off with.
"The thing that really helped me," he said, suddenly returning to the Series of '68, "was that Lou Brock took advantage of the situation. Or tried to. There is no doubt in my mind that he was trying to hit that first ball toward shortstop. With a half swing he hit it my way. It had a nice big hop and I threw him out and that took off a lot of the pressure."
I had never thought of Brock hitting toward the novice shortstop by design. "How do you know he was doing it on purpose?" I asked.
"There is no doubt in my mind," said Stanley. "He usually took a good swing at the ball. Brock could hit home runs. He was just doing a little punch job over there. Now, if he had waited for five or six innings, and the bases were loaded, things might have been different!"
Poet Donald Hall won the Lenore Marshall/Nation Award for "The Happy Man."