If any term could describe the Detroit Tigers of the 1950s, a charitable one would be uninspired.
A 95-win season in 1950 gave Tigers fans hope that some of the magic from the 1945 World Series championship would continue into the new decade.
Alas, the glory days quickly faded and the Tigers finished the Fifties 64 games under .500, at 738-802. Tigers fans looked to a new decade as a clean slate, a chance to renew past excellence.
Unfortunately, the 1960 Tigers didn’t cooperate. Though the team was stocked with premium young talent including sluggers Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash, and an outstanding one-two punch in the starting rotation in Frank Lary and Jim Bunning, the Sixties got off to a bumpy start. The Tigers finished 1960 at 71-83, sixth in American League ahead of only a surprisingly weak Red Sox team, and the Kansas City A’s. That club churned through three managers: Jimmy Dykes, who was fired 96 games into the season, Billy Hitchcock (who managed all of one game) and Joe Gordon.
For 1961, the Tigers again changed leaders, hiring their fourth manager in a year, Bob Scheffing, most recently of the Cubs. In three seasons with Chicago, Scheffing led his clubs to one last-place finish and a pair of sixth-place finishes, finishing with a 208-254 record.
Heading into the season the Yankees were again the favorites in the American League — just as they had been for the better part of three decades. Even the most die-hard Tigers fan had no reason to believe that 1961 would be any different than the past dozen years. But it wouldn’t take long for them to realize it would be a special summer in Detroit.
Off to a Fast Start
The 1961 campaign ushered in two new eras in baseball: the extended 162-game season and, for the Tigers, a re-named ballpark, Tiger Stadium. On April 11, the Indians, now managed by former Detroit skipper Dykes, overpowered Jim Bunning for six early runs. Though the Tigers scratched their way back into the game they were unable to solve Indians righty Jim Perry and lost 9-5.
Three days later, presumably after a postponement, Frank Lary dominated the White Sox. He tossed nine one-hit innings on the way to a 7-0 win — the first of an eight-game winning streak that fueled an 8-2 start. Scheffing’s club finished April in first place, with a record of 10 and 4, and a one-game lead.
May proved to be just as successful. The Tigers spent then entire month in first place, ranging from a first-place tie to holding a lead as wide as 4.5 games. Perhaps most impressive was how they held their own against the Yankees, splitting the first six games, and proving they could play with the reigning American League champions. With summer approaching, the Tigers were out to show baseball — and perhaps still-skeptical fans — they were indeed for real.
Detroit continued to roll in June and into July, winning three of five from the Yankees over that span, including a split of a Fourth of July doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.
In the opener, Whitey Ford struck out 11, scattering five hits for a complete-game 6-2 win. The Tigers won a thrilling nightcap, 4-3, in 10 innings behind a solid nine-inning performance by Lary, who also drove in Steve Boros with the winning run on a squeeze play in the 10th. In the bottom half, Lary allowed a leadoff single to Tony Kubek single which prompted Scheffing to call on Hank Aguirre to face two of the Yankees’ most feared hitters. The lefty Aguirre retired Roger Maris then walked Mickey Mantle before coaxing Yogi Berra into a flyout to center. Right hander Terry Fox replaced Aguirre and got Moose Skowron to end the game with a flyout. Detroit was in first place, a game ahead of New York on July 4 — and that’s usually a good sign.
The Tigers notched another winning month in July, going 16 and 12, but saw their lead evaporate and on July 24, they were in first place for the last time. This club, though, would not go down easily as evidenced by their torrid month of August, winning 22 and losing only nine. Unfortunately the Tigers failed to gain ground thanks to the Yankees’ identical 22 and 9 mark in August.
Two Outstanding Seasons in One
On April 12, 1960, the Tigers orchestrated a trade with the Indians that would pay dividends for years to come. They sent infielder Steve Demeter to Cleveland for a raw, slugging first baseman named Norm Cash, who had just 138 at bats in parts of two seasons with the White Sox before being traded to the Indians the previous December. Cash never appeared in a game for Cleveland but would embark on a dazzling career in Detroit — while Demeter would play in only four games for the Indians and never play again in the majors.
Cash’s impact on the Tigers lineup was immediate. In 1960, at the age of 25, the native of Justiceburg, Texas, hit .286 with 18 home runs, 63 RBI and an OPS of .903. But those solid numbers would pale in comparison to the season he put together in ’61. Cash led the American League in five offensive categories: a .361 average, 193 hits, 19 intentional walks, .487 on-base percentage and a 1.148 OPS, and would be named a starter in the two All Star Games held that season — the first in Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the second at Boston’s Fenway Park.
While Cash waged an assault on American League pitching, fellow All Star Frank Lary was carving up hitters. In his first six full seasons with Detroit, the right hander averaged nearly 16 wins — highlighted by his 21 victories in 1956 — and 16 complete games per season. In fact, over those initial half-dozen seasons, Lary tossed complete games in 45 percent of his starts. In 1961 he was crafting the finest season of his career: a 23 and 9 record, a 3.24 ERA and a league-leading 22 complete games — 61 percent of his starts. For many Tigers fans, Lary became known as “The Yankee Killer” for his ability to shutdown the powerhouse New York teams of the 1950s and early ’60s with regularity. Over the course of his 12-year career, Lary earned a 28-13 record against the Yankees, defeating them 10 times more than his next-closest foil, the Twins. His record in ’61 against New York was 4-2.
Final Push Comes Up Short
The Tigers arrived in New York for a crucial three-game, Labor Day Weekend series just 2.5 games behind the Yankees. With luck, they could leave the Bronx in first place or at least a bit closer. Instead they saw their season collapse.
On Friday, Sept. 1, the Tigers lost a heartbreaking 1-0 game when the Yankees scored the lone run with two out in the ninth. Detroit lefty Don Mossi was superb, scattering eight hits over 8.2 innings, walking a single batter and fanning seven.
In the second game, the Tigers scored a pair of runs in the first inning but could do little else with Ralph Terry. Meanwhile the Yankees chipped away, scoring three runs in the first six innings. However, the game — and essentially the pennant — shifted dramatically in the Yankees’ favor when they tagged Lary with four runs in the eighth, sealing a 7-2 win.
The finale was perhaps the cruelest game of the series. Detroit entered the bottom of the ninth with a 5-4 lead but saw it vanish when Mickey Mantle drove a pitch from Gerry Staley into the right-centerfield seats for his 50th home run of the season. With two men on and two out, catcher Elston Howard drilled a three-run homer deep into the left-field stands off Ron Kline, giving the Yankees a 8-5 win and a series sweep.
Those three losses in New York were followed by five more, plunging the Tigers to 10 games out of first, by far their biggest deficit of the season. Though their pennant hopes were dashed over Labor Day, and despite the eight-game skid, the Tigers finished the 1961 season strong: winning 12 of their final 15, highlighted by a six-game winning streak and another of four straight to end the season.
Strong Finish Caps Remarkable Season
On the final Saturday of the season, Sept. 30, the Tigers won their 100th game of the season, a 6-4 win over the Twins. A win of the season finale gave the Tigers a final record of 101-61, the most wins by a Detroit team since pennant-winning 1934 club.
In the end, the 1961 Tigers finished eight games behind the eventual World Series champions, the Yankees, and 12 ahead of Baltimore. Still, they took Detroit baseball fans on a joy ride they hadn’t experienced in more than a decade. What’s more, they got to see the emergence of players that would make a summer seven years down the road one to remember — even if 1961 is a season Tigers fans might tend to overlook.