The Detroit Tigers were an unlikely victor in the American League East in 1972. Viewed by almost everyone at the start of the season as an aging, lackluster collection of players who had risen up four years earlier to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in a dramatic seven game World Series, they just didn’t seem to have what it would take to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. Little did anyone know that they would successfully do so in one of the most exciting pennant races in years. This is the story of that season in Detroit.
Fiery manager Billy Martin got the most out of his Tigers that they had—something he always seemed to do even as he eventually heaped destruction everywhere he ever went—and the team went 86-70 to take the American League East flag by a .5 game over the Boston Red Sox. The Tigers did not have much in the way of offense in 1972. The aging stars, especially future Hall of Famer Al Kaline and Norm Cash were both 37 and nearing the end of their careers, could not relied on as they had been in the past. The same was true of some of the other stars of 1968, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, and Jim Northrup. Light hitting Aurelio Rodriquez and Ed Brinkman were good on defense but not much help on offense, although Rodriquez did lead the team in hits with 147.
If there was a real strength on the Tigers in 1972 it was their pitching. Mickey Lolich, who had outdueled the incomparable Bob Gibson of the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, had a 22-14 record and a sterling 2.50 ERA while striking out 250 hitters during the season. Joe Coleman had 19 wins and 222 strikeouts, and August acquisition Woodie Fryman contributed key wins down the stretch. As it was the Tigers staggered to the AL East title.
But they ran into a buzz saw in the ALCS, playing the ascendant Oakland A’s, Charlie Finley’s team that boasted even better pitching with future Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers, as well as Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom, Darrold Knowles, and Vida Blue. It also had a core of great position players led by future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson as well as Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, and Bill North.
The best story in this book took place in the league championship series when Billy Martin pulled one of the most outrageous stunts in recent history. After having been beaten in game one, the second game looked like a romp for the A’s. Frustration ran high in the Tigers dugout, and Billy Martin decided to act. In the seventh inning Martin had reliever Lerrin LaGrow throw at the legs of Bert Campaneris, who already had three hits, two bases stolen, and two runs scored. He hit Campaneris on the ankle. Campaneris staggered for a moment in pain, then turned and glared at LaGrow before flinging his bat toward the mound. The bat helicoptered about five feet off the ground toward LeGrow’s left side. The pitcher was no doubt stunned and took a moment to recover, ducking out-of-the-way just in time to avoid contact. The benches quickly cleared, and though no punches were thrown the event punctuated the high tension of the game.
Everyone knew Martin had ordered it, and intended the ankle injury to put Campaneris out of commission for the rest of the series. Joe Rudi said, “I was in the on-deck circle, and I felt the Detroit pitcher threw at him.…when [Billy] Martin gets his ears pinned down, he’s going to do something about it.” Indeed, Martin led the Tigers rush out of the dugout, and appeared to be the only one enthusiastic about a fight. He went straight for Campaneris, who ran for the A’s dugout. Martin had to be stopped by the umpires. Legendary umpire Nestor Chylak, behind the plate for this game, threw both LaGrow and Campaneris out of the game, but not Martin.
Later Martin feigned innocence and put all the inappropriate behavior on Campaneris. “There’s no place for that kind of gutless stuff in baseball,” he said. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in all my years of baseball…I would respect him if he went out to throw a punch but what he did was the most gutless [thing] of any man to put on a uniform. It was a disgrace to baseball.” Martin had a lot of nerve condemning Campaneris for unsportsmanlike behavior after all of his violence and abuse over the years! No one played a more gentlemanly game, or had a sweeter disposition, than Bert Campaneris. As Campaneris said, “I didn’t mean to throw the bat, but you get mad in the moment and you don’t think about it. As soon as it happened, I wish it hadn’t happened.”
A’s manager Dick Williams recalled that Billy Martin had been crazy like a fox in this incident, getting Oakland’s best leadoff man out of the series, firing up his team, and demoralizing the A’s all at the same time. This one incident had turned the advantage to the Tigers. The A’s lost the next two games in the league championship series with scores of 3-0 and 4-3, before taking out the Tigers 2-1 in the final game of the playoff series. All through this tension, Williams said that he slept like a baby, “That is, I woke up every two hours crying.”
Billy Martin, so it seemed, was crazy like a fox but in the end it didn’t work. The Tigers went home, and did not challenge again for the American League pennant until the 1980s, winning it all in 1984. But that is a story for a different book.