he Detroit Tigers blew a three-run lead to lose their 64th game of the season last night. It was exactly the sort of thing the Tigers used to do to other teams 34 years ago, when the late-inning, come-from-behind victory was the hallmark of a team that won 103 games in a storybook season that brought a World Series championship to a city that had just suffered the worst race riot in U.S. history.
Tonight, HBO Sports will debut A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers, at 10:00 P.M. EST. The one-hour documentary describes how a baseball club helped give "a wounded, burned-out city" reeling from death and destruction one final respite before urban decay took its grim toll on the Motor City.
The 1967 Detroit riots were devastating: 43 people killed, 7,000 arrested, 2,500 stores burned to the ground. Governor George Romney sent 8,000 National Guardsmen into the city to restore order; one of those called up was Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich. This Time magazine cover conveys a sense of the chaos.
Many white Detroiters say the race riots compelled them to abandon the city for good a few still speak of refusing to cross 8 Mile Road, the city's northern boundary. The years following the riots brought a middle-class flight to the suburbs from which Detroit has never recovered. In every sense, the '67 rioters really did destroy their city.
The Tigers were one of the best teams in baseball that year, and it wasn't until the ninth inning of the last game of the regular season that they were finally knocked out of the pennant race. For Detroiters, it was just another sign that nothing was going their way the loss even sparked its own mini-riot in Tiger Stadium, in which (mostly white) fans stormed the field and tore up the turf.
Things looked even less promising for the city in 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April triggered race riots all around the country. Plenty of people figured it was only a matter of time before the mass killing and looting returned to Detroit. Yet it never did, at least not that summer. One of the black Detroiters interviewed by HBO describes the feeling that had overtaken the city: "Don't throw that brick the Tigers are on!"
It's easy to think HBO makes too much of what the Tigers did for Detroit that year, when the team started the season at a sprint and didn't look back. The narrator of A City on Fire says the Tigers "may not have saved the Motor City, but there's little doubt they helped it to heal."
Yet there's also an undeniably mythic quality to what happened that summer. The Tigers are one of the oldest teams in baseball, but they certainly aren't its best. They have an outstanding season about once every generation or so.
They were also one of the last baseball clubs to integrate in the documentary, sportswriter George Cantor recalls black Detroiters going to games and cheering for the visiting teams. By 1968, however, the team included three black players on its roster, including Willie Horton, a career 300-home-run hitter who was raised in Detroit and became a local hero. The situation outside Tiger Stadium may have been tense, but the team itself was "colorful and colorblind."
In a series of interviews, A City on Fire makes a case that the team's performance on the field really did have an ameliorating affect on the city. Participants include not only former Tigers such as Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, and Jim Northrup, but also local civil-rights leaders. Personalities such as the Tigers legendary radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell, rocker Ted Nugent (who, at one point during his interview, yells out, "Eat me!"), and Motown's Martha Reeves appear as well.
The show also includes interviews with Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver, members of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team the Tigers faced in the World Series that year. The Cardinals were heavy favorites to win, especially when they took a 3-to-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Yet the scrappy Tigers muscled their way back and forced a seventh game. The final contest featured Gibson, one of the game's all-time greatest pitchers, against Lolich, who was the Tigers' number-two starter. Like Gibson, Lolich already had a pair of wins in the series (plus the only home run of his career), but he was back on the mound after only two days of rest.
The game was scoreless through six innings, and then, in the top of the seventh, Northrup hit a two-out triple over the head of centerfielder Curt Flood, driving in two runs. The Tigers went on to win the game 4-1, and brought home a championship to a city that desperately needed something to cheer about.
The Tigers didn't save Detroit the effects of the 1967 riots were irreversible but they did help it, and showed what a game can do to lift the sagging spirits of a depressed city.