Lolich was one of the finest left-handed pitchers in history, but was overshadowed during the regular season in 1968 by teammate Denny McLain, who won 31 games.
To Detroiters, Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich was more than just a baseball star. He didn’t act like a big shot superstar, he was one of us.
“There was the young Lolich riding to Tiger Stadium on a motorcycle,” one Detroit News reporter wrote in 1977, “putting his feet on the handlebars when he went through puddles so he wouldn’t get his pants wet. There was the Lolich who idled away his spare time playing the guitar and the chord organ, or skin diving, slot-car racing and bow hunting. And there was the ample midsection that showed through Lolich’s uniform and belied his pitching ability.”
He didn’t change after he retired from baseball and opened a donut shop. He wasn’t just an owner who showed up once in a while to see how things were going. He was in there making donuts.
Lolich loved his motorcycles, riding to and from games at Tiger Stadium to the consternation of Tigers officials.
“Most people would think that an ex-ballplayer would just have his name on the building, that’s all,” Lolich said in a 1986 interview. “They think you’d just stop by and say hello on the way to the golf course. It’s not that way.
“What really surprises them (customers) is when they see me coming out of our bakery in the back with flour on my apron. I’ve heard some of them say, ‘By golly, he really works here.'”
Lolich’s ancestors came from Croatia in Yugoslavia. His grandfather set up a dairy business in Oregon and made homemade wine on the side during prohibition, hiding the wine under the milk cans he would transport to market.
He heard that boarding houses could legally serve wine, so he rented out some rooms in his house and opened a bar. His father tells a story about Grandpa ordering his sons to bury dynamite next to the wine vats so they could set it off if “revenuers” came snooping. No one trusted any one else to do it, so each son, as well as Grandpa, buried some dynamite. It would have blown up the city of Portland if they had ever set it off.
One of the most stirring photos in Tiger history — Lolich jumps into the arms of catcher Bill Freehan after Freehan caught the final out in the seventh game of the 1968 World Series. Lolich later said he jumped on Freehan to prevent Freehan from jumping on him.
Lolich’s credentials are impressive:
He is best remembered for his dramatic and decisive role in helping the Tigers win the 1968 World Series.
Denny McLain, who had won 31 games during the regular season that year, lost the series opener against the Cardinals. Lolich won the second game, tying the Series. Then the Cardinals won the next two games so that by Game 5, they led 3 victories to 1.
Lolich warmed up for Game 5. If he lost, the World Series would be over. At first, he wasn’t doing so well and manager Mayo Smith almost took him out of the game. When Lolich was scheduled to be the next batter, he was sure Smith would take him out; the Tigers were still behind. But Smith left Lolich in and he got a base hit, starting the rally that gave the Tigers a victory. The Tigers then won Game 6, tying the series going into the 7th and final game.
Lolich said Smith approached him in the dugout during game 6, asking if he could pitch the final game. Lolich complained that he would have had only two days rest, but Smith said he really wanted Lolich to start. “Do you think you can pitch five?” Smith asked.
Lolich said, “Yeah, I guess so. When I came in after five, he asked me could I go one more. Which I did. When I came in at the end of the sixth, he said can you go one more? And then we scored the three runs in the seventh and he asked me if I could finish and I said, ‘Yeah’. I never thought I was going to pitch in the seventh game.”
The photo of Lolich jumping on catcher Bill Freehan after the final out of the 7th game is a classic. “As soon as it was over, I jumped on Freehan,” Lolich recalled. “The main reason I did that was so he wouldn’t jump on me first.”
George Cantor described the climax of the ’68 series in his book “The Tigers of ’68.” Following are edited excerpts:
Lolich helped out with his bat, too, starting the rally that won Game 5 with a base hit.
“The confetti had already been prepared in downtown St. Louis, so sure were they that the Cardinals would win the World Series.
“Bob Gibson, the famous Cardinals pitcher was up for Game 7. He had had three days rest while Lolich had only two and despite his two gallant performances, no one thought he could match up against Gibson. It seemed to be a true prediction. Gibson mowed the Tigers down for the first six innings (except for one hit.)
“But Lolich was doing OK, matching Gibson almost pitch for pitch. Then the base stealer, Lou Brock got a single in the sixth. Everyone knew what that meant. He would steal, setting up the winning run. “Brock edged farther and farther off the bag, daring Lolich to throw the ball to the plate or to make a try for him. Finally, detecting what he thought was the start of Lolich’s delivery, he took off for second. Instead, Lolich threw to first. Cash rifled a perfect throw to Stanley, who was covering the bag like a veteran. Brock was tagged out.”
“Then Curt Flood, another base stealer, also singled. He, too, started a mind game with Lolich, but Lolich threw to first and Flood was out
The city of Detroit kept a close watch on the series.
“At the end of six innings, in the final game of the series, the score was 0 to 0. “Normal life slowed to a halt on this golden Thursday afternoon in Detroit, St. Louis and much of the rest of the nation, too. The drama at Busch Stadium was all that mattered.”
“Gibson disposed of Stanley and Kaline as the seventh inning started. Cash then got Detroit’s second hit. “Gibson, mildly annoyed, went to work on Horton. Willie drove the ball past shortstop into leftfield. Now there were two on and Northrup coming to bat.”
“When Northrop hit a liner to center, it appeared that Flood would get it without much trouble, though it was hit hard. “Flood took one quick step in, then tried to pivot…By then it was too late. The ball was over his head and Northrup was racing into third with a two-run triple.”
“In Busch Stadium, a gasp of disbelief went through the capacity crowd. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go at all…Detroiters came to their feet, also incredulous at what they were seeing on television.”
“(‘I was absolutely sure we were going to win that game,’ said Gibson in retrospect. ‘I knew that Lolich wasn’t exactly what you’d call a finely tuned athlete. He had to be dog-tired…on two days’ rest…’)
“Next, Freehan doubled getting the third run of the inning. Gibson had lost it all at once.
Lolich celebrates victory in Game 7.
“The Tigers added one more run in the ninth, and Lolich kept chugging away, giving up no hits. Three to go. Flood popped to shortstop. Cepeda fouled to Freehan. Then with everyone poised for the ending, Shannon finally reached Lolich for a home run…Then it was McCarver. He lifted a little pop fly…Freehan flung aside his mask, settled under it, and tucked away Detroit’s third world championship. It was 4:06 P.M. in Detroit.
“In Detroit, within half an hour, every downtown street was filled with pedestrians. Cars inched their way forward in the mob. “No one cared. They didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
“In St. Louis, after the final pop fly, Lolich had leaped into Freehan’s arms. Then the two were surrounded by the rest of the Tigers, howling and shouting. ‘…It was when Mickey picked off Brock,’ McAuliffe yelled…’That was the ball game. We’d talked about it, and Mickey knew he had to make Brock make the first move. He played it perfectly.’
“‘It’s funny,’ Lolich says, ‘those three games that I won in the World Series are three games that do not count in my lifetime record. But if I hadn’t pitched in the World Series, they wouldn’t have remembered me.'”
Mickey sold his donut shop a few years ago but is still enjoying life. He and some of his fellow players, along with Ernie Harwell, were on a baseball fantasy Caribbean cruise, signing autographs for Tiger fans on the SS Norway in 1998.
His post-baseball career as a donut-shop operator endeared him even more to his fans.
(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )
By Kay Houston / The Detroit News