The Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees are meeting in the playoffs for the third time since 2006.  The two previous times were in the divisional series, but this is the American League Championship Series.  In 2006 and 2011 the Tigers were successful in vanquishing the hated Yankees but this series harkens back to a time past when the teams were battling neck and neck for the American League Pennant.  I’m talking about 1961.  That was a truly historic season for a lot of reasons.  The two teams battled the entire season and when September came around there was only 1 1/2 games separating them.  I was a young pup then, 14 years old, and I had a 14 year-long hatred for those “Damned Yankees.”

The Yankees represented the elite of Major League baseball.  The Tigers were, well, Detroit.  They were us.  While New York had Wall Street, Broadway, Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium, Detroit was Dodge Main, Fleetwood, it was the Olympia, Woodward Avenue and it was Briggs Stadium.  I remember my father taking me, and my two brothers, to a double-header there, sitting in  the lower deck in right field, behind Al Kaline.  It was May of 1959 and if I remember correctly, Billy Hoeft was the pitcher.  That was a day when Kaline made one of his patented leaping catches, back to the fence, glove extending high over the barrier.  Charley Maxwell (nicknamed “Paw Paw,” by former Tiger announcer Van Patrick), was the Tiger’s left-fielder.  Maxwell was famous for his Sunday heroics.  He had four homers that day including 3 in one game.

By the start of the 1961 season the Yankees had been to the World Series 25 times to the Tigers 7 trips.  Now other than the Yankees, only the Giants, the Cardinals, the Dodgers, and the Athletics had been to the series more than the Tigers, and though the Tigers hadn’t been since 1945, the rivalry between the two teams was as intense as any in sports, at least to this young sports fan.

1961 turned out to be a truly magical year.  The year before the Tigers had a 71-83 record and finished 26 games behind the Yankees.  Somehow though, there was always hope, you see, the Tigers had traditionally been successful, against the Yankees.  We had an acknowledged Yankee killer in Frank Lary, we had “the kid” Al Kaline, the Tiger’s answer to “the Mick,” Mickey Mantle.  It’s not talked about  a lot, but did you know that Kaline won the batting average title in 1955, with a .340 batting average, the year before Mantle?  He (Kaline) was the youngest batting champion in major league history.

The previous year we had obtained “The Rock,” Rocky Colavito (42 home runs) in a trade for another batting title winner Harvey Keunn (.353 BA), the first time that a batting champion had been traded heads-up for a home run title winner in league history.  That same off-season we managed to get first baseman Norm Cash from the Chicago White Sox.  Add to the mix, in 1961, rookie Jake Woods at 2nd base and that age-old song wait until next year started having a little bass in it.  Along with Lary, the pitching staff headed by ace Jim Bunning, who in 1958 threw a no-hitter at Ted William’s Boston Red Sox, also included Don Mossi, Paul Foytack, Hank Aguirre, Phil Regan and one of my personal favorites Hal Woodeshick (Come on now, you know you remember him.  Don’t act like I’m the only one.)

The Yankee lineup for 1961 included, Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Tony Kubek, Clete Boyer, Bobby Richardson and Bill (Moose) Skowron. They had a young Elston Howard and Tom Tresh.   The pitching staff had Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Ralph Terry, Duke Maas and who could ever forget Ryne Duren (he, of the coke bottle bottom glasses).

As fans we always had great expections about our Tigers, but, not even in our wildest dreams, while playing catch on the side of the house, or, our favorite game “backyard baseball” (we used to emulate entire teams, down to the stances they took at the plate), did we believe what, ultimately, took place that summer.

When we weren’t outside re-enacting the games, or playing our own games, we were huddled around a radio.  Sometimes my father would bring one from inside, or we would follow the game on a transistor radio (remember those?).  As the season went on, we found ourselves listening intently to Ernie Harwell and George Kell as they described the action for us.

The teams went back and forth the entire summer.  From June 20th until the end of the season October 1st the Yankees were either in 1st or 2nd place.  For the Tigers the streak went all the way back to tax day, April 15th.  I can’t remember, nor, can I find a season, where 2 teams went at each other in the standings that way.

The Tigers held first place from April 29th to June 8th.  And then again from June 14th to July 6th.  The Yankees from July 25th until the end of the season.  From June 20th until the end of the season either the Tigers or the Yankees occupied first place with the other second.

All the while that this FANtastic race was going on, the stars on each team were having unbelievable seasons.  For the Yankees, Mantle and Maris were involved in what was an unparalleled assault on Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record.  Maris, who hit his first home run of the year against the Tigers ended then season breaking the magic number with 61, on the last day of the regular season.  Maris also won the MVP for the American League, that year.  Mantle was right with him most of the way finishing the season with 54 home runs.  They had 141 and 128 RBI respectively, and Mantle batted .317.  The Yankees ended the season with a team total of 240 home runs to lead the league.

The Tigers were led by Norm Cash, Rocky Colavito, and Al Kaline.  Just check out Cash’s season.  He led the league in batting average at .361 (and hits 193), he hit 41 home runs and batted in 132 runs.  He also scored 119 runs.  All this and he didn’t even come close, other than his batting average, to winning the triple crown.  In fact, Rocky Colavito led the team in both home runs (45) and RBI (140), while scoring 129 runs.  Al Kaline finished 2nd in batting average at .324, along with 19 home runs, 82 RBI and 116 runs scored.

For five months these two teams battled each other as no other teams had, and this 14-year-old dreamer was captured and enraptured by what was occurring. My team the, Detroit Tigers, was taking on the mighty New York Yankees and we were right there with them. 1 1/2 games out at the start of September with a series with the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.  That night it was two “port-siders”” going at one another.  Don Mossi for the Tigers, and for the Yankees, Whitey Ford.  Ford, I should mention won the Cy Young Award in 1961 with a 25-4 won-loss record, a 3.21 ERA and 209 SO.  And that was when they only gave out one award for both leagues.

Don Mossi (15-7, 2.96 ERA) battled Ford through 8 innings of a 0-0 game.  The tension was unbelievable.  The bottom of the ninth began with Mossi getting Maris out on a flyball to right field.  He followed that by striking out “the Mick” looking.  “He stood there like a house on the side of the road and watched that one go by.”  (Ernie Hawell)  Up next was Elston Howard, the first African-American to were the famed pin-stripes.  Howard lined a single to center field.  Yogi Berra followed with a single to right field sending Howard to third.  There were 2 outs, runners on first and third, and it was up to Bill Skowron.  Moose grounded a single to left field, Howard scored and that was the ball game.  Ultimately that was the season as well.

The Tigers were swept by the Yankees that week-end and split the final 4 games between them.  They finished September with a 14-14 record while the Yankees went 21-8.  They both won on the final day.

The Tigers finished the season with a 101- 61 record.  Their most wins for a season in their history and still finished 8 games behind the Yankees.  They had a winning record against every team in the league except Baltimore (9-9) but, alas, it wasn’t enough.

But this story is not really about what the Tigers lost that year.  It’s about the gift these two teams gave to me, my father and brothers, and fans around the country.  What we all ended up with is the memory of perhaps the greatest head-to-head season any two teams, in any of the major sports leagues, has ever had.

Thanks to both teams for that.

I want to thank and to for their remarkable collection of stats and other data.  Their information was the thread I use to stitch together these fabulous memories.  Memories of what was a truly FANtastic season.


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