Lou Brock (left) and Bill Freehan in the pivotal play of the 1968 World Series.
Jon Warden told me about Bill Freehan's death earlier today. And that, in and of itself, is a touch ironic. Even cruel.
For you see, Jon was the only player on either team -- the Detroit Tigers or St. Louis Cardinals -- not to take the field during the epic 1968 Fall Classic.
Bill Freehan, of course, was involved in the key play of that epic seven-game series, which I wrote about in SUMMER OF '68: THE SEASON THAT CHANGED BASEBALL, AND AMERICA, FOREVER.
He's the one who took the throw from outfielder Willie Horton and stood his ground to tag the Cardinals' Lou Brock at the plate. In a bang-bang play, home-plate umpire Doug Harvey called Brock out and then the ump gestured to the baserunner's spike marks in the dirt, seemingly inches in front of the plate.
On such plays a series, even the fortunes of a team can shift. Heading into Game Five, St. Louis held a 3-1 series lead, one victory away from securing its third championship in five years. With Brock, Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda and other stars, the Cardinals were considered by many to be the best ballclub in baseball at the time.
In comparison, the Detroit Tigers were still battling for respect. They had lost the pennant on the final weekend the season before and until this play at the plate many of them weren't sure they could win in all. At least not in 1968. Until this point, the Tigers were just trying to keep the Cardinals' baserunners, notably the legendary Brock, from making them look like fools.
But once Brock was called out (and there's still debate about that in St. Louis), the Tigers battled back to take Game Five and then Game Six, and they did the improbable, border-line impossible. They defeated Gibson in the seventh and deciding contest.
The summer before there had been riots in Detroit. The worst such demonstrations in America since the Civil War. A year later, when the Tigers somehow won it all, there was celebrations on many of those same city blocks.
"The '84 Tigers like to talk about their 35-5 start (to the season)," Warden once told me. "That's nothing. When we won, we saved the city."