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Ferguson: Memories of watching McLain, Kaline in Detroit

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Scott Ferguson
1/4/2013 11:35:44 AM
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I often get asked if I was one of the millions who claim to have attended the Blue Jays first-ever game at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977. The answer quite frankly is no. I was less than a year in the radio business, so my two senior colleagues went to the historic game and I stayed behind at the station to "hold the fort". I had to be content with watching the game on TV.

As excited as I was about seeing Toronto finally have a Major League team, it still didn't match the thrill of seeing my very first "Big League" game when I was just 13. My brother and I were visiting family friends in Windsor in August of 1968. To our surprise on Tuesday the 20th, they took us to Tiger Stadium to see a double-header against the Chicago White Sox.

It was incredible, the green grass, the Major League lighting, a packed house of over 48,000, in a pennant-winning season and in a city where the likes of Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg once played. Thanks to the traffic, we didn't get to our seats until the third inning or thereabouts.

The star of the first game turned out to be a Canadian. Scarborough, Ontario-born lefty John Hiller, who spent the bulk of his career pitching out of the pen as a long reliever-turned-closer, made a spot start against the "Pale Hose" and fired a complete game one-hitter in a 7-0 Detroit victory. The only hit he gave up was to White Sox third baseman Ron Hansen.

I did a little bit of checking to find out if a Canuck had ever thrown a no-hitter before. Turns out it has only happened once. Toronto-born Dick Fowler had just returned from overseas after serving in the Canadian army during World War II. He returned to his old club the Philadelphia A's and on September 9, 1945 fired a no-no against the St. Louis Browns at Shibe Park in Philly. Oddly enough that was Fowler's only victory that season.

But I digress. Hiller's gem took only two hours and nine minutes to complete, but of course there was no DH in those days, which I'm sure helped speed things up a bit. It was indeed a different time. Hiller was only making $12,000 in '68.

Something else I discovered - with the help of Baseball Almanac - is the White Sox starting second baseman in both ends of the twinbill was Sandy Alomar Sr., Robby and Sandy's dad.

In the second game, the Tigers looked primed for a sweep. They had Denny McLain on the mound. He was 25-3 at the point and would go on to win 31 games that season - and to this day he remains the last hurler to crack the 30-win mark. But on that night McLain didn't have it, and neither did the rest of the Tigers. McLain didn't get out of the 6th inning and gave up nine hits and nine runs, but only two were earned thanks to four Tigers errors - two in right field by the great Al Kaline.

Ironically, the hero of the second game was also a Canadian. Pete Ward, who hailed from Montreal, ripped a grand slam off the facing of the upper deck in right off McLain in the 6th to blow the game open. Sandy Alomar chipped in with three hits and an RBI in a 10-2 Chicago victory. Lefty Gary Peters went all the way on a four-hitter to boost his record to 4-10.

We also may have witnessed the greatest game of catcher Jerry McNertney's career. The White Sox catcher went 4 for 4, with at least a couple of those hits off McLain and he drove in four runs. This from a man who hit .219 on the season with three homers and 18 runs batted in.

A couple of more footnotes. We saw Earl Wilson of the Tigers - one of the greatest hitting pitchers of his day - pinch hit for Fred Lasher, and in the first game, was saw two of the greatest knuckleballers of all time, Hoyt Wilhelm and Wilbur Wood pitch in relief for the White Sox.

What surprised me was the Tigers attendance that season was only 2,031,847 fans, less than the Blue Jays drew last season.

Then it dawned on me. It was just over a year after the Detroit riots of the summer of 1967. Downtown Detroit, especially in that vicinity, wasn't exactly the most popular place to be. But that Tigers team, and especially players like Willie Horton, Gates Brown, and Earl Wilson helped with the healing process in that city.

The Tigers went on to win the World Series in seven games over St. Louis, with lefty Mickey Lolich winning three times in the Fall Classic. I've never forgotten that World Series or that August night in 1968.

Two Hall of Famers played in that twinbill, Wilhelm and Kaline, and Sandy Alomar fathered another. It's going to be very interesting to see how many and who exactly makes it to Cooperstown this year when the official announcement comes down on Wednesday afternoon at 2pm et.

Tiger Stadium (Photo: JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

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(Photo: JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
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