Detroit’s (really) starry night: 50 years ago, 22 Hall of Famers came to play at Tiger Stadium

Detroit News

Detroit — The old ballpark, even old back then, is gone, has been for years. Many of the players are gone, too, several who’ve died in the last 15 months, including Mr. Tiger, Al Kaline.

But memories, they can be stickier — sure, they may get fuzzy over time, or embellished, or more often, both — and typically tend to long outlast our greatest sports cathedrals, the legends who played in them and the fans who watched from the stands.

Fifty years ago Tuesday, July 13, 1971, a sellout crowd of 53,559 watched from Tiger Stadium’s then-green seats — and another 60-million plus watched and listened from around the world — as Major League Baseball played what’s not-so-arguably considered the greatest All-Star Game of all-time.

On a warm and windy night at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the American League beat the National League, 6-4, to snap an eight-game losing streak in the midsummer classic series. All the runs scored on home runs, six in all, and all six were hit by future Hall of Famers.

There were 22 future Hall of Famers on the playing rosters that night, another four on the field if you count the managers and umpires, and Pete Rose. Fifteen of the players were first-ballot Hall of Famers, of only 57 all-time. Take a look at the All-Star Game rosters for this year’s game in Denver, and see if you can spot more than three or four sure things. You can’t.

Every summer in Cooperstown, New York, the living Hall of Famers who still are physically able return for the induction of the next class, make that weekend the greatest collection of baseball talent in one place. But on that Tuesday night in Detroit 50 years ago, it was the greatest collection of active baseball talent, ever.

“Just a boring game,” quipped Jim Palmer, the long-time Baltimore Orioles ace. “It’s pretty ridiculous, when you think about it.

“You couldn’t write a script any better than that.”

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on Hollywood’s part. In 1984, “The Natural” came out, starring Robert Redford, with the climactic scene being Roy Hobbs’ home run into the light tower, setting off a fireworks show. Reviewers widely panned the picture, calling it unbelievable.

Thirteen years earlier, in the heart of Corktown, Reggie Jackson hit the light tower that sat on the Tiger Stadium roof high above right-center field. The ball still was rising when it struck the transformer.

That, too, would be considered unbelievable, if the Curt Gowdy-Tony Kubek NBC broadcast didn’t still exist on YouTube.

It was Detroit’s “Starry Night,” all due respect to the Van Gogh exhibit that has come to town 50 years later.

‘All those things happened’

Tiger Stadium was a home-run haven, particularly with its short porch in right field. The wind, that night 50 years ago, also was blowing out to right at a 30-mph clip. The stars definitely aligned.

Johnny Bench, the Cincinnati Reds catcher playing with an injured left wrist that’d been injected with cortisone multiple times before arriving in Detroit, hit the first, a mammoth shot off AL starter and Oakland A’s ace Vida Blue, into the upper deck in right-center. Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron, then 40 and playing in his first game at Tiger Stadium, hit the second, also off Blue, and also to right field. It was Aaron’s first extra-base hit in the All-Star Game, playing in his 18th straight.

The third stole the show. In the bottom of the second inning, A’s slugger Jackson, pinch-hitting for Blue and only on the roster as an injury replacement for the Minnesota Twins’ Tony Oliva, came to the plate and quickly fell into an 0-2 count. He worked it to 1-2, and then on the fifth pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates ace Dock Ellis, Jackson unleashed a mighty swing and sent the ball soaring. It left the ballpark like it was late for dinner. Had it not hit the transformer, it might’ve have left the park on the fly, landing on Trumbull Avenue, if not over it.

“It was like watching the Space Shuttle go off,” said retired Detroit News sportswriter Lynn Henning, who was in the stands that night as a 19-year-old student at Michigan State, sitting in the right-field upper deck with his dad. “It was the sound as much as it was the sight. I have never heard a more concussive home run in my life when he hit that thing. It was like TNT going off.

“You don’t see a baseball travel at that speed, at that arc, at that height, you just don’t see it.

“Everybody wishes the transformer hadn’t gotten in the way.”

Jackson was just 25 at the time, playing in his second All-Star Game. He once told Newsday, “I spent most of my time getting autographs.” Before he pinch-hit, A’s teammate Sal Bando told him, “Don’t strike out and embarrass us.” He ended up embarrassing the baseball. He said after the game he “smoked” it.

There was long debate on how far the ball went, and how far it would’ve gone had it not hit the tower. In a 2005 piece for The News, in anticipation of the All-Star Game returning to Detroit for the first time since 1971, Henning commissioned a team of researchers at Lawrence Technological University to do the calculations. The light tower was about 400 feet from home plate, and 90 feet above the field. Early guesses were 600 or 650 feet. But the researchers, to the surprise of many, determined the ball would’ve traveled 510 feet. Statcast wasn’t a thing. Strat-O-Matic was.

More: Green: Detroit played host to biggest blasts by brightest stars, Reggie and Ted

Palmer watched the early parts of the game from the home bullpen down the third-base line. (Earlier, the Twins’ Jim Perry leaned over and said, “It smells like beer.) He was warming up when Jackson hit the massive home run, set to take over for Blue in the next half-inning.

“There was complete silence,” said Palmer, “watching how far the ball went.”

Here’s the kicker: There are those who don’t even believe that was the longest home run that night.

The fourth home run came later that inning, when the Baltimore Orioles’ Frank Robinson hit the shortest homer of the night, into the lower deck down the line in right. That gave the AL the lead, a rarity those days. It also made Robinson the first man to homer in the All-Star Game in both leagues. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

The fifth came in the sixth inning. Kaline, the most-popular Tiger in a game full of fan favorites, pinch-hit for Robinson, and laced a leadoff single to center off the Chicago Cubs’ Ferguson Jenkins. Then Harmon Killebrew, the mighty Minnesota Twins slugger who knew a thing or two about Tiger Stadium’s roof —  in 1962, he became the first to clear the roof in left —  bashed a Jenkins slider into the lower deck in left field. It was the only home run hit to left that night. The wind was hurting to left, as Tigers catcher Bill Freehan learned, flying out earlier to the track.

Two innings later, the sixth and final home run — tying an All-Star Game record — was hit by the most-popular National Leaguer, Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente. In a lengthy battle with Mickey Lolich, the Tigers left-hander, Clemente won, sending a hanging curveball soaring into the stands in the upper deck in center field, just to the left of where Bench’s had gone. Center field at Tiger Stadium, if you believe the numbers of the wall, was 440 feet. It was over 400 just to the right.

“The further home run,” said Jenkins, “was actually hit by Clemente.”

That was the 10th All-Star Game hit for Clemente, and first home run. It was his last All-Star Game at-bat. He was an All-Star in 1972, but didn’t play, and died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972.

Lolich is one of two Tigers in the game who are still alive. Kaline died in April 2020, manager Billy Martin in 1989 and first baseman Norm Cash in 1986. Freehan is battling Alzheimer’s. Lolich, who politely declined to be interviewed for this story, went on to finish off the game, earning the first save in All-Star Game history. He retired the final five batters he faced, including a 1-2-3 ninth inning. The last out was a pop to third by Bench, who caught the entire game. Lolich put a bow on one of the greatest nights in Detroit sports history.

And the best part, at least to Palmer?

“Two hours, five minutes,” he said with a laugh. “And all those things happened.”

Beverly Hills’ Mark Gorosh, 65, sat in the upper deck along the first-base line with his grandfather, and still has the game program. He paid one buck retail, the cover drawn by Norman Rockwell-style artist Jack Havey. Gorosh had his copy signed by Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillén, who was making his way to the NL’s team bus.

“It was like the perfect storm of greatness,” Gorosh said. “The place was packed, you’re never gonna duplicate the quality of individuals in that game, and just the game itself was just crazy, dude.”

The home runs stole the show, but they weren’t the only story lines. The Blue-Ellis matchup marked the first time an All-Star Game featured two Black starting pitchers. The Orioles’ Brooks Robinson played stellar defense at third base. So did the New York Mets’ Bud Harrelson at shortstop. Charlie Gehringer, the Tigers’ “Mechanical Man,” threw out the first pitch, and watched the game from the front row along first base, sitting next to the commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ legendary pitcher, called the game on radio. Hall of Famers, everywhere.

“It was the most unreal night of sports theater,” Henning said.

‘Destination viewing’

The All-Star Game was different back then. Some say better. It predated interleague play — which Kubek made a case for on the broadcast. If you were a Detroiter and wanted to see the legends of the NL, your options were the All-Star Game, the World Series, or taking a trip to spring training. At least, in person. You could also catch the “Game of the Week” on TV. Free-agency wouldn’t become a thing for five years, and nobody in the NL’s starting lineup — topped by six Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Aaron, Joe Torre, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey and Bench — had played a game at Tiger Stadium.

“It was destination viewing,” said Bruce Madej, 69, of Ann Arbor, who’s seen his share of big-time sporting events as a long-time sports-information director at the University of Michigan. He was 19 when he sent a check through the mail, hoping he’d get two tickets, and he did, in the upper deck in center field. “It was a must. If you were a baseball fan, you had to do anything in your power to get there.”

The game also meant something back then (not World Series home-field advantage; something better: pride). There was no edict to get every player a swing or an inning — each team only used four pitchers. The 1971 game also came a year after Rose, the Reds’ hitting machine, famously bowled over A’s catcher Ray Fosse (“totally unnecessary,” Palmer said), who was never the same player again. Warren Giles, the long-time executive with the Reds and the NL president until the late 1960s, used to tell the NL locker room every year, “We’re not losing to that team on the other side,” his animated hand gestures getting the point across, if his words didn’t. Even the umpires, split into NL and AL umpires until 2000, were passionate. Frank Umont was the plate umpire in 1971. He was best-known for being the first umpire to wear glasses. He was less known for a comment he made in that 1971 All-Star Game.

“(Bleep) the National League,” Umont said, and Palmer heard it.

“My kind of umpire,” Palmer said, laughing.

The NL dominated the game in those days, winning 19 of 20 from 1963 through 1982. The 1971 game was the only win for the AL in that span.

Today, it’s not just the All-Star Game. It’s closer to All-Star Week. There’s a Futures Game, a celebrity softball game, a Home Run Derby, and then the All-Star Game. There’s a parade. This year, they added the three-day draft to the week’s festivities.

Contrast that to 1971, when players recall arriving into town Monday, having a modest dinner at the Book Cadillac, playing the game the next night, then leaving town. Today, players get tens of thousands of dollars if they make the game, more if they’re among the highest vote getters, and that’s to say nothing of individual contract bonus clauses. The winner of the Home Run Derby gets $1 million. In 1971, Jenkins said, they got $250 for meals and essentials, and maybe a slight raise.

It’s not uncommon these days for a starting All-Star to be showered, dressed and on a plane home before the final out is even recorded. In 1971, there was Mays, late in the game, watched the action from the top step of the visitor’s cramped dugout.

Even the All-Stars and future Hall of Famers — Hall of Famers that included managers Sparky Anderson of the Reds and Earl Weaver of the Orioles — couldn’t look away.

“I mean, geez … Kaline, Killebrew, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson,” said Jenkins, “that’s a lot of Hall of Famers on that Detroit field.”

1971 All-Star Game HOFers

►Hank Aaron

►Luis Aparicio

►Johnny Bench

►Lou Brock

►Rod Carew

►Steve Carlton

►Roberto Clemente

►Reggie Jackson

►Ferguson Jenkins

►Al Kaline

►Harmon Killebrew

►Juan Marichal

►Willie Mays

►Willie McCovey

►Jim Palmer

►Brooks Robinson

►Frank Robinson

►Ron Santo

►Tom Seaver

►Willie Stargell

►Joe Torre

►Carl Yastrzemski

►Sparky Anderson (manager)

►Earl Weaver (manager)

►Walt Alston (coach)

►Doug Harvey (umpire)

►Pete Rose (ineligible for HOF)

BOX SCORE: 1971 All-Star Game — American League 6, National League 4

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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