Looking back now, it’s easy to imagine just how magical the 1968 season was for Mickey Lolich and his Detroit Tigers teammates.
After all, the 28-year-old won three games in the World Series that fall to help Detroit outlast the St. Louis Cardinals in a thrilling seven-game World Series. He even picked up Series MVP honors for his efforts.
But the truth of that “Year of the Pitcher” is a bit less rosy, at least where Lolich is concerned.
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That summer was Lolich’s age-27 season, a time when many players are at their absolute peak or even have their best years already behind them. And, while Lolich had been a solid contributor for a few seasons, he was a super swing man of sorts, logging 30+ starts each year and making another dozen or more relief appearances.
The results were a good-not-great 66-54 record with a 3.60 ERA, a ton of innings pitched, and lots of home runs surrendered.
That left Lolich as something like the third man in the Tigers pecking order, behind 31-game winner (in 1968) Denny McLain and righty Early Wilson.
That October, though, Lolich drew the number-two slot, with Wilson sliding to third. With off days, that left McLain and Lolich in position to each pitch in three games if the Series went the full seven … and so it did!
That electric performance in the Fall Classic seemed to have lit Lolich’s career on fire, as he became a full-on starter for Detroit in 1969 and through the early 1970s, with just two more relief appearances in a Tigers tenure that ran through 1975.
He posted 19 victories in 1969, fell off to 14 in 1970 and then rebounded for an amazing (and league-leading) 25 in 1971, with a follow-up of 22 in 1972.
And, though, Lolich never copped a Cy Young Award for his excellence on the mound, he did place in the top three in ‘71 and ‘72, and he picked up three All-Star berths from 1969 through 1972.
Those sorts of accolades tend to get a fella noticed by the cardboard powers that be, too, and things started looking up for Lolich right away in that regard.
While you could find the lefty on a few special cards before his Series breakout, like that coin-looking 1965 Topps embossed deal, his appearances in oddball or special issues became all the more regular through the early parts of the 1970s.
One very exclusive collectibles club that pulled in Lolich on the heels of his 1968 fireworks was the 1969 Kelly’s Potato Chips set of baseball pins.
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Licensed by the MLBPA but apparently not by Major League Baseball itself, these looked a lot like the Fun Foods buttons that would come along in 1984 (or vice versa), but with no team logos on player caps.
Only 20 players made the cut here, with most of them coming from Midwest teams, but also a couple San Franciso Giants (hello, Willie Mays) and one Red Sox (Sock?) — hard to ignore Carl Yastrzemski with that glow if his 1967 Triple Crown still hanging around him.
But young(ish) Mr. Lolich lined up right there beside McLain and Hall of Famer Al Kaline to represent the reigning world champions.
Exclusive company, yes, but then Lolich was the only pitcher to throw the last pitch of the last World Series before division play began in 1969.
Doesn’t come any more exclusive than that.
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