- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

TV Review

HBO checks in Tuesday night with another of its sports documentaries, this one titled "A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers." The film is well-done, but its basic premise that a championship team can unite a racially torn community is badly flawed.
In July 1967, rioters tore up inner-city Detroit during a week of horror that left 43 persons dead, 7,000 arrested and 2,500 stores looted and/or burned. The Motor City, described in the documentary as "the most American of American cities," was one of 150 to experience disturbances in that long, hot summer.
HBO posits that the Tigers' romp to their first pennant in 23 years, and a come-from-behind seven-game World Series triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals, helped keep Detroit cool while other cities burned in the summer of '68 because citizens of differing racial and income backgrounds took a common joy in the baseball team's accomplishments.
Later, one of the film's talking heads concedes, "things were pretty much back to normal in 1969," when the Tigers did not repeat as champions. But to suggest that this is the reason, as the film does, seems a gigantic reach.
As a matter of fact, we learn, disturbances occurred repeatedly in Detroit in years afterward the nadir coming in 1984, when the Tigers' next pennant and World Series victory resulted in cars being burned near Tiger Stadium as people "celebrated" by wreaking even more havoc than usual.
We have experienced the same faulty reasoning in Washington where the Redskins are concerned. Every time Joe Gibbs' teams won a Super Bowl, we were deluged by emotional media reports about how they were "bringing the city together." It was, and remains, a doubtful concept at best.
If "A City on Fire" examined the 1968 Tigers strictly from a sporting standpoint which, of course, it doesn't the film might have had more merit. There is high drama in the telling of how this always popular team won it all after losing the pennant to the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox on the last day of the previous season when four teams went down to the final days with a chance to win. (The Twins and the White Sox were the other two.)
In '68, too, Detroit's ill-fated Denny McLain became the first pitcher to win 30 games in 34 years as the Tigers took the pennant by 12 games. In the World Series, however, they fell behind the defending champion Cardinals 3-1. They won the next two, but with the unhittable Bob Gibson pitching Game 7 for St. Louis at Busch Stadium, the party seemed over.
Yet Detroit left-hander Mickey Lolich, overshadowed by McLain most of the season, matched Gibson through six scoreless innings. In the top of the seventh, the Tigers put two runners on base, and Michigan native Jim Northrup blasted a drive to center field. Curt Flood, the Cardinals' Gold Glove outfielder, misjudged the ball, stumbled chasing it and saw it soar far over his head for a two-run triple. The Tigers scored three runs in the inning and won the game 4-1 as Lolich gained his third victory of the Series.
(Trivia question: Can you name the manager of the '68 Tigers? If you can, you're a genuine student of baseball history.)
If some citizens were dissuaded from committing unlawful acts on others and their property because the Tigers won it all that season, the specifics remain unrecorded. I prefer to recall it instead as the last season before baseball began its infernal tinkering with a product that had enjoyed a century of popularity. Divisional play appeared in 1969, along with a lowered mound to encourage more hitting. Night World Series games came in 1971, the first labor-induced work stoppage in '72 and the American League's designated hitter rule in '73.
The story of the '68 Tigers, embellished all season by the soothing tones of Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, stands on its own merits as that of a team that vowed in spring training to win and did. Ascribing to it the mystical power to overcome and surmount civil disorder is unnecessary, as the good people at HBO should have known.
(And, oh yes, the Detroit manager: Did I hear somebody say Mayo Smith?)


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