As the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals find themselves tied 1-1 in the 2006 World Series, it’s worth remembering the last time these two teams battled in the Fall Classic. It was 1968, and the Tigers won in seven games, coming back from a 3-1 deficit behind series MVP Mickey Lolich.
But in 1968, there was more going on in the Motor City than baseball. Detroit was simmering in a state of low-frequency insurrection. The summer of ’67 saw riots that resulted in forty-three deaths, almost 1,200 injuries and 7,000 arrests. People were putting record players on their windowsills playing “Dancing in the Streets” while combat raged below. As flames licked the Motor City, Tigers star Willie Horton–who was raised in Detroit–rode down to the riot zone and, in full baseball uniform, stood on a car pleading for peace. He wasn’t the only Tiger in the riot zone in uniform. Eight thousand troops were brought into the city, including a National Guardsman named Mickey Lolich.
The 1968 LBJ-sponsored Kerner Report said of Detroit, “A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold. To riot and destroy appeared more and more to become ends in themselves. Late Sunday afternoon it appeared to one observer that the young people were ‘dancing amidst the flames.'”
The city and state prepared to crush any kind of sequel. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in his book 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, “the police already had five armored vehicles but were stockpiling tear gas and gas masks and were requesting anti-sniper rifles, carbines, shotguns, and 150,000 rounds of ammunition. One Detroit suburb had purchased an army half-track-a quasi tank.”
As the year progressed, the mayhem seemed prophetic. In April the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked uprisings around the country. In May the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a militant organization of African-American autoworkers, was formed. DRUM led wildcat strikes against racism and factory conditions. As writers Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin observed in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, “No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal took [DRUM] very seriously from the day of the first wildcat, for the Wall Street Journal understood…that the Black revolution of the sixties had finally arrived at one of the most vulnerable links of the American economic system–the point of mass production, the assembly line.”
The Tigers team–led by Al Kaline, thirty-game winner Denny McLain and prominent African-American players like Horton and Gates Brown–was seen as a force of calm in the Motor City. An entire HBO documentary called A City on Fire was made based on this thesis. Many at the time believed that the success and joy brought by this integrated team would stop the exodus known as “white flight” and revitalize the city. But professional sports doesn’t always herald revival. Often it mocks it.