Sunday, July 12, 2009

’71 All-Stars Left Burning Legacy In Detroit

You knew it was going to be a different type of an All-Star game when Dock Ellis served up a dandy for the sports writers in the days leading up to the contest.

“Ain’t no way,” Ellis, who was black, told reporters, “they gonna start two brothers against each other in the All-Star game.”

Ellis was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates and having himself a fine year for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971. Already, it had been announced that Vida Blue, another “brother” terrorizing batters pitching for the Oakland Athletics, would be the American League starter.

Ellis wasn’t exactly a wallflower as a player, or as a person. He once pitched a no-hitter, and maintained that he had done so under the influence of the hallucinogen LSD.

So it was par for the course that Ellis should brazenly speak of his views about the social landscape in which we lived in 1971.

Ellis was asked if the young manager from the Cincinnati Reds, Sparky Anderson, would choose him as the National League starter, as part of Sparky’s duty as helming the defending NL champs.

That’s when Dock dropped the “brother” comment on everyone.

Whether he did it to call Dock’s bluff or not, Sparky did, indeed, name Ellis as the starting pitcher for the National League.

And there’d be two brothers facing each other as starting pitchers after all, for the first time in All-Star history.

The game was played in Detroit, and they’re still talking about it.

I was a not-quite-8-year-old lad, having just seen my first Tigers game in person a few days earlier, when Jimmy Boldt stopped his bicycle in front of my house. It was the afternoon of the All-Star game.

Jimmy’s dad was Herb Boldt, who was, at the time, the sports editor for the Detroit News. So Jimmy had himself some connections, even as a 12-year-old.

“I’m going to the All-Star game tonight,” Jimmy told me, not so much bragging as stating fact. Regardless, I hated him.

The All-Star game in Detroit, 1971 version, was a treasure trove of baseball Hall of Famers from the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s number one.

The National League lost only one All-Star game between 1962 and 1983—and it was the ’71 game in Detroit. That’s number two.

And Reggie Jackson jacked a Dock Ellis fastball into the Detroit River. And I’m only exaggerating slightly.

Tiger Stadium, the old girl, looked positively gorgeous that evening. Three huge stars—red, white, and blue—were painted onto the outfield grass in left, center, and right. The bases weren’t the normal white; they, too, were red, white, and blue. Bunting hung from the green facades of the upper deck, like they do on Opening Day.

All those Hall of Famers dotting the rosters of both teams.

I hope Jimmy Boldt appreciated all that. I still hate him, by the way.

So Reggie, Vida’s Oakland teammate, pinch-hit in the third inning. Already, Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron (Hall of Famers, natch) had hit home runs for the National League. Aaron’s, believe it or not, was the first All-Star homer of his career.

Dock Ellis tried a high fastball, and Reggie clobbered it.

Reggie takes Dock Ellis deep, deep, DEEP

They say the ball may have traveled some 540 feet, had it not been for one of the light towers at Tiger Stadium stopping it on top of the right field roof.

Was that any way for one brother to treat another?

The Jackson home run was epic and still they play the clip from time to time. Trouble was, the camera man wasn’t used to balls being hit into the stratosphere like that, so he didn’t tilt up high enough to show the ball actually hitting the light tower.

I bet Jimmy Boldt got to see it. Yep, still hating him.

Here’s who hit home runs in that ’71 All-Star game in Detroit: Bench, Aaron, Jackson, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, and Harmon Killebrew.

Every one of them, in the Hall of Fame.

The American League won, 6-4. The Tigers’ Mickey Lolich got the save.

The hometown team was represented well; Tigers Norm Cash, Bill Freehan (both starters), Al Kaline, and Lolich were on the AL roster.

But the collection of talent was amazing, even for an All-Star game, in how it represented the best baseball had to offer, transcending eras.

You had guys like Willie Mays and Aaron and Clemente and Kaline and Killebrew, whose careers began in the 1950s. You had some of the brightest stars who debuted in the 1960s, like Pete Rose and Bench and Willie Stargell and Ferguson Jenkins. And you had the younger stars, who would come to dominate the rest of the ‘70s and even into the 1980s, like Rod Carew, Amos Otis, and Jackson.

It was simply one of the most legend-filled All-Star games ever played.

The stars didn’t come back to Detroit until 2005, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close.

Jackson has often said that people continue to approach him, wanting to talk about his mammoth homer in Detroit. And, knowing how much Reggie likes to talk about himself, I’m sure he’s been happy to oblige.

The ’71 All-Star game was the first one played in an American League park that was held at night. And Jimmy Boldt, wherever you are, no doubt going by just “Jim” nowadays, I hope you enjoyed yourself that evening.

But I still hate you.

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