May 29, 2017

Touring the Bases With…Jim Northrup (May He Rest in Peace)

June 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

In 1968, Jim Northrup hit two grand slams in one game and became the first person in history to hit three grand slams in a week (and only the second to hit three in a month). He hit four grand slams that season, plus one more in the World Series. In Game 7 of the ’68 World Series, Northrup broke a 0-0 tie with a two-out, two-run triple off Bob Gibson in a game his Tigers would go on to win, 4-1. In 1969, he had a 6-for-6 game. Northrup played in 1,392 games in the majors, batting .267 with 153 home runs.

For a book I unsuccessfully tried to get published, I wrote to a number of players who had done something interesting in their careers (i.e. threw a no-hitter, led the league in homers, etc.), but weren’t Hall of Famers (see previous interviews with George Culver, Fritz Peterson and John Castino).

The recent death of Northrup reminded me that he was one who I talked with over the phone. His candid interview includes him talking about winning the World Series, hitting those grand slams, playing against and for Hall of Famers.

Northrup: That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, a world’s champion. To win it all and get that world champion ring … there’s a lot of great ballplayers, like Ted Williams, he never got one.

I feel privileged to be able to do it. We had a good team and a great bunch of guys and everything came together for us.

We shoulda, coulda, woulda won it the year before, but we got some bad breaks and nothing went right for us.

[The Tigers, as well as the Twins, finished one game in back of Boston in 1967. On the final day of that season, Boston beat Minnesota, 5-3, while Detroit split a doubleheader with California.]

Northrup: Then I had a close call again in the ‘70s.

[Detroit lost to the A’s in the 1972 American League Championship Series.]

Northrup: But anyway, to win in ’68 was great. Everybody gave it to the Cardinals and we weren’t supposed to win. But, you know, opinions are just like a lot of other things, they aren’t worth much (laughs).

I’d faced him (Bob Gibson) a number of times and I knew how he pitched and I knew he was that good I was only going to get one chance. He liked to throw his fastball and get ahead of you and then he’d throw that vicious breaking ball, sliders and curves he had. He had great stuff.

So I said, “Well, this is your chance. If he throws you that high fastball strike be ready.” And he did, and I got a triple and won the game. Of course the game before I hit a grand slam when Denny McClain came back and we scored, what, 10 runs in one inning [in Game 6, Detroit scored 10 runs in the third inning of a 13-1 win].

Cash and Kaline got two hits in the inning. We beat ‘em then and we beat them in the last game. So it was a big thrill and we all got (to be) World Series champions.

Oh yeah, it was very exciting. It was once-in-a-lifetime, you figure it might be once-in-a-lifetime. You hope to have more than just that one. But you only get so many chances.

Like I said, a lot of really good ballplayers never got to the World Series, so for us to get there and then to win was a big thing for us.

[On June 24, 1968, Northrup hit two grand slams at Cleveland. In the fifth, Northrup connected off Eddie Fisher and in the sixth he hit one against Bill Rohr.]

Northrup: I wasn’t going to play that game. Mayo (Tigers manager Mayo Smith) was thinking I was pressing to hard and was going to give me a day off, and I talked my way into it.

And the first time up I swung at a ball right down the middle, should hit it. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, with the bases loaded [in the first inning, Mike Paul loaded the bases with one out, but he struck out Northrup]. So I really could have hit three in that game.

And the next time up I hit the first pitch for a grand slam and the next time up I hit a first pitch for a grand slam. Then we came home [the Tigers returned to Detroit on June 28; on June 29 Northrup connected for his third grand slam of the week] and I hit a grand slam first time up – maybe in the middle [it was his second at-bat, which came in the third inning] – then I came up and I had another chance, bases loaded (and) nobody out with a pitcher that wasn’t all that good [in the fifth inning, Northrup faced Jack Fisher – best known for allowing Roger Maris’ 6oth home run in 1961 – with the bases full. Fisher actually finished with a 2.99 ERA in ’68, but was at 4.70 in ’67 and then 5.50 in ’69. His career ERA was 4.06, a bit high for his era.].

But I outsmarted myself, I swung at two in the dirt and took one right down the middle. So that ended that. Ifs and buts. But there was an opportunity for me to hit five (grand slams) in a week.

But I’m the only one that’s hit two of them on two consecutive pitches and three in a week is tied with Larry Parrish. What the heck, it was a big thrill.

They didn’t make as big a deal as they do now. Now it’s on television every day, all the games are broadcast. Those games weren’t broadcast, so it wasn’t the same as it was now.

Hell, now they’d repeat it and repeat it and repeat it. That’s all you see any more because almost every game in the major leagues is televised.

When we played the only time we could get on was the Saturday Game of the Week. That was the only time you were on television. So we always looked forward to that. But that only happened once or twice a season. Things have changed a little bit.

I loved hitting with the bases loaded. That’s an opportunity for you, that’s an opportune time, so why wouldn’t you want to hit with the bases loaded?

It didn’t bother me at all. I couldn’t wait to get up there. I figured the pitcher is in a hole, not me. (laughs) Unless it’s Nolan Ryan. But the bases were seldom full when Nolan was pitching (laughs).

I was a great fastball hitter and there was one guy I could not hit his fastball. Well, I’m not the only guy. When Nolan Ryan had his good fastball, there isn’t any human being on earth that could hit him. It was unbelievable. He was just one of a kind. Of course he struck 5,000 people out. He got me a few times, so I wasn’t the only one.

Gibson had great stuff. When he struck 19 of us out that first game [Gibson struck out 17 in a 4-0 win], my goodness, I’m telling you. It was unbelievable the stuff he had. His ball was running all over the place. I’m surprised we got a hit or two off of him [Detroit had four hits; Northrup none, although he would homer off Gibson in Game 4.]. He set a record in strikeouts.

Bob Gibson was a tremendous competitor and had great stuff. He was a class pitcher in the National League by far.

We had two pretty good ones in (Mickey) Lolich and (Denny) McLain, and even Duke. So we had some good pitching, too – Joe Sparma threw hard – but Gibson, he was one of a kind.

McLain was one of a kind, set a record that will never be broken [McLain is the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, going 31-6 with the Tigers in 1968] because pitchers don’t start enough games to win.

Mickey Lolich was the nastiest left-hander. I’m glad he was on my team. I wouldn’t have wanted to face him. And there were damn few left-handers (who) wanted to face Mickey Lolich.

He had a breaking ball and his fastball was really live. But his breaking ball, right-handers could hardly hit him. I know Carl Yasztremski wanted no part of Mickey Lolich, no part of him whatsoever. I wouldn’t even take batting practice off of him in spring training. He was always goofing around. I said the hell with you Mickey, you’re not going to put me in a slump.

We had some good guys, some good pitchers who had some good stuff.

I faced a lot of Hall of Famers. I looked it up one day, and I don’t know if I got ‘em all, but I think I played against or with 35 or 40 Hall of Fame ballplayers. Just in that era when I was in the major leagues with the Tigers for 10 years. That’s quite a few.

I faced Whitey Ford. I was the last guy to face Whitey Ford. I hit a 99-hopper, Mantle was playing first base, and it went through Mantle’s legs and Whitey walked off the mound his arm hurt him so bad [retrosheet.org lists Northrup as having grounded out to Ford, unassisted].

That Yankee team, when we played them, what did they have, four or five Hall of Famers out there? Mickey Mantle (laughs) and all those guys. I played against the catcher, Yogi Berra. Yogi was there playing left field and catching a little bit. It’s a thrill. I played with Jim Palmer, one of the best pitchers to ever pitch. I played with some really, really great pitchers, and I faced some good ones too.

We all were (amazed), but we all knew how good McLain was. He was a machine. He was one-of-a-kind. And then he came back with what, 24-10 [24-9]. No one will ever break the two-year record.

Nobody will ever win over 30 – even 30 again – because they’d have to win every single start, if they’d even start 30 games [McLain started 41 games in ’68 and 42 in ‘69]. Today they don’t want to ever pitch more than six, seven innings and then they’re out of there. How many complete games are there a season? Very, very few [McLain tossed 51 complete game from 1968-69]. So that record will never be broken and the two-year record will never be broken.

And his ERA was right around 2.2 and I think Gibson’s was like 1.28, something like that [McLain’s ERA in 1968 was 1.98; Gibson’s was 1.12]. That’s phenomenal.

Those things aren’t going to happen any more. Maybe the ERA, but you’ll find very few pitchers starting today are going to win even 15 games. Maybe maximum … I don’t know if there will ever be another 20-game winner. Because they won’t pitch enough. They’re out of there. They all want to get out of there when they throw 100, 110 pitches. Sixth, seventh, eighth inning they want to leave. Well, we’ll see. Maybe some guys will win 20, but they’re won’t be very many.

To break those kinds of records, it’s just not going to happen again. Expansion has ruined the game, except for home runs. They’re little league ballparks practically, the strike zone is miniscule because the umpire won’t call it the way it’s supposed to be called. They don’t call the letter-high pitch; the waist-high pitch is a ball. The pitcher has to throw the ball right down the middle.

They’ve ruined the game, but modern day fans don’t relate to it. They never saw me play. Kids today, even young adults today, they never saw me, they don’t care who I am. (Laughs) I’m history, I’m a has-been. Only the big, big fans (know me). The fans relate to what they see.

Baseball has been diluted to the point where it isn’t … we only had 16 teams, now there are 30. There’s never been enough pitchers in the world that could fill a 12-man roster for 30 teams, so it’s batting practice half the time.

But that’s neither here or there, that’s the way the game is now and that’s the way it’s going to be and that’s the way the fans relate. I understand why they had expansion. All the clubs are making a fortune.

That’s why they never jumped on the steroid thing. Why? Those guys were filling the ballparks, so they didn’t want them tested. They didn’t care how they were doing it, they just wanted them to do it so they could have fans in the stadium. Bud Selig was behind all that, and the owners. The owners didn’t complain, they wouldn’t say anything. There was very little testing, if any.

There’s going to be some records set by steroid kings, and we all know who they are, but that doesn’t matter. It’s too late. They did what they did and they got those multi-year contracts, eight, nine million a year and they’re probably going to go in the Hall of Fame, and some of the things they did only was because of the steroids. It’s no secret. But they won’t admit it.

The only one who will admit it is (Jason) Giambi, and I have an awful lot of respect for him. He went through hell for two years after he got off steroids and now he’s back. He was player of the year (in 2005) and he’s pounding the ball again. I can’t tell people how tough that is, to go back to the minors after you’ve been a superstar and you can only hit .150. He stuck it out for two years and he made it back. And he admitted, it, “Yeah I took steroids.” I admire a guy like that. I’ve met him, he and his brother. Two super kids. I met them on a cruise. They’re not kids anymore, but he can hit.

Young kids, I don’t know if they related to it or not. They’re filling the ballparks.

Detroit has a good team (again). I know Jimmy Leyland and I know they are going to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s smart. But I’ve always said, even if I was a manager, managers don’t win ballgames. Players do. And that’s what you need.

Everybody gives the manager far too much credit. It’s a guessing game, and he’s at the mercy of the players. Because he can’t hit, he can’t throw, he can’t pitch anymore, he can’t catch a ball anymore. All he can do is put up, hopefully … stress that you will play the game properly and no screwing around. And that’s what a manager can do.

You know, Mayo Smith never played baseball [Smith did play 73 games for the Phillies in 1945]. Mayo Smith was a super scout with the Yankees. But he knew we had talent because he had scouted. He just put out our lineup and sat there in the dugout by the water fountain and let us play. And we won.

So you see, you don’t have to be a genius. I mean, we had the players. He knew it. He just put the lineup up every day. Never had any hollering or screaming matches, no closed-door meetings, nothing. And we just went out there and kicked everybody’s butt. So that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And if I was a manager that’s the way it would be.

If you have a problem with a guy, the worst thing you can do is go to the press with it, because that will kill your ballclub. You call him in to your office and you tell him, “Hey, that’s not the way we’re going to do it around here. If you want to continue to do it around here, I’ll try and get you to another ballclub. But if you want to play here on this ballclub, you’re going to this, you’re going to do that and I don’t want any more of this crap.” But you tell it to him in the office. You don’t go out in the newspapers and embarrass him in the newspapers. Once you see a manager doing that, he’s going to get fired. That’s his last out. So that’s baseball.

[During the 1968 World Series Smith did make one controversial move – putting Mickey Stanley, who would win a Gold Glove that season as an outfielder, at shortstop.]

Northrup: Oh, no, there was no problem. Because St. Louis had an all-right-handed pitching staff. So Mickey wasn’t going to play unless he played shortstop.

He was a gifted athlete, he was the best athlete on our team. He could play anywhere, except pitch. He tried that once and he got his clock cleaned in Puerto Rico. I was with him down there (laughs) and they let him pitch an exhibition down there, like among ourselves, and he never got anybody out.

But I’ll tell you what, the kid could play anywhere. Anywhere he wanted to play, he was that gifted. He was a good friend of mine and was a roommate, and I said, “Mickey, don’t worry about it. You are going to do just fine. You can play shortstop. You probably should have been a shortstop instead of a center fielder, you probably would have been a Gold Glove shortstop.” But I said, “You can play anywhere Mick. Besides, let’s suppose you screw up and lose the game, you blame it on Mayo Smith for putting you in there.” (laughs). He looked at me and he laughed. I said, “Mickey, everybody makes errors. Have you ever made an error? Well, yes. (Al) Kaline’s a Gold Glover, has he ever made an error? Why, sure he has. A few.” But I said, “Errors are errors, they can happen to anybody at any time. Nobody ever goes throughout their whole career without making an error. So don’t worry about it.”

And of course we won and he played great shortstop for us. There was no doubt with anybody on our team, we knew he was going to do it. He felt the pressure, but we said don’t worry about it Mickey, you’re going to be just fine. And he was.

[Northrup, who played right field, moved to Stanley’s spot in center field with Al Kaline, who had been hurt, taking over in right.]

Northrup: Well, I played it before. I played center field in the minors sometimes. I played it in winter ball. I play right field, center field, I could play left, if you can play right and center.

Willie Horton and I were stuck between two Gold Glovers. We got Kaline and Mickey. And I always thought I was a Gold Glover, I have to feel that way, but I never had an opportunity to get out there and do it until the one season in which Al broke his arm, and I played right.

But I played center in the World Series and I played it before. It’s not a difficult thing to do. Not everybody can play it. Right field you need a good arm. Center field you need speed. And I ran pretty darn good. In left field you just need to be solid. That’s where the weakest arm is because you weren’t going to throw anyone out except at home plate. Right field you’d have to throw them out at third and at home. In center field you had a lot of room to cover out there so you had to have some speed and be able to break on the ball.

[On May 26, 1968, Northrup was hit in the helmet by a pitch, igniting a brawl vs. the A’s.]

Northrup: Well, you know he was throwing at me. It was, I think, Jack Aker. He threw down sidearm. He was getting racked and he was mad. He ran up over the top and hit me in the head. And we went out and just beat the living crap out of him.

He hit me on purpose and he knew it. He called me in the locker room and apologized. If you would come within a foot of these crybabies (in today’s game), they have no idea.

Now I never believed in throwing at people. If I was a pitcher I never would have thrown at anybody. Jim Palmer wouldn’t throw at anybody. McLain and Lolich didn’t want to throw at anybody. The only time they ever did is if they threw at us, they would do it to protect us.

But in the old days, those guys, the veterans, they’d throw at your head, not your back. When you really want to hit somebody, normally, you’d tried to hit him in the ribs. But they’re going to headhunt you.

What it is, it’s a matter of intimidation. Once they figure out that they can’t intimidate you, then they don’t do it anymore. They’re not headhunters. But we had a lot of headhunters when I played. And we knew who they were and we were out to get them. But that was the name of the game then. Now, why these crybabies now, they’d fall on their wallet and lose their money. (laughs) But I still don’t believe in it. I don’t believe at throwing at anybody.

When I first came up we didn’t have helmets. It didn’t hurt that much, it’s just the fact that he did it. It would hurt if you didn’t have a helmet. I didn’t get hit in the head only once. I was hit a few times, but not in the head.

[As mentioned above, Northrup went 6-for-6 in game against the A’s on Aug. 28, 1969. His sixth hit was a game-winning home run – his second of the game -  in the 13th inning.]

Northrup: Hit it over the roof. I was kind of a streaky hitter, yeah. When I got hot, there couldn’t anybody get me out, and when I went cold, you could get me out. It’s hard to stay on top of it every day and be consistent.

I was a streak hitter. A lot of guys were streak hitters. If anybody could know how to cure a slump, they’d be a genius and make a fortune. But things they just happen. You don’t know how you got in ‘em and you don’t know how you’re going to get out, you just keep going up there and sooner or later you’ll get out of it. But it’s hard to take mentally (laughs).

I just had a good night. It was an extra-inning game and I hit a ball, I think it was (George) Lauzerique or someone like that, hit it right over the roof, cleared the roof.

I cleared the roof in Tiger Stadium twice but they only gave me credit for one because in those days they didn’t have TV to show it. Hal Middlesworth (the PR director for the Tigers) wasn’t there to see it so he wouldn’t give it to me.

And I told him, I called him and chewed him out.  I said, well I got news for you, I did it off my ex-teammate, Pat Dobson. And I said just call Pat Dobson and ask him where that ball went.

I saw Pat after the game and he said, “Fox [Northrup was called the Gray Fox because of his premature gray hair], I know you can take me deep, but that was just a little bit ridiculous.” (laughs). You have to know how funny he was. He could never get me out. Ever. (laughs) He was on the Tigers, you know, at one time.

[Northrup ended up playing for two of the more enigmatic managers of his era: Billy Martin and Earl Weaver. Martin took over for Mayo Smith as the manager of the Tigers in 1971 and lasted until he was fired in September 1973. Northrup finished his career with the Orioles, where Weaver was ensconced as manager.]

Northrup: Weaver is the best manager, and Mayo Smith, the two best managers I ever played for.

Martin was the worst. He was a liar. He was everything bad about it. I did not like him and I didn’t want to play for him. And I told him so.

I didn’t talk to him for a year and a half. No, no, no, no. I wouldn’t talk to him. But that was neither here nor there. You have people you like, you have people you don’t like.

But Martin was a rat. And I just would not … didn’t want to play for him. And I told him so. It didn’t matter to me (what Martin thought). He weighed about 165 pounds, I weighed about 200 and I’d whip his ass any day he wanted, as long as I wasn’t drunk. That’s the only time I ever saw him. He fought old men and drunks.

And I told him, “You’re not going to find me drunk. You want to fight me? Any time. I’ll kick you a new rear end. But you’re not going to catch me drunk and you’re not going to catch me around your buddies, where they can hold me and you can beat me up. Believe that!” So it never came to pass (laughs).

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