Detroit — At least a dozen players from the 1968 World Series-champion Detroit Tigers are taking part in this weekend's 50th-anniversary celebration.
Naturally, though, the discussion prior to a Friday reunion luncheon veered toward those who aren't around anymore.
Starting with Norm Cash, a slugging first baseman on the field — and an epic practical jokester off of it — who died in 1986.
Denny McLain, the ace of the 1968 staff, told an epic Cash story to The News.
"We were out in Anaheim and there was a convention going on of airplanes, and they had pulled a whole bunch of biplanes, single-engine airplanes into (our) hotel for a convention. They probably had six, seven airplanes surrounding the pool, big pool," McLain said, sitting outside a ballroom at MotorCity Casino ballroom Friday morning. "Somebody that night — I think I had pitched that night — around 3, 4 o'clock in the morning took all the airplanes and put them in the pool. These were airplanes worth thousands, tens of thousands of dollars!
"And since I'm the only guy that flies, I get a call at 5 o'clock in the morning from (manager) Mayo Smith, and he said, 'You better get them (bleeping) planes out of that (bleeping) pool.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Somebody put all the planes in the pool and they told me it was you.' I said, 'I've been in bed since 2 o'clock, for chrissakes.' ... He said, 'I don't give a (bleep), you better get them out of there.' So I found out Cash was behind it and I went and got Cash, and Cash got about eight, 10 guys and they started pulling the planes out of the pool. To this day, I don't know if they ever knew who did it. ... When I walked out there and saw them (bleeping) planes ... I said somebody's going to jail. They really damaged some stuff.
"That was typical of that club. They could have a great time at a one-car funeral. You can't imagine the great times we had with that ballclub, you can't. Every city was just a good time. I always said, hell, we're not playing ball, we're on tour. The only thing we don't have are instruments."
Cash's most legendary moment on the field, of course, was during Nolan Ryan's no-hitter in 1973 at Tiger Stadium, when Cash grabbed a table leg to replace his bat.
Off the field, he also was the life of the party.
"The '68 Tigers, we did a little drinking, I'll leave it at that," said John Hiller, a starter and reliever on that team. "That kept us together. We did a lot of drinking on the road. I can remember Norm Cash would walk into the clubhouse sometimes and he looked like he was dying, completely dying. So he'd go in, get his bottle of Pepto-Bismol, shake it up, down the whole thing, and within a half-hour, he looked 20 years younger.
"He could do that. He recovered better than most of us."
Cash played all but two of his 17 seasons with the Tigers, retiring after the 1974 season. He had 377 home runs, which at the time of his retirement were fourth-most by an American League left-hander, behind Hall-of-Famers Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Cash died at 51 in a drowning accident off Beaver Island in northern Michigan.
Another big figure on that 1968 team not in attendance Friday, nor will he be for the weekend's activities at Comerica Park — catcher Bill Freehan, 76, who long has been battling Alzheimer's disease. His wife, Pat, is taking part in the festivities on his behalf, including during Saturday's pregame ceremony.
Pat declined to talk about her husband's health Friday — other than to say, "I'm home taking care of my sweet Bill" — but couldn't help but smile when talking about that magical 1968 season.
"It's very special. My three daughters are going to be here with me this weekend. One wasn't even born (in 1968), the other two were like 3 and 4 years old, or 2 and 3," Pat Freehan said. "For them to hear how special their papa was, their dad was, and how well he's remembered and what a marvelous reputation he has continued to have ...
"It's a wonderful celebration with friends. It brings back many, many memories, and it's just good to see everybody."
Asked if it feels like it's been 50 years, Pat laughed.
"You know, it doesn't except when I look in the mirror. That's when it does feel like 50 years," she said. "It does fly and it's been a good, wonderful, beautiful, blessed life."
Freehan played his entire 15-year career with the Tigers, and is considered arguably the greatest catcher in Tigers history, with five Gold Gloves and 11 All-Star appearances.
He also, of course, made a name for himself at the University of Michigan, where his No. 11 is retired. Well, it was retired. Until his grandson, sophomore catcher Harrison Salter, started wearing it last season with the family's blessing.
A lot has changed in 50 years, and baseball is no exception.
Back in the days of Al Kaline and Willie Horton and Cash and McLain and Mickey Lolich, ballplayers had to get side jobs in the offseason to make ends meet.
"Which is probably a foreign thought to these guys, with what they make," Pat Freehan said. "The guys had to work. Bill worked for Vernor's, Bill worked for Dodge, Bill did every Catholic father-son banquet that was to be had for 100 dollars. They found out Bill was Catholic and he'd come for 100 bucks. I don't think these men would walk across the street for (100 dollars). Life was different."
What was Freehan's most interesting offseason job?
"Before (GM) Jim Campbell found out, they were playing basketball against, like, coaches and teachers, that was for 100 dollars, too," Pat Freehan said. "And Jim Campbell found out and said, 'No, you can't do that anymore. You could get hurt.'"
The game, itself, was different back then, too. Better, says Hiller, a proud Yooper who doesn't like baseball's new rules — like no taking out a second baseman or shortstop, or no colliding with the catcher. Pitch counts can buzz off. He even dislikes instant replay.
"Nobody argues now," Hiller said. "There was nothing better than seeing Earl Weaver or Ralph Houk or Billy Martin going out there, kicking the ground, kicking their hats, arguing. Jim Leyland was great at it.
"That was an art, how to argue with an umpire, and that's gone."
It wasn't just the players who could be characters.
Their manager, Mayo Smith, was a peach, too.
"Mayo, he just let you play ball," said Tommy Matchick, a utility infielder on the 1968 Tigers, speaking earlier this week at a celebration hosted by the Detroit Police Athletic League. "Mayo was different. I remember a time when I was on the bench with Gates (Brown) and Mayo was sleeping over in the corner. (Pitching coach) Johnny Sain went over to wake him up because Earl Wilson was pitching that day, and he was getting tired.
"So Johnny went over there and shook him, and Mayo goes, 'Well, what do you want John?' He says, 'We've gotta get Wilson out of here. Who do you want to bring in?' He said, 'Well, well, bring in (Tom) Timmermann.' Johnny says, 'I'd like to Mayo, but he's pitching in Toledo.'
"There'll never be another ballclub like that ballclub. ... When were down (three games to one), when I came in the clubhouse that day, walked in the clubhouse, you thought we were up 3-1. Everybody was so positive, with all the guys we had.
"It was just a tremendous team."
Smith managed the Tigers from 1967-70, and made one of the gutsiest decisions in World Series history when he moved Mickey Stanley from center field to shortstop so that he could get another big bat in the lineup. Stanley was regarded as the best athlete on the team, but he told his teammates that if anybody objected to the move, he wouldn't do it. The team was unanimous in its support.
Some quick hits about the 50th-anniversary weekend:
►The Tigers will wear 1968 road replica jerseys for Saturday night's game against the Cardinals, the first time in Comerica Park history the team will wear gray at home. Jose Feliciano will sing the national anthem, just as he did before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series — and yes, he'll sing his famous rendition.
►Jim Price, a backup catcher on the 1968 Tigers, drew laughter during the Friday luncheon when he said, "Let me say this: Dan Dickerson and I get along great in the booth." It was a not-so-subtle reference to the recent physical dustup between Tigers television duo Mario Impemba and Rod Allen.
►Members of the 1968 team toured the site of Tiger Stadium on Friday afternoon, and posed for a group photo on the new field, which is now home to Detroit PAL.
►Also at Friday's luncheon was Chicago-based author Brendan J. Donley, who's written a neat oral history about the 1968 Tigers in "An October to Remember."