The timing of events leads me to post this today, even though I put up another post just yesterday. I try to keep things more-or-less well-spaced around here, and I rarely post twice in the same week anymore, much less on consecutive days. But do be sure to go back and catch up on yesterday's post, if you haven't seen it yet. . .
And those of you who aren't sports fans, you'll indulge me this, won't you? I mean, I post about sports maybe a couple times a year. Besides, this is about my own boyhood, almost as much as the specific subject-matter. . .
This morning's news brought tidings of the passing of Jim Northrup, at the age of 71 (and seriously - I'm supposed to just blithely accept that my boyhood heroes are in their 70s? When did that happen?). Mr. Northrup was a member of my beloved Detroit Tigers during the 1960s-70s, and in particular the 1968 World Championship team. He was a personal favorite of mine - one of those guys who was a pretty key player on the team, a good player, and key contributor to the team's championship; but outside of Michigan, he may not have attracted much notice at all. The thing about Jim Northrup, which was also true of several members of the '68 team, was that he was a Michigan kid, who grew up to play for the Tigers, which was the cherished dream of every kid who grew up in this state.
Northrup grew up in Breckenridge, which is a small town roughly between Saginaw and Mt. Pleasant (he graduated from high school when I was roughly two years old); he attended Alma College, and was drafted by the Tigers in 1960. He played his first game for the Tigers in September of '64, and by '66 he was getting 400+ at-bats.
By 1968, Northrup was essentially the everyday right-fielder, when Al Kaline went down with a broken arm from being hit by a pitch (in fact, when Kaline finally returned from his injury, manager Mayo Smith had to figure out what to do with his Hall-of-Fame outfielder, since Northrup was playing too well to sit him down). Northrup led the team with 153 hits and 90 RBIs. Of his 21 home runs in '68, four were grand slams; two in one game against the Indians, and another five days later against the White Sox (the three grand slams in a week are still a major-league record). Northrup himself told the story of how, in that latter game, he actually came to bat yet again with the bases loaded, and thus an opportunity to hit his fourth grand slam in a week, but he struck out, swinging over-anxiously at three bad pitches.
In the '68 World Series, Mr. Grand Slam struck again, putting the crowning touch on the Tigers' 10-run third inning in Game 6. Then in Game 7, Northrup had probably the defining moment of his entire major-league career, hitting a two-run triple to deep center off Bob Gibson (who barely gave up any runs at all in '68, and in World Series games, most especially; it was the only triple that Gibson surrendered that season), in the seventh inning of what had been a scoreless pitchers' duel between Gibson and Mickey Lolich, and propelling the Tigers to the World Championship.
Northrup continued to play well for the Tigers; from '68-'71, the peak years of his major-league career, he hit for a .273 average, and averaged 21 homers and 77 RBIs. He was never an All-Star, a fact that has always struck me as a bit odd; there are certainly lesser players than him, who have been All-Stars at least once in their lives (and speaking of which, here's one of my favorite baseball trivia questions: who's the only MVP who was never an All-Star? answer below. . .). . .
When Billy Martin became the Tigers' manager in '71, Northrup's days as a Tiger were probably numbered. He was a fairly acerbic and outspoken person, and Martin always seemed to take particular delight in putting Northrup 'in his place', which Northrup, by his own nature, was not about to suffer quietly. So he ended his playing days as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
For a while in the 80s-90s, Northrup was a color-commentator on the Tigers' TV broadcasts, but his penchant for acerbically calling it like he saw it eventually rubbed his bosses the wrong way, and that gig ended (during a time in Tigers history when there was no lack of things about which to comment acerbically) (I'm really liking the word 'acerbic' today; can you tell?)
(OK, Answer to trivia question: Kirk Gibson (you just knew it was gonna have something to do with the Tigers, didn't you?), who was the NL MVP in '88, but never an All-Star)
But just because he played for the Tigers, and played such a key role in one of the high points of my own boyhood, I've always harbored a fondness for Jim Northrup.
And may he rest in peace. . .