How the Duluth-Superior Dukes helped the Detroit Tigers capture Baseball’s crown
The 1968 World Series marked the end of an era. The following year Major League Baseball restructured its two leagues into divisions, added four new teams, and changed the playoffs system to include the League Championship Series before the World Series. To give batters an advantage—in order to draw more fans as professional football became more popular—the pitcher’s mound was lowered from 15 inches in height to 10 inches, the strike zone was reduced in size, and the save became an official pitching statistic for relievers. The ’68 World Series—45 years ago this month—was also just the third time the Detroit Tigers were ever crowned world champions. They could not have done it without 12 members of the Duluth-Superior Dukes.
The 1960 Dukes
Duluth-Superior first inked a deal with Detroit for the 1960 season, following a four-year association with the Chicago White Sox. The team was also called the White Sox in those years, appropriately enough as Duluth’s minor league club was the White Sox from 1903 to 1916.
Two future 1968 Tigers made their professional debuts for the Dukes and manager Frank Carswell in 1960: William “Gates” Brown and Ray Oyler. Brown—fresh off of a stint in the Ohio State Reformatory for burglary—likely stole the hearts of Twin Ports baseball fans with his .293 batting average and 135 hits (including 13 triples and 10 home runs). A native of Crestline, Ohio, Brown played all 121 games as an outfielder in his only season for Duluth-Superior. Three years later he was called up to Detroit and on June 19, 1963, he became the 37th player in major-league history to hit a home run in his first at bat, a pinch-hit appearance against Boston’s Bob Heffner. It was a foreshadowing moment: Brown would become one of the game’s greatest pinch hitters.
Oyler, a shortstop, signed with Detroit in 1960 after four years in the Marines and was shipped off to Duluth. He batted .261 and joined Brown and Robert Boggan as the only Dukes players to collect more than 100 hits. The Indianapolis native was a slick fielder and also played all 121 games, but his days as a star hitter died when he left the Zenith City. The Dukes went 70–51 in 1960, losing the pennant to the Winnipeg Goldeyes by one game.
The 1961 Dukes
Oyler returned to Duluth in June 1961 after a dismal .171 start in 22 games for Class A Knoxville. He played 84 games and again hit .261. He scored two runs and had a hit and an RBI in a 10–4 win against Eau Claire at Wade Stadium on Labor Day to clinch the Northern League pennant. The Dukes’ 76–52 record gave them their first championship since 1937. The team was managed by Bob Swift, the Detroit catcher in the famous photograph taken August 19, 1951, when the St. Louis Browns sent three-foot-seven-inch-tall Eddie Gaedel to the plate.
Bill Freehan, Jim Northrup, and Mickey Stanley each made their professional debuts for the Dukes in 1961, but none stuck around to celebrate the championship. Freehan played just 30 games, as his .343 batting average earned him a jump to Knoxville and a late-season major-league initiation: the Detroit-born catcher first played for the Tigers that September. He was just 19 years old. Freehan had batted .585 for the University of Michigan in 1961, which is still the Big Ten Conference record. He also played football for the Wolverines. When he signed with Detroit after his junior year, his father kept his bonus check until the younger Freehan finished his studies that fall. Freehan became a full-time Tiger in 1963.
Northrup, born in Breckinridge, Michigan, attended Michigan’s Alma College where he played five varsity sports before leaving early to sign with the Tigers in 1961. Unlike Freehan, it would take Northrup another 40 years before he would finish college. He played his first game for Detroit in September 1964, after an impressive season at Syracuse where he batted .312 with 18 home runs and 92 RBI. But in Duluth in 1961 he lasted only 16 games before his dismal .222 average landed him in Class D Decatur.
Stanley stayed in Duluth a little longer than Northrup, but was also optioned to Decatur after batting .223 in 44 games. Hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mitchell “Mickey” Stanley was signed by Detroit out of high school in 1960.
The 1962 Dukes
Northrup and Stanley were back in Duluth in 1962, joined in the outfield with Willie Horton, who made his professional debut that season. Horton was born in Arno, Virginia, but raised in the Motor City. The 1962 season was the only time he donned a Dukes uniform; he batted .295 with 130 hits and 15 home runs in 123 games. The next year he would connect for a home run off of Baltimore’s Robin Roberts, a future National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, in his second major-league at bat for Detroit.
While Stanley and Horton played for the Dukes the entire 1962 season, Northrup’s team-leading .324 average, 11 home runs, and 61 RBI in 111 games allowed him to finish the season at Knoxville, but he didn’t get called up to Detroit until late 1964. Meanwhile Stanley batted .285 with 133 hits in 123 games for the Dukes that year.
Pat Dobson found himself in Duluth during his third season in the minors in 1962, finishing the season with the Dukes after posting a 2.56 ERA and 8–7 record with Montgomery. His brief tenure in the Northern League was forgettable as he walked 14 batters while compiling just three strikeouts in five innings pitched. He was 0–2 with a 19.80 ERA over four pitching appearances. Dobson, from Buffalo, New York, was signed by the Tigers out of high school and made it to the big leagues in 1967.
With its outfield loaded with future major-league stars, Duluth-Superior finished the 1962 season in second place with a 69–55 record, three games behind Grand Forks. Another former Tigers catcher, Al Lakeman, managed the Dukes.
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