50 years ago, Tiger Stadium hosted one of the greatest All-Star games in baseball history

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If Tiger Stadium ever earned the designation as the true “Field of Dreams” — instead of a movie set in Dyersville, Iowa — perhaps it happened on a hot and windy summer evening fifty years ago today, July 13, 1971.

Nineteen future Hall of Famers played in the 42nd MLB All-Star Game, witnessed by 53,599 fans at the home of the Detroit Tigers and an NBC television audience of 58 million.

Aided by 85-degree weather and a wind gusts to right field up to 31 mph, six of the eventual Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, and Roberto Clemente) hit homers to account for all of the scoring in the American League’s 6-4 victory over the National League that ended the junior circuits eight-game losing streak.

The six-round trippers tied the All-Star Game record set 20 years earlier at the same ballpark, known then as Briggs Stadium (the NL won 8-3). The only other All-Star Game played at the famous ballpark was July 8, 1941 when Ted Williams smashed a dramatic two-out, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to give the AL a 7-5 victory.

“In 1971, baseball didn’t need a Home Run Derby to hype the All-Star Game because the players themselves were the stars of the show,” says former Free Press Tigers beat writer Jim Hawkins, who covered the game. “Looking back, I don’t think I appreciated it then as much as I do now. One could say it was the last great All-Star Game since you had all of those Hall of Famers in the game and six of them hit homers. But it was also unique by today’s standards since it was played in just 2 hours and 5 minutes.”

Official program for the 1971 MLB All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Official program for the 1971 MLB All-Star Game at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

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The game also featured the only starting Black pitchers to ever face each other in an All-Star Game as 21-year-old Oakland A’s pitching sensation Vida Blue was matched against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Dock Ellis.

“During batting practice, you knew Tiger Stadium was going to take a beating” Bill Freehan, the former Tigers catcher who started for the AL that game, told the Free Press in 2001. “With the conditions and all those big hitters, the balls were just flying to the far reaches of the upper deck. You didn’t want to be a pitcher that night.”

National League starts strong

When PA announcer Joe Gentile introduced both teams as the players gathered on the baselines, the loudest cheers were for the Tiger representatives that included Freehan, starting first baseman Norm Cash, Mickey Lolich, Al Kaline, and Tigers manager Billy Martin, who served as the first base coach.

Mark Kaline, 63, fondly recalls sitting in box seats along the first base side with his brother Mike and mother, Louise, to watch his father who had been selected to his 17th All-Star Game.

21 future Hall of Famers played in the 1971 All-Star Game, played at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
21 future Hall of Famers played in the 1971 All-Star Game, played at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

“It was very special to see my dad right alongside all those other great players, many of whom also became Hall of Famers,” Mark Kaline said. “There was a lot of pent-up excitement in town for that game and I know my dad was taking it all in as much as a fan of the game as he did as a player. Even though I was Al Kaline’s son, I wanted to see Roberto Clemente play and I always admired Brooks Robinson because I was an infielder and he was my hero outside of my dad."

After the “singing plumber,” Robert Taylor sang the national anthem and Tigers legend Charlie Gehringer threw out the first pitch, 40-year-old Willie Mays strode to the plate while Aaron waited in the batter’s box. A sign hung from the facing of the upper deck that said, “Welcome to Detroit Say Hey Willie Mays.”

In his second year as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, the National League’s skipper was 37-year-old Sparky Anderson, who was as star-struck as anyone.

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“I was never a good player and to be surrounded by guys like Mays, Aaron and Kaline made me very nervous. I won’t kid you but I was very awed by the whole thing,” Anderson told the Free Press in 2001.

The NL struck first in the second inning when Bench launched a ball intothe bleachers, scoring Willie Stargell ahead of him. Then in the third, Aaron homered to right for his first extra-base hit in 20 All-Star appearances giving the NL a 3-0 cushion.

“After the game, one of the American League players told me that after Bench hit his two-run homer the players all felt like, 'Well here we go again,'” said Hawkins.

But then Oakland’s 24-year-old outfielder Reggie Jackson, a last-minute roster replacement for the injured Tony Olivia, took matters into his own hands when he pinch-hit for Blue with Luis Aparicio on first base.

“My ego was playing games with me when (manager) Earl Weaver had me pinch-hit so early, because it was like, ‘Couldn’t he have saved me for a big moment, he’s getting rid of me so early?'” Jackson said by phone in May.

'That hit the transformer up there'

The lumber in Jackson’s hand turned out to be his own "wonder boy," a 37¼ ounce Adirondack model RJ 288 bat chosen before the game when Joe Torre’s brother, Frank, an Adirondack representative, presented a dozen bats for Jackson’s consideration.

“I wanted a wider grain because the wider the grain, the older the tree, the harder the wood, so I picked this one and first used it in batting practice,” said Jackson, who would use the same model for the rest of his career.

Jackson recalled stepping out of the batter's box with an 0-2 count and hearing in his head Oakland teammate Sal Bando saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t strike out and embarrass us.”

After taking a ball, NBC announcer Curt Gowdy made the call on the next pitch:

“There’s a long drive… that one is going way up. … It is off the roof! That hit the transformer up there! A tremendous smash.”

For the next several batters the crowd was buzzing, and Gowdy and color commentator Tony Kubek kept discussing Jackson’s homer.

Attorney John Morad was at the game with his father and still marvels at Jackson’s blast.

“I’ll never forget how hard and how far Jackson hit that home run. It just kept going up,” says Morad. “When you think of that All-Star Game and all those great players that is the one thing you always remember.”

Jackson recounts that Ellis hung him a slider and admitted that the wind and heat contributed to the ball’s trajectory.

“All I can say is that ball had places to go when it hit that transformer. That’s probably the hardest ball I ever hit in my career,” said Jackson, who revealed that Tiger Stadium was his favorite ballpark for hitting. (On May 12, 1984, while playing for the Angels, Jackson became the 12th player to hit a ball out of Tiger Stadium when his homer hit a parked bus on Trumbull Avenue.)

Al Kaline told the Free Press in 2001: “It was one of the most amazing home runs I have ever seen. It wasn’t even at its peak when it hit the transformer.

Alan Ingraham, 64, of Woodhaven was the batboy for the NL and was perched on the dugout step next to the bat rack.

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Reggie Jackson, of the Oakland Athletics, hits a two-run home run in the third inning in the All-Star Game on July 13, 1971 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. National League pitcher Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates was pitching to catcher Johnny Bench, of the Cincinnati Reds.
Reggie Jackson, of the Oakland Athletics, hits a two-run home run in the third inning in the All-Star Game on July 13, 1971 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. National League pitcher Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates was pitching to catcher Johnny Bench, of the Cincinnati Reds.

“I just remember hearing the very loud sound of the bat but I lost sight of the ball but then people were yelling and talking about where he hit,” said Ingraham, who added that the hardest part of the job that night was getting the players to sign countless baseballs. "I was pretty star-struck but was so busy running around that it is all such a blur.”

Wayne State physicists once estimated the homer would have traveled 650 feet had it not hit the rooftop transformer before bouncing back onto the field.

“When you think of that ’71 All-Star Game, the first thing that people talk about is Reggie’s homer,” Hawkins said. “Of course, we will never know where that ball would have landed. It was just an awesome blast.”

How the AL stopped the streak

Four batters later the AL took the lead 4-3 when Frank Robinson stroked a two-run homer.

In the top of the sixth, Kaline received a standing ovation from the crowd when he ran out to his familiar position in right field replacing Robinson.

“It was pretty exciting to see my dad run out to right field with that ovation,” said Mark Kaline, who in the bottom half of the inning saw No. 6 come to the plate to face Ferguson Jenkins.

“Like all Tiger fans, my dad was the guy I wanted up to bat. For me, it was never ‘Please just let him get a hit, it was, ‘Where’s he going to hit it?” Mark Kaline said. “My dad took the All-Star Game very seriously and he was so honored to be recognized as one of the best in the game. He really always wanted to make Detroit and the Tigers proud.”

Like he had done so many times before, Kaline came through when he hit a first-pitch serving from Jenkins into center field for a single and then scored what proved to be the winning run of the game on Killebrew’s two-run homer.

American League first baseman Harmon Killebrew, right, crosses home plate after his home run in the sixth inning in the All-Star Game on July 13, 1971 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Tigers' Al Kaline (6) was on base with a single when Killebrew's home run landed in the left-field seats. The hit produced the winning run as the AL won 6-4.
American League first baseman Harmon Killebrew, right, crosses home plate after his home run in the sixth inning in the All-Star Game on July 13, 1971 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Tigers' Al Kaline (6) was on base with a single when Killebrew's home run landed in the left-field seats. The hit produced the winning run as the AL won 6-4.

With a 6-3 lead going into the eighth inning, Weaver sent Lolich in to finish off the National League. Some thought Lolich should have started the game because the left-hander was 14-6 with a 2.96 ERA at the All-Star break and because the game was in Detroit.

“I had made the All-Star game in ’69 but (Tigers manager) Mayo Smith (the AL manager that year) told me that Denny McLain was starting and that I wouldn’t play because he wanted me to pitch the opener in the second half of the season so that was disappointing," said Lolich. “Then when Earl Weaver started Vida Blue for the ’71 All-Star Game I thought, ‘Well here we go again.’”

Lolich ended up earning the save in the 6-4 AL victory after giving up one hit, a solo homer by Pittsburgh’s Robert Clemente that landed in the upper deck bleachers in right-center field.

“I just threw him curveballs because Clemente was a fastball hitter and I hung him a curveball on a 3-1 count,” Lolich said. “I knew when he hit it that it was going to be a home run because I knew that sound. He was such a great hitter. ... In the end, I was excited to pitch the last two innings and earn the save. I think the Detroit fans appreciated that.”

Hawkins still displays in his Florida home the 1971 All-Star Game bat with his name on it, given to him by Adirondack. It serves as a reminder of what a special night that was in Detroit 50 years ago.

“I covered the All-Star Game at Comerica Park in 2005 but I honestly can’t recall who won that game nor anything that happened that night although I was happy to be there,” says Hawkins. “But I will always remember that ’71 All-Star Game because of all the great players, the six home runs by Hall of Famers and Reggie’s blast.”

The 19 Hall of Famers who played in the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit

American League Year Inducted:

Luis Aparicio Boston Red Sox 1984

Rod Carew Minnesota Twins 1991

Reggie Jackson Oakland Athletics 1993

Al Kaline Detroit Tigers 1980

Harmon Killebrew Minnesota Twins 1984

Jim Palmer Baltimore Orioles 1990

Brooks Robinson Baltimore Orioles 1983

Frank Robinson Baltimore Orioles 1982

Carl Yastrzemski Boston Red Sox 1989

National League: Year Inducted:

Hank Aaron Atlanta Braves 1982

Johnny Bench Cincinnati Reds 1989

Roberto Clemente Pittsburgh Pirates 1973

Ferguson Jenkins Chicago Cubs 1991

Juan Marichal San Francisco Giants 1983

Willie Mays San Francisco Giants 1979

Willie McCovey San Francisco Giants 1986

Ron Santo Chicago Cubs 2012

Willie Stargell Pittsburgh Pirates 1988

Joe Torre St. Louis Cardinals 2014 (inducted as a manager)

Note: Tom Seaver (Mets; inducted 1992) and Steve Carlton (Cardinals; inducted 1994) were selected but did not play. The managers were inducted into the Hall of Fame. American League manager Earl Weaver (Orioles; 1996) and National League Manager Sparky Anderson. (Cincinnati; 2000); National League coach Walter Alston was inducted as a manager. (Dodgers; 1983) Third base umpire Doug Harvey was inducted in 2010.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: What made MLB's 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit one of the best ever