Thursday, June 09, 2011

Northrup Carried Baggage of Curt Flood's Misstep For Decades

Jim Northrup was sitting across from me and I was glad that his anger wasn't directed toward me. And he was angry, no question about it.

We all know about the epic triple that Northrup, who died yesterday at age 71, hit in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series. The two-run drive off Hall of Famer Bob Gibson broke a scoreless tie and was the eventual series-winning hit. It was the only triple that Gibson surrendered in 1968, when he posted a miniscule 1.12 ERA.

So here it was, 30 years later, and I casually mentioned to Northrup, who was co-hosting a TV show I was producing at the time, about the triple. Specifically, the part about the Cardinals' Curt Flood slipping as he gave chase.

I might as well have poured gasoline on a raging fire.

It was obvious that Northrup was tired of hearing, for 30 years, that the triple was a triple mainly because Flood, who was an excellent center fielder, stumbled.

The Gray Fox launched into an expletive-filled tirade, insisting that there was no way that Flood could have caught that ball, regardless of the stumble. Northrup's face got as red as raw beef the more he talked about it. I didn't know whether to laugh or flee.

"Look at the film!" I remember him barking. "Look at the film!"

Denny McLain, whose words should rarely be trusted, actually spoke the truth yesterday in the wake of the news of Northrup's passing. Denny concurred that Flood would never have caught the ball; it was hit far too hard and far too long.

I could see the 30 years of frustration and anger pouring from Northrup as we chatted that afternoon in 1998 before a taping.

Eight years later, Northrup and I crossed paths again as he participated in a baseball roundtable that included sportswriter Jerry Green. It was for a magazine I was editing. The topic was interleague play and Fox was just as outspoken as ever.

Jim Northrup always got his hacks in---whether it was at the plate or at the table.

I remember conversing with him on the phone in advance of the roundtable and it was free form Northrup. He was in a mood to talk, as usual, so I obliged, feeding him batting practice pitches and marveling at the results.

I found out that he hated playing for Billy Martin because, according to Jim, Martin was quick to take the credit and even quicker to blame his players and others when the Tigers were in a losing funk.

I found out that when Norm Cash was released in 1974 (the day after my birthday), Norm found out on the radio, driving to the ballpark. Northrup told me that he was so upset about the way his friend and teammate was cashiered, that he burst into manager Ralph Houk's office to vent.

The next day, Northrup was traded to Montreal, and he told me that he considered retiring, right then and there. But Expos manager Gene Mauch convinced him to report. More stuff I never knew.

Late in that 1974 season, the Baltimore Orioles picked him up for their pennant push. Northrup went 4-for-7 as an Oriole. He played one last season for the Orioles, then retired.

I found out that Northrup loved playing for Earl Weaver in Baltimore, which is funny because at first blush Billy Martin and Earl Weaver seem like the same guy. But Northrup admired Weaver's fairness and integrity.

Northrup had some nasty words for some of his '68 teammates, but I won't go there.

I asked him about Cash, my favorite Tiger. To my relief, Northrup had nothing but good things to say about Stormin' Norman, who Fox called a great teammate.

Northrup, in fact, told me that HE was the one who suggested interleague play, way back in the late 1960s, early-1970s. He said that GM Jim Campbell told Northrup that MLB already had interleague play: spring training games.

Then came some more colorful words from Fox's mouth.

Northrup was a Michigan kid and, like Cash, Bill Freehan and others, Northrup starred in football as well as baseball in high school.

I've been dreading the day when the '68 Tigers start to go, and by that I mean when we begin to read about their passing every couple of years or so.

We lost Ray Oyler first, the good field, no hit shortstop. Oyler died in 1981 of a heart attack at age 42. Then it was Joe Sparma, who pitched the game that clinched the pennant for the Tigers. Sparma wasn't even supposed to pitch that night, but took the ball when Earl Wilson complained of shoulder discomfort. Sparma also died of a heart attack, in 1986 at age 44.

Then the cruelest blow, to me. Norm Cash, the hard-playing, hard-drinking first baseman, died in October 1986 at age 51 after slipping off a dock up north and drowning. Almost guaranteed that Norm had been drinking that night.

Wilson died in 2006.

But Oyler, Sparma and Cash were anomalies. The core of that 1968 team is, thankfully, still around. But they're either in their 70s or approaching, and it seems athletes don't live as long as the rest of us, so who knows how much longer we'll have them?

Now Northrup is gone, and he'd been in poor health for quite some time. Apparently, according to McLain, Northrup was involved in a game of hearts at his assisted living facility last week and gloated so much over his victory that his playing partner threw the cards in Jim's face.

That doesn't surprise me in the least.


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