Nobody could have blamed Jim Northrup for not expecting to play for the Tigers on June 24, 1968. But nobody could have expected what happened on that Monday night at Cleveland Stadium on the banks of Lake Erie.
Northrup tied a major-league record by hitting two grand slams in one game, and star pitcher Denny McLain picked up win No. 13 in a 14-3 victory.
A left-handed hitter from Breckenridge, Mich., Northrup was in a deep slump, and manager Mayo Smith was thinking about sending Northrup to the bench. Northrup must have sensed it. He was hitless in his previous eight at-bats after hitting and had endured a 2-for-38 slump earlier in the month.
“I told Mickey Stanley on the way to the ballpark in Cleveland that they weren’t going to play me that night,” Northrup said in The Sporting News.
Smith did play Northrup, but he put him in the seventh spot in the batting order, the same spot Northrup was in the day before in the second game of a doubleheader. Prior to that, Northrup had not hit lower than third for the Tigers since May 6 – a span of 44 games.
Going into the game, Northrup was hitting .225 for the season. Since going 1-for-3 on June 6, Northrup had hit just .114 (8-for-70) with no home runs, three doubles and five RBIs.
“Jim was in a quite a slump because of those three cracked ribs,” Northrup’s father, Gerald Northrup, told the Lansing State Journal. “Jim’s ribs are OK now. He couldn’t keep his elbows out and wasn’t following through as fully as he should.”
A two-run single by Bill Freehan gave Detroit a 2-0 lead in the first. It was Freehan’s first hit an 0-for-25 skid covering 35 plate appearances. Jim Price homered in the fourth – it was his first major-league home run – to make it 3-1. Northrup struck out in his first two at-bats against Indians right-hander Mike Paul. The bases were loaded for Northrup’s first at-bat.
“It looked like more of the same those first two times up,” Northrup said in The Toledo Blade.
In the top of the fifth, the Tigers held a 3-2 lead. Mickey Stanley led off with a walk, Freehan doubled and Willie Horton was intentionally walked to load the bases.
The Indians had pulled Paul and brought in knuckleballer Eddie Fisher, a 31-year-old right-hander in his 10th major-league season with his fourth team. Fisher struck out Don Wert with the bases loaded and one out, bringing Northrup to the plate. He hit the first pitch – a knuckleball – far over the barrier in right-center field for his fifth career grand slam and second of the season to pad Detroit’s lead to 7-2.
“That was a good pitch I threw him,” Fisher said in The Toledo Blade. “Sometimes they hit good pitches.
“The way I was hitting, I was just trying to get it out of the infield,” Northrup said in The Toledo Blade.
He was not finished. One inning later, the Tigers loaded the bases off reliever Hal Kurtz. Freehan was hit by a pitch, Horton doubled and Wert was hit in the head by a pitch. Wert was carried from the field on a stretcher and taken to Shaker Medical Center Hospital. He was placed on the 10-day disabled list.
Indians manager Alvin Dark pulled Kurtz, and Billy Rohr, a 22-year-old left-hander, took over on the mound.
Rohr had gained a bit of fame in 1967, when he no-hit the New York Yankees for eight and two-third innings in his major-league debut at Yankee Stadium. Catcher Elston Howard ruined the no-hit bid, and Rohr settled for a one-hitter.
Northrup hit the first pitch thrown by Rohr into the right-field stands for his second grand slam of the game. Northrup became the first player to hit two grand slams on two successive pitches, and he also became the first to hit them in back-to-back innings.
“Everyone knows the record,” Northrup said in The Toledo Blade. “I did say to myself, ‘If you’re ever going to tie the record, this is it.’ But I really wasn’t trying to hit it that hard.”
“The second time, I was thinking more of myself,” Northrup said in the Lansing State Journal.
With the Tigers comfortably ahead 14-2, the game essentially was on cruise control the rest of the way. Northrup had one more at-bat. He led off the top of the eighth inning with a walk against pitcher Willie Smith, a left-hander who broke in with the Tigers in 1963 and started the game at first base.
Smith was ahead of his time; he could pitch and play the field. Eleven of his 17 appearances for the Tigers in 1963 were as a pitcher, but he settled in as a first baseman for most of his nine-year career. After appearing in 26 games as a pitcher in 1963-64, Smith had just three more games on the mound – all in 1968. He threw three innings of one-hit, shutout ball against the Tigers in the second-to-last pitching performance of his career.
“That’s a heckuva way to come out of a slump, isn’t it,” Northrup said in the Lansing State Journal. “I have not been hitting for two weeks.”
In The Sporting News, Northrup said, “I don’t worry about the record book.I was just happy to get a couple of hits.”
McLain went the distance for his 13th win of the season. He struck out eight and did not walk a batter. McLain singled two batters after Northrup’s second grand slam and scored on a single by Dick Tracewski.
It was quite a day. The two grand slams came one day after the 50th wedding anniversary of Northrup’s grandparents, Clarence and Sylvia Emery, and it was the same days as the seventh birthday of Northrup’s son Jimmy.
Five days later, Northrup hit another grand slam to become the first player in major=-league history to hit three grand slams in one week.