The greatest center fielder ever was there that magical and historic night at Tiger Stadium 50 years ago for the All-Star Game in Detroit. There was also the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases, the “Hit King,” and “Mr. October.” So, too, was the best catcher, best-throwing outfielder and best defensive third baseman ever.
“All your baseball cards came to life,” said Joe Torre, who started at third base for the National League team. “It was like walking into the Hall of Fame. You say, ‘Wow, all of these guys are all Hall of Famers.’ You’re still gaga over it.”
Eventually, 22 players and managers from that game would make it to Cooperstown, 17 would win an MVP and seven would earn a Cy Young, making this night perhaps the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on one field at one time in the history of baseball.
“I was in awe,” Torre said. “I was leading the league in hitting, but I was still overwhelmed.”
No other All-Star game has featured 20 Hall of Fame players. Let all the names on this field on this one night sink in: Rod Carew, Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Palmer, Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente, who would sadly be there for the final time. The managers, the Orioles’ Earl Weaver and the Reds’ Sparky Anderson, are also in the Hall of Fame.
“I was 23, it was my fourth All-Star Game, but still, these were my idols,” said the National League catcher Johnny Bench, almost unanimously considered the best catcher ever. That night, he caught the whole game. “They were gods. You get to play with your heroes. I was standing next [to] McCovey, Al Kaline … I loved Al Kaline. When they came to the plate, it was a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.”
There were six home runs hit in the game, the most famous by Mr. October, Reggie Jackson.
“It was a huge thrill,” Jackson said. “I remember it being the first game that two Black men started [on the mound]. It was the greatest players in history, like all the guys with 3,000 hits.”
It was Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer’s second All-Star game.
“It was breathtaking being there, all those players, all those home runs, all in one game,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It was so good, Pete Rose didn’t even start. Tell him I said that.”
Rose, the all-time leader in hits, not only didn’t start, he didn’t take an at-bat. He was in the on-deck circle when the last out was made.
“When I played the outfield,” said Rose, who later became an everyday infielder, “I had to beat out Mays, Aaron and Clemente to start. That was my competition. I mean, c’mon.”
Hall of Fame Juan Marichal threw two scoreless innings. Bench called it one of the most enjoyable experiences he’d ever had. Marichal’s control was precise.
“I could have caught him with a pair of pliers,” Bench said.
It made the job of the guy behind the plate calling the game pretty easy.
“The umpire asked if I ever threw a ball,” Marichal said.
In 1971, Marical had been a big leaguer 16 years and won 243 games.
“I had been around a long time, but I felt like a rookie with all those Hall of Famers around me,” he said.
Third baseman Brooks Robinson won more Gold Gloves (16) than any position player in history. He, too, was starstruck. But he also remembers something equally significant, at least to him.
“It was most memorable for me because we [the American League] won,” he said. “We had been a part of a lot of losing.”
It was one of the best All-Star games ever played. And it was over in a blink. The game took only 2 hours, 5 minutes, which is inconceivable in today’s world where the average time is 3 hours, 10 minutes. The lineups were chosen by a computerized ballot. Hank Aaron received the most votes. Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer threw out the ceremonial first ball at Tiger Stadium. The wind was howling in Detroit.
“I played in 17 All-Star games,” Rose said. “The only one we lost was Detroit. Back then, it was about league pride. Henry and Willie never played in the American League. Yastrzemski and Al Kaline never played in the National League. The best speech I ever heard came from Warren Giles, the president of the National League. He came in the clubhouse every year to talk to the players about winning the game. Veins were sticking out in his neck. He said, ‘If we don’t win this year, you guys won’t be making this team next year!”’
All 10 runs were scored via the home run, which happens all the time in today’s game, but not back then, which made it even more significant. Appropriately, given the historic collection of talent, the first two batters of the game were Mays and Aaron, who would finish their careers with a combined 1,415 home runs. That’s how great this game was: The 1-2 hitters were perhaps among the five best players of all time. Mays is the greatest center fielder ever and, other than Babe Ruth, perhaps the best player ever.
“The All-Star game was built for Willie Mays,” said former teammate Felipe Alou.
Mays was facing the A’s 21-year-old Vida Blue, who would win the AL Cy Young and MVP that season. He had 17 victories entering the game, most ever by a pitcher at the break in the All-Star game era. The previous record was 16 by Bob Feller in 1941. Blue threw really hard, but he got Mays to ground out to shortstop on a changeup to start the game.
“Willie yelled at me from the dugout, ‘I thought you threw hard? Where is the fastball?!'” Blue said.
Blue was opposed by the Pirates’ Dock Ellis, who was leading the National League in victories and ERA at the break. Ellis, always outspoken, often controversial, said publicly that he didn’t think Anderson would name him the starting pitcher because “baseball doesn’t want two brothers to start the All-Star game.”
But Anderson chose Ellis, marking the first time that two Black pitchers had started an All-Star game.
The home run barrage began in the second inning, when Bench hit a massive home run to right-center field off Blue.
“It was one of the longest home runs I’ve ever hit in my life,” Bench said. “It’s the All-Star Game, so Vida is going to gas it up. I’m going to start swinging as soon as he releases it. It went into the upper deck. The camera couldn’t even follow it, no one could see where it went because it went through a tunnel in right-center field. The talk when I got back to the dugout was that these guys had never seen anything hit that far. Of course, many of them had never played a game at Tiger Stadium in their life, either. It was awesome.”
In the third inning, Aaron came to the plate with a .175 average and no extra-base hits in his career in an All-Star game. Then, in his 65th career at-bat in an All-Star game, he hit a home run to right field off Blue.
“I had never hit one,” Aaron said 47 years later. “I needed to hit one. I finally got one.”
The wind was blowing out that night at Tiger Stadium, as much as 32 mph to right field. In the bottom of the third inning, Jackson came to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Blue.
“So, I pinch-hit in the third inning, and I thought, ‘Why aren’t they saving me for the big moment?”’ Jackson said. “I was picked as substitute for the game for Tony Oliva, who hurt his knee. I remember when I was packing my stuff to go to Detroit, [teammate] Sal [Bando] told me, ‘Buck, whatever you do, don’t go there and strike out.’ Within two pitches, it was 0-2. I stepped out of the box and I said, ‘Oh my God,’ Sal said, ‘Buck, don’t strike out.’ So I choked up. Dock threw a ball. [The count] was 1-2. Then I hit this ball up into the lights. The wind was blowing out that day. I connected with one. I was so proud. The first thing that entered my mind when I was rounded third was, ‘OK Sal, I didn’t strike out.”’
It was one of the longest home runs in major league history.
“No, it wasn’t, it was probably 50 feet shorter than mine,” Bench said, laughing.
The ball hit the light transformer on the roof at Tiger Stadium. Estimates were 520 to 540 feet.
“For him to do that and … be Reggie, he tried to take it to the flair of Willie Mays, to be a showman, and he was,” Bench said. “He backed it up. Everyone in the dugout came out to look at it because they knew it was historic. Reggie had his chest out, he had the bounce going.”
Palmer was warming up in the bullpen at the time.
“As soon as Reggie hit that ball … the place went completely silent because everyone was watching where it would land,” Palmer said. “It if hadn’t hit the electrical box, it would have gone out of the stadium. If it had hit the lights, it would have been like Robert Redford in ‘The Natural.”’
Jackson made a slow trot around the bases, as he should have after a blast like that.
“Al Kaline said to me it was the longest ball he had ever seen hit, and that meant a lot to me because he had played there, his home ballpark, he had seen a few balls hit over the roof,” Jackson said. “When you ran around the bases, Willie McCovey was at first. Joe Torre was hitting probably .380 at that time, Johnny Bench was catching, Mays and Aaron were in the outfield. It was such a special moment for me in front of all these guys.”
Torre laughed when asked about Jackson’s home run.
“Two things I’m famous for in that All-Star game,” he said. “When Reggie hit the transformer on the roof, as he [was] rounding third, you could see my feet, with my hands on my hips as he ran by me. The other thing in that game, Bobby Murcer hit a popup. It was a windy night in Detroit. I said, ‘I got it! I got it!’ Once you say you’ve got it, you have to take it. I’m the third baseman. I ran across the mound and catch it at first base. I felt like the silliest guy in the world when I said, ‘I got it.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh my, I don’t know.’ So I got over there and I caught the ball, thank goodness. And who’s looking down at me but Stretch McCovey. And he says, ‘What are you doing over here?”’
Did Reggie say anything to Torre as he was rounding third base?
“No,” Torre said laughing. “He was too busy congratulating himself to talk to me. You know that.”
Three batters later, Frank Robinson homered to right field, breaking his 0-for-14 streak in All-Star games. Robinson, the only player ever to win the Most Valuable Player in both leagues, became the first player ever to hit a home run in the All-Star game for both leagues. It gave the AL a 4-3 lead. Robinson was named the MVP of the 1971 All-Star game.
“But my homer wasn’t close to where Reggie hit his,” Robinson said.
In the fourth inning, Palmer faced Bench, who he had faced in the 1970 World Series, which was won by the Orioles mainly because of Brooks Robinson’s brilliant defense at third.
“God sent Brooks to play third base in the ’70 World Series,” Rose said. “He caught everything but a cold.”
And he did so in the 1971 All-Star Game, including against Bench.
“I made Brooks the MVP by hitting 14 rockets at him and he fielded them all,” Bench said. “The second time up in the All-Star game, I hit a BB to third. He just scooped it up like it was nothing. I threw my hands up in the air. I pointed right at him and he just laughed.”
Brooks Robinson laughed about it 50 years later.
“Johnny hit a bullet, a one-hopper to my left, I made a great play on it, and threw him out,” he said. “Years and years later, I saw a film clip of that All-Star Game and it reminded me of the 1970 World Series when … I did well. So I’m watching this clip and I see Johnny take two steps out of the box and he threw his bat up in the air and if to say, ‘Oh no, not again.’ I’d never seen that before.”
The home runs continued in the sixth when Harmon Killebrew took Ferguson Jenkins deep. And in the eighth, in what would be the final at-bat in an All-Star game for the great Roberto Clemente, he homered to right field off Mickey Lolich to cut the lead to 6-4.
Lolich, the ace of the Tigers, pitched a scoreless ninth for the save, getting Bench to pop out for the final out. It was the AL’s first victory since the 1962 game. It made up for, to some degree, the crushing defeat for the AL the year before when Rose barreled over AL catcher Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 1970 game, prompting Senators outfielder Frank Howard to say to Palmer as they walked off the field in defeat, “Oh, f— those NL guys.”
That’s how the game was played back then — for pride.
“The NL always kicked our butts,” Jackson said. “It was finally good to win one.” And how often, 50 years later, does someone mention his home run in the 1971 All-Star game?
“It does come up quite a bit,” Jackson said. “I never get tired of people telling me I was good.”
Everything was good about the 1971 All-Star game, the night that perhaps the greatest collection of talent of all time assembled on one field.
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