Jim Northrup was one of the great clutch hitters in Detroit Tigers history. He hit five grand slams in 1968 alone, including one in the World Series. Northrup also had the series winning hit. Four years later, the outfielder came up with a season saving walk off. Northrup’s career numbers were respectable and earned him a spot in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. However, his overall numbers do not tell the whole story because Northrup’s value derived from when he got his hits.
The Chicago Bears and New York Titans competed with the Detroit Tigers for Jim Northrup’s services. The Breckinridge native and Alma College alum decided to play for the hometown Tigers. He signed a contract in 1961 and played in the farm system for four seasons. Detroit called Northrup up for a cup of coffee in 1964 and he played 80 games in 1965.
The Tiger outfield was crowded forcing Northrup to compete for playing time with Gates Brown, Don Demeter, Willie Horton, and Mickey Stanley. Al Kaline patrolled right field and was guaranteed a spot. In 1966, Northrup batted .265 with 16 home runs and 58 RBI in 123 games. Management decided to promote the 26-year-old to the starting lineup the following year. Al Kaline moved to center and Northrup played right. The left-handed hitter improved his average to .271, but his power dipped to 10 home runs and his RBI total stagnated at 61 despite the expanded playing time.
Detroit missed the pennant by a single game in 1967. The team was determined to win it all in 1968. They came to spring training on a mission. Northrup blossomed with the heightened expectations and pennant race. In 1968, he hit .264 with 21 home runs and a career best 90 RBI. He finished third in the league in RBI and fourth in extra base hits. The Fox hit four regular season grand slams in 1968 and added a fifth in the World Series. He became the first player with three in one week and the 13th with slams in consecutive at-bats.
Northrup’s grand slam helped the Tigers win Game 6 in blowout fashion. The Cardinals did not fret after the 13-1 shellacking. They knew they had Bob Gibson throwing in Game 7. Detroit countered with Mickey Lolich. Each pitcher won two games earlier in the series. Northrup homered in Game 4 off Gibson and did the damage in Game 7. Lolich handcuffed the Cardinals and Gibson matched him until the 7th inning. With two out and two on, the Breckinridge star tripled to center knocking in both runners. Lolich made the rally hold up and the Tigers were the champions. Lolich won MVP honors with three victories while Northrup slugged .536, knocked in 8 runs, and hit two home runs.
The Tigers fell off in 1969, but Northrup did not. He hit .295 and set career highs with 25 home runs and .866 OPS. On August 28, the outfielder went 6-for-6 with a game winning home run in extra innings. He received American League MVP votes for the second, and final, time of his career for his efforts in that season.
Northrup remained productive for the Tigers into the early seventies. He hit a career high .307 in 1973 and remained a power threat. However, many players, including Northrup, chafed under Billy Martin’s leadership. Martin took over the squad after Mayo Smith’s firing. Detroit contended, but the players despised Martin and his mind games. Northrup was vocal in his dislike of Martin’s attitude and the manager’s habit of blaming the players while glorifying himself. Despite the tension, Detroit won the AL East in 1972 and fell behind 2-0 to Oakland in the ALCS. Northrup batted .357 against the A’s and tied the series at 2-2 with a dramatic walk off hit in Game 4. However, Billy Martin decided to mess with the lineup for Game 5, benched Horton, and pinch hit for Northrup later in the game. Martin might have cost Detroit the pennant.
The Tigers declined after the division crown. Kaline retired after the 1974 season and Northrup was sold to Montreal that August. The gang had grown old and were leaving the baseball scene. Northrup was shipped to Baltimore in 1974 and retired after the 1975 season. He finished with a .267 average, 153 home runs, 610 RBI and a number of clutch hits.