1968 Year of the Pitcher

The side effects of the increased strike zone reach epidemic proportions as amazing pitching feats abound everywhere—and become the centerpiece for a memorable World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers.

Denny McLain, winner of 31 games in 1968, pitching for the Detroit Tigers.

In the 1920s, baseball fans discovered Babe Ruth and locked in on him. So did major league owners, who juiced the rules to increase scoring—and thus attendance. The batting bonanza got out of hand by 1930, with the average player hitting .300, before cooling off to more normal levels in the years to follow.

In 1961, the fans saw Roger Maris, Jim Gentile and Norm Cash—and the owners, led by commissioner Ford Frick, chose this time not to embrace but to revolt. They felt these out-of-nowhere sluggers were too common to be breaking records with an abundance of home runs. So they put the clamps on the batter, browning out the power surge with an increased strike zone.

This would all become too much of a good thing for pitchers in 1968, a year rightfully remembered as one where the hitters didn’t stand a chance.

Fans starving for hitting exhibitions had nowhere to escape, bearing witness to non-stop feats of excellent pitching that added up to an endless string of zeroes on the scoreboard—causing the bottom to fall out of a hitter’s bear market that had already been dropping for five years.

Hitters in both leagues suffered, but American Leaguers felt the sting the most—collectively batting an abominable .230 for their worst average ever. Leading the pack of hitless blunders were the Oakland A’s at .240, while the rear was dragged by the once mighty New York Yankees, coughing up an all-time franchise low of .214. On an individual level, Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox became the lone man above .300—and barely, at .301—needing a big rally in the season's final monthYazstremski hit .378 in September after entering the month at .285. just to ensure that he’d reach it.

Runs per game, 1960-68.

The National League fared batter, but its .243 average was still the second worst in modern NL annals, lowly and barely surpassed by its 1908 deadball era performance. Startlingly immune to the game’s nationwide power outage were the Cincinnati RedsProving that cozy Crosley Field had something to do with the Reds’ lively hitting, the team’s pitching staff had the NL’s highest earned run average at 3.56—and allowed nearly five runs a game at home., which led the majors going away with a .273 average. The Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates were both a distant second at .252.

Amazing exploits from the mound spread like roses in full bloom, or like the plague—depending on whose viewpoint you heard, the pitchers’ or the hitters’. There were 339 shutouts thrown in 1968, almost double the number tossed in 1962—the year before baseball swelled the strike zone. Catfish Hunter of the A’s threw the AL’s first perfect game since 1922. San Francisco’s Gaylord Perry tossed a no-hitter against St. Louis; the Cardinals responded in kind the next day when Ray Washburn did the same to the Giants. Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers kept opponents scoreless for a record 58.2 consecutive inningsFuture Los Angeles Dodger ace Orel Hershiser would top Drysdale’s mark in 1988., while Luis Tiant, on his way to allowing an all-time low .168 batting average, put together 41 straight scoreless innings for the Cleveland Indians.

Batting average, 1960-68.

Pitchers often discovered they couldn’t have it both ways, as cursed by their teams’ inability to score as they were blessed disabling opponents. Ferguson Jenkins of the Chicago Cubs finished the year at 20-15, but nine of his losses occurred when the Cubs got blanked. The New York Mets’ Jim McAndrew lost four straight games in which his team failed to score. And on April 15, the Mets and Houston Astros traded zeroes for 24 innings before a bad hop on a double play ball went through Met infielder Al Weis, scoring the winning—and only—run on the evening for the Astros.

Home runs per game, 1960-68.

Not even the game’s best hitters could jumpstart the offense at the All-Star Game. A 1-0 NL win featured a total of 20 strikeouts and just eight hits, and its only run was scored in the least ideal of fashions: Willie McCovey hit into a double play to bring Willie Mays home from third.

Above all of the above, the two most astounding pitching performances of the year would prove instrumental in determining both pennants.

About two months into the season, Bob Gibson was clearly feeling the pain of an offense that had abandoned him in St. Louis. Despite a stellar 1.32 ERA, Gibson’s record was at 3-5. Obviously, if his Cardinal teammates couldn’t support him, Gibson would have to reach back, collect a little extra fire, and go on a mission to take matters into his own hands.

And so he would, big time.

Gibson would win his next 15 decisions—ten by shutout. Within this streak was a remarkable run of 95 consecutive innings in which Gibson allowed just two earned runs. And within that streak was yet another where Gibson fired blanks for 48.2 straight innings—broken up, ironically, by the Dodgers and Drysdale, who knew his record 59.2 innings of a month earlier would remain safe.

Bob Gibson was so good in 1968, perhaps his teammates felt he would do all the work when he pitched. In his nine losses, he did. The Cardinals scored a total of just 12 runs and batted .147 during those nine defeats, which included a no-hit loss at San Francisco on September 17.

Although Cardinal hitters continued to play dead for Gibson—they averaged only 2.8 runs per start for him—they were otherwise ignited during his streak, as St. Louis soared above the rest of the NL flock to easily rack up its second straight pennant, finishing nine games ahead of second-place San Francisco, finishing second for the fourth straight year. Overall, the Cardinals were no less affected at the plate than most everyone else in baseball, hitting .249 as a team with just 73 home runs. But the men at the top of the order—outfielders Lou Brock (NL highs with 46 doubles, 14 triples and 62 steals) and Curt Flood (one of five NL batters hitting over .300, at .301) made sure the damage was done early and often against opposing pitchers.

And then there was Gibson. When the regular season wrapped, fans were trying to figure out, as they do today, how Gibson could have produced an astounding 1.12 ERA—surpassed among modern big leaguers only by Dutch Leonard’s 0.96 markTim Keefe of the Troy Trojans holds the all-time ERA record at 0.86, but he earned it pitching only 12 games in a 83-game schedule in 1880, with rules and regulations vastly different from post-1900 baseball. in 1914—and still lose nine games to go with his 22 victories.

As Gibson was stunning enough to have won 30 games, such a pursuit was not out of reach elsewhere in 1968.

Denny McLain, in terms of disposition and discipline, was the polar opposite of Gibson. On the field, the amiable, fair-haired Detroit Tiger showed a game face that was more happy-go-lucky smile than nostril-flaring scowl. Off the field, McLain was a 1960s-style free spirit more in common with Vegas than Berkeley, a jet-setting wannabe whose two passions outside of baseball were playing the organ and drinking mass quantities of PepsiMcLain claimed to drink over ten bottles of Pepsi every day..

Earned run average, 1960-68.

What McLain did have in common with Gibson was his ability to get the job done on the mound, winning 53 games over his previous three years as he entered 1968 at the age of 24. And as McLain was mastering the slider from highly-revered Tiger pitching coach Johnny Sain—who earlier in the decade had forged magic out of the Yankees and Minnesota Twins—his impenetrable grin was about to widen even more.

No one had won 30 games in the majors since Dizzy Dean in 1934, but McLain started, stayed and finished on pace to breeze into one of the game’s least-approached territories.

McLain racked up victories with brisk acceleration. He took only two months to win his first ten games; a month and a half to win his next ten; and a mere month and a half more to reach 30 on September 14, with three starts to spare. McLain was lucky to remember the moment; as the Tigers rallied from behind in the ninth to beat the A’s at Tiger Stadium, 5-4, an overjoyed McLain leapt high off the dugout bench—and into the concrete dugout ceiling, leaving him dazed but unfazed in celebration.

Thanks to McLain, the Tigers had little problem securing the AL pennant, finishing 12 games ahead of second-place Baltimore. But thanks to Tiger hitting that averaged five runs per start for McLain, the right-hander didn’t have to redouble his efforts like Gibson just so he could win, icing his remarkable year with a 31-6 record and 1.96 ERA in 336 innings. So long as major league teams in the present day depend on five-man rotations and multi-millionaire relievers, McLain’s claim to fame as baseball’s last 30-game winner will likely hold for a long, long time.

In standing with most everyone else, the Tigers were finding hitting conditions difficult—as a team they hit .235—but they easily led the majors with 185 home runs. Eight different players were in double figures, led by muscular Willie Horton’s 36, and 25 each from first baseman Norm Cash and perennial all-star catcher Bill Freehan.

The World Series was built up more as The Main Event between McLain and Gibson, the best of the best in the year of the pitcher. But after cruising through the year, McLain was starting to feel some payback from within as his shoulder gradually began to ache. Gibson, on the other hand, was rolling. And he used the world’s stage in Game One to show everyone that he was second to none, McLain included, by very possibly hurling the game of his life. Gibson shut Detroit down on five hits, but the headlines were reserved for the 17 Tigers he struck out—a World Series record that still stands. McLain was generic by comparison, gone by the sixth inning of a 4-0 Cardinal win.

It got worse for McLain when the two paired up again in Game Four. He gave up a leadoff homer to Lou Brock and never recovered; trailing 4-1 in the third, a 90-minute rain delay struck and stiffened McLain’s shoulder even more. He never returned, while Gibson—unaffected by the stoppage—went all nine innings in a runaway 10-1 rout. The Cardinals, up three games to one with two games still to be played at St. Louis, looked untouchable.

That’s when Mickey Lolich crashed the stage.

Lost in the McLain media madness was the left-handed Lolich, whose solid 17-9 record looked innocuous in comparison to McLain’s 31 wins. But he was just as feared by opponents, especially a Cardinal lineup that had trouble hitting southpaws. He had gone the distance in the Tigers’ only win of the Series, an 8-1 Game Two laugher. Called upon in Game Five to keep the Tigers’ hopes alive, Lolich was touched for three runs right off the bat but quickly settled in and fired blanks the rest of the way, as Detroit fought back for a 5-3 win.

When Denny McLain lost the edge against St. Louis in the World Series, a razor-sharp Mickey Lolich took command—throwing three complete-game victories for the Tigers, including triumphs in Games Five and Seven a mere three days apart.

McLain returned for Game Six, and so did his comfort level—in part because of a healthy pre-game cortisone shot to his shoulder, but also due to a big 12-0 lead he was given after just three innings. Cardinal fans hoping to celebrate at home at the expense of McLain instead saw their team blasted 13-1, as McLain scattered nine hits over nine innings.

Suddenly emerging as Gibson’s equal, Lolich dueled the Cardinal ace in Game Seven for six scoreless innings, and derailed a Cardinal rally in the sixth when he picked off both BrockIt was the second major baserunning Series gaffe by Brock, who in Game Five neglected to slide and was tagged out at the plate standing by Freehan in a crucial play. and Curt Flood. The wasting of such precious, golden opportunities in a game that means everything often leads to that sinking feeling, and the Cardinals knew it. So did the Tigers. The very next inning, the Tiger offense awoke with a two-out rally that produced three runs off of GibsonGibson would finish his World Series career with a 7-2 record in nine career starts—eight of which he finished—a 1.89 ERA and 92 strikeouts., including two on a Jim Northrup triple that Flood misplayed in center field. Lolich took it from there, allowing only a ninth-inning run in a 4-1, Series-clinching victory.

The Tigers’ first championship in 33 years couldn’t have come at a better time, giving Detroit an emotional uplift after riots had devastated its inner city a year earlier. Lolich was clearly the Series hero with three complete game wins, overshadowing McLain and, as he always seemed to be, Tiger outfielder Al Kaline—a consistent all-star hitter who led the team with 11 hits, two home runs and eight RBIs.

In watching what 1968 had wrought in terms of dominant pitching, nervous baseball owners realized they had created a monster. So they set out not so much to slay it but to domesticate it. Three-ball walks and designated hitters were discussed as face-saving options, but in the end the owners decided on more transparent alterations: A return to the smaller, pre-1963 strike zone, and a reduction in the height of the mound to ten inches, which would affect high fastball pitchers such as Gibson. A new round of expansion for 1969 wouldn’t hurt, either.

Even with these changes, pitchers would retain some strength for the next ten years, but gradually the batters would take over and become kings into the 21st Century.


1969 baseball historyForward to 1969: The Amazin' Mets The New York Mets, perennial laughingstocks of the 1960s, perform a stunning about-face to end the decade.


1967 baseball historyBack to 1967: The Impossible Dream The Boston Red Sox get serious after a decade of living a mediocre, country club-like existence.


1960s baseball historyThe 1960s Page: Welcome to My Strike Zone In a decade where baseball as a tradition is turning stale with America's emerging counter-culturism, major league owners see its biggest problem to be, of all things, an overabundance of offense in the game. The result? An increased strike zone, further contributing to a downward spiral in attendance, but greatly aiding an already talented batch of pitchers.


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They Were There: Len Gabrielson
Dick WilliamsLen Gabrielson discusses his baseball-rich upbringing in Oakland and playing for five different major league teams during the 1960s.


TGG on YouTube
Denny McLain plays the organOne of 30-game winner Denny McLain's more innocuous passions off the baseball field was his love for playing the organ. Here's his rendition of The Girl From Ipanema as part of a "super-cool" collection of chill-out music, 1960s style. The ultra-lounge chic has come a long, long way, baby.


1968 Standings

National League
St. Louis Cardinals
97
65
.599
---
San Francisco Giants
88
74
.543
9
Chicago Cubs
84
78
.519
13
Cincinnati Reds
83
79
.512
14
Atlanta Braves
81
81
.500
16
Pittsburgh Pirates
80
82
.494
17
Los Angeles Dodgers
76
86
.469
21
Philadelphia Phillies
76
86
.469
21
New York Mets
73
89
.451
24
Houston Astros
72
90
.444
25
American League
Detroit Tigers
103
59
.636
---
Baltimore Orioles
91
71
.562
12
Cleveland Indians
86
75
.534
16.5
Boston Red Sox
86
76
.531
17
New York Yankees
83
79
.512
20
Oakland A's
82
80
.506
21
Minnesota Twins
79
83
.488
24
California Angels
67
95
.414
36
Chicago White Sox
67
95
.414
36
Washington Senators
65
96
.404
37.5

1968 Postseason Results
World Series Detroit (AL) defeated St. Louis (NL), 4-3.


It Happened in 1968

The Perfect Catfish
On May 8, Oakland A’s pitcher Catfish Hunter retires all 27 Minnesota Twins batters he faces in the American League’s first perfect game since 1922. The 22-year-old Hunter strikes out 11 batters and aids his own cause at the plate by collecting three hits, including a double, to knock in three runs in a 4-0 victory.

58.2 Goose Eggs All in a Row
Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches 58.2 consecutive scoreless innings for a record that will eventually be tipped by future Dodger ace Orel Hershiser 20 years later. In securing the mark, Drysdale faces challenges from more than just hitters. During inning 45 of the streak, he hits San Francisco’s Dick Dietz with the bases loaded—but the play is disallowed when umpire Harry Wendlestedt rules that Dietz made no attempt to get out of the way of the pitch. And just two outs after breaking the mark on June 8 against the Philadelphia Phillies, Drysdale is hounded by umpire Angie Donatelli, who rips Drysdale’s cap off from behind to check for Vaseline at the request of the Phillies. Nothing is found, but two innings later Drysdale’s streak ends.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Even
After being no-hit 1-0 by the Giants’ Gaylord Perry on September 17, the St. Louis Cardinals return the favor the very next day as starter Ray Washburn holds the Giants hitless at Candlestick Park, 2-0. It’s the first time no-hitters involving the same two teams have been thrown on consecutive days.

If You Can’t Hit ’Em, Join ’Em
Veteran slugger Rocky Colavito, playing for the New York Yankees in the midst of his final major league season, is asked to pitch in relief as the Yankees trail the Detroit Tigers, 5-0, on August 25. Colavito proceeds to pitch 2.2 innings—allowing a hit, two walks and no runs—and gets the win as the Yankees fight back to overtake the Tigers, 6-5, with Colavito scoring the winning run. It is the second pitching stint of Colavito’s career, having tossed three scoreless innings for Cleveland against the Tigers in 1958. The win for Colavito is the last by a non-pitcher until 2000.

Power Outage? What Power Outage?
Frank Howard of the Washington Senators defies the pitching madness and sets a major league record by crashing ten home runs over a six-game period between May 12-18. Howard, after a prodigious start to the year (a .353 batting average with 21 homers after just 51 games), cools off but still easily leads the majors with 44 home runs.

Over 40, Under 2.00
Knuckleball reliever extraordinaire Hoyt Wilhelm compiles a 1.73 earned run average pitching for the Chicago White Sox—his fifth straight year registering an ERA under 2.00, all occurring after he turned 40. The 45-year-old Wilhelm goes 4-4 with 12 saves in 72 relief appearances on the year.

You’ve Been Warned
Alerting batters of things to come, Nolan Ryan of the New York Mets retires the side in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers—on nine strikes. The Dodgers will ultimately overcome Ryan and beat the Mets on April 19, 3-2.

It’ll Still Play in Milwaukee
The Chicago White Sox arrange for nine of their home games—one against each AL team—to be played 100 miles up Interstate 94 at Milwaukee, which has been without baseball since the Braves left for Atlanta in 1966. The Sox draw 250,000 in those nine games—nearly half of what the team draws for its other 72 appearances at Comiskey Park. Such disparity in attendance figures intensify rumors that the White Sox are permanently headed for Milwaukee, but the gossip dissolves in 1970 when the bankrupt Seattle Pilots are brought there by a group of owners led by future commissioner Bud Selig.

Goin’ Solo
Senator shortstop Ron Hansen turns the majors’ first unassisted triple play in 41 years, snaring a line drive off the bat of the Cleveland Indians’ Joe Azcue, doubling up Dave Nelson at second base—and then waiting at second to tag Russ Snyder, caught dead on a hit-and-run attempt from first base. The play hardly helps the Senators, who lose to the Indians on July 30, 10-1. Hansen, batting .185 for the year, will be rewarded for his defensive gem three days later by being traded to the White Sox.

Mourn or Play
All scheduled games on Opening Day, April 9, are postponed so baseball can observe a national day of mourning for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., slain five days earlier in Memphis. A few months later, major league owners are less sensitive to a similar day of mourning for Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated in Los Angeles; some teams postpone games while others go ahead, and the sport takes a public beating for those that do. Some players stay home in protest, and a few of those—including Maury Wills and Rusty Staub—will be fined.

Bonds Away!
The Giants’ Bobby Bonds hits a grand slam in his first major league at-bat—the first player to do so since Bill Duggleby in 1898—in a 9-0 win over the Dodgers at San Francisco on June 25. It is the first of 332 career homers for Bonds, who will later be better known as Barry’s dad.

None-Hundred
Underscoring the lack of offense due to dominant pitching, no player in either league can score 100 runs in 1968. The Tigers’ Dick McAuliffe leads the AL with 95, while Glenn Beckert of the Chicago Cubs paces the NL with 98.

A Slammin’ Good Week
The Tigers’ Jim Northrup becomes the first player to hit three grand slams in a week when he connects twice, in consecutive innings, in a 14-3 rout of the Indians at Cleveland on June 24—and hits one more on June 29 back at Detroit in a 5-2 win over the White Sox.

Cesar of All Positions
The Twins’ Cesar Tovar becomes the second player in history to play all nine positions during a September 22 game at Bloomington against Oakland. Like the first man to do it—the A’s Bert Campaneris, in 1965—Tovar plays a different position every inning, starting with the only three positions he had yet to play in 1968: Pitcher, catcher and first base. He walks one and commits a balk in his one inning on the mound, makes no errors overall, and scores one of two runs needed by Minnesota to defeat the A’s, 2-1.

New Ballparks

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Oakland The A’s came to Oakland two years after completion of the city’s ambitious, multi-facility sports complex, built to steal some of the pro sports thunder from its better-known neighbor across the San Francisco Bay—and to disprove Gertrude Stein’s famous comment that there was no “there” there in Oakland.

Unlike other multi-purpose stadia of the time, the Coliseum’s lower seats did not swivel into place to ideally adapt for baseball and football, creating a circular field arrangement that included the majors’ largest foul territory. (It was even more awkward for the NFL Raiders, who had archaic bleachers erected in center field every October.) For baseball, the pleasing view of the East Bay hills beyond the outfield bleachers was rudely and permanently obstructed in 1995 when the Coliseum erected a mammoth, inharmonious addition to coax the Raiders back to Oakland—hence the structure’s nickname, “Mount Davis,” named after Raider owner Al Davis. The expansion did little to bring baseball fans closer to the action for A’s games, a fact not lost on the franchise as they explore options for a new ballpark elsewhere.


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