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A look back at 1968, the year of the pitcher

Detroit's Denny McLain in 1968, a year in

Detroit's Denny McLain in 1968, a year in which he won the Cy Young and MVP in the American League.

A year before the summer of the moon, it was the summer of the stars.

In 1969, man walked on the moon; in 1968, baseball’s universe revolved around the men who walked on the mound. Fifty years later, the astronomical achievements of those pitchers has not dimmed. Two in particular still sparkle, perhaps brighter than ever in light of how the game has evolved.

With a mean streak to go along with a mean fastball and refined slider, Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals, a former Harlem Globetrotter, made opposing hitters look like Washington Generals.

Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers, a fun-loving free spirit, played the organ when he wasn’t making batters play the fool.

“You look back on it and realize what happened, but I don’t think anybody went into that season saying, ‘Oh, yeah, this is going to be the year of the pitcher,’ ’’ Tim McCarver, the former big-league catcher and retired broadcaster, told Newsday in a phone interview from his Florida home. McCarver was Gibson’s catcher from 1963-68.

It was a season that, by any metrics system, was astounding. Fans of today’s homer-happy lineups, five-and-fly starters and deep, specialist-stacked bullpens should marvel at what occurred a half-century ago.

Gibson posted a 22-9 record that actually is misleading. He was much better than his record indicated. “How did he ever lose nine games?” McCarver wondered. Here’s how: In those nine losses, the Cardinals scored only 12 runs, were shut out three times (including one of five no-hitters that season) and batted .147.

Other than those losses, Gibson’s numbers were staggering: a 1.12 earned run average; 268 strikeouts in 304 2⁄3 innings with only 62 walks; 28 complete games in 34 starts; 13 shutouts; 198 hits allowed; a WHIP of 0.85. Worth repeating: 28 complete games in 34 starts!

McLain became the first (and last) pitcher since Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals in 1934 to win 30 games. “I’m getting more publicity now with Denny winning 30 than I did when I won 30,” Dean joked after flying from his home in Mississippi to Detroit to watch McLain win No. 30 against the Oakland A’s on Sept. 14, 1968. Despite allowing two home runs to Reggie Jackson, McLain got the victory when the Tigers rallied for two runs in the ninth for a 5-4 triumph. McLain got so excited when Willie Horton delivered the winning hit that he jumped up and hit his head on the dugout roof.

In that dizzying season, McLain went 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA and 28 complete games in 41 starts that covered 336 innings. He struck out 280, allowed only 241 hits and produced a 0.90 WHIP.

Needless to say, both flame-throwing righthanders won their league’s Cy Young Awards in ’68 and led their teams into the World Series, where they faced each other twice. Gibson won both times, but the Tigers won the Series.

“I see him a lot at [baseball] card shows,” McLain said in a radio interview in Detroit in 2015. “I always tease him that ‘Oh, by the way, I had 22 [wins] by the end of July . . . We just chuckle about it.”

TOUGH ON BATTERS

Hitters saw nothing funny about the 1968 season. The overall batting average in the American League was .230, with the once-mighty Yankees hitting a franchise-worst .214. That is not a typo. In Mickey Mantle’s final season (in which his paltry .237 mark was above the league average), Roy White and Andy Kosco shared the cleanup spot. White hit a team-leading .267 with 17 home runs; Kosco batted .240 with 15 homers. Mantle led the team with 18. Carl Yastrzemski, the Triple Crown winner in 1967 (he batted .326), won the batting title at .301 and needed a hot streak to finish as the league’s only .300 hitter.

The National League was marginally better, with a league batting average of .243. The Senior Circuit had five .300 hitters, led by Cincinnati’s Pete Rose at .335. The Mets ranked last at .228. Ed Charles led the club with 15 home runs.

Fittingly, the National League won the All-Star Game, 1-0, with Willie Mays scoring the only run on a double-play grounder.

So why did pitchers dominate so much in 1968 that Major League Baseball felt compelled to lower the height of the mound from 15 to 10 inches the following season as well as revert to a tighter strike zone? “I think it was lightning in a bottle,” McLain said. “I don’t think it was any one thing. We all kind of came up together and developed together in the ’60s and it came together that year and we caught fire.”

In his autobiography “Stranger to the Game,’’ Gibson wrote, “In the summer of 1968, I mastered my craft . . . In 1968, we of the pitching profession came as close to perfect as we’ve ever come and probably ever will.”

McLain and Gibson both perfected a slider that season, which made their fastballs even tougher to hit. “I picked it up from [Tigers pitching coach Johnny] Sain. I had a difficult time mastering that pitch, but once I got it, it was terrific,” McLain said in a 1988 interview. “My out pitch was still the fastball, but I had a good assortment. The bottom line was I never walked a lot of guys. In ’68, my control became better.”

That also was true of Gibson. “His control was death,” McCarver said. “He could put the baseball on the outside part of the plate, or a baseball’s width more, almost at will. That was the first year that Bob started throwing the slider away to lefthanded batters. Lefties would see it and say, ‘Oh, it’s outside’ and they’d give up too soon. Against righties, with that slider, he made them helpless. And I mean helpless. I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to know what righthanders batted against him that season.”

In fact, it was .159. Lefties fared a bit better at .220. During one incredible streak, Gibson won 15 straight games, with 10 shutouts. During a part of that stretch, he allowed two runs in 95 innings — one scoring on a wild pitch, the other on a bloop hit — or he might’ve set an unbreakable scoreless-innings record.

“Gibson was something special. I’m not sure if it was hated to lose or needed to win with him, but he was in that very select group of pitchers that always seemed to rise to the occasion,” Joe Torre told Newsday in a phone interview from his MLB office in Manhattan, where he is executive vice president of baseball operations. He batted against Gibson as a Milwaukee and Atlanta Brave from 1962-68 before being traded to St. Louis in 1969, where he sometimes caught Gibson and became a close friend. “It wasn’t his velocity as much as it was his movement. I don’t think there was anyone better,” Torre said.

McLain was nearly as effective as Gibson that year. His splits were .193 against righthanders and .206 against lefties.

Torre said he and many other players were aware of what McLain was doing. “You’re always focused on what you’re doing, but you never lose sight of what’s going on in baseball. You took notice of it,” Torre said. “To win 30 games, of course you’ve got to be very good, but you’ve got to have some breaks, too. Denny was resilient, stayed out there and pitched a lot of innings. Plus he had a productive offense behind him. You look in the other league and you see that Yaz wins the batting title and hits .301, and that raises your eyebrows. The pitching was so good that year.”

MOUND OF STARS

But it went beyond McLain and Gibson. There were other stars in that 1968 baseball galaxy, most notably Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants, Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians. The NL had three 20-game winners and Mets rookie Jerry Koosman won 19, including seven shutouts. Tom Seaver won 16 games for a second straight season and pitched to a 2.20 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. There were four 20-game winners in the AL, including the Yankees’ Mel Stottlemyre, who won 21 games despite pitching for the worst-hitting team in all of baseball. The Yankees also had the AL Rookie of the Year in Stan Bahnsen, who won 17 games with a 2.05 ERA.

Tiant and Marichal posted numbers that would have been Cy Young-worthy in most any other season but ’68. Tiant, a colorful character from Cuba who loved to smoke cigars and had an unorthodox, twisting, hesitating delivery, went 21-9 with a league-leading nine shutouts. He compiled a 1.60 ERA in 258 1⁄3 innings in which he allowed only 152 hits. He struck out 264, walked 73 and had a sensational 0.87 WHIP. He struck out 19 in a 10-inning victory on July 3.

Marichal, from the Dominican Republic, went 26-9 with a 2.43 ERA. He had 30 complete games in 38 starts covering 325 2⁄3 innings, struck out 218, walked 46 and had a WHIP of 1.05.

McCarver called Marichal “the toughest righthander that I’d ever seen. He could throw you any pitch at any time.”

Despite an exaggerated high-kick delivery, Marichal had exquisite command. “He could throw the ball into a thimble,” Torre said. “He had such spectacular control with all his pitches. And he’d throw them from over the top or from the side, too. It was really remarkable.”

So was the achievement of Drysdale, a hard-throwing righthander who never shied from throwing his fastball up and in. “I had some success against him, but don’t get me wrong. I never wanted to go up and hit against him,” Torre said. “He was very intimidating — a three-quarter [delivery] guy with a lot of movement. If you got too comfortable against him, he’d throw it under your armpits to keep you honest from going out after that ball away.”

Drysdale, who retired after the 1969 season, won only 14 games in 1968 but pitched to an ERA of 2.15. What he is remembered for most that season is setting the major-league record for consecutive shutouts (six) and scoreless innings (58 2⁄3, broken by another Dodger, Orel Hershiser, who tossed 59 straight scoreless innings in 1988.)

SAD REALITY CHECK

After his sixth straight shutout on June 4, baseball intersected with reality. Drysdale blanked the Pirates, 5-0, on a neat three-hitter at Dodger Stadium. After the game, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy delivered his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after defeating Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the California primary.

Many Dodgers players watched or listened to RFK’s speech in which he began by saying, “I first want to express my high regard for Don Drysdale, who pitched his sixth straight shutout tonight, and I hope that we have as good fortune in our campaign.”

At the conclusion of his speech, RFK was shot and killed by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. It was the second shocking assassination in the nation in two months. Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, six days before Opening Day. There were race riots in several cities during that tumultuous year, and ballplayers noticed.

Torre said he remembers precisely where he was for both assassinations. “I remember Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4 and we were playing an exhibition game in North Carolina when I was with the Braves,” Torre said. “Bobby Kennedy . . . you just shook your head. How could this happen? His brother [JFK] and now him? Time just stops when that stuff happens.”

But baseball and the rest of society moved on. MLB officials, noting a decline in attendance, believed more hitting was the answer, so after the season, they lowered the height of the mound and tightened the strike zone. Five years later, the American League instituted the designated hitter rule.

It has taken five decades, but today, the home run is at the center of the baseball universe and pitching a complete game is all but extinct.

“What is lowering the mound going to do? I didn’t really think about it,” Torre said. “I don’t think any of the hitters celebrated lowering the mound five inches. I don’t think Gibson changed who he was. The great pitchers were still great. I didn’t notice any difference, but Gibson to this day has not forgiven baseball for doing that.”

Gibson is known to hold grudges. “I’ve never told this story before,” McCarver said gleefully. “The next year at the All-Star Game in Washington, I did not make the 1969 team but I was there for a Players Association meeting. The night it was scheduled, it got rained out. Gibson, [Cardinals pitcher] Steve Carlton and I were going out to dinner with [noted author] George Plimpton, and that was heady stuff. We were at the hotel bar after dinner and Denny McLain signed Bob Gibson’s name to his check. You don’t do that to Gibson. Bob was furious.”

McLain had finally beaten him.

1969: LOWER MOUND, MORE RUNS

Because of the way pitching dominated the 1968 season, Major League Baseball took steps to bring some offense back into the game. The MLB Rules Panel did just that. It voted to lower the height of the pitcher’s mound from 15 inches to 10 and tightened the strike zone from the batter’s “shoulders and knees” to “armpit and the top of the knees.” Also, umpires were charged with being extra vigilant in making sure baseballs were not doctored. The changes resulted in an increase of average runs per game from 6.84 in 1968 to 8.14 in 1969.

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