1968’s Year of the Pitcher and Denny McLain and Bob Gibson

Back in 1993, Jim Caple of the St. Paul Pioneer Press took a look from 25 years on at this season:

But probably the finest stretch of pitching in baseball history began [on June 6] when Gibson shut out Houston on three hits to even his record at 5-5. From that night until August, Gibson allowed three runs in 102 innings. Three runs! In two months! And one of the runs scored on a wild pitch. “They called it a wild pitch,” Gibson corrects 25 years later, believing it should have been a passed ball and an unearned run.

From the end of May to Aug. 23, Gibson won 15 consecutive games and threw 10 shutouts. At one point he was 15-5 with a 0.94 ERA. When he shut out Philadelphia for 10 innings Sept. 2 to win his 20th game, he lowered his ERA to 0.99.

Gibson started 34 games and completed 28 of them. No team ever drove him off the mound. The only time he left a game was for a pinch hitter. Had he been given just a bit better support, he might have come close to 30 victories. As it was, the Cardinals scored only 12 runs in his nine losses and just four in his first five. He also was the victim of Gaylord Perry’s no-hitter.

Gibson often is described as one of the fiercest, most competitive pitchers in the game’s history, and he does not deny it. After getting hit in the shin by a Roberto Clemente line drive in 1967, he pitched to three batters on a broken leg before finally leaving the game. A quick worker, seven of his games that season lasted less than two hours.

“You’d step out of the box against him,” says former catcher and current Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, “and he’d yell at you, `Get back in there, I’m not getting paid by the hour.’ ”

The competitive fire still burns. Last winter Gibson was touring the winter leagues when he was asked to pitch the second game of a doubleheader against a team of all-stars. He refused – “I was 56 years old” – until the younger players began to taunt him. So he went out to the mound and pitched three innings. “I wasn’t going to let a bunch of kids make fun of me,” he says. “I struck out seven of them.”

Baseball’s other great figure of 1968, of course, was Denny McLain , whose season, on and off the field, may never be matched.

“Everybody should have the opportunity to live one year like that,” says McLain , now a radio talk-show host in Detroit. “Everybody should be able to have a year like that so they can experience what pure euphoria is.”

The whole 1968 season, he says, is a blur. And no wonder.

Let’s see. He won 31 games and played the organ for any audience he could find. He appeared on the “Today” show as well as Bob Hope’s, Glen Campbell’s and Steve Allen’s shows. An accomplished organist, he booked gigs everywhere from Vegas to Disneyland, often playing shows between starts. “I didn’t miss many towns,” he says.

He didn’t miss much of anything.

The week he won his 30th game he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time and was featured in Life (though a two-part series on the Beatles was that issue’s major story). The day he won his 30th game, he met with a Hammond organ representative to arrange an endorsement. Two days after his 30th win , Capitol Records released “Denny McLain at the Organ” (he says he played mostly Sinatra songs).

He wore Nehru jackets. He showed up at spring training with red hair. By midsummer it was blond.

The amazing thing is that despite all those distractions, he won. He won game after game. He won 20 games by the end of July. He won 30 by mid-September.

“ Denny won. He just won all the time,” says former Detroit infielder Dick Tracewski, now a Tigers coach. “And it seemed like he was pitching every day. And he’d go nine innings. It wasn’t like he was handing the ball off after six innings. When he walked out there, he was going to give you nine.”

McLain went for his 30th win in front of a national television audience Sept. 14 but wasn’t in top form. He gave up two home runs to Oakland’s Reggie Jackson and trailed 4-3 in the ninth inning. The Tigers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth, and baseball had its first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. McLain threw 336 innings and pitched on two days of rest three times. He said his arm ached several times, but he took cortisone shots to keep him going. He said that had the season been replayed with the current medical knowledge, he wouldn’t have won 30 games. “They didn’t know then what effects cortisone could have,” he says. “If that happened today, I’d come into the ballpark with my agent and personal doctor saying I wouldn’t pitch.”

McLain won 24 games in 1969, but then arm injuries and his lifestyle caught up to him. He lost 22 games in 1971 and was finished by 1972. He was 28 when he pitched his last game in the majors.

Although McLain has made a lot of mistakes in his life – he has served time in prison on racketeering charges – few of them were in 1968. But here’s one.

After the season, a restaurant chain planned to go national, and because of his name, McLain would have been a natural to endorse it. The restaurant people offered him a small percentage of the profits, but he held out for more, and the deal fell through.

Now every time he hears the McCormick Sisters talk about Denny ‘s, McLain cringes a little bit about what might have been.

Denny vs. Gibby

McLain and Gibson finally met in Game 1 of the World Series, which was perhaps the finest game of Gibson’s career. He gave up five hits and won 4-0 – giving him 14 shutouts for the season – and struck out 17 batters. When reporters asked him whether the performance surprised even him, Gibson replied, “Nothing I do surprises me.”

Three days later, Gibson beat McLain 10-1 and hit a home run to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead and improve Gibson’s mark to 7-1 with a 1.63 ERA and seven complete games in eight World Series starts. Going back to the 1967 World Series, he was 27-9 with a 1.08 ERA in a 39-start span.

Before the Tigers faced Gibson again in Game 7, Detroit manager Mayo Smith told his team that it had been a great season no matter what happened and that all he asked was they do the best they could against Gibson.

“He’s not Superman,” Smith said.

“I don’t know,” Norm Cash replied, “I just saw him changing his clothes in a telephone booth.”

Mickey Lolich and the Tigers beat Gibson 4-1 to win their first World Series since 1945. McLain got all the attention during the season, but Lolich was the most valuable player after winning three Series games. That night, the Tigers returned to Detroit but had to land in nearby Ypsilanti because fans had swarmed the runway at Detroit Metro. When their bus reached Tiger Stadium, they found the park surrounded by celebrating fans.

It was a mob. After a championship. In Detroit. There was no violence.

“It was a great thing for the city,” McLain says. “The previous year had been the race riots and 47 people were killed, but this was something that pulled the whole city together regardless or whether you were black, white, yellow or green.

“And nobody turned over a squad car. No one looted a building, no one set anything on fire. It was just a celebration.”

Those are all reasons why we may never again see such a year as 1968. McLain sees one more.

“I’ve given this a lot of thought and talked to a lot of people and think there’s a consensus,” McLain says. “It was the end of an era. The end of an era when the family unit came together, when Mom and Dad went to the Little League games, when Mom and Dad were at home, when the kids were in bed by 11.

“We were the first babies out of World War II. We were bigger, stronger and with better educations than those before us. Think of all the pitchers then, and it’s absolutely incredible. We were all World War II babies. I think that has a lot to do with it. When we were growing up, it was America, Chevrolet, apple pie and baseball. That’s what we were supposed to do. Play baseball. We weren’t supposed to like girls, we were supposed to play baseball. And we were the last of that in the majors.

“Kids don’t play sports like we did then. They have so many other things to do. And it’s the guys who play every day who get good. You just don’t get good at something unless you practice.”

McLain was 24 in 1968, that infamous year when America’s youth took to the streets and no one over 30 was to be trusted. Tracewski calls him baseball’s first liberal, but McLain says he was as apolitical as the next player.

“The bottom line is we were not politically involved,” he says. “Most of us came out of high school; we didn’t have college educations. The people who were out there protesting, I think we respected their right to protest, but we didn’t understand what they were upset about.”

His attitude changed that winter when he toured Vietnam with a USO show.

“It took me one trip to realize what turmoil there was and to realize we were killing our own kids,” he says. “I think at that point my thought became, `Boy I love my country, but you can never trust your government.’ ”

I came by this story after thinking about all the wins Justin Verlander was accumulating in 2011, and thought I’d find a good summary of the 27 wins Bob Welch had for the A’s in 1990: the last year anyone came even sort of close to a 30-win season. I didn’t find that, but I did find this chart of the “most combined wins by two teammates in the last half-century (1940 to 1990)” that the San Jose Mercury News published in 1990:

56: Hal Newhouser (29) and Dizzy Trout ( 27 ), Tigers, 1944

49: Sandy Koufax (26) and Don Drysdale (23), Dodgers, 1965

49: Bob Welch (27) and Dave Stewart (22), A’s, 1990

48: Mike Cuellar (24) and Dave McNally (24), Orioles, 1970

48: Denny McLain (31) and Mickey Lolich (17), Tigers, 1968

48: Mel Parnell (25) and Ellis Kinder (23), Red Sox, 1949

I think the 2002 Diamondbacks, with Randy Johnson (24) and Curt Schilling (23) combining for 47 wins, are the only two pitchers on a team in the last 20 years to come close to 48 wins combined.

Published in: on October 12, 2011 at 5:48 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Very nice piece of reporting here. McLain’s thoughts on his generation of players, and how and why they were so successful, are interesting. They don’t make them like that anymore. Compare those guys to the loser pitchers in the Red Sox clubhouse this past September, partying while their team collapsed around them. They are just not real men. They are overpaid boys who never learned any responsibility.
    So it goes.
    Nice work, Bill

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