1968...No runs, spitballs and Williamston Kid
1968 is looked at by baseball historians as 'the year of the pitcher. By the time the season was over, there was baseball's last thirty-game winner, a minuscule ERA of 1.12 from a pitcher that managed to lose 9 games, including going winless for a month, and a record consecutive shutout innings record that would last for twenty years.
It also saw four teams that scored less than five hundred runs over the season, the lowest batting average for a league leader and the lowest combined league batting average, ever.
And the stage was set for huge changes in baseball's operating protocols.
Let's look at that first.
1968 brought the Athletic's franchise to Oakland from Kansas City. Lawsuits, counter-suits, public deals and backroom deals led to the third franchise shift for the A's, and had Kansas Senator Sy Symington stating that Oakland was “...the luckiest city since Hiroshima.” following A's owner Charles Finley's departure.
The love/hate relationship between Finley and the Kansas City politicians and public officials, had lost any semblance of love. The final straw for Finley was the use of public funds to build a new stadium for the Kansas City football team, while the A's were trying to get the same funding for a stadium as well.
In order to placate the Kansas City populace, the American League decided to allow the Oakland move, with the promise of league expansion to include Kansas City, and that expansion would happen as soon as possible.
The expansion was voted on, and drastic realignment was decided upon as well. Instead of one twelve team league, there would now be two six team divisions within the league, and would lead to a playoff series to determine the League Champion.
The main argument in favor of this radical realignment was simply a financial one. As in “it's easier to sell tickets to a sixth place team than for a twelfth place team”.
Kansas City and Seattle were awarded new franchise, with both teams being assigned to the American League West . They were joined by Minnesota, Oakland California and Chicago.
To facilitate this, the schedule also had to be adjusted, in such a way that teams played their divisional opponents more regularly than they did the other teams in the league.
The National League was initially opposed to expansion, arguing that it was too soon after the expansions of 1961/62. and were afraid of diluting the talent.
They finally relented, and adopted the same divisional format that the American League did, adding teams in Montreal and San Diego.
During these expansion notifications, it was also decided to end the tenure of Commissioner William Eckert, who was 'allowed' to resign. Some owners felt that Eckert 'lacked the vision' to help baseball reach a larger audience.
After a lengthy process, over several months, baseball finally named Bowie Kuhn as its next commissioner.
Major League Baseball was primed to remain the National Past Time. The fact that teams weren't scoring runs became an issue. Runs brings fans and ratings. Fans, and more importantly ratings, brings revenue.
The economics of baseball in the 1960's is nowhere near what it has become in the 2010's. The same can be said of all sports. But baseball could tweak the game a little bit, making a show out of lowering the pitcher's mound in 1969, and going forward. Something to boost the offense. They really didn't need to.
Offense pretty much disappeared in 1968. Batting averages plummeted. Carl Yastrzemski, a year after his Triple Crown season, led the American League by hitting a robust .301. (The record for the lowest average to win a title). The league as a whole hit just .230, the lowest in history. Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers became the first 30 game winner since 1934. (And a number not reached since)
And while McClain was the star, it was Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians that started the All-Star Game for the American League.
Call it harmonic convergence, call it a once in a lifetime, call it a cyclical anomaly, but the pitching wasn't really that much better in 1968 than people think it was. I think most of it was show, with some pitchers (not who you might think) having monster years, but also the marquee players showing their age.
The 1968 baseball landscape featured some big names, Mantle, Mays, Aaron.
Mantle, was in the twilight of his career. The legendary center fielder for the Yankees was spending his time as a first baseman.
Mickey would retire at the end of the season. During a late season game, Tiger pitcher Denny McLain decided to groove one for the Mick, and Tiger catcher Jim Price told Mantle of McLain's idea. Denny served up a fastball, which Mantle hit over the fence for a homer, Mickey's 535th career homer, moving him past Jimmie Foxx into third place on the all-time list, behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.
Thirty-seven year old Willie Mays, still playing center for the Giants, was starting to decline, as he had hit .263 the year before, and .288 in 1968. He drove in just 77 runs, his lowest output to date.
Aaron now thirty-four, did hit .287, but that was 19 points below his career number. But, those performances were among the top in the National League.
There were 1,000 less homers hit in 1968 than in 1961.
The top team offensively were :
The National League, as a whole, fared a little better, batting .243. While it wasn't the least productive offensive season in league history, it did produce an incredible pitching performance.
'The Year of the Pitcher' was deemed as such not because of Denny McLain, but rather because of Bob Gibson. The former Wichita State Shocker was as fierce a competitor as ever played the game, and he led the NL with a microscopic 1.12 Earned Run Average. In layman's terms, he allowed a little more than 1 run per every 9 innings pitched. Extrapolated over a full seasons worth of games (in his era, this means 300+ innings pitched, 30+ starts, 15+ complete games, and an ungodly amount of pitches thrown).
In 1968, Gibson started in 34 games, pitching 302 and 2/3 innings. He completed 28 games, pitched 13 shutouts and won 20 games. He walked 62 and struck out 268.He also lost 9 games.
This was a different game than is played today. Let's look closer at the statistics I just mentioned. He gave up 1 run per game, and lost 9 times. He completed 28 games, in 34 starts. he won 20. He lost 9. He had the rarely seen anymore stat known as a complete game loss. And he had a few of them.
Even more amazing is that Gibson went almost a month between wins, losing four straight games. He got the victory against Tom Seaver and the Mets on May 6th, and didn't win again until a 6-3 victory over Al Jackson and those same Mets on June 2nd. He lost 5 of his first 8 decisions. Then, he pitched five straight shutouts, in the process of allowing just two runs in ninety-five innings.
The Cardinals as a team pitched 30 shutouts, 31 one-run games, and 21 two-run games. All told, they allowed just 472 runs on the season.
They hit for a .249 average, got Gibson and the rest of the staff enough runs to help them repeat as the National League Champions, where they faced the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
The top pitching teams were:
Easily one of the brightest spots in the 1968 season, compiling one of the best seasons of the modern era. It is easy enough to see that 31-6 record, with a 1.96 ERA and understand that he was phenomenal.
He was also a very free spirit. As a part time musician, he would sometimes refer to himself as an organist that also plays baseball. Denny's off the field exploits were legendary, and sometimes both unethical and illegal.
He had a voracious thirst for Pepsi, and was known to drink upwards of 20 bottles a day. This earned him an endorsement deal with Pepsi.
He was on top of the game, and had the baseball world at his knees. He would win an MVP, two consecutive Cy Young Awards, and was a three time All-Star.
Denny , whose nickname was “Mighty Mouth”, wasn't ashamed of his cocky, arrogant reputation. When he wasn't pitching, he was playing concerts, promoting rock concerts and hosting a talk show. He took flying lessons, then bought his own plane to fly. He also hustled golf games and made some rather dubious investments...more on that in a minute.
He was also known to be a 'fish' within the Tiger clubhouse, regularly playing, and losing at, card games.
He (allegedly) entrusted his money to a group of unscrupulous lawyers that made his money disappear. He was finally evicted from his home, and had all of his furniture repossessed by the Internal Revenue Service.
He was making over $200,000 per year, but never seemed to have enough money.
In 1967, McClain stumbled on a great investment opportunity. Despite baseball's long standing policy on gambling, and being associated with known gamblers, McLain decided to invest $5,000 in a bookmaking ring.
There was a horse named Wlliamston Kid, who was a long shot running at the Detroit Race Course. This horse caught the eye of a man named Hubert Voshen, who was a successful businessman that owned and operated a truck stop near Battle Creek.
Mr. Voshen was inspired enough by the horse, that he put $8,000 on it to win through McLain's syndicate. The horse did win, bringing Voshen a $46,000 windfall.
McLain and his partners did not have the money to cover the pay out, and they passed Voshen between various bookies to collect the money.
Voshen allegedly also received several phone calls asking for patience. One of these calls was reportedly from Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau, who happened to be McLain's father-in-law.
Voshen was getting frustrated by the runaround, and finally had a meeting with an 'enforcer' from a local Detroit 'family'. The enforcer invited McLain to a meeting on his boat, where the enforcer exerted a little bit of pressure to convince (or coerce) the pitcher to 'pay his bills', and to reinforce the matter, stomped on two toes on McLain's left foot, crushing them.
At least that was the version put forward by Sports Illustrated, in an article called “Downfall of a Hero”, published in February of 1970.
Denny McLain claimed that never happened, that he never met an enforcer, never was on an enforcer's boat on the Detroit River, and never had his foot stomped on.
In his autobiography, titled Nobody's Perfect, McLain said the foot injury was caused by a common household accident. As in, he was on his couch watching television, and his foot fell asleep. He tripped as he got up and stubbed his toes.
Although at a later date, he claimed to have hurt his toes while chasing raccoons that had gotten into his garbage cans.
What does it matter?
Well, the toes were injured badly enough that McLain missed several starts at the end of the 1967 season. The Tigers and Red Sox were tied for first place going into the final game, where McLain was on the mound, but didn't last three innings, giving up three runs. The Tigers lost that game, and lost the pennant by one game, with many Tiger players blaming McLain for the loss.
In the Sports Illustrated article, their investigation showed that the 'enforcer's brother had bet heavily against the Tigers on that last game of the season...
Allegedly, McLain and his group did finally raise the cash to pay off Hubert Voshen, but never delivered the money. Voshen was killed in a mysterious single car accident. His car was found wrapped around a tree, with a dry pavement and good visibility on a straight road.
Almost immediately after the Sports Illustrated magazine hit newsstands, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Denny McLain indefinitely, for gambling. He was allowed to return to the game in July, 1970, but was nowhere near the dominant force that he once was.
After bouncing between several teams, major and minor league, he was out of baseball by 1973. He was not yet thirty years old.
But back to 1968...
The Tigers were led by their pitching, the aforementioned McLain and his 31 victories was the staff ace. Mickey Lolich, Earl Wilson , Joe Sparma and John Hiller all pitched in to be responsible for 80 of the Tigers' 103 wins. Their offense, led by often overlooked Bill Freehan, placed 3 hitters in the top 10 in MVP voting. The Tigers bested the Cardinals in the 1968 Series in 7 games. a Series that had its share of impressive and historic pitching performances.
1968 was the first time that the two Cy Young Award winners faced each other in the Series (Gibson and McLain).
In Game One of the Series, Bob Gibson threw a shutout, striking out seventeen batters in the process, establishing a new record that has yet to be broken.
Game Two featured Tiger pitcher Mickey Lolich hitting a home run in his first World Series at-bat. He had never hit one in the regular season,either before or after this.
Lolich would be the last pitcher to start and win three games in the Series. (Randy Johnson won three games, but only started two of those games)
The Cardinals won the next two games, but then lost the last three, giving the Tigers the Championship behind Lolich's pitching a complete game on two days rest. And Bob Gibson taking the complete game loss.
On a side note, Cardinal shortstop Dal Maxvill set an all-time futility record by going hitless in twenty-two official at bats during the Series.
The top overall team power rankings were:
National League Champs
World Series Champs
2nd in AL
2nd in NL
4th in NL
For all the talk about the year of the pitcher, over in Cincinnati, the spawning of what would become 'The Big Red Machine' was beginning.
The Reds led the National League by hitting .273. Their lineup included Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Alex Johnson, (another overlooked hitter) and Lee May.
Harmonic convergence could again explain a bit of this, as the Reds only faced Bob Gibson twice in 1968, and he shut them out both times. Maybe they just beat up on the rest of the league.
Umpire Chris Pelekoudas called Cubs pitcher Phil Regan on an illegal pitch in a game against the Reds. Claiming that he saw an unusual 'break on the ball', and called each suspected pitch a ball.
Three times this happened. Twice with Alex Johnson as the batter. Johnson made two outs, but each time was called back to the plate, as the pitch was deemed a ball.
Later in the game, Pete Rose struck out, but again Pelekoudas observed the unusual break, and Pete was allowed to return to the box, where he singled.
The Cubs vehemently protested the ruling, as the game, but commissioner Eckert abided by the umpire's ruling publicly, but also told the Cubs that he didn't believe the basis for the ruling.
In another instance involving Phillies pitcher John Boozer, umpire Ed Vargo noticed Boozer spit on his hand before throwing his first warm-up pitch, and determined this to be a violation of the spitball rule, and yelled “Ball One”.
Phillies manager Gene Mauch flew out of the dugout to argue that it was only a warm up pitch, but Vargo claimed the rule stated clearly that since Boozer was on the mound, he was not allowed to spit on, or lick his fingers at all.
Mauch said “What if I tell him to spit on his hand again?”
“Then that's Ball Two”.
Mauch had Boozer do it, and Vargo yelled “Ball Two”.
Mauch had Boozer do it a third time,..”Ball Three”
On the fourth pitch, Vargo ejected both Mauch and Boozer.
Reliever Dick Hall came in to relieve Boozer, facing Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson, the recipient of the 3-0 windfall. But Harrelson failed to capitalize, taking two strikes before grounding out.
Afterward, National League President Warren Giles said that Vargo was in fact, incorrect. That the spitball rule did not apply to warm up pitches.
Other things of note from the baseball world in 1968:
Oakland A's pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter pitches the first perfect game since Don Larsen's World Series perfecto. In one of the great all around pitching performances, Catfish also went 3-4, driving in three runs.
Bert Campaneris of the A's led the American League with sixty-two stolen bases, an American League record for a shortstop.
Cleveland star hurler Luis Tiant held opposing batters to a record .168 batting average.
Dodger's star pitcher (and All-Star Game starter) Don Drysdale eclipsed Walter Johnson's consecutive shutout innings record, by going 58 and 2/3rds scoreless innings.
Mets rookie pitcher Jim McAndrew lost his first five career decisions, In those five decisions, the Mets were shut out in four of them.
Giants ace pitcher Gaylord Perry pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 17th. The next day, Cardinals hurler Ray Washburn pitches a no-hitter against the Giants. This is the only time that has occurred.
Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins finished 20-15. nine of the fifteen losses were shutouts, a record for the most shutout losses by a twenty-game winner in the twentieth century.
And Cubs catcher Randy Hundley caught in 160 games.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain was the second earliest pitcher to notch his twentieth win, doing so on July 27th.
Tigers outfielder Jim Northrup became the sixth player to hit two Grand Slam home runs in the same game, but is the only player to hit three Grand Slams in a week.
Slugger Eddie Mathews retires from the Tigers. He is the last active player from the Boston Braves.
White Sox knuckleballer Wilbur Wood establishes a new American League record by pitching in 88 games.
Teammate, and fellow knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm pitches in his 907th career game, breaking Cy Young's long standing record.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Pete Rose won his first batting title. He is the first switch hitter to lead the league in hitting.
Pirates pitcher Jim Bunning strikes out his 1,000th National League batter. He becomes the first to strike out 1,000 in each league since Cy Young,
On April 15th, the Houston Astros defeated the Mets 1-0 in a twenty-four inning contest. It remains the longest game to have ended in a shutout.
In Atlanta, Hank Aaron hit his five hundredth career home run.
In Washington, shortstop Ron Hansen pulls of baseball's first unassisted triple-play since 1927.
And Frank Howard (a.k.a. The Capitol Punisher) went on a record home run tear. He hit ten home runs in six games, May 12th through the 18th.
Giants rookie outfielder Barry Bonds became the first player since 1898 to hit a Grand Slam home in his first major league game.
For the Phillies, Dick Allen hit three homers against the Mets on the last game of the season. He becomes the second player to accomplish that.
In the relatively new baseball draft, which was in its fourth year, the Mets had the first overall pick, which they use to draft infielder Tim Foli out of Notre Dame High School in Canoga Park, California.
Other first round picks included Pete Broberg by Oakland, Thurman Munson by the Yankees, Bobby Valentine by the Dodgers, Greg Luzinski by the Phillies and Gary Mathews by the Giants.
The Los Angeles Dodgers seemed to fare better than the rest. They also drafted Joe Ferguson, Doyle Alexander and Bill Buckner. The Red Sox drafted Cecil Cooper and Ben Oglivie.
Ken Forsch was drafted in the eighteenth round by the Astros, while brother Bob was drafted in the twenty-sixth round by the Cardinals.
Around the minor leagues, Rochester's Merv Rettenmund was selected as The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. He hit .331 for the Red Wings.
In the AA Eastern League, five qualifying pitchers finished the season with ERAs under 2.00. They were Silvano Quezada of York (1.34), Paul Campbell of Elmira (1.53), Patrick Bayless of Reading (1.76), Gene Rounsaville of Reading (1.76) and Richard Baney of Pittsfield (1.84).
In the Carolina League, Tony Solaita led all of professional baseball in home runs. He hit 49 homers and drove in 122 for the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms. That earned the Samoa-born slugger a call up to the Yankees, where he struck out in his only at bat. It would take him several more years to reach the majors again, Playing for the Kansas City Royals in 1974, and playing for Jack McKeon, who was his manger in High Point-Thomasville.
Back to the big leagues, and the statistical breakdown.
Looking at the American League offense first, where the league as a whole fared 2.5% lower than the National League hitters, we get this initial top ten list:
- PlayerTeamHRRBIAVGRCGKen HarrelsonRed Sox35109.2751.02Bill FreehanTigers2584.2630.85Carl YastrzemskiRed Sox2374.3010.90Frank RobinsonOrioles1552.2680.82Frank HowardSenators44106.2740.89Jim NorthrupTigers2190.2640.94Willie HortonTigers3685.2850.78Tony OlivaTwins1868.2890.81Dick McAuliffeTigers1656.2490.89Reggie SmithRed Sox1569.2650.85
Then as compared to their team's average performers, that top ten list is as follows:
- Frank HowardAboveFrank RobinsonAboveKen HarrelsonAboveRoy WhiteYankees1762.2670.87Carl YastrzemskiAboveRick ReichardtAngels2173.2550.75Tony OlivaAboveBill FreehanAboveJim FregosiAngels949.2440.74Duane JosephsonWhite Sox645.2470.58
Applying my formula, which gives my true rating, we get this final list of top ten offensive players, along with their post season BBWAA vote:
- Ken Harrelson3rd in MVPFrank Howard8th in MVPFrank RobinsonNo votesCarl Yastrzemski9th in MVPBill Freehan2nd in MVPTony Oliva19th in MVP (tie)Jim Northrup13th in MVPRoy White12th in MVPWillie Horton4th in MVPReggie SmithNo votes
Moving over to the National League, our initial list is as such:
- Willie McCoveyGiants36105.2931.01Dick AllenPhillies3390.2630.95Tony PerezReds1892.2821.04Billy WilliamsCubs3098.2880.98Willie MaysGiants2379.2890.95Johnny BenchReds1582.2750.87Hank AaronBraves2986.2870.90Pete RoseReds1049.3350.89Ron SantoCubs2698.2460.98Lee MayReds2290.2900.93
Then looking at the team performance, we get this second list:
- Dick AllenAboveHank AaronAboveWillie McCoveyAboveCleon JonesMets1455.2970.71Jim WynnAstros2667.2690.81Joe TorreBraves1055.2710.78Tom HallerDodgers453.2850.60Billy WilliamsAboveWillie MaysAboveRoberto ClementePirates1857.2910.86
Finalizing the statistics brings us this top ten overall list:
- Willie McCovey3rd in MVPDick AllenNo votesHank Aaron12th in MVPBilly Williams8th in MVPWillie Mays13th in MVPRon Santo24th in MVPTony Perez19th in MVPJim WynnNo votesRoberto ClementeNo votesJohnny Bench16th in MVP,Rookie of the Year
Now to the much heralded pitching. Looking at the National League first, the pitchers held a 55.9% statistical advantage over the National League hitters. Our initial top ten list is:
- PitcherTeamW-LERASvsBob GibsonCardinals22-91.120Juan MarichalGiants26-92.430Jerry KoosmanMets19-122.080Steve BlassPirates18-62.120Joe HoernerCardinals8-21.4717Tom SeaverMets16-122.201Don DrysdaleDodgers14-122.150Ray WashburnCardinals14-82.810Ferguson JenkinsCubs20-152.630
And then how they fared against their own team's averages, we get this list:
- Phil ReganDodgers/Cubs12-52.2725Bob GibsonAboveJuan MarichalAboveSteve BlassAboveJerry KoosmanAboveFerguson JenkinsAboveGary NolanReds9-42.400Chris ShortPhillies19-132.941Don DrysdaleAbovePat JarvisBraves16-122.600
Combing and comparing, we get this final list of top pitchers in the National League:
- Bob GibsonNL MVP, NL Cy Young AwardJuan Marichal5th in MVPJerry Koosman2nd in Rookie of the Year13th in MVP (tied)Steve Blass22nd in MVP (tied)Tom SeaverNo votesDon DrysdaleNo votesJoe HoernerNo votesFerguson Jenkins18th in MVP (tied)Phil Regan25th in MVP (tied)Pat JarvisNo votes
Since Bob Gibson was the unanimous choice for the Cy Young Award, no other pitche received any votes. The same is true with Denny McLain in the American League. McLain, in fact was the unanimous American League Most Valuable Player as well, the only pitcher to pull off that double.
As in the Eastern League, the American League also had five ERA qualifiers that finished with an ERA below 2.00. Each of them are listed below. And thew fared 60% better than the AL hitters, statistically speaking.
The initial top ten American League pitchers were:
- Denny McLainTigers31-61.960Luis TiantIndians21-91.600Dave McNallyOrioles22-101.950Mel StottlemyereYankees21-122.450Stan BahnsenYankees17-122.050Sam McDowellIndians15-141.810Jim HardinOrioles18-132.510Tommy JohnWhite Sox10-051.980John OdomA's16-102.450Vincente RomoIndians5-31.6212
Now looking at performances against their team's average performance, we get this list:
- Danny McLainAboveLuis TiantAboveCamilo PascualSenators13-122.690Dave McNallyAboveMel StottlemyreAboveTommy JohnAboveStan BahnsesAboveLindy McDaniel*Yankees4-11.7510John OdomAboveJoe ColemanSenators12-163.270
*McDaniel also pitched for the San Francisco Giants, but these are just his American League statistics.
Combining and factoring, we get this American League top ten performer list:
- Denny McLainAL MVP, AL Cy YoungLuis Tiant5th in MVP (tied)Dave McNally5th in MVP (tied)Mel Stottlemyre10th in MVPStan BahnsenRookie of the YearLindy McDanielNo votesTommy JohnNo votesSam McDowellNo votesJohn OdomNo votesJim HardinNo votes
So, for the overall tally, my top five in each league, matches the BBWAA voting as well. At the top, at least.
Most Valuable Player
Cy Young Award Winner
Offensive Player of the Year
Most Valuable Player
CyYoung Award Winner
Offensive Player of the Year