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1968: Death of a Legend, Year of the Pitcher

This was not a season that was shortened although opening day was postponed and it was the first time every team played their first game of the season all on the same day. It was a pretty significant season for reasons other than the postponement, but the performances of Black and Latino players were a testament to the time in history. In this installment we skip completely over the live ball era to a return to the dominance of pitchers. However, it wouldn't be long before hitters took control of the game once again.


Highest Paid Player: Willie Mays, $125,000

US President: Lyndon Johnson

In The News:

  • Tet Offensive in Vietnam

  • Protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago

  • Robert F. Kennedy assassinated during Presidential Primary Campaign

First Class Postage Stamp: $0.05

Number of Games: 162

Number of Teams: 20

Teams of 1968 Compared to 1919:

NL: Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Braves moved to Atlanta from Boston with a stop in Milwaukee, Giants moved to San Francisco from New York, Expansion teams of New York Mets and Houston Astros.

AL: Orioles moved to Baltimore from St Louis (Browns), Athletics moved from Philadelphia with a stop in Kansas City, Twins moved from Washington (the Senators from 1918-19), Expansion teams of California Angels, and Texas Rangers (established as an expansion version of the Washington Senators).

The Assassination of Dr. King

Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Domain.

There is one major event of 1968 that was left out of the "In The News" summary. Thursday, April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr was killed. In the days that followed the country was wrapped in sadness and rage exhibited in protests as well as rioting. The NBA, NHL and PGA were put on hold while President Johnson issued a day of mourning for that Sunday. The Reds opening day scheduled for Monday, to be the first in the league, was pushed back to happen with everyone else.

The Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley wanted to play the Dodgers opener at 11pm Eastern Time on the day of King’s funeral, thinking that it would be so late in the day that it would have enough separation to still be respectful, while opening the season the day before the rest of the league on Wednesday. Jackie Robinson had retired twelve years prior and was still only 49 years old, voiced his concerns to the Dodgers owner, talking him into moving the game back a day.

"Mr. O'Malley is a man with tremendous ability," Jackie Robinson told a reporter, "but also a man with a total lack of knowledge of the frustration of the Negro community. It grieves me that Walter O'Malley did not understand the importance of the thing."

While the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier is quite well known, the harassment he faced, Branch Rickey’s order to not engage with taunting and the flood of black players to come in the following years, his political role with race relations was surprisingly nuanced. Jackie was intrigued my ideals of freedom and a two party system. He was put off by Democratic politicians courting southern Dixiecrat Governors who pushed racist policies and liked that the Republicans were the party of Lincoln and racially progressive statements by Nixon when he endorsed Tricky Dick against Kennedy in 1960. In the midst of that campaign Martin Luther King started to serve a four month sentence of hard labor in Georgia. Kennedy spoke out against the sentence and lobbied for his release, but Nixon, even after Robinson reached out on King’s behalf, stated that contacting King would have been seen as “grandstanding.”

Jackie Robinson and his son David at the March on Washington, 1963. Public Domain.

After a series of disappointments with the Republican party’s attempts at gaining southern votes through racist messages and policies Robinson was sickened by Goldwater’s nomination in ‘64 and campaigned for Johnson. He had dreams of of a two-party system in the US where blacks weren’t forced to only vote for one party every year because both parties would be inclusive, a dream that is very unrealistic six decades later. Jackie Robinson would pass away in 1972 at the age of 53 of a heart attack. His legacy as a groundbreaking player is still alive and well as the whole league celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15th every year and every player wears his number 42, retired by every team in the Majors.

The season would start with all twenty teams playing in one day, twelve of those opening day pitchers would throw eight innings or more and six threw complete games. Oddly, Bob Gibson would not throw eight innings that day, but he would prove over the rest of the season that this was the Year of the Pitcher.

Year of the Pitcher

NL MVP and Cy Young Winner: Bob Gibson, RHP St. Louis Cardinals

As it turns out, the vast majority of MLB players have their peak season the year that they turn 31. When a player is approaching a new contract the context of their “Year 31 Season” gives teams context of whether they are on the rise of their career and can be expected to have a great season after a signing or if they have presumably already peaked. In the case of Bob Gibson, the Year of the Pitcher came in the season where he was 32 years old and he had a year that no other pitcher had seen since 1914 and none have come close to ever since. Not only that, but he continued his dominance over the league for the four years that followed.

Gibson was a pitcher known for his brushback pitch. Every so often he would pitch a ball inside, nearly hitting or hitting the batter in order to send fear into that batter as well as the rest of the lineup. It would also open up the outside half of the strike zone as hitters would be worried about dodging pitches running in on them that they would be less inclined to reach out for a pitch far away from them for fear that they could be stepping into a pitch. He was a great strike out pitcher, but would also rather get three outs on three pitches to get out of an inning quickly.

Bob Gibson in 1962. Public Domain.

Dominating the league, his 1.12 ERA in 1968 is the lowest by any eligible pitcher in the Live Ball Era, which is not the last 100 years of baseball. To be eligible to lead the league in ERA, a pitcher has to have thrown at least as many innings as their team plays in that season. For a 162 game season a pitcher has to throw 162 innings, if they pitch every five days they should be in the game for at least five innings. In his 34 games he won 22 games and lost nine, leading him to say, “I’m amazed that I love nine ballgames.” That’s not because he was especially full of himself, it’s because the Cardinals were shut out three times in 1968 and were even no-hit by Gaylord Perry in a 1-0 game Gibson started. More on Perry in the 1972 installment. Gibson threw five shutouts consecutively in the midst of a streak of 47.2 scoreless innings, gave up a run on a wild pitch, then threw another 17.1 scoreless innings. Over this span he went 95 innings where he only gave up two earned runs. His dominance earned him the NL MVP Award and he unanimously won the NL Cy Young Award. These astronomical numbers continued into the World Series where he threw perhaps one of the greatest World Series games ever, a five-hit shutout striking out 17 in Game One. He faced the American League MVP and also unanimous Cy Young winner, Denny McLain in Game One and Four, throwing two complete games, giving up only one earned run and striking out a grand total of 27 batters. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, McLain would win Game Six, and Gibson would finally lose in Game Seven, a 4-1 loss in a complete game, to the Tiger’s second best pitcher, Mickey Lolich who won three games in the World Series.

A great athlete, Gibson hit .303 in 109 at bats as a pitcher in 1970, he was the first black basketball player at Creighton and was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters in his minor league off seasons.

The Other Pitcher of the Year

AL MVP and Cy Young Award: Denny McLain, RHP Detroit Tigers

It turns out it was DON McLEAN who wrote American Pie. Denny McLain might have been a hard luck loser in Games One and Four of the ‘68 World Series against Bob Gibson, but his Game Six win kept the Tigers alive to win the World Series in Game Seven. McLain is the only MLB pitcher to win 30 or more games since 1934, led the league with 41 games started and 28 complete games and his 1.96 ERA would have led the league in nearly any other season. He was an All-Star and only 24 years old in 1968 and he embraced everything about his success. He bragged that his success was the result of off-season bowling, drank a 24-bottle case of Pepsi a day and appeared on the Today show, The Ed Sullivan Show and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour between starts. McLain happened to also be a pretty accomplished organist, using a Hammond organ, so some of those appearances were probably on double duty.

McLain won the Cy Young Award the next season, winning 24 games, 2.80 ERA, and nine shutouts, but after the 1969 season, his heavy workload and off-field life came to a head. After consecutive seasons with 41 starts he never had a season with an ERA under 4.00 again and Was out of the league by the time her was 28 years old.

It came out in 1970 that not only had he invested in a bookmaking ring in Flint in 1967, that ring was run by the Syrian Mob. It cost him a half season suspension to be associated with gamblers, and the end of his career wasn't far behind. After his playing days were over his troubles didn't disappear. He found himself in prison on two occasions from convictions for racketeering, drug trafficking and extortion then later embezzlement, mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. After getting out of prison a second time he got back with his wife and turned his life around. He got bariatric surgery and lost 150 lbs so that he could finally take care of his family.

The Other Pitchers

Although Gibson and McLain ran away with the Cy Young Awards and both won the MVP awards, they were hardly the only pitchers to dominated in 1968. Seven pitchers posted ERA’s under 2.00, seven won 20 games or more, five pitchers threw seven or more shutouts, and nine starters posted a WHIP under 1.000.

Dave McNally

Promotional photo of Dave McNally. Public Domain.

Although McNally’s historical significance to baseball came at the end of his career, ‘68 was the start of a run of four straight 20-win seasons for the Orioles starter. It was his best year, winning 22, striking out 202, leading the AL in WHIP at 0.842, and sporting a 1.95 ERA in his 25 year old season. His significance as a player came after the 1975 season where he, the union and another player went to arbitration to try to gain free agency. The union had a representative as one arbitrator, the league had another and the third was agreed to by both parties. The third arbitrator decided the league was in the wrong, granted both players free agency and officially ended the reserve clause to officially make free agency a part of the business of baseball. The fact that this took place through arbitration is also legally significant because in the world of business arbitration, the terminology for the kind of arbitration where one side wins, a choice between the two options rather than a decision where the arbitrator can name a third binding option is called Baseball Arbitration even when it doesn’t necessarily involve the business of baseball.

The Cleveland Duo

The Indians pitching staff was the first team to ever have more strikeouts than hits allowed in a season until the 2003 Cubs. There has been a bit of a philosophy change in baseball in more recent years and it has been a pretty common occurrence that one or more teams have pulled this feat almost every year since 2009, to the point that last season SIXTEEN teams did it. However, in 1968, it was more of an instance of pitchers excelling rather than battering being more willing to swing and miss.

Cleveland’s rotation was carried by the two-headed monster of 25 year old “Sudden” Sam McDowell and a 27 year old Luis Tiant. McDowell also went by the much longer nickname of “the American League Sandy Koufax,” as the big lefty led the AL in strikeouts in five the of the six seasons between 1965 and 1970. He came out hot as a 21 year old in ‘64, led the league in ERA in ‘65 (2.18), shutouts (5) in ‘66 and his 1.81 ERA in ‘68 was a career low. As suddenly as he became a star with the Indians in his early 20’s, he had dropped out of his stardom when he went to the Giants in his late 20’s.

Luis C. Tiant, “El Tiante,” was known for his graceful pirouetting windup, a style of pitching inherited from his father. The elder Tiant, who also went by Luis, was a twenty-year star of the Cuban and Negro Leagues, playing until he was 41 years old in 1947. If a pitcher can master one of the spitter, knuckler or screwball, they are destined to be a legend, and the lefty Luis Eleuterio Tiant threw them all while twirling on the mound. He also had a great fastball, curve and slider and had a tendency to bust hitters inside to keep them on their toes. It would be hard to know what the hell was coming at a hitter. Hall of Fame outfielder Monte Irvin claimed that if Luis E. Tiant had the chance he would have been a “great, great star.” He had such a great pickoff move that he would enjoy walking Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell, perhaps the fastest player of the Negro Leagues, “just to put on a show trying to keep him from stealing.” It is debatable to decide which of the father and son were the better pitcher, but also which of the two is perhaps the best pitcher ever to come out of Cuba. When both were asked, they both claimed the other was the better pitcher.

In 1968 Luis C. Tiant was fourth in strikeouts, winning 21 games, and led the league in ERA (1.60) and shutouts in ‘68. In one game he struck out 19 in a ten inning complete game, and ended the season with an 11 strikeout one-hitter. At one point he threw four straight shut-outs, one shy of the then-record. The next season it all fell apart, Tiant lost 20 games, and led the league in home runs and walks given up and found himself with a one-way ticket out of town. He eventually found his way to the Red Sox in his early 30’s where he became a star again, leading the league in ERA, becoming a postseason star with the 1975 AL Pennant team and establishing himself as one of the most beloved Red Sox stars.

AL Rookie of the Year: Stan Bahnsen, RHP New York Yankees

The AL Rookie of the Year was another pitcher, the Yankees’ Stan Bahnsen. He had a pretty great rookie season, winning 17 games, striking out 162 batters, and posting a 2.05 ERA. Bahnsen had a decent run at the start of his career with six straight seasons with ERAs under 4.00 and a 21 win season in 1972 with the White Sox. Mid-way through his career he was traded to the A’s where he transitioned into a reliever and was much less effective until his later seasons. Over his sixteen seasons he had a highly respectable 3.60 ERA.

The Vietnam War

The runner up for the NL rookie of the year award actually was another pitcher from New York who sported a slightly better WAR for 1968. The Mets’ Jerry Koosman nearly missed out on a baseball career a couple times over. First he was drafted into the Army in 1962, and stationed at a base that didn’t even have a field. Through his barber who happened to be an officer, he received a transfer to another base that did have a team. He basically strong armed his way into trying out for the team and after only a dozen pitches or so the coach named him that day’s starting pitcher. He says that this move onto the base’s team probably saved him from serving as a helicopter pilot and being sent to Vietnam. It wasn’t unusual for soldiers to spend war time on a base sports team, Pirates shortstop Dick Groat spent World War II playing for his base’s baseball and basketball teams, winning some prestigious tournaments. It was on this team that the Mets found Koosman, signed him and he resigned his position in the Army.

Garry Maddox in 1974. Public Domain.

Not all pro players avoided combat in Vietnam, In 1968 Garry Maddox was a teenager in the minors when he learned that as a black man he was underpaid compared to other players drafted in the same area and quit baseball out of frustration to join the military. He spent 1969 in Vietnam as a guard and although he didn't see the worst combat his experience was "pure hell." In that year he witnessed racial conflict on base, the aftermath of a friend's suicide, 110+ temperatures, and a mysterious chemical reaction on his face. He was released from his military contract after just a year because his father suffered multiple heart attacks in that time and he was able to come back and get a job with the Giants. Later he would wonder the sensitivity on his face was from Agent Orange and would grow a bushy beard. That beard would become iconic to him, he was the greatest fielding center fielder of the '70's earning eight Gold Gloves and the nickname "The Secretary of Defense."

Struggling at first in the minors, he was in a car with two other guys named Jerry that was sideswiped, stranding the players in Georgia. He was able to find a $50 loan that helped get the players back to the team, a move that seemed to prolong his chances as a pro. When he returned to the team he had also happened to add a few pitches to his repertoire, making him a sudden success. He won 19 games in ‘68 striking out 178 with an ERA of 2.08. He didn’t let up the next year, winning 17 games, striking out 180 with an ERA of 2.28, he and Tom Seaver led the Miracle Mets to their first World Series Championship in the history of their franchise. He pitched into his 40’s, and in one appearance for the Phillies he gave up the 4000th hit to Pete Rose, who had happened to lead the NL in 1968 in hits (210), AVG (.335, the best in the majors) and OBP (.391).

NL Rookie of the Year: Johnny Bench, C Cincinnati Reds

The only hitter to win one of the three major awards in either league was the future Hall of Fame catcher, Johnny Bench. The rookie year for the 20-year old rookie was actually one of the worst of his career as far as home run production (15) and on base percentage (.311 compared to his career average of .342). It was the first of ten straight Gold Gloves and thirteen straight All-Star Games. Reds teammate Pete Rose and his majors best .335 AVG was probably the best bet for the NL MVP if a hitter were to receive the award in 1968. More on Bench in the 1972 installment.

Ninth in AL MVP Voting

The only hitter in the American League to hit over .300 in 1968 was the Red Sox Carl Yastrzemski. The Red Sox had a down year after coming up a game short in the World Series the year before. Yaz’s batting average dipped 25 points from the previous year where he also led the league, but his MLB best .426 OBP of ‘68 was actually one of the best of his career. Home runs were down and his RBI total of 74 was way down, but Yaz still managed to have the highest WAR in the AL (10.5) and was only second to Bob Gibson (11.9) for the Major League best. Although he was definitely the best offensive player in the Majors in ‘68, Yastrzemski he still finished ninth in MVP voting.

The Intangibles

Bill Freehan. Public Domain.

In a year where both MVP awards were unanimously given to pitchers, there weren’t major awards given to any of the top hitters of the year. The Tigers and the Cardinals were the two dominant teams of the year and their aces were the two dominant pitchers in the Year of the Pitcher. Both teams had guys known for their intangibles that led them on the offensive side (and fielding) to that dominance and earned quite a few (non-first place) votes for MVP. Bill Freehan was the 11-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove catcher for the Tigers, he was an excellent fielder and a leader of the Tigers and he actually had a career high 25 homers and 84 RBI. Frehan finished second in AL voting, and on the NL side the Cardinals’ OF Curt Flood finished fourth. Flood was perhaps the best fielding outfielder of the ‘60’s, winning seven straight Gold Gloves from ‘63 to ‘69. A three-time All-Star, Flood was more than just a glove in ‘68, hitting .301, one of the very few hitters over .300 in the Majors. This was the third World Series appearance for Flood and although it was the first time his team lost the Series, it was perhaps his best showing in the postseason, hitting .286 and stealing three bags. I’ll have a bit more on Flood’s legacy in the 1972 installment as well.

The Alou Brothers

When Felipe Alou joined the Giants in 1958 he was the first Dominican player to play as a regular in the Major Leagues. A couple of years later he was joined by his brother Matty and in 1963, the youngest of the brothers to play in the league, Jesus, joined them in San Francisco as well. In Jesus’s first game in the Majors the three brothers all hit in the same half inning, the first time a trio of brothers had ever done such a thing. A couple of days later all three played in the outfield together, another first.

It turns out they weren’t the “Ah-Lew” brothers, but the “Ah-Low” brothers, Felipe was too polite to correct the pronunciation and by the time his brothers came up it had stuck with stadium announcers and reporters. They actually weren’t even Alous. Their mother’s maiden name was Alou, and their father’s name, their surname, was Rojas. This was a misunderstanding of Felipe being the first prominent Latin player in the Majors. A similar mistake befell the first Chinese player in the NBA in 2001, Wang Zhizhi, whose surname, Wang, was absent from his jersey back in favor of his given name, Zhizhi. When Yao Ming came into the league a year later, the league figured it out and put his surame on his uniform. For the Alou-Rojas family, the mistake carried over a generation to Felipe’s son Moises Alou, but the nephew of Felipe, Matty and Jesus, Mel Rojas went by his correct name. Mel Rojas, Jr. the third generation in the clan, is now playing in Korea after years in the Pirates system.

By 1964 Jesus was thought to have the most potential although Felipe was the most accomplished. The Domincan Republic was in a civil war and Felipe was speaking out against the military junta terrorizing the people of his country. Felipe later said that if he wasn’t a ballplayer he would be called a Communist in his native land. This was bad politics for the Giants whose organization had a special relationship with the DR government in order to sign players and Felipe was traded to the Milwaukee Braves before the start of the season. The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, a season that Felipe led the league in AB (666), runs (122) and hits (218). In 1968 Felipe shared the Braves outfield with Tito Francona (Terry Francona’s father, the younger Francona would manage the Red Sox to their first Championship in 86 years) and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, and the catcher on that team was Joe Torre who would go on to manage the Yankees in the 90’s and 2000’s (more on those Yankee teams in future installments). That year led the league in ABs (662) and hits (210) and was one of the small handful of players to hit over .300 in The Year of the Pitcher (.317)

Matty Alou in 1971. Public Domain.

Matty Alou thought his career with the Giants would take off when his brother left for the Braves in 1964, but he was still blocked from his natural position by Hall of Famer Willie Mays. His career wouldn’t take off until he was traded to the Pirates in 1966 where he would lead the league in hitting (.342). An unconventional hitter, Ted Williams (himself of Mexican-American decent) once said of Matty, “he violates most of the principles I teach, but somehow he manages to get on base.” And he did, in ‘68 he even bettered Felipe’s .317 AVG by hitting .332 and finishing second in the majors, just a few points below Pete Rose (.335). Matty’s outfield in Pittsburgh in ‘68 was even better than Felipe’s Braves as he was flanked by Hall of Famers Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente (a bit more on Clemente in the 1972 installment coming up). The next season Matty was the Alou brother to league in ABs (698), hits (231) and doubles (41), but 1968 was the year that Felipe and Matty’s best seasons overlapped.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Jesus finally had a full season to play the outfield and split time on the corners with Ty Cline and Bobby Bonds (father of Barry, more on those two in the ‘90’s and 2000’s) while Willie Mays manned center field. It was not a great season for Jesus, he only hit .263, only stole one base and didn’t hit a single homer. He would be drafted by the Expos in the expansion draft the next off season and immediately traded to the Astros. His 1970 year with the Astros was the best of his career, hitting .306 with 27 doubles, but it was a far cry from being the best of the Alou brothers as a regular player. He was regarded over his career as one of the best pinch hitters in the league, bettering Hall of Famer and celebrated bench player Enos Slaughter in that regard.

In the ‘30’s and ‘40’s it was said of the DiMaggio brothers that Joe was the best hitter, Dom was the best fielder and Vince was the best singer. With the Alous, it seems that Felipe was the best leader, Matty was the best hitter for average and Jesus was the best off the bench. The DiMaggios spread an acceptance of Italian-American ball players in their time and the Alous created a community of Latin American players of color in San Francisco with Juan Marichal and spread that community around the league as they changed teams. In 1971, three years after Martin Luther King Jr's death, the Pirates fielded the very first lineup entirely made up of minorities. That Pittsburgh team was so diverse that Matty Alou didn't even happen to be in the lineup that day. It wasn't even an intentional statement of a lineup, it was the result of injuries, but the culture of the team provided that kind of historical opportunity.

Year of the Pitcher Fallout

“Chicks dig the long ball” was a famous ad campaign of the ‘90’s where the future Hall of Fame Braves pitchers practiced hitting home runs in order to gain attention. That seems to be a bit true because in 1968, although pitching was the best it ever was across the league, the fans weren’t showing up in the stands. The league had to do something to bring them back so the rules committee had the strike zone shrunk to the smaller size it was before 1963. Perhaps the biggest change was an alteration of the field, the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches. Four expansion teams joined the league in 1969 and hitters would face a diluted crop of pitchers over the season. Batting averages would return to where they had historically been just one year later.

1968 Hall of Good Enough Players

Felipe Alou, ATL OF, 17 Yrs, 42.3 WAR, 2101 H, 359 2B, 206 HR, .286 AVG

Jesus Alou, SFG OF, 15 Yrs, 0.8 WAR, 1216 H, 170 2B, .280 AVG

Matty Alou, PIT OF, 15 Yrs, 23.1 WAR, 1777 H, 236 2B, 156 SB, .307 AVG

Stan Bahnsen, NYY RHP, 16 Yrs, 22.7 WAR, 146 W, 1359 K, 3.60 ERA, 1.330 WHIP

Bill Freehan, C DET, 15 Yrs, 44.7 WAR, 1561 H, 200 HR, .262 AVG, .340 OBP

Jerry Koosman, LHP NYM, 19 Yrs, 53.6 WAR, 222 W, 2556 K, 3.36 ERA, 1.259 WHIP

Mickey Lolich, LHP DET, 16 Yrs, 40.8 WAR, 217 W, 2832 K, 3.44 ERA, 1.227 WHIP

Garry Maddox, OF PHI, 15 YRS, 36.8 WAR, 1802 H, 337 HR, 248 SB, .285 AVG

Sam McDowell, LHP CLE, 15 Yrs, 41.8 WAR, 141 W, 2453 K, 3.17 ERA, 1.308 WHIP

Denny McLain, RHP DET, 10 Yrs, 19.3 WAR, 131 W, 1282 K, 3.39 ERA, 1.163 WHIP

Dave McNally, LHP BAL, 14 Yrs, 25.5 WAR, 184 W, 1512 K, 3.24 ERA, 1.214 WHIP

Luis C. Tiant, RHP CLE, 19 Yrs, 66.1 WAR, 229 W, 2416 K, 3.30 ERA, 1.199 WHIP

Luis E. Tiant, LHP New York Cubans, 12 recorded years, 3.93 ERA*

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