Year Of The Pitcher: 1968

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Greetings from The Booth!

Every day on my morning show, “Randy & The Wake-Up Crew,” I do a feature called “The Big Splash From The Hot Tub Time Machine,” where I highlight a daily historical happening on that date. This week I mentioned that in 1968, Don Drysdale’s consecutive scoreless inning streak came to an end at 58 and 2/3 innings. Think about that for a second. That’s over six 9-inning games without allowing a run. And, it happened in an era when starting pitchers would just as soon physically throw a manager back to the dugout than come out of a ballgame. Especially Drysdale, who was one mean SOB. (Footnote: Drysdale’s mark would be broken in 1988 by another Dodger, Orel Hershiser, but I digress.)

Anyway, mentioning Drysdale’s feat got me thinking about 1968, the so-called “Year Of The Pitcher.” In that season, 339 shutouts were thrown in 1,619 regular season games. Both NL & AL MVPs, Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, were pitchers, with both also winning their respective league Cy Young honors. Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal were also atop a list of dominant pitchers in 1968. Gibson’s team, the St. Louis Cardinals, threw 30 shutouts alone, 13 of those by Gibson. The Cardinals’ flamethrower also ended the season with an incredible 1.12 ERA, a mark that will probably stand forever. Gibson and McLain would cap the “year of the pitcher” with their respective teams, the Cardinals and Detroit Tigers,  facing off in the World Series , a 7-game classic.

Those were the days when the Fall Classic was played during the day, and in the 1968 Series opener, Gibson struck out 17 batters. I remember getting home from school in time to watch that game, and was glued to the old Magnavox as the Cardinals’ righthander mowed down one Tiger after the next. If I didn’t want to be a pitcher before that, I certainly did after watching that incredible performance. It was a display of pure power pitching.

Ironically, it would be a finesse pitcher who would steal the show in that Series, as lefty Mickey Lolich (who once described himself as “the beer drinkers idol”) pitched 3 complete-game victories for the Tigers, including the Game 7 win over Gibson, to capture MVP honors.

It must be explained that in 1968 the pitchers mound was 15 inches, and the strike zone was larger, two things that led to the dominating season that pitchers had. Changes would soon be made, as the mound was lowered to 10 inches in 1969. In ’68, the strike zone was defined as the top of the batters’ shoulders to below his knees. The following year, the strike zone became the area between the batters’ armpits to the top of his knees, making it tougher for pitchers to throw strikes. The changes resulted in a 30-point difference in the batting average of the 1968 AL batting champ (Carl Yastrzemski’s .301) and the 1969 AL batting champion (Rod Carew’s .332), and the American League collective batting average was 16 points higher in 1969. So on and so forth. After those changes in 1969, pitching would never be as dominant again as it was in 1968.

Chicks may dig the long ball…but in ’68, they probably had a soft spot for pitchers, too.

See you next time in The Booth!