The Unexpected Hero (1968 World Series)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

Has there ever been a World Series in which the two biggest stars in the game were the starting pitchers in Game 1 (and potentially Games 4 and 7)? I maintain that it happened just once – appropriately enough, in 1968. The Year of the Pitcher.

As it happens, this was first World Series. I had become a fan that summer, and still recall my sadness listening to the final Red Sox game on the radio and realizing that I would have six months to wait for the next one. I was nearly 8, and the pattern of my baseball life had begun. Delaying the off-season just a bit, there was this World Series thing so I figured I might as well watch.

The 1968 World Series pitted the AL champion Tigers and the NL champion Cardinals.  There were no playoffs — the regular season ended up Sunday and the series started on Wednesday afternoon.  All games took place in the afternoon.  I had to rush home from third grade to see the five weekday games.  I rooted for the American League.

The story of the 1968 baseball season was tremendous pitching or, if you prefer, terrible hitting. There were countless individual pitching achievements—no-hitters, shutout streaks, strikeouts—but the two biggest baseball stories, and baseball stars, were McLain and Gibson. The two men could not have been more different: McLain was brash and cocky, craving his new-found attention. Gibson was all glare, and didn’t seem to care if anyone liked him (though his teammates did).

McLain became the first pitcher in 34 years to win 30 games, accomplishing this feat on national TV with Dizzy Dean (the last to accomplish the feat) calling the game for NBC. Gibson “only” won 22 games, because he generally pitched in a five-man rotation and did not always get the run support afforded McLain. At the end of May Gibson’s pitching record was 3-5 despite a 1.52 ERA. Taking matters more or less into his own hands, in the months of June and July he won all 12 of his starts, each a complete game, eight of them shutouts, and posted a 0.50 ERA.

Both teams won their pennants easily, allowing for several weeks of Gibson vs. McLain anticipation. Gibson was properly considered the better pitcher and his team the series favorite – the Cardinals were defending champs, and Gibson had dominated the Red Sox three times the previous October. But McLain’s wins were legitimate – he put up a 1.96 ERA over 41 starts and 336 innings.

Both teams had other, if less celebrated, weapons. The Tigers offense hit 185 home runs, by far the most in the majors, and was led by Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Al Kaline, Dick McAuliffe and Jim Northrup. The pitching after McLain was serviceable, with Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson pitching well enough for the offense to win most of their starts.

The Cardinals did not have the firepower of the Tigers – Orlando Cepeda (16) and Mike Shannon (15) were the only players who managed more than six home runs – but the team led its league in triples and was second in doubles and stolen bases. St. Louis relied on speed on the bases, and excellent starting pitching. In Nelson Briles, Ray Washburn and Steve Carlton, the Cardinals had much better options outside of the three potential Gibson-McLain games.

And so it began.

In the opener in St. Louis, Bob Gibson was as good as any pitcher has ever been, throwing a five-hit shutout and striking out a World Series record 17 men. McLain wasn’t awful – he allowed three runs in the fourth on two walks and two singles, and left for a pinch hitter in the sixth. But the story was Gibson, who threw a masterpiece people are still discussing 50 years later.

As overmatched as the Tigers offense looked in Game 1, they came back the next day and waltzed to an 8-1 win behind Lolich’s six-hitter. Detroit hit three long home runs off Briles, including one by Lolich himself (the only one of his professional career). In many ways this was the biggest game of the series, as the Tigers had been so thoroughly dominated you might wonder if they would just pack it in. Instead, we now had a series.

Unfortunately, the Motown optimism lasted just one game. After a day off, the series moved to Detroit, and the Cardinals won decisively, 7-3. Playing against type, St. Louis managed 13 hits off five Tiger pitchers, including three-run homers by McCarver and Cepeda. Down 2-1 in the series, it was lost on no one – least of all the television announcers – that the Tigers were now going to have beat Gibson, either in Game 4 or (if things got that far) Game 7. How likely was that?

Gibson and McLain went back to the mound for Game 4, and the results were even more one-sided. The Tigers managed to score a run – on a Northrup home run – and struck out “only” 10 times, but the Cardinals chased McLain in the 3rd on the way to a 10-1 rout. Among the 13 hits there were six for extra bases, including a Gibson home run off Joe Sparma. The Cards were a game away from becoming the first NL team to win back-to-back World Series in 60 years.

Game 5 took place on Monday afternoon, and the Cardinals opened the contest with three runs off Lolich in the top of the first. Despite base runners throughout the game, those three runs would be all Lolich would allow, and the Tigers managed to scrape together two runs in the fourth and three in the 7th to prevail 5-3. The series would return to St. Louis, with the Cardinals needing to win one of two.

Tiger manager Mayo Smith’s most famous post-season decision was electing to play outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop, filling a gaping hole in the club’s lineup. But Smith made another gutsy move that likely had a bigger impact on the outcome of the series. Trailing 3 games to 2, Smith decided to pitch McLain in Game 6 on just two days rest, and (if necessary) Lolich, also on two days rest, against Gibson in the finale. McLain had pitched poorly twice and was likely dead tired after 43 starts over six months, so accelerating his schedule seems extreme by the standards of a latter era. On the other hand, he wouldn’t have to face Gibson.

As it happened, the Tigers scored two in the second and ten in the third (including a Northrup grand slam) and cruised to a 13-1 victory. McLain was great, allowing 9 singles and no walks but he had the benefit of cruising for the last seven innings. Caveats aside, he had his series victory.

The 1968 World Series came down to Game 7, Gibson against Lolich, both men having won twice already. This may seem an unusual bit of fortune for baseball, but the precise thing had happened a year earlier, when Gibson faced the Red Sox’ Jim Lonborg, who, like Lolich, had won Games 2 and 5.

In 1968, Gibson began Game 7 like he had pitched in Game 1, retiring the side in the first three innings while striking out five. Lolich was less spectacular, allowing an occasional base runner, but neither team could manage even a single run through six innings. At this point, Gibson had allowed 1 run in 24 innings in the series.

After two harmless Tiger outs in the top of the 7th, ground singles by Cash and Horton gave the Tigers something that looked suspiciously like a rally. And all of a sudden Jim Northrup hit a screaming line drive to deep center field that Curt Flood could not run down, and when the dust settled Northrup was standing on third with a two-run triple. Many people have suggested that Flood misjudged the ball but the ball was really crushed, and hit directly over his head. Flood was a great center fielder, but not great enough on this play. Freehan doubled down the line and, just like that it was 3-0 Tigers.

The Tigers scored again in the eighth, and that was more than enough for Lolich. In fact, he came within one batter of a shutout before allowing a harmless home run to Mike Shannon to make the final score 4-1. With the victory, the Tigers became just the third team in history to come back from a 3-1 World Series deficit.

The 1968 World Series was anticipated because of the historic pitching matchup between Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, a matchup that ended up being somewhat of a dud. Gibson was fantastic, faltering only after 24 innings of otherworldly pitching, living up to his billing as the best in the game. McLain, soundly routed in both head-to-head games, ironically ended up on the winning side.

And it was the unheralded Mickey Lolich, unmentioned in all the pre-series hype, whom McLain could thank for his cherished World Series ring.

 

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Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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