Nineteen Sixty-Eight was a momentous year in the country. In January, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam rendered the war unwinnable for the United States. By the end of March a beleaguered President Lyndon Johnson announced on national TV that he would not seek reelection. On April 4, as the baseball season was about to commence, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Two months later Robert Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; he died two days later.
The two assassinations, first King and then Kennedy, so close to one another, rocked the nation. For many Americans, both men symbolized hope and faith that things would change. But as the summer progressed, it seemed as if the foundations of American society were crumbling. A charged atmosphere of dissent permeated the country. Left-wing protesters were increasingly strident, and subsequently met with reactionary force. In August at the Democratic convention in Chicago, police openly brutalized protesters as the nation watched on television.
The events around the nation affected ballplayers as much as they did anyone else. In June, when Cardinals ace Bob Gibson was asked if he felt pressure trying to match Don Drysdale's recently established record of six straight shutouts, he said, "I face more pressure every day just being a Negro." He later recalled in his autobiography, Stranger to the Game, "Without a doubt, it was an angry point in American history for black people -- Dr. King's killing had jolted me; Kennedy's infuriated me -- and, without a doubt, I pitched better angry."
By the middle of June, the Cardinals pulled away from the rest of the pack in the National League. The defending world champions featured future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and former Yankees star Roger Maris, catcher Tim McCarver and a young southpaw named Steve Carlton. In what is commonly known as "The Year of the Pitcher" (which, as Roger Angell wrote, "is only a kinder way of saying Year of the Infield Pop-Up"), Gibson went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA. In those nine loses, his ERA was 2.14 and his team scored a total of 12 runs. From June 2 through July 30, a span of 99 innings, he allowed only two runs.
In the American League, Detroit's Denny McLain, a free-spirited 24-year-old right-hander, became the first pitcher to win 30 games since Dizzy Dean did in 1934. McLain went 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA. McLain and Gibson won their league's Cy Young and MVP awards.
Like the Cardinals in the National League, the Tigers ran away with the pennant in the American League. An exciting team with a penchant for come-from-behind wins, the Tigers were powered by slugger Willie Horton, born and raised in Detroit, and future Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who missed a good portion of the summer with a fractured arm. Detroit's powerful offense, featuring catcher Bill Freehan and first baseman Norm Cash, led the league in home runs and runs scored.