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SI FOR KIDS
1968 -- The Year of the Pitcher
As home run totals soar, hurlers recall a friendlier time
Posted: Tuesday August 04, 1998 05:49 PM
ATLANTA (CNN/SI) - This season may go down as "The Year of the Slugger" with Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61 under heavy attack by Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa and Greg Vaughn.
But it was a much different story 30 years ago. The year 1968 is known for a lot of things - the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, violent protests at the Democratic National Convention, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
But in America's ballparks it was "The Year of the Pitcher."
Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers became the first pitcher since 1934 to win 30 games. The St. Louis Cardinals' Bob Gibson posted a microscopic 1.12 ERA and threw 13 shutouts. Both pitchers won their league's Most Valuable Player awards as well as the Cy Young awards - the only such double sweep in baseball history.
"I just think that in 1968 everything just came together," said Gibson, now a special adviser on baseball matters for the American League.
No kidding. Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers set a major league record by pitching six consecutive shutouts and holding enemy hitters scoreless for 58 2-3 innings. The San Francisco Giants' Gaylord Perry threw a no-hitter against the Cardinals; the next day, Cardinals pitcher Ray Washburn tossed a no-hitter of his own, the first back to back no-no's in history. In all, 17 pitchers boasted ERAs of 2.50 or lower.
"Well, it was a good year," said Ferguson Jenkins, who won 20 games that season for the Chicago Cubs. "You know, it's hard to depict what really happened. But I think by far the ballparks were a lot bigger. ... The ball wasn't as lively and the mound was higher, so that can definitely help pitching."
In the National League, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron were still going strong, while the American League boasted sluggers like Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson and Frank Howard. But pitchers were so dominant that Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox led the AL with a mere .301 batting average -- and was the only player in the league to hit over .290.
"There were some excellent pitchers in the league at the time," said Jenkins. "[Juan] Marichal, [Jim] Bunning in the other league, the American League, and also Gibson, who ended up setting a record for ERA. ... I think the name pitchers really matured to the fact that we knew what we were doing when we out there."
It didn't take long for baseball to make changes to get hitters back into the game. The strike zone, which had ranged from the top of the batter's shoulders to his knees, was shrunk, running from the armpits to the top of the knees. More significantly, baseball literally leveled the playing field, lowering the pitching mound to give pitchers less of an advantage.
"Anytime they change anything in baseball it always starts on the mound," said Gibson. "And back in '69, they cut the mound down five inches from 15 inches to 10. Then they started making the strike zone smaller. They tried to get more runs and more hitting into the game."
That changed pitchers' strategy, said Yastrzemski.
"When I first came up in the early '60s with the higher mound, you had more of the pitchers throwing over the top and rising fastballs and curveballs breaking down," he said. "And I think when the mound was lower, you had more of a sinkerball pitcher-type thing,"
Aided by the addition of four new expansion teams, the rules changes worked. League earned run averages jumped more than half a run per game in 1969 to 3.59 in the NL and 3.62 in the AL. And baseball has continued to put premium on hitting ever since with the addition of the designated hitter, the continued shrinking of the strike zone and even more expansion.
"Right now, I think the quality of pitching in the big leagues may be a little bit down simply because of the expansion," said Rollie Fingers, one-time relief ace for the Oakland A's, Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres.
"You've got three or four new teams now and it's kind of diluted the pitching a little bit. I think that maybe there are some guys in the big leagues that should be maybe in Double-A, Triple-A ball. You're seeing a lot more home runs."
Baseball has evolved into a more offensive game to the point where hitters now dominate the way pitchers did 30 years ago. League ERAs have continued to soar -- 4.20 in the National League, 4.64 in the American League. In addition to all those homers, AL batters are hitting a collective .271, their NL counterparts .263.
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