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The Season of High Heat
Steve Rushin
July 19, 1993
In the tumultuous summer of 1968, pitchers Denny McLain and Bob Gibson set baseball ablaze
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July 19, 1993

The Season Of High Heat

In the tumultuous summer of 1968, pitchers Denny McLain and Bob Gibson set baseball ablaze

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That Wednesday witnessed the rare alignment of two American spectacles. It was both Opening Day and Oscar Night. The Cardinals opened against the Atlanta Braves in St. Louis, the Tigers opened against the Boston Red Sox in Detroit and an opened envelope in Los Angeles revealed the portentous name of the year's Best Picture: In the Heat of the Night.

This was in 1968, a profoundly terrible year, white-hot and pitch-black, much like the movie's title. On Jan. 30, the beginning of the Tet holiday in Vietnam, the Viet Cong launched an offensive that would mean thousands of casualties. Amid escalating disenchantment with the war, Lyndon Johnson ended his televised address to the nation one Sunday night in late March by dropping this bulletin from out of the blue: "I shall not seek and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." The bombshell was still whistling eight days later, when the baseball season was scheduled to begin, bringing with it relief from the roil of real life. But the games were forestalled for 48 hours, moved from Monday, April 8 to Wednesday, April 10, to accommodate a funeral on the Tuesday in between. At the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the congregation gathered to bury its pastor, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"I always turn to the sports section first," the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America once said. "The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man's failures."

The Honorable Earl Warren spoke those words sometime before the Democratic Convention in Chicago and after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1968.

Dennis Dale McLain stands out sharply, a single paisley page in a year papered with bad tidings. His was the one story Chief Justice Warren could turn to every day, a wildly entertaining summerlong diversion of epic accomplishment in which a 24-year-old righthanded pitcher for the Detroit Tigers attempted to become the first to win 30 games in the major leagues since 1934. He was oblivious, impervious, victorious.

"I remember a game, I think it was against Washington, when he was ahead 3-0 in the ninth," says Jim Northrup, the Tiger rightfielder in 1968. "Denny's first pitch was a fastball hit for a home run. His second pitch was a fastball hit for a home run. Then he struck the next three batters out on fastballs. I went to him and said, 'Denny, did it ever occur to you to throw anything but a fastball?' He said, 'Why? When was the last time you saw anyone hit three home runs in a row?' "

Those Washington Senators had opened at home against the Minnesota Twins, with riot-ready National Guardsmen bivouacked in the ballpark in the nation's capital, anticipating more of the violence that had erupted in cities across America in the wake of the King assassination. Nineteen sixty-eight was a profoundly terrible year, white-hot and pitch-black, but the words white and hot and pitch and black also evoke the summer's one enduring sweet memory—of impossibly hot pitchers, and the white of a ball on the black of the plate.

But even in the Year of the Pitcher—in which 339 shutouts were thrown, in which 82 games ended in scores of 1-0, in which Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale threw a record six consecutive shutouts, in which seven pitchers had ERAs under 2.00, in which all but one man in the American League hit under .300, in which Gaylord Perry of the San Francisco Giants and Ray Washburn of the St. Louis Cardinals threw no-hitters on consecutive days against each other's teams—even in that season, two pitchers were transcendent, and Denny McLain was one of them.

They say he pitched on three days' rest. "There wasn't a lot of rest," McLain remembers. "The days began at 7:30 in the morning. And they never ended."

In his pursuit of 30 wins, McLain zoomed about in Lear jets, played Hammond organs, swigged Pepsi-Colas, schmoozed with Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Ed Sullivan, Joey Bishop, Glen Campbell and the Smothers Brothers, changed his hair color, appeared on the covers of TIME and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, recorded an album, gave organ lessons out of his home to two dozen students at $3.50 an hour and got himself booked in advance into the Riviera in Vegas, the Detroit Auto Show, Disneyland and a hundred other places to play electric keyboard with his band come winter.

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