So we have these two characters, Denny McLain and Bob Gibson, white and black, a Garrulous Gus and an ornery cuss, at the opposite poles of personality. They were an irresistible force and an immovable object, both Cy Young and MVP winners, hurtling toward each other and October through the last pure baseball season, while the game was still undiluted by the divisional play and four-way expansion that awaited in 1969.
To most major league pitchers, three strikes meant an out. To McLain, three strikes meant a turkey. "I tell you what it was," he says, putting a thick finger on the reason for his success in '68. "I really believe this. I'd always been an avid bowler. And that winter [of '67-68], I bowled 60, 70, 80 lines every day. And because of that exercise routine, I got stronger. I really believe that bowling had more to do with me winning 30 than anything else."
Eighty lines? Perhaps he said 18 lines. But even if it would require 16 of every 24 hours to bowl 80 lines a day, well, nothing was too inane for McLain in the multicolored summer of '68. In the year in which the Beatles released their "White Album," McLain wore one tinted contact lens and one untinted contact lens while his hair color changed that spring in mystifying fashion, from blond to red and back again.
By May 10 a musical called Hair was completing its second week at the Biltmore Theater in New York City, Catfish Hunter of the Oakland A's had already thrown a perfect game, the United States and North Vietnam were about to begin peace talks in Paris, and McLain was 5-0, having already been quoted (misquoted, he would insist) calling Detroit fans "front-runners and the world's worst."
"If people go along with us and stay off our backs," he added, "we'll win this thing."
Gibson, meanwhile, saw his record slip to 3-5 on May 28 with a four-hit loss to the Giants. In those five losses, the Cardinals scored a total of four runs.
In an even graver baseball injustice, the day before Gibson's fifth loss, National League owners voted to award new franchises, at an admission price of $10 million apiece, to San Diego and Montreal. Montreal! Seven U.S. congressmen protested the idea of a franchise in Canada, and is it any wonder? Baseball was America's last best hope of harbor that summer, the national pastime in a nation eager to make time pass.
On the evening of Tuesday, June 4, Don Drysdale beat the Pirates in Los Angeles for his record sixth consecutive shutout; 10 minutes from Dodger Stadium, at the Ambassador Hotel downtown, Robert F. Kennedy celebrated his victory in California's Democratic presidential primary.
In his speech to supporters, the senator congratulated Drysdale on his historic win that night. The two men were casual friends, and it had been only recently that Drysdale and actor Chuck Connors, the Rifleman and ex-Dodger, had visited Kennedy at his Hickory Hill home in Virginia.
As Drysdale drove home from Dodger Stadium late that night, he did so with a happy buzz in his head. He turned on his car radio and heard a replay of Kennedy's speech, heard his own name mentioned and heard the announcer say that en route from the victory rally to a press conference, in the kitchen passageway of the Ambassador Hotel, at 12:16 a.m., Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot. Jesus Christ! Drysdale thought. Could this he happening? God Almighty!...