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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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The two men were oddly emblematic of their time. When Bob Gibson, who grew up in Omaha without a father but with asthma, rickets and a rheumatic heart, was asked after his fifth straight shutout that summer whether he felt pressure to break Drysdale's record, he responded: "I face more pressure every day just being a Negro."

When Denny McLain, whose family was South Side Chicago Irish, visited Comiskey Park with the Tigers late that summer, he saw relatives who were, naturally, cogs in Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine. The Democratic convention had been held in sweltering Chicago the last week of August, and the mayor had turned his cops loose on all the hippies and Yippies who were occupying the city.

"I had three uncles on the police force," says McLain. "Our family was as political as any family making under $10,000 could be. I remember one of my uncles, who went about six-five, 1,000 pounds. I was in town to play the White Sox after the convention and I remember him telling me what a great thrill it was to beat on people legally. You weren't allowed to be different in Chicago in those days."

But New York was another story. There, on Aug. 19, Farrar, Straus & Giroux was publishing The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test while McLain was sitting in the Cottage Room of the Hampshire House hotel, working the three-deck keyboard of the X-77 Hammond organ as a throng of reporters recorded the event. "Hammond," McLain recalls, "installed an organ everywhere I went that summer." And McLain would always oblige an audience with a number or two, especially where an endorsement was involved. The man, after all, had a dog named Pepsi.

That same day the gathering storm that was Bob Gibson two-hit the Phillies for his 15th consecutive win, his 18th overall, his 10th shutout. Within 48 hours, 200,000 troops led by the Red Army would be rolling over Czechoslovakia. But in the U.S., with the political conventions finished and the presidential election still distant, there were two baseball questions to consider as September cooled the simmering country. In regard to Gibson and his ERA: How low could he go? In regard to McLain and his victory total and just about everything else in his life: How high would he fly?

On Sept. 2, Gibson won his 20th game, 1-0 over Cincinnati in 10 innings. It was his 12th shutout, and his ERA was reduced to 0.99. It is no secret that he despised opposing teams and, it seems, just about everyone else, and now he was obstinately refusing to grant so much as a single run. Things were getting ridiculous.

Ri-dic-ulous. On Sept. 10, McLain won his 29th game, against the California Angels in Anaheim. He went 3 for 4 with a triple, went out for drinks with Glen Campbell afterward, went to sleep (perhaps), went to Disneyland the next morning to arrange an off-season booking, went to Capitol Records to pose for publicity stills, went a little farther down Vine Street to tape The Steve Allen Show, for which he played the organ and played catch with Allen and Pat Harrington Jr., and then went back to the Big A for the Tigers' game. When the team flew back to Detroit sometime after 1 a.m., McLain was in the copilot's seat of the 727, the same seat he was sitting in when the plane landed at 7:30 a.m.

On Sept. 13, he appeared on the cover of TIME.

On Sept. 14, a Saturday afternoon, he won his 30th game, 5-4, against the A's and Chuck Dobson. It happened before a nonsellout crowd of 44,087 at Tiger Stadium and a national audience watching on NBC. "It was a blur," McLain says of the season. "There are very few games I recall. The only reason I remember the 30th win is because Chuck Dobson was wearing a sign taped to his back that said GOING FOR WIN NUMBER 12."

Interviewed afterward by NBC's Sandy Koufax and by Dizzy Dean, who had been the last 30-game winner in the major leagues, McLain called Tiger fans—you'll enjoy this—"the world's greatest."

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