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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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On Sept. 16, Capitol released Denny McLain at the Organ, but McLain's thunder was stolen that night when Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon opened Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In by saying, "Sock it to me?"

On Sept. 19, McLain won his 31st game. He had a 6-1 lead against the New York Yankees in the eighth inning when Mickey Mantle stepped to the plate for his final appearance ever at Tiger Stadium. Waves of applause washed down from the seats, which had been emptied in favor of a standing ovation for the Mick, who needed but one home run to pass Jimmie Foxx for third place on the alltime tater list. Even McLain was getting moist as the fans began clapping rhythmically, so he motioned to Mantle that the first pitch would be grooved directly over the plate.

"We told him what we were going to do," says McLain. "When he took the first two pitches, that's when I knew I wasn't dealing with a Rhodes scholar here. Finally he asked for one about belt-high, and I threw it there. But he still had to hit the home run."

Mantle hit a home run to Hamtramck, and grinned broadly at McLain as he rounded third. "How about that guy?" a bewildered Mantle said afterward. "Just laying it in there for me."

On Sept. 27, Gibson beat the Astros 1-0. It was his final start of the regular season. It was his 13th shutout. He finished with a record of 22-9 and an ERA of 1.12.

On Sept. 28, McLain started his final regular-season game, against the Senators in Tiger Stadium. With a victory he would become the first pitcher to win 32 games since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1916; McLain had a 1-0 lead after seven innings when Tiger manager Mayo Smith approached him in the dugout and said, "You've pitched enough. You need the rest."

"I had pitched 1,000 innings that year!" says McLain, who actually pitched only slightly fewer (336). "Now he tells me I need the rest? I was ticked. I was ticked! I broke all the light bulbs in the tunnel. Don McMahon came in to pitch, and before you know it we lost 2-1. 'You need the rest,' he told me. Now he wants to become a manager? In the last week of the season?"

Well, there was this small matter of the World Series, which would begin in four days in St. Louis. Perhaps Smith was saving McLain for that, for Game 1: Bob Gibson vs. Denny McLain.

As Gibson was lying down to sleep at a proper hour on the eve of Game 1, McLain was in the throbbing lounge of the Sheraton-Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Loo. There was an organ, there was an audience. Long after Tuesday slipped into Wednesday, McLain remained in the Gaslight Room, taking requests, making dedications, sending Sweet Georgia Brown out to an ex-Harlem Globetrotter, Bob Gibson. Gibson had played for the Trotters during one minor league off-season, but the team's clowning—and patsy opponents—didn't wear well on a man so zealous about winning. Needless to say, he would have derived little mirth from McLain's musical tribute.

As 54,692 fans filed into Busch Stadium on the afternoon of Oct. 2, a few slogans on display in the Cardinal clubhouse spoke volumes about Gibson and the game that lay ahead. The clipping on the bulletin board was headlined WE'LL HUMILIATE CARDINALS—MCLAIN. A button above Gibson's locker read, I'M NOT PREJUDICED; I HATE, EVERYBODY. And a sign taped to a stuffed tiger in his locker bore the legend A TIGER'S A 500-POUND PUSSY. Gibson, the gathering storm, had arrived.

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