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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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Back in his native Nebraska, 57-year-old Bob Gibson is not exactly a recluse, but he still does not suffer questions comfortably. Try to reach him through the Cardinals, and you're told that is impossible because "he maintains no relationship with the team." "I might have a number for him," says McLain, "if you don't tell him where you got it."

Someone else gives you what is said to be his home number—and the warning, "You didn't get it from me"—but when you call and ask for Bob Gibson, you're told, "You got the wrong number."

"I caught Gibby in the '65 All-Star Game at Minnesota and he wouldn't talk to me," says Joe Torre, who is Gibson's best friend. "Tony Oliva was at bat, and I said to make sure the ball was up and in, and not down and in. He acted like I wasn't even there."

"He's mellowed some," continues Torre, the current Cardinal manager. "Now he can play old-timers' games and not be upset that they're hitting him. When he first started those old-timers' games, he really had a problem with that. I said, 'Gibby, they don't come out here to watch you strike people out.' "

That is evidently what the guardians of the game thought 25 years ago too: Fans don't come to watch Bob Gibson—or any other pitcher—strike people out. In December of 1968, the rules committee of major league baseball voted to shrink the strike zone and lower the pitcher's mound, beginning with the 1969 season.

Where Gibson is private, McLain, 49, holds the most public of jobs in the 1990s: He hosts a radio call-in show in Detroit, discoursing during morning drive time on everything from the state legislature to the state of the world.

"It all means a lot more to me today than it did 25 years ago," he says while seated in a small cubicle at station WXYT alter his show one recent morning. "There is a great degree of satisfaction in being the only living person in this country to have done one particular thing. In a nation of 260 million, I'm the only one who has won 30 games in a season."

McLain pauses to examine a phone message just handed to him on a pink square of paper. The pink squares have arrived every three minutes during his conversation, but they are clearly not an interruption. On the contrary. McLain continues speaking, his knees banging together as he sits, his legs pumping furiously back and forth. Denny McLain still works fast.

"Again I have to tell you," he says, repeating something he has already mentioned twice. "Nineteen sixty-eight has given me everything I have today. The good things. There have been bad things that I created on my own. But everything that is good in my life was made possible by what happened in 1968."

The bad things in his life have been painfully public. He was bankrupt and out of the big leagues by 1972. His 1968 Cy Young and MVP awards, the magazine covers and scrapbooks, everything he owned, in fact, perished in a fire that consumed his home, in Lakeland, Fla., in 1978. In 1985 and 1986, he served 29½ months in prison on racketeering and cocaine-possession charges. His has not been an easy life. McLain's oldest daughter, Kristin McLain Sutherland, was killed in a ear accident last year at the age of 26.

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