It was the year good pitching stopped good hitting.
We're talking about 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. It's hard to believe--especially after 1987 turned into the Year of the Home Run with a record 4,458--that pitchers virtually owned the game one generation ago.
Things had grown so lopsided by the summer of 1968 that National League President Warren Giles dispatched an unprecedented memo to major-league coaches, managers and general managers asking their viewpoints on the "obvious imbalance" between the pitchers and the hitters.
"All of a sudden, all those top pitchers came together at that one time," recalls former Chicago Cubs outfielder Billy Williams, one of a dozen Hall of Famers who participated recently at Dodgertown in an ultimate baseball fantasy camp.
"Last year, the batters dominated in baseball (2.1 homers per game). In 1968, when you walked out on that field, you hoped you had a good pitcher going for your club because you just knew it would be a low-scoring game . . . most of the time, you couldn't even afford to make an error."
Shutouts comprised 21% of all games played in the majors in 1968, when the combined batting averages for both leagues sank to .237, an all-time low. The average number of runs scored per game (6.84) approached the record of 6.77 set in 1908, the height of the dead-ball era.
Every pitcher seemed to be hurling dead balls 20 years ago. Leading the devastation were Detroit's Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner in the major leagues, and Bob Gibson of St. Louis, whose National League record ERA of 1.12 remains one of the astonishing baseball feats of the modern era.
"To me it was just one of those years when the hitters were off," says Frank Robinson, who batted .268 for Baltimore. "It happens. But it wasn't gonna be a trend. Everybody in the dugouts was talking about the lack of hitting . . . you had to talk about it."
Mere talk wasn't enough for frustrated major-league executives, not when both leagues post overall ERA of less than three runs per game. Beginning in 1969, the height of the pitching mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches and the batters' strike zone was reduced.
"It was getting to a point in 1968 where pitchers were beginning to dominate," says Dodger Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, who rewrote the record book on June 8 of that year by running his string of consecutive scoreless innings to 58.
"Hitting and pitching go in cycles. Baseball realized pitching was dominant, otherwise why lower the mound and change rules? It wore on the minds of the baseball people. You don't just change rules for the sake of changing them."
In the American League, where McLain won 31 games and was one of five pitchers with an ERA under 2.00, Boston's Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title by hitting .301. Danny Cater of Oakland placed second at .290. Last year, Boston's Dwight Evans hit .305 and ranked 15th in the American League.
Gibson hurled 13 shutouts, reeled off a 15-game winning streak and completed 28 games in 34 starts en route to a puzzling 22-9 mark.
"I've never figured out how I lost nine games that year," Gibson says. "I should have been about 30-1."
While Gibson was going through a full National League season without being knocked out of the box, San Francisco's Juan Marichal led the NL in victories (26), complete games (30) and innings pitched with 326. Giants' teammate Willie McCovey knocked in 105 runs and was the only player in the league to reach the 100-RBI plateau.
No player in the major leagues scored more runs than Chicago's Glenn Beckert, who crossed home plate 98 times. Last season, 13 players topped that figure in the American League alone.
"If I remember right, '67 was a hitter's year," says former Cardinal star Lou Brock. "The way I explain 1968 is in terms of something hitters call the 'quality pitch.' That's a pitch that's on the corner, or just off the corner. If the quality pitch is called in the hitter's favor, you're gonna have a big home run year. If the umpires call the quality pitch in the pitcher's favor, you're in trouble."
In 1968, trouble meant going to the batter's box with intentions of doing some damage.
"Maybe I was different, but I enjoyed the challenge of facing the Gibsons and the Marichals that particular year," Williams says. "It seemed like it would raise my game to a whole other level."