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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Record-Setting Game in Baseball’s Last “Pure” World Series


With baseball's post-season starting today, it's interesting to re-visit what some call the last “pure” World Series, a time before the American and National Leagues had divisions within them. It was simple: the two teams with the league's best records went straight to the World Series. There were no wild cards, no division or league series. The division system was introduced in 1969, and since then the layers of post season elimination rounds have continued to expand. Now, World Series games are still being played late into October.

October 2nd marks the 50th anniversary of the setting of a World Series record which still stands: Bob Gibson’s 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the 1968 Series, in which the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals faced the Detroit Tigers. The record had been held by Dodger Sandy Koufax, with his previous mark of 15, set just five years earlier. Gibson struck out at least one batter in each inning of the game, the first to do so in a World Series since Ed Walsh did it in 1906.

The number of strikeouts was not the only remarkable thing about Gibson’s pitching performance during this series. Gibson, for the second consecutive World Series, pitched three complete games, the first one a shutout, allowing just one run in the second game and three in the finale, in which he faced the Tigers’ lefty Mickey Lolich. Lolich too, pitched three complete games in the series, getting the win in each, as the Tigers took the series 4 games to 3. Gibson’s World Series performance capped off an amazing season, as he had finished with 22 wins (a stunning 13 of which were shutouts) and an Earned Run Average of 1.12, another record which still stands after 50 years. He pitched 28 complete games of 34 starts. In today’s baseball, complete games by pitchers are rare.

Gibson and the Tigers’ Mickey Lolich both had three complete games in the 1968 World Series. Lolich was the winning pitcher in the 7th game. Image no.: AC0545-0000034-1, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Gibson’s path to baseball greatness seems an unlikely one, considering his impoverished upbringing in Omaha, Nebraska, raised by a mother widowed before he was born and who suffered from rickets and respiratory problems as a child. He details his early life in his autobiography, From Ghetto to Glory. In it, Gibson allows that the word “glory” might be an exaggeration, but that he could “write volumes” on the ghetto experience. A basketball and baseball standout in high school, he received a full scholarship to Creighton University, which led to being offered a chance to sign with the Harlem Globetrotters. He played with the Globetrotters for a year before signing with the Cardinals. Maybe his background of hardship toughened him up. He had a reputation as a hard-nosed player, an intimidating pitcher who didn’t mind giving opposing batters a close shave with his fastball. He was also proud of his ability to tune out all the noise and distraction around him.

Gibson’s Topps Card for 1969, the season following his record-breaking performance in the World Series. Image no.: AC0545-0000033-1 and AC0545-0000033-2, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 

Gibson was not the only pitcher doing amazing things that season. The 1968 season was nicknamed “The Year of the Pitcher”. Some reasons why:

• There were 339 shutouts, that's more than 20% of all games played;

• it was the last year baseball had a 30 game winning pitcher, Denny McLain of the Tigers, with 31;

• Dodger Don Drysdale set a consecutive scoreless innings record of 58.2, a record not bettered until 1988;

• only one hitter, Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, ended the season with a batting average over .300, his was .301;

• the average season batting average for all hitters in the majors was a pitiful .231.
Gibson had the most strikeouts in the National League in 1968 with 268. Fergie Jenkins of the Cubs was second with 260. Bill Singer of the Dodgers was a distant third with 227. Image no.: AC0545-0000036-1, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

These numbers didn’t arise in a vacuum. 1968 was the culmination of a decade in which pitching was emphasized and changes were made after the home run heavy seasons of the early 1960s. The biggest change was that the height of the strike zone was expanded making strikeouts easier to get. By the end of the decade, new Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, fearing that too many slow-paced, tense pitching duels would make fans stay away, instituted some changes that were intended to increase the number of runs scored and reduce the dominance of pitchers. The mound height was lowered, from fifteen inches to ten. The strike zone was also reduced in size to what it had been before 1962. It is not surprising that these rule changes were informally called “The Gibson Rules.”

In 2015, Bob Gibson wrote a book about his record setting game, called Pitch by Pitch, wherein he takes the reader through the game inning by inning, batter by batter, pitch by pitch. The most dramatic inning was the bottom of the ninth. After a leadoff single to Tiger shortstop Mickey Stanley, Gibson faced the Tigers’ most feared hitter, future Hall of Famer Al Kaline. Gibson struck Kaline out swinging, with a slider. This strikeout tied Koufax’ 1963 record, but Gibson admitted not realizing it at the time. Next up was Norm Cash, who also struck out swinging. That left power hitting outfielder Willie Horton. On a 2-2 count, Horton was called out looking on a breaking ball, setting a new World Series record that has yet to be matched.

The Sporting News covered Gibson’s record-setting game, reproduced on a Topps card. Image no.: AC0545-0000035-1, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
To learn more about the sports and trading cards in this post, please check out the Guide to the Ronald S. Korda Collection of Sports and Trading Cards on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives.

Cathy Keen, Archivist, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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