Fifty Years Ago, Bob Gibson Pitched One of the Greatest Seasons of All Time
Fifty years ago, baseball witnessed pitching feats which we may never see again. Pitching dominated everything—the American League had two players who hit over .300, Alex Johnson of the Angels (.312) and Carl Yastrzemski (.301). Both leagues combined had only six players batting over .300. Frank Howard was the only player to top 40 homers with 44. Willie McCovey led the NL with 36. Jimmy Wynn and Ron Santo were tied for 10th place in the Major Leagues in homers with 26.
Meanwhile, pitchers in 1968 were putting up gaudy numbers. Denny McLain of the Tigers won 31 games. Seven pitchers posted ERAs below 2.00. McLain’s 1.95 ERA was good for only fourth place in the AL; Bobby Bolin of the Giants came in at 1.99, which was only third best in the NL.
But despite all of those worthy candidates, the Pitcher of the Year was Bob Gibson of the Cardinals. He posted a 22-9 record, good for second best in the National League behind Juan Marichal’s 26-9 mark. But considering his minuscule, ERA it should have been much better. Gibson’s ERA that year was 1.12.
An ERA No One May Match Again
That’s the fourth-best ERA of all-time, and you have to go back to the deadball era to find anything lower. Only Dutch Leonard (0.96 in 1914) and Mordecai Brown (1.04 in 1906) have posted lower marks since 1900.
Since 1968, only 20 players with 25 of more starts have posted ERAs below 2.00, six of those in 1971 and ’72. The closest anyone’s come to Gibson during that time is Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 in 1985. In the last 20 years, there have been six such seasons, including Clayton Kershaw twice.
But even that can’t quite explain how dominant Gibson was that season. He completed 28 of his 34 starts and had 13 shutouts. He gave up as many as four earned runs only twice, one of those in a game in which he pitched 11 innings before giving way to a reliever. Two of his losses were 1-0 and one was 2-0.
He pitched 304.2 innings and allowed 267 baserunners – 198 hits, 62 walks and seven hit batters – and struck out 268.
Off to a Slow Start
Ironically, he didn’t get a decision in the first two games of the season, even though the Cards won both games. He pitched only seven innings in each of those starts, giving up only one unearned run in the opener and only three earned runs in his second start.
But like every other team in 1968, St. Louis had a tough time scoring – they averaged just 3 runs per game in Gibson’s starts and scored less than 3 in 18 of his starts. On June 2, Gibson gave up three runs but the Cards came through, scoring six. That gave him a 4-5 record despite a 1.66 ERA. He had allowed 10 earned runs in those five losses.
While that was great, it was nothing compared to what happened during the next 58 days. From that point until the end of July, Gibson created a new definition for the word dominant.
Domination With a Capital D
During that time he started and completed 11 games. Eight of those games were shutouts. He pitched 99 innings and gave up three runs. Let me reiterate for emphasis. He gave up three runs in 99 innings. That’s an ERA of 0.27!
In those 99 innings he faced 360 batters; only 72 of them reached base, 56 on hits, 13 on walks and three hit batters. He struck out 83.
He threw five straight shutouts in that stretch. In those 45 innings, only 27 batters reached base, 21 via hit – 18 singles and three doubles. But even that doesn’t quite show his dominance.
During that five-game stretch, only three batter reached third base – once on a double and ground out, once on a single, stolen base and passed ball and once on a walk and a single. Only four others made it to second – that’s only seven players who moved past first base in 45 innings.
In only two of those 45 innings did an opponent have two base runners at the same time – the aforementioned walk and single, and another time on a single and a hit batter. Once – just once – did an opponent manage two hits in an inning, when the first batter and third batters of the inning singled, but the first batter was erased on a double play before the second single.
Bob Gibson's Dominate Stretch in 1968
June 6-July 30
Finally Someone Scores
Gibson “faltered” a bit in July, allowing three runs in 54 innings. On July 1, the Dodgers scored a run in the first inning when Gibson allowed two hits and then threw a wild pitch. They didn’t score again. He then pitched a shutout against the Giants before allowing a run in the seventh inning to the Astros, on a single by Rusty Staub and a Denis Menke double. In between there had been 23 scoreless innings. After two more shutouts, Gibson allowed a fourth-inning run to the Mets when Ed Kranepool’s double scored Ed Charles. The space between runs had been another 23 scoreless innings.
That season Don Drysdale of the Dodgers set a record (since broken by Orel Hershiser) of 58.2 shutout innings. If not for Gibson’s wild pitch against the Dodgers he would have easily eclipsed that record with 69.2 scoreless innings.
By the end of July in 1968, Gibson was 15-5 with an 0.96 ERA.
Continuing to Dominate in the World Series
After that he returned slightly to earth, going 7-4 with a 1.42 ERA, allowing 17 earned runs in 108 innings the rest of the season.
The Cardinals won the National League pennant and faced the Tigers, setting up a matchup between the two best pitchers.
Gibson continued his domination with a capital D in the opening game, striking out 17 Tigers with one walk and allowing five hits in a 4-0 win.
The Tigers finally touched him for a run in the bottom of the fourth in the fourth game when Jim Northrup hit a long home run (Gibson had homered in the top of the inning). He added 10 more strikeouts in besting McLain for a second time.
The Tigers ruined a Game 7 contest between the two pitchers when they slated McLain to pitch Game 6, which Detroit won. So in Game 7 Gibson took the mound against portly Mickey Lolich, who had won games 2 and 5.
One Bad Inning Ends It
Gibson again looked dominant, setting down the first 10 Tigers he faced and matched zeroes with Lolich through six innings. But with two outs in the seventh, things finally fell apart for Gibson.
Norm Cash and Willie Horton touched him for back-to-back singles and then Northrup smashed a triple to center to score two runs. He scored when Bill Freehan followed with a double. Detroit scored off him again in the top of the ninth on three singles to give the Tigers a 4-0 lead.
The Cardinals scored their lone run of the game in the bottom of the ninth on a two-out homer by Mike Shannon off Lolich (yes, both pitchers threw complete games; those were different times).
For the Series, Gibson pitched 27 innings, allowed five runs, 18 hits and four walks, and struck out 35. It capped off one of the most amazing pitching seasons of all time and, considering the way pitchers are used these days, one that we’ll probably never see again.