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'Year of the Pitcher' chronicles Detroit Tigers' 1968 championship season

Mar 29, 2018

The 2018 Tigers will have to wait for another day. Detroit was scheduled to begin the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park today, but Opening Day has been postponed to Friday because of  the weather. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one greatest seasons in Tigers history. It would end with a World Series showdown against the reigning champs, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Off the field, 1968 was a year of protest and violence. That year, assassins killed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Sridhar Pappu chronicles that season, and the turbulence that surrounded it, in his book, “The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.” (Read an excerpt here).

He spoke with Michigan Radio’s Doug Tribou from NPR’s studios in New York.

(Scroll down to read a transcript of their conversation.) 

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Listen to Tribou and Pappu discuss how riots, violence and social issues off the field in 1967 and 1968 affected baseball.

Doug Tribou: In 1967, the Tigers had the makings of a championship team, but as we now know, things fell apart down the stretch. There was hope until the very last day of their season. To force a playoff for the pennant they needed to win both games of doubleheader. They lost the second one. Why did Tigers ace Denny McLain get so much blame for that loss?

Sridhar Pappu: Well, late into the season McLain had an injury to his ankle or to his toes, which he claims to this day that was the result of him falling off the couch. And even back then people speculated this was the result of his gambling interests and his ties to the mob. McLain who has been very forthright about everything he did going back to his involvement with gamblers has denied this. So, he was out for a good chunk of the last weeks of that pennant [race] and came back and pitched terribly in that game.

Sridhar Pappu chronicles the Tigers 1968 season, and the turbulence that surrounded it, in his book, “The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.”
Credit Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

DT: The title of your book “The Year of the Pitcher” refers to the following season 1968. Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson was dominant that season. He was a fierce competitor. He was also an African-American pitcher when that was something of a rarity. What was Gibson like as a player at the height of his powers?

SP: Well, it’s very interesting because to a player everyone within the Cardinals clubhouse will always say he’s a jovial, great teammate, but once, it is a cliché, but once he stepped out onto that field he was a completely different person, and performed with a kind of visible anger towards the opposing batter. He believed that this was his office and you do as you’re told in his office.

DT: Denny McLain finished the 1968 regular season with a record of 31 – yes, 31 – wins against 6 losses. What made him so good that season?

SP: Number one, the Tigers scored for him. In a year when no one was hitting, no one was scoring, they scored a lot of runs for Denny. And secondly, he was free of distractions. He wasn’t worried about mob bosses and other gambling interests. He was free to be the pitcher that everyone thought he was going to be. It should be noted though that by 1968 he is completely addicted to cortisone and to other pain killers and that would ultimately weaken his arm and by the end of that season his arm was completely wrecked and it showed in his World Series performance.

DT: There’s a baseball term that some of our younger listeners might not be familiar with and I’m hoping you’ll help me explain it to them. It’s called a “complete game.” [laughing] In today’s era of two, three, four relievers almost every game, but in 1968 Bob Gibson and Denny McClain each threw 28 complete games. In McLain’s case is it fair to say that kind of workload helped bring an early end to his career?

Sridhar Pappu is the author of “The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age.”
Credit Nina Subin

SP: Well all starters back then were expected to complete games. I think in Denny’s case, yes it was, because combined with the cortisone he pitched a lot of innings that season and also Mayo Smith, who was the manager of the Tigers, would pitch him on two days rest as well during the season so I think it was just too much for him.

DT: Denny McLain and Bob Gibson had masterful seasons. They’d both go on to win the Cy Young Award and MVP honors in their respective leagues. What happened when they finally faced each other in the 1968 World Series?

SP: Well, everyone was looking forward to game because this was going to be the great pitching duel of all time and now by Game 1, McLain’s arm just wasn’t there. You could see him struggling and struggling mightily and he’s lifted early. It didn’t take a lot to get Bob Gibson mad, but he was really particularly upset with comments that McLain had particularly made about wanting to destroy the Cardinals, so he ended up striking out 17 Tigers batters, which ended up being a World Series record.

DT: McLain lost to Gibson again in a soggy Game 4 that should have been postponed because of rain. He did win Game 6. But, one player does not make a team, and the Tigers turned to another pitcher to seal their first World Series title in more than 20 years. Why had Mickey Lolich flown under the radar as a possible hero and how’d he do in his big moment?

SP: As Denny succeeded, Lolich struggled with his confidence and at one point was relegated to the bullpen and so then he comes in [to the World Series] very fresh. The Cardinals had been warned by Roger Maris, who had faced him in the American League: "We don’t have to worry about McLain, we have to worry about Lolich." So he wins Game 2 and then wins Game 5 and then is called upon on two days rest to face Bob Gibson in the critical [Game 7] and he ends up winning.

DT: After the riots in 1967 and the collapse of the Tigers late in the season as often is the case in sports, a lot was heaped on to the significance of that World Series victory the following year 1968. One of the people who read a lot into the championship was Tigers outfielder Willie Horton, who was one of the Tigers most popular players. What did he say, and why do you see it as so overstated?

SP: Well, Willie Horton, who I actually respect a quite deal, had said, and I might be paraphrasing, that the 1968 Tigers were put on earth to heal the city of Detroit. And that’s not true. But it began almost earlier. [Michigan] Gov. George Romney, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, business leaders like Henry Ford had all said the Tigers healed the city, when in fact those divisions that had caused the ’67 riots were only deepening.

Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect the Tigers' decision to postpone Opening Day until Friday.