The book: “The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age”
The author: Sridhar Pappu
How to find it: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 400 pages, released Oct. 3, 2017
The links: At Amazon.com, at the publishers website.
A review in 90-feet or less: This, thankfully, got us through the long winter.
We admit, we don’t usually include books that came out in the fall of the previous year, but the importance of this project by this tenacious columnist was not just ahead of its time, but it jumped the others in getting out in front of a narrative about a) the 50th anniversary of that 1968 pitching season for the ages, and b) focusing on a World Series highlighted by Bob Gibson and Denny McLain that somehow got many of us hooked on the game forever from our black-and-white TV sets.
From an L.A. perspective, Don Drysdale’s 1968 season could have been a story unto itself. He was carrying the team almost by himself two years removed after Sandy Koufax’s retirement and the maturation of Don Sutton, etc. Drysdale would only last one more season after this year of an 2.15 ERA, with eight shutouts and 12 complete games. And none of those stats led the NL in ’68.
The 58 2/3 inning scoreless streak, which came amidst the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in L.A., was a transformational moment. But in this book, it’s almost a sidenote, remarkably.
Drysdale finished that season 14-12. And the Dodgers would grind out a 76-86 record, 21 games behind the Cardinals in 10-team NL, posting an MLB low 470 runs (compared to the 671 by Detroit).
In this book, Drysdale’s achievements are mostly confined to Chapter 10, 12 total pages — and while that’s kind of disappointing, it’s somewhat understandable in the scope of this David Halberstam-type remembrance of a year unlike any other in the game’s history.
Gibson and McLain were the NL and AL MVP and Cy Young winners. A 1.12 ERA for one, a 31-victory season for the other. What makes no sense is how Gibson even lost nine games against 22 wins.
As the book title implies, Drysdale wasn’t alone on a tier just below Gibson and McLain. Juan Marichal was 26-9 with a 2.43 ERA and 30 complete games. Ferguson Jenkins was 20-15 with a 2.63 ERA, completing half of his league-high 40 starts, and losing five times on the wrong side of a 1-0 score. Tom Seaver’s ERA of 2.20 for the Mets would have held up as the measurement bar in any other season.
In the AL, Luis Tiant, then with Cleveland, was 21-9 with nine shutouts and a 1.60 ERA. Mel Stottlemyre even won 21 games for the Yankees, the worst hitting team in the AL. Dave McNally: 22-10, 1.95 ERA and a league-best 0.842 WHIP.
Five no-hitters were also thrown that year, including perfect games from future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter.
The mound, of course, was a stage of power, 15 inches above the ground and apparently so unfair that the baseball decision makers lowered it to 10 inches the next season. Starting in 1904, the rule was that the mound should be “no higher” than 15 inches.
The thing was, teams could adjust the height to suit the style of individual home team pitchers, or work against the style of visiting pitchers. It was made 15 inches for everyone — no more, no less — in 1950. Insanely, at different periods in baseball history, the mound has been much taller. The mound in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park was rumored to be 20 inches at one time, and the mound throughout baseball in the late ’60s was was sneaking up to the 16-inch mark.
The point in the narrative where Drysdale fades and Gibson/McLain emerge comes in Chapter 14, which begins with the words up on the Dodger Stadium electronic scoreboard: “How About A Dodger Stadium Hand for Bob Gibson.”
Why? Less than a month after Drysdale’s scoreless inning feat, Gibson had a streak of 47 1/3 scoreless innings snapped that, without a fluke ending, would have easily erased what Drysdale had just accomplished.
With two out in the bottom of the first inning against the Dodgers, Gibson let loose a wild pitch with Ron Fairly at the plate, allowing Len Gabrielson to score from third base and end the streak.
“With that, the crowd rose to their feet, politely acknowledging what Gibson had accomplished now that it was over,” Pappu writes. “What should have been a dramatic and hard-fought contest had ended quickly on a dubious call. Had the scorer ruled it a passed ball by the catcher (Johnny Edwards, not the usual Tim McCarver), Gibson’s streak would have gone on.”
Gibson, later quoted in the press as saying that “it was the catcher’s fault .. he fouled up,” won that game, 5-1, improving to 10-5. He threw a shutout his next time out at San Francisco. He finished with 13 shutouts and a league best 268 strikeouts in an insane 304-plus innings.
Drysdale gave up five runs in six-plus innings of that game and lost, falling to 10-5. And with it, the focus of the season seemed to pivot.
Pappu says in the acknowledgements his idea was to do a book about the 1968 season with the premise that it “calmed a nation” amidst chaos. But that wasn’t true, as he discovered. Maybe he could have sensed that had he lived through it.
He ends up doing interviews with nearly 100 subjects, including McLain. Others who add context was the late Marvin Miller, plus writers like Roger Angel, Robert Lipsyte, Phil Pepe and George Vecsey, in addition to the L.A. Times’ Dwight Chapin.
Rappu explains in a sad way how he couldn’t get any time with Gibson. He even came to a massive autograph show in City of Industry a few years ago and paid to have Gibson sign a ball just to get access, but was quickly cut off.
Gibson has kept his shutout streak alive in trying to be cooperative with the media. But it didn’t sour Rappu.
“For all his prickly reclusiveness and his combative relations with the press (Gibson) has stood out above his peers and remains the great avatar of his era … his reputation exceeds that of any of his peers, with the possible exception of Koufax. He’s become a cultural icon one who stands for competitiveness, for winning when it matters most.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: A 16-inning scoreless dual with Drysdale and Gibson refusing to come out.
Also of note:
* Books out recently that relate to this 50-year anniversary:
== “The New Boys of Summer: Baseball’s Radical Transformation in the Late Sixties” by Paul Hensler, released last October.
== “Spirit of ’67: The Cardiac Kids, El Birdos, and the World Series That Captivated America,” by Thomas Whalen, released last August.
== “The 1967 American League Pennant Race: Four Teams, Six Weeks, One Winner,” by Cameron Bright, due out this May.
== “An October to Remember 1968: The Tigers-Cardinals World Series as Told by the Men Who Played It,” by Brendan Donlay, due this August.
== “Joy in Tigertown: A Determine Team, a Resilient City and Our Magical Run to the 1968 World Series,” by Mickey Lolich with Tom Gage, due this June.