After Major League Baseball elected to enforce a larger strike zone (top of armpit to bottom of knee) prior to the start of the 1963 season, the delicate balance of power between pitching and hitting continued to tilt more and more in favor of pitchers in subsequent seasons. The disparity between the two sides reached its peak in 1968, which correspondingly came to be known as “The Year of the Pitcher.”
Not since the end of the Dead-ball Era did pitchers display a level of dominance over hitters that they enjoyed during the 1968 campaign. In the National League, Dodger right-hander Don Drysdale established a new record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched, and Cardinal great Bob Gibson compiled a mind-boggling 1.12 earned run average. Meanwhile, Detroit’s Denny McLain led all A.L. hurlers with 31 victories, becoming in the process the first major league pitcher in 34 years to win as many as 30 games in a season. Cleveland’s Luis Tiant also had a sensational year, leading the American League with an ERA of 1.60 and setting a new major-league mark by holding opposing batters to a batting average of only .168.
Run production and batting averages plummeted in both leagues, particularly in the junior circuit, where Carl Yastrzemski captured the batting title with a mark of just .301. American League batters posted a collective slugging average of only .340 – the lowest since the Dead-ball Era season of 1915. The junior circuit’s composite batting average of .231 remains the lowest ever.
Seeking to restore a semblance of balance to the national pastime, the Rules Committee reinstituted the pre-1963 strike zone and lowered the height of the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches at the end of the season. Batting averages and run production subsequently returned to their historical averages, creating a greater sense of symmetry in the sport.
The 1968 campaign also remains historically significant in that it represents the final year in which baseball operated under its original format. Each league expanded to 12 teams and two divisions the following year, adding a round of playoffs to its postseason format. However, the World Series remained the only postseason competition that took place in 1968.
One additional note is that the 1968 campaign marked the Athletics’ relocation from Kansas City, Missouri to Oakland, California.
The pennant race itself failed to provide the suspense that the previous year’s four-team race offered. After being eliminated from contention on the season’s final day one year earlier, the Detroit Tigers ran away with the A.L. flag in 1968, claiming their first league championship in 23 years. The Tigers finished the regular season with a record of 103-59, 12 games ahead of the second-place Baltimore Orioles.
Clearly the American League’s strongest team, Detroit topped the circuit with 671 runs scored and also finished a close third in team ERA, with a mark of 2.71. Staff ace Denny McLain earned A.L. Cy Young and MVP honors by compiling a record of 31-6, a 1.96 ERA, and 280 strikeouts, while tossing a league-leading 28 complete games and 336 innings. Mickey Lolich gave the Tigers a second top-notch starter, posting 17 victories and 197 strikeouts.
In addition to scoring more runs than any other team in the American League, Detroit’s hard-hitting lineup finished first in the junior circuit with 185 home runs and a .385 slugging average. Jim Northrup hit 21 homers and finished third in the league with 90 runs batted in. Bill Freehan hit 25 home runs and drove in 84 runs, en route to earning a second-place finish in the A.L. MVP balloting. Willie Horton led the club with 36 home runs, 85 runs batted in, and a .285 batting average.
The Tigers entered the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals hoping that their superior power would prevail against the Cardinals’ outstanding pitching, defense, and team speed. Things looked bleak for the Tigers in the early-going, as they fell behind in the Series three-games-to-one. Bob Gibson out-pitched Denny McLain in Games One and Four, with the Cardinal ace establishing a new Series record in the opening contest by striking out 17 Detroit batters. However, the Tigers rallied to take Games Five and Six, winning the latter contest behind McLain by a score of 13-1. After throwing complete-game victories in Games Two and Five, Mickey Lolich opposed Gibson in the decisive seventh contest. Both men pitched extremely well, but Lolich and the Tigers finally prevailed by a score of 4-1, handing Gibson just his second loss in nine decisions in World Series competition. Lolich earned Series MVP honors by going 3-0, with a 1.67 ERA.
Other notable events from around the league and players who distinguished themselves over the course of the season included:
• July 3 – Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians struck out 19 Minnesota batters in a 10-inning, 1–0 victory over the Twins.
• July 11 – The Baltimore Orioles promoted first base coach Earl Weaver to manager, replacing Hank Bauer at the helm.
• July 24 – Hoyt Wilhelm appeared in his 907th game as a pitcher, breaking Cy Young's long-standing all-time record.
• July 30 – Although the Senators lost to the Indians by a score of 10-1, Washington shortstop Ron Hansen completed the eighth unassisted triple play in major league history, and the first since 1927.
• September 14 – Denny McLain became the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934, as the Detroit Tigers defeated the Oakland Athletics, 5–4, at Detroit's Tiger Stadium.
• September 28 – Mickey Mantle played in his final game, eight days after hitting the 536th and last home run of his career.
• October 10 – Pitching on only two days’ rest, Mickey Lolich posted his third victory of the World Series, giving the Detroit Tigers their first world championship since 1945 by beating Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-1. The Tigers became just the third team to rally from a three-games-to-one deficit to win the Series four games to three (the 1925 Pirates and the 1958 Yankees were the first two).
• October 21 - After spending his final two seasons with the Boston Red Sox, former Yankee All-Star catcher Elston Howard announced his retirement.
• Detroit’s Al Kaline batted .379 and led all World Series hitters with eight runs batted in.
• Detroit triumphed in Game Seven of the Series by breaking up a scoreless duel with three runs in the seventh inning.
• After moving to Oakland at the start of the year, the A’s compiled a league-leading .240 team batting average. That figure represents the lowest in major league history by a loop leader.
• Carl Yastrzemski’s league-leading .301 batting average remains the lowest mark ever compiled by a batting champion.
• The Yankees set a post-Dead-ball Era record for lowest team batting average with a mark of just .214.
• Cesar Tovar played all nine positions for the Twins on September 22.
• Tom Phoebus of Baltimore threw a no-hitter against Boston on April 27.
• On May 8, Catfish Hunter of the A's pitched a perfect game against the Twins. Hunter also collected three hits and drove in four runs on his own behalf.
• Washington's Frank Howard led the major leagues with 44 homers, 330 total bases, and a .552 slugging average. He also finished second in the American League with 106 runs batted in.
• At one point during the season, Howard hit a record 10 home runs over a six-game span.
• Chicago’s Wilbur Wood set a new major league record by pitching in 88 games.
• The Hall of Fame inducted Joe Medwick, Kiki Cuyler, and Goose Goslin.
• New York’s Stan Bahnsen (17 wins and a 2.06 ERA) earned A.L. Rookie of the Year honors.
• Hall of Famer Sam Crawford died at age 83.
• Jim Northrup of Detroit hit a record-tying three grand slams over a five-day period.
• Boston's Ken (Hawk) Harrelson hit 35 homers and led the league with 109 runs batted in.
• Carl Yastrzemski led the league with 119 walks and a .429 on-base percentage.
• Bert Campaneris led the American League with 177 hits and 62 stolen bases.
• Cleveland’s Luis Tiant finished 21-9, with a league-leading 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts. He also struck out 264 batters and completed 19 games.
• Indians teammate Sam McDowell led all A. L. hurlers with 283 strikeouts.
• New York’s Mel Stottlemyre finished 21-12, with a 2.45 ERA, 278 innings pitched, and 19 complete games.
• Baltimore’s Dave McNally compiled a record of 22-10, a 1.95 ERA, 273 innings pitched, and 18 complete games.
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- 1968 World Series, Al Kaline, American League, Bert Campaneris, Bill Freehan, Bob Gibson, Carl Yastrzemski, Catfish Hunter, Cesar Tovar, Dave McNally, Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers, Earl Weaver, Elston Howard, Frank Howard, Hank Bauer, Hoyt Wilhelm, Jim Northrup, Ken Harrelson, Luis Tiant, Mel Stottlemyre, Mickey Lolich, Mickey Mantle, Ron Hansen, Sam McDowell, Stan Bahnsen, Tom Phoebus, Wilbur Wood, Willie Horton