Gibson Was Great in '68
Bob Gibson was a very good pitcher for several years through the 1967 season, and a very good pitcher for several more years starting in 1969. But in 1968, particularly during a two-month stretch in mid-season, Gibson was arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.
His period of dominance actually began after he suffered a broken leg on July 15, 1967. Returning to action on September 7, Gibson went 3-1 with a 0.96 ERA the rest of the regular season, then led the Cardinals to the world championship with a 3-0, 1.00 World Series performance. Picking up right where he left off, Gibby was 4-0, 1.64 in spring training of the next year.
Then followed his epic 1968 season: a 1.12 ERA, the lowest ever for anyone pitching as many as 300 innings. In fact, he flirted with a sub-one ERA, entering August with a 0.96 mark, and still standing at 0.99 after Labor Day.
One of the reasons Gibson's season doesn't receive the recognition it deserves is his relatively modest 22-9 won-lost record. How does someone lose nine games with a 1.12 ERA? It was mostly a case of poor offensive and defensive support:April 20: 5-1 vs. Chicago (CG, 3 ER). Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins three-hit the Cardinals, not allowing a run until two were out in the ninth inning.
May 12: 3-2 vs. Houston (8 IP, 2 ER).
May 17: 1-0 vs. Philadelphia (CG, 1 ER). The game's only run scored with two out in the tenth inning.
May 22: 2-0 vs. Los Angeles (8 IP, 1 H, 1 ER). Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched his third of a record six straight shutouts.
May 28: 3-1 vs. San Francisco (CG, 3 ER).
August 24: 6-4 vs. Pittsburgh (CG, 3 ER). Unearned runs ended his 15-game winning streak.
September 6: 3-2 vs. San Francisco (8 IP, 2 ER).
September 17: 1-0 vs. San Francisco (CG, 1 ER). Ron Hunt hit one of his two homers of the year, and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry no-hit the Cards.
September 22: 3-2 vs. Los Angeles (CG, 2 ER).
In those games, Gibson went 0-9 despite a 2.14 ERA. Had the Cardinals scored but four runs in each of Gibson's 34 starts, he would have gone 30-2. Yes, 1968 was a historically low-scoring season, with only 3.43 runs per team per game in the NL. OK, if the Cards had scored 3.43 runs in each game Gibson pitched, he STILL would have gone 30-4. If they had scored merely three runs in each game, Gibby would have been 24-4. Even if St. Louis had scored only two runs in each game, he would have gone 23-10. And -- ready for this? -- if they had scored just ONE RUN in each game he pitched, Gibson would still have had a winning record, at 13-10.
There is also the perception that EVERY hurler dominated in The Year of the Pitcher. But Gibson's ERA was 63% better than the rest of the National League's 3.03 mark, and 44% better than that of the runner-up in the ERA race.
Gibson pitched 13 shutouts in '68, and easily could have challenged Grover Alexander's record of 16. Besides the May 17 heartbreaker, Gibson twice pitched a complete game victory in which the only run he allowed was unearned. In all, he had 11 games in which he allowed just one run, several of them flukish. Five times during the season, he had a streak of 20+ scoreless innings. Remarkably, Gibson had a 1.83 ERA (but only a 9-9 record) in games he did NOT pitch a shutout.
From June 2 through July 30, 1968, Bob Gibson put on the greatest two-month display of pitching in baseball history. In a stretch of 99 innings, he gave up just TWO RUNS. One scored on a wild pitch ("a catchable ball," according to opposing first baseman Wes Parker), and the other on a bloop double which was fair by inches. Those were the only things standing between Gibby and ten straight shutouts.
It started with a complete-game, 6-3 victory on June 2, in which Gibson whitewashed the Mets in the last two frames. He then ran off five shutouts in a row, beating the Astros (June 6), Braves (June 11), Reds (June 15), Cubs (June 20), and Pirates (June 26). Over the 45 innings, he surrendered just 21 hits and five walks. He was threatening the records of six straight shutouts and 58 consecutive scoreless innings set by the Dodgers' Don Drysdale just a month earlier. And his next start would be on July 1 –- against Drysdale!
The drama ended early, when a low fastball eluded back-up catcher Johnny Edwards in the first inning, allowing a Dodger run to score. Undaunted, Gibby blanked L.A. the rest of the way to win, 5-1, then shut out the Giants five days later. On July 12, Gibson gave up just three hits in a win over Houston, but one was Denis Menke's seventh-inning blooper that landed just inside the left field foul line and plated a run.
On July 17, the Giants paid Gibson the supreme compliment, scratching scheduled starter Juan Marichal so as not to waste their ace against an invincible opponent. It paid off: Gibson had a 6-0 lead after four innings, but the game was rained out, just short of official status, and Marichal won the next day.
Gibby followed with shutouts over the Mets (July 21) and Phillies (July 25) before allowing a fourth-inning run against New York on July 30. He won that game and added three more victories in August to complete a 15-game winning streak, including ten shutouts and a 0.68 ERA.
Gibson was never knocked out of the box during the season, completing 28 of 34 starts and being pinch-hit for late in the other six, as he averaged 8.96 innings per start. Gibson's worst ERA in any month was 1.97 in April. His worst against any team was 2.11 vs. Los Angeles. Help from his home park, Busch Stadium? Gibson's road ERA that year was 0.79.
Gibson continued his dominance into Game Seven of the 1968 World Series against Detroit. In his first 24-2/3 innings of the Fall Classic, he struck out 34 batters, and allowed just 11 hits, three walks, and one run for a 0.36 ERA. Suddenly, he ran out of magic, coughing up four runs on seven hits in the last 2-1/3 innings of the finale. Fittingly, the Cardinals didn't score until there were two out in the ninth inning, and lost, 4-1.
And so ended a pitching season for the ages.
Bill Deane has authored hundreds of baseball articles and six books, including Award Voting, winner of the 1989 SABR-Macmillan Award. He served as Senior Research Associate for the National Baseball Library & Archive from 1986-94. He has since done consulting work for Topps Baseball Cards, Curtis Management Group, STATS, Inc., and Macmillan Publishing, and also served as Managing Editor of the most recent Total Baseball.
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