Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Big Move to Cut Pitchers Down to Size

As the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals prepared to meet in the 1968 World Series — the anticipated duels between Denny McLain (above left) and Bob Gibson (above right) underscoring a historic "Year of the Pitcher" — baseball's owners were planning equally historic changes that would help regenerate offense and restructure the game on and off the field. Responding to a season of record dominance by pitchers and a decade basically dominated from the hill — "You only had to look at what [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] Drysdale did with a Maury Wills bunt and steal in Los Angeles," Commissioner Bud Selig said — the owners lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 (there were suspicions that it had been as high as 20 inches in some ballparks, including Dodger Stadium), altering the slope and angles from which pitches were delivered. In addition, umpires were quietly instructed to narrow the strike zone, basically depriving pitchers of the high or rule-book strike that has only recently been reestablished by commissioner's office edict.

"Pitching had been so dominant in the '60s, and especially in '68, that the owners, quite properly, felt it was hurting the game," Selig said, speaking specifically of the decision to lower the mound. There are differing opinions as to whether '68 was part of a pitching-oriented pattern that needed to be addressed or an anomaly that found the owners overreacting. The certainty is that there has never been a comparable season in the context of overall pitching domination.

The tone was set in April, when Houston and the Mets were unable to score a run for six long hours before the Astros prevailed, 1-0, on an error in the 24th inning. In midsummer, the National League won the All-Star game, 1-0, with the only run scoring on a double play.

Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax

For an appropriate finishing touch there was Drysdale's then-record 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings or those consecutive days in September when Gaylord Perry of San Francisco and Ray Washburn of St. Louis pitched a no-hitter against each other's team.

It was a season in which Carl Yastrzemski (above) was the AL's only .300 hitter at .301, and Willie McCovey won the NL's runs-batted-in title with the lowest total (105) since 1920.

Major league hitters batted a cumulative .237, still the record low, and the per-game runs average of 6.8 for two teams was the lowest since the dead-ball era of 1908.

In addition, both of the leagues had earned-run averages under 3.00 for the last time, and two pitchers, McLain (above) of Detroit and Gibson of St. Louis, won their circuit's most-valuable-player awards, in addition to the Cy Young Award.

McLain was 31-6, the last 30-game winner in the majors. Gibson (above) was 22-9, with a phenomenal ERA of 1.12. The Cardinals right-hander pitched 28 complete games and 13 of the numbing 339 major league shutouts. He also won his last 15 regular-season decisions. McLain won 24 games on the lower mound of 1969 and Gibson won 20, and the post-'68 changes certainly didn't represent the total end of quality pitching. Among starters, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson, to cite a few, have produced potential Hall of Fame careers since then, and Nolan Ryan, among others, already has been inducted.

(excerpts from an article by Ross Newhan)

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