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The High Ground

The 1968 World Series between the Cardinals and Tigers was the last to be played before the mound was lowered, and batters have had the advantage ever since

October 21, 2006|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

As the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals prepared to meet in the 1968 World Series -- the anticipated duels between Denny McLain and Bob Gibson 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.

Now, in fact, preparing for a rematch 38 years later, the Tigers and Cardinals will have survived a far different route than in '68 and will be playing a different game, even if pitching is still the name of it.

"Those were radical changes, no question about it," Commissioner Bud Selig recalled by phone. "There was a feeling that the sport was experiencing stagnancy. The owners were looking for ways to rev it up."

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," 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.

If those developments represented a welfare check for the beleaguered hitters in the aftermath of the '68 season and Series, in which the Tigers rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to defeat Gibson in Game 7, overall pitching was additionally weakened that winter when baseball expanded for a second time, going from 10 teams in each league to 12. Kansas City and Seattle joined the American League, San Diego and Montreal the National, necessitating a significant restructuring.

For the first time, both leagues were divided into two divisions of six teams each, and a five-game pennant playoff was instituted as a qualifying round for the World Series, the route that the New York Mets would have to travel while winning the 1969 Series.

Selig was not the commissioner in 1968 (Gen. William Eckert, the unknown soldier, was fired that December and replaced by Bowie Kuhn), but he is a baseball historian and was active in the owners' circle trying to obtain a team, which he did in 1970 when the Seattle Pilots went bankrupt after one season and moved to Milwaukee as the Brewers.

"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.

"It was also a period in which pro football was beginning to gain in popularity, looking at new cities. It was fast-paced and violent compared to the tone of baseball, and the owners were deeply concerned about" the competition.

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.

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 (.301) was the AL's only .300 hitter, 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 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 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.

"I don't know of any pitcher to have a more dominant season," Selig said.

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