By Glen Sparks
Any discussion of Bob Gibson’s great and glorious 1968 season gets around to this one inevitable question: How did the St. Louis Cardinals ace ever lose nine games that year?
Well, as they say, it wasn’t easy. The 32-year-old right-hander pitched 304.2 innings in ’68 and gave up just 38 earned runs. That equated to a remarkable 1.12 ERA, the lowest figure in the live-ball era. He posted a WAR of 11.3, higher than Sandy Koufax (10.7 in 1963), Juan Marichal (10.3 in 1965) or Don Drysdale (8.0 in 1964) ever put up over one campaign.
Gibson compiled a 22-9 won-loss record in ‘68. How is it that he, in his 10th year in the majors, did not win 25 or 30 games? Denny McLain, after all, went 31-6 for the Detroit Tigers in 1968. He posted an ERA of 1.96, an impressive mark but one nearly double Gibson’s number.
This post offers a review of Gibson’s season in the fabled Year of the Pitcher (Drysdale set a record, since broken, with his 58 2/3-inning scoreless streak, Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with a .301 batting average, Luis Tiant topped the A.L. with a 1.60 ERA, etc.) and takes a close look at the Redbird hurler’s nine defeats.
The 6-foot-1-inch right-hander began the season with two no-decisions, one at home and one on the road, both against the Atlanta Braves. He shut out Atlanta over seven innings in the first game and gave up three earned runs in the second.
“Hoot” Gibson as some called the Cardinals pitcher, after the old movie cowboy star, started against Ferguson Jenkins. Billy Williams smacked a two-run home run in the first inning to give Chicago an early lead. Gibson gave up two more runs, both unearned, in the fifth, following an error by St. Louis second baseman Julian Javier. Chicago added a run in the eighth on a Lou Johnson RBI double.
The Cardinals finally scored when Curt Flood ripped a solo homer in the ninth inning off Jenkins. Both starting pitchers hurled complete games as Chicago won 5-1. The five runs would tie for the most that Gibson would give up in any one game in 1968. His ERA stood at 2.35, the highest it would be following any contest all season and the only time it would be above 2.00 at the end of the day. His won-loss record was 0-1.
Gibson won three straight decisions following that loss to Chicago. He beat the Pittsburgh Pirates at home, the Houston Astros on the road and the New York Mets in St. Louis. He threw a total of 32 innings in those three wins (Yes, nine innings, 12 innings and 11 innings), surrendered just 17 hits and allowed only one run in each game.
Gibson faced the Houston Astros and Larry Dierker, a 21-year-old right-hander from southern California. Dierker went nine innings in this one and gave up two runs, just one of them earned. Gibson pitched eight innings and allowed three runs, two of them earned. Gibby struck out 10 and gave up 11 hits, one of just four times he’d surrender at least 10 hits. His ERA was now 1.43. His won-loss record dipped to 3-2.
Gibson battled the Phillies’ Woodie Fryman, a third-year left-hander, in this match-up. Neither pitcher gave up a run through nine innings. Fryman shut down the Cards in the 10th, while the Phillies pushed across a run in the bottom of that frame to win 1-0.
Fryman singled to open the 10th and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt Tony Gonzalez. With two outs, former Cardinal Bill White singled to centerfield; Fryman sprinted home. Gibson gave up seven hits and four walks in 9.2 innings. He lowered his ERA to 1.36 and dropped to 3-3.
Not surprisingly, Gibson found himself in the middle of several pitching duels in 1968. In this one, he faced the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Don Drysdale. Two hard-throwing right-handers with big fastballs and nasty reputations for throwing inside would be squaring off against one another. Gibson gave up just one run over his eight innings. L.A. first baseman Wes Parker drilled an RBI double to score Paul Popovich, who had walked, in the third inning. The Dodgers added a second run in the ninth, off Cardinals reliever Joe Hoerner.
Drysdale, though, tossed a shutout in front of a paltry crowd of just 9,560. He gave up five hits, struck out eight and didn’t walk anyone. Gibson, in addition to the one run, walked two and fanned six. (Just for the record, neither pitcher hit a batter.) He gave up just the lone hit, to Parker. Gibson won-loss record was now 3-4 (The Cardinals were 21-16 at this point.) and his ERA was 1.34.
This time, Gibson got to face Gaylord Perry. The Cardinals put a run across in the first inning when Lou Brock scored on a fielder’s choice with Roger Maris at bat. Perry, famous for tossing spitballs (real and imagined), shut out St. Louis the rest of the way.
Gibby gave up a solo home run to Dick Dietz in the sixth inning and a two-run homer to Willie Mays in the seventh. His ERA rose to 1.52, and his won-loss record dipped to 3-5. The great Bob Gibson was fighting a four-game losing streak. In those four games, he pitched 33.2 innings, gave up just 23 hits, struck out 34 and walked 12. His ERA over that span? 1.90.
Gibson pitched a good, not great, game against the New York Mets on June 2 at Shea Stadium. The Redbird muscled up and scored six runs; Gibson allowed three in a complete-game effort. He ended his own losing streak, upped his record to 4-5 and raised his ERA to 1.66. Hoot’s incredible run for the ages began with his next start, June 6 against the Astros in Houston. He shut out the ‘Stros on a three hitter.
Between June 6 and July 30, Gibson made 11 starts and went 11-0. He completed every game and tossed eight shutouts. In the other three games, he gave up one run to each team. No one had a chance. Opponents hit .163 against him and slugged .190. Gibby struck out 83 in 99 innings of work and gave up only 56 hits. He hurled five straight shutouts at one point, from June 6 to June 26. The man with the crackling fastball and the devastating slider was on fire. His ERA on July 30 was 0.96.
The 2016 documentary Fastball goes into details about baseball’s most fearsome pitch. Gibson merits his own section in the film. He talked about his great 1968 season.
“I was in a zone that entire year,” he said. “I had complete control over the game. I felt like I could throw it wherever I wanted.”
He also added, “I lost nine games … I would sit by myself on the bench. No one would get near me. I was (angry). Get me a run!”
Following a mild hiccup that turned into a no-decision—he gave up five runs (four earned) and 12 hits, but in 11 innings on a sweltering day at Busch Stadium against the Cubs on Aug. 4 before giving way to the bullpen—Gibson continued along on his epic roll. He beat the Braves, Cubs and Phillies on the road, throwing three complete games and two shutouts. His record following the Aug. 19 game in Philadelphia stood at 18-5. His ERA was exactly 1.00.
This one looked like it might be a fairly easy win for Gibson. Yes, the Pittsburgh line-up boasted Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Matty Alou. But Gibby was facing Bob Moose, a 20-year-old pitcher in his first full season in the big leagues. And, St. Louis led 4-0 after four innings.
But then Stargell slammed a solo homer in the top of the seventh, and Alou hit a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning to score Freddy Patek. Suddenly, the Cards led just 4-2. But, Gibson was pitching, right? No problem.
Stargell led off the ninth for the Bucs with a double. Donn Clendenon reached base on a Dal Maxvil error, which scored pinch-runner Gary Kolb to make the game 4-3.
Gibson struck out a season high 15 batters. His record slipped to 18-6. His ERA was a masterful 1.07.
Gibson got his revenge against the Bucs just four days later. He hurled a four hit shutout at Forbes Field to go to 19-6 with a 1.03 ERA. This time, he fanned 14.
On Sept. 2, Gibby notched his 20th victory the hard way. He went 10 innings to beat the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 at Crosley Field. Gibson gave up four hits, walked three and struck out eight. Baseball’s top pitcher went to 20-6. His ERA on Sept. 2 dipped to 0.99.
Bobby Bolin, a young veteran having an excellent season (He would finish the year 10-5 with a 1.99 ERA.), matched up against Gibson in the first game of a doubleheader.
The Cards scored first, on an RBI single from Curt Flood in the bottom of the third. The Giants came back with two runs in the top of the fourth, on an RBI single from Jesus Alou (Matty’s brother) and an RBI double from Jack Hiatt. A Maxvil error led to one of the runs.
Hal Lanier added a run-scoring single for San Francisco in the sixth inning to make the score 3-1. St. Louis managed one run in the eighth, and the game ended with a score of 3-2. Gibson pitched eight innings and gave up nine hits and two earned runs. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter. His record was now 20-7 with an ERA of 1.03.
The Dodgers came to Busch Stadium on Sept. 11 with Mike Kekich going up against Gibson. This was not one of Hoot’s best games. He went nine innings, allowing 11 hits and four earned runs. Kekich, though, gave up three runs in just 1.2 innings, and reliever Jim “Mudcat” Grant surrendered two in 6.1 innings. The Redbirds won 5-4, and Gibson’s record was 21-7. His ERA was 1.13.
Once again, Gibson locked up with the Giants’ Perry. Once again, Perry won this duel. Each pitcher threw a complete game. Ron Hunt smacked a home run in the bottom of the first inning, and it held up. The Giants won 1-0. Perry hurled a no-hitter, the only one of his career. Gibson allowed the one run and four hits. He walked two and struck out 10. He lowered his record to 21-8. His ERA was still 1.13.
Talented right-hander Don Sutton hooked with Gibson in this late-season game. Neither pitcher allowed a run through the first five innings on this Sunday afternoon. The Dodgers finally broke out on top with a Popovich RBI single in the sixth. Willie Crawford’s solo home run in the seventh inning made it 2-0 Los Angeles.
The Cardinals tied the game 2-2 in the eighth thanks to run-scoring hits by Brock and Bobby Tolan. The Dodgers went ahead for good in the bottom of the eighth. Billy Sudakis opened the inning with a walk and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt from Wes Parker. Sudakis scored following a Popovich flyball and error by St. Louis right-fielder Joe Hague. Gibson gave up three runs, two of them earned. He walked five and struck out 11 in his eight innings of work. He was 21-9 with a 1.16 ERA.
Gibson’s season ended with one final masterpiece. He beat Dierker and the Astros 1-0 on Friday, Sept. 27, at Busch Stadium, in front of 18,658 fans. Hoot gave up six hits, no walks and struck out 11 in his 13th shutout of the season, the single-season record in the live-ball era. He raised his record to 22-9 and lowered his ERA to 1.12. It was final start of 1968.
It really was an amazing season. Gibson threw a complete game in every one of his 22 wins. In those games, he posted a microscopic 0.57 ERA. In his nine losses, his ERA went up to 2.14. (That mark alone would have been good for sixth in the National League in 1968). His ERA at night was 1.59. In the daytime, it was 0.95. He pitched five games on three days’ rest and threw four shutouts. He finished in double figures in strikeouts 11 times and with one or fewer walks 15 times. Opponents hit just .184 against him the entire season with a slugging percentage of .233.
The Cardinals finished the year 97-65, nine games in front of the second-place Giants, and faced the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Gibson’s big run continued into the postseason. The Tigers knocked off the Cardinals in seven games. Gibson won two games and lost one. He had an ERA of 1.67. In Game One, he set a World Series record with 17 strikeouts and beat McLain 1-0. He defeated McLain again in Game 4, 10-1, and lost to Mickey Lolich, 4-1, in Game 7.
Postseason, Gibson won the N.L. Cy Young award, the MVP and even the Gold Glove for his fielding excellence.
Over a 17-year career, all it spent with the Cardinals, Gibson won 251 games with a 2.91 ERA. He won at least 20 games five times and won a second Cy Young award in 1970. He struck out 3,117 batters and tossed 56 shutouts. In his nine postseason starts (all in the World Series), Gibson went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA. He won Game 7 match-ups in 1964 and 1967. The first-ballot Hall of Famer went into Cooperstown in 1981.
Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks said this about Gibson in Fastball: “He was such a great competitor. … He wanted it more than the hitter wanted to hit him.”