On October 2, 1968, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson strikes out 17 Detroit Tigers in the first game of the World Series, breaking Sandy Koufax’s record for the most strikeouts in a Series game. Though the Cards ended up losing the Series in seven games, Gibson pitched three and struck out an unprecedented 35 batters.
Gibson was recovering from an injury–the year before, a Roberto Clemente line drive had smashed his ankle–but he still managed to win 22 games in 1968, with one 15-game winning streak that included 10 of his 13 shutouts. He started 34 games and finished 28 (an incredible 304 2/3 innings of play) and in one remarkable 96-inning stretch he allowed just two runs. His earned-run average was 1.12, the fourth-lowest ever.
Gibson was the National League’s MVP in 1968, but his weren’t the year’s only extraordinary accomplishments on the mound. Tigers pitcher Denny McLain (who lost twice to Gibson in the ’68 Series) won 31 games. Dodger Don Drysdale threw six shutouts in a row–a record 58 2/3 scoreless innings. The Cards and the Giants threw back-to-back no-hitters, one against the other, and the Astros beat the Mets by scoring just one run after an exhausting 24 innings.
People called it the Year of the Pitcher, and it didn’t happen by accident. The home-run-heavy early 1960s had inspired baseball commissioner Ford Frick to try to prevent batters from batting quite so well, for fear that the game would become too lopsided for fans to enjoy. Frick raised the pitchers’ mound from 10 inches to 15, and he implemented a bigger strike zone. As a result, batting averages tumbled. Only six players hit over .300 in 1968, and Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 was the lowest average ever to win a league batting title.
Pitchers were happy, but almost no one else was. Commissioner William Eckert was fired at the end of the season for not doing more to help hitters. The next year, new commissioner Bowie Kuhn reintroduced the 10-inch pitchers’ mound and the smaller strike zone, and Rod Carew won the AL title with a .332 average. Since then, the designated hitter; the shrinking strike zone; smaller ballparks; weight training and steroids; and livelier baseballs have all boosted batting averages and made it harder to pitch as successfully as Gibson and his peers.
But Gibson took the changes in stride. He struck out 10 Pirates and walked three in his only no-hitter in August 1971. Three years later, he pitched his 3,000th strikeout–only the second in MLB history to do so–to Cesar Geronimo of the Cincinnati Reds. (He’d throw 3,117 in all.) He was a first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame in 1981, and fans voted him to the All-Century Team in 1999. His statue stands outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis.