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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

1968: A Different Era, a Lower E.R.A.

A few minutes before Robert F. Kennedy was shot by an assassin 40 years ago, he was talking baseball, expressing his “high regard to Don Drysdale, who pitched his sixth straight shutout tonight.” He added, “And I hope that we have as good fortune in our campaign.”

Kennedy spoke after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary. Drysdale pitched for the Dodgers. The recent anniversary of Kennedy’s death was another in a flow of memories from a tumultuous year, not all of it happy nostalgia.

It is appropriate that it was an extraordinary year for baseball, the Year of the Pitcher with nothing like it before or since, as Drysdale sparkled alongside stars like Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Luis Tiant and Mickey Lolich.

“You didn’t realize what was happening that year until it was over,” said Frank Robinson, a Hall of Fame hitter who played that season for Baltimore. “All of a sudden, after the season, you’d look up and say, ‘Wow!’ ”

This season’s top pitchers have not equaled the élan of their predecessors from 1968, but their craft seems to be on the rise. Dave Duncan can sense it.

“Last two or three years, pitchers seem to be controlling the games better than they did for a while,” said Duncan, the pitching coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, a catcher in 1968 who is widely acknowledged as an authority on pitching.

Straws in the wind this season include the Mets’ three consecutive losses in San Diego by the score of 2-1, and a 1-0 game, the Rockies defeating the Giants at Coors Field, which used to be a showcase of offense. It is not yet midseason, and seven starters had at least 10 victories before Saturday’s games.

This season’s combined earned run average (before Saturday’s games) was 4.17, down from last season’s 4.46 and down significantly from 4.76 in 2000, which was the highest since 1930. But it is bloated compared with 2.98 in 1968.

The combined batting average was .261, down from last season’s .268 and down even more from .271 of 1999 but still far above .237 in 1968.

The 1968 season had many telling details. The National League won the All-Star Game, 1-0, scoring on a double-play grounder in the first inning. Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title at .301, and he was the A.L.’s only .300 hitter. Rocky Colavito, a veteran outfielder on the Yankees, earned a pitching victory against the Tigers with two and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief.

As a symbolic grace note, a pitching legend from a prior era, Satchel Paige, then 62 years old, coached for the Atlanta Braves.

Paige was there mainly to accrue pension time that he never got in the Negro leagues and to throw a few pitches before games. Dusty Baker, now the Reds’ manager, was a Braves rookie. “I was his caddie,” Baker said.

People gave Paige gifts, like fishing rods, and Baker carried them for him. “He never could remember my name,” Baker said. “He called me Daffy. He would tell stories. Hank Aaron would say, ‘Half of them are lies,’ but we’d laugh anyway.”

McLain won 31 games for the Tigers, surpassing Dizzy Dean’s mark of 30 in 1934, as the Tigers defeated the Cardinals in the World Series. McLain attended a reunion of that championship team last week at Detroit’s Comerica Park. So did Lolich, his teammate who won three complete games in the Series.

McLain had 28 complete games that year. “Nobody trusted anybody in the bullpen,” he said. “Three or four of my losses were 2-1 or 1-0.” He finished 31-6.

The World Series showcased pitching. Gibson, who was 22-9 in 1968 with an E.R.A. of 1.12 and 28 complete games, struck out 17 Tigers in a 4-0 victory in Game 1.

Lolich said Gibson “had great stuff; he had good control” and would scare hitters.

“He was mean and nasty,” Lolich said. “He would knock you flat on your butt without even thinking about it. In those days, a lot of guys ate dirt. It was a sign of respect.”

Lolich won Game 5 on three days’ rest and won Game 7 on two. Pitchers today usually start on four’ days rest. “Lolich was the hero, thank God,” McLain said.

Joe Torre, the Dodgers’ manager, played his first full major league season with Milwaukee in 1961. “My first week in big leagues, I got knocked down five times,” he said. “They wanted to see how I’d react. It wasn’t personal.”

There was no designated hitter. Many staffs had 10 pitchers and used four-man rotations. There were 897 complete games in 1968, compared with 112 last season.

“Umpires gave you the high pitch more than they do today,” Lolich said. “A pitch through the letters was a strike. Nowadays, that’s not.”

Back then, Lolich said, “I once pitched opening day in Washington, D.C., and I threw 185 pitches.” Lolich said Tigers Manager Mayo Smith asked him for just five innings in Game 7 of the Series, then after those five, Smith said, “How about one more?” and Lolich said he replied, “I’ll just finish it now.”

Today’s pitchers rarely throw more than 100 pitches.

Mike Mussina, a Yankees starter who was born in December 1968, is having a revival of his career at age 39. His record of 10-5 could make him a candidate to start the All-Star Game next month at Yankee Stadium.

But Mussina said he did not sense a trend toward 1968 standards.

“Every new stadium they build is hitter-friendly,” Mussina said. “The way to sell the game is to have games 8-5 and 10-7.”

Many parks were pitcher-friendly in 1968, including places like Oakland, where the Athletics had moved that year from Kansas City.

After the 1968 season, the major leagues lowered the pitching mound to 10 inches from 15. The size of the mound had been an advantage some pitchers would sorely miss. It is an intuitive battle strategy to want to hold the high ground.

Duncan said it was healthier for pitchers to throw high strikes from a higher mound because “you put less effort into it.” But Lolich and other former pitchers said current pitchers also are “babied” and do not learn to finish what they start.

Tiant, who went 21-9 with a 1.60 E.R.A. for Cleveland in 1968, said lowering the mound dangerously changed the physics of his delivery.

“I came up with a sore arm,” Tiant said, adding that Juan Marichal told Tiant that Marichal had to relearn how to pitch.

Ken Harrelson, who played for Boston and led the American League with 107 runs batted in, said pitchers back then were able to put more spin on breaking pitches because the seams on the ball were higher.

“You could hear a lot of curveballs,” Harrelson said. “It was the seams grabbing the air. It had a sound — ‘Th-th-th-th-st!’ — almost like a dentist’s drill.”

Bill James, a senior adviser for the Boston Red Sox, helped propel baseball into an era of advanced statistical analysis. In an e-mail interview, James offered caveats for historical comparisons. He said many variables changed and “it’s hard to generalize.”

James also cautioned that “every generation of old ballplayers has always said that the guys they played with were much tougher.”

There were other challenges in 1968. Lolich served the previous year in the National Guard in Detroit during a riot. Jon Warden, a rookie pitcher for the Tigers in 1968, remembered that Detroit’s streets were deserted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

McLain said people in his age group “were coming home dead” from the war.

McLain grew up in Chicago and said he was particularly aware of violence there between police and antiwar protesters in August at the Democratic National Convention.

“The country was suffering,” McLain said. Ballparks were sanctuaries of stability.

Harrelson said Kennedy would visit Fenway Park early that season and the year before to talk about baseball. “Big baseball fan,” Harrelson said of Kennedy. “He’d come in and sit and chat in front of my locker. Just shooting the breeze.”

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