The year 1968 looms large in America’s public consciousness. If you know anything at all about history, you know that 1968 was one of the seminal years in American history. During the entirety of this year, 2018, you will hear about the 50th anniversary of this or the 50th anniversary of that. Fifty years beyond 1968 and it is still a highly remembered and hotly debated year.
1968 Changed the World and Baseball
It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. It was a year of turmoil, protests, and riots. It was a year of musical innovation, civil rights protest at the Olympics, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and the introduction of the 747 Jumbo Jet. It was a year of hippies and Nixon. It’s either despised or revered, depending on your ideological bent.
It was also the year of the pitcher.
The 1968 season was the last in which the traditional two-league system was used: the next year saw the introduction of two divisions in each league. It was also the last year of the pre-playoff era – after 1968, the two first place teams would no longer go directly to the World Series.
Pitching Dominance Grew During the 1960s
During the 1960s, pitchers grew more dominant, aided by a larger enforced strike zone – starting in 1963, the strike zone parameters were from the bottom of the knee to the top of the armpit. This change was a reaction to Roger Maris’ successful pursuit of the home run record in 1961. Influenced by Commissioner Ford Frick, who was dismayed to see the record of his old friend, Babe Ruth topped by Maris, the owners made the strike zone change and ushered in a new era of no offense baseball.
This pitching dominance culminated in a season that tilted significantly in favor of the pitchers!
1968 – the Year of the Weak!
Weak hitting, that is. American League teams batted a collective .230. The National League was a bit better at .243. For all of Major League Baseball, the average was a paltry .237. The best hitting team in 1968 was the Cincinnati Reds at .273 and the worst: New York Yankees at .214.
Though total league home runs weren’t as pathetic as it was back in the dead-ball era, it certainly wasn’t a slug-fest. In 1962, the year after Maris broke the record, there were 3,001 total home runs; in 1968, the were 1,995.
Bob Gibson won the National League ERA title with an ERA of 1.12, the 4th lowest ever and the lowest since 1914. Eight pitchers had an ERA below 2.00. Denny McLain won 31 games that year; the last pitcher to reach the 30-win plateau. Pitchers ruled and hitters went sulking back to the dugout.
What Happened After the Year of the Pitcher?
Along with expansion (San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos in the National; Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots in the American), a new split division format, and a new playoff system, the league reverted back to the old strike zone dimensions (area over home plate only, between the armpits and the top of the knees). The leagues also reduced the height of the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 inches.
Home run numbers went from 1,995 (1968) to 3,119 (1969). League batting average climbed from .230 (1968) to .248 (1969). Team run-per-game average went from 3.42 (1968) to 4.07 (1969), an increase of almost 20 percent.
Offense was back in style, and balance reinstated. Of course, this offensive surge was a mere prelude to the steroid era, but that’s a different story altogether!