The 1968 World Series featured the American League champion Detroit Tigers against the National League champion (and defending World Series champion) St. Louis Cardinals, with the Tigers winning in seven games for their first championship since 1945, and the third in their history.
The Tigers came back from a 3–1 deficit to win three in a row, largely on the arm of MVP Mickey Lolich, who as of 2016 remains the last pitcher to earn three complete-game victories in a single World Series. (The three World Series wins were duplicated by Randy Johnson in 2001, but Johnson started only two of his games.) In his third appearance in the Series, Lolich had to pitch after only two days rest in the deciding Game 7, because regular-season 31-game winner Denny McLain was moved up to Game 6 — also on two days rest. In Game 5, the Tigers hopes for the title would have been very much in jeopardy had Bill Freehan not tagged out Lou Brock in a home plate collision, on a perfect throw from left fielder Willie Horton, when Brock elected not to slide and went in standing up.
The 1968 season was tagged "The Year of the Pitcher", and the Series featured dominant performances from Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series. Gibson came into the World Series with a regular season earned run average (ERA) of just 1.12, a modern era record, and he would pitch complete games in Games 1, 4, and 7. He was the winning pitcher in Games 1 and 4. In Game 1, he threw a shutout, striking out a Series record 17 batters, besting Sandy Koufax's 1963 record by two. The 17 strikeouts still stands as the World Series record today. In Game 4, a solo home run by Jim Northrup was the only offense the Tigers were able to muster, as Gibson struck out ten batters. In Game 7, Gibson was defeated by series MVP Lolich, allowing three runs on four straight hits in the decisive seventh inning, although the key play was a Northrup triple that was seemingly misplayed by center fielder Curt Flood and could have been the third out with no runs scoring.
The World Series saw the Cardinals lose a Game 7 for the first time in their history. The Tigers were the third team to come back from a three games to one deficit to win a best-of-seven World Series, the first two being the 1925 Pirates and the 1958 Yankees. Later, the 1979 Pirates, the 1985 Royals, and the 2016 Cubs would accomplish this feat.
This was also the final World Series played prior to Major League Baseball's 1969 expansion, which coincided with the introduction of divisional play and the League Championship Series.
All seven games of NBC's TV coverage were preserved on black-and-white kinescopes by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and circulate among collectors. Games 1 and 5 have been commercially released; these broadcasts, and that of Game 7, were frequently shown on CSN (Classic Sports Network) and ESPN Classic in the 1990s and 2000s.
AL Detroit Tigers (4) vs. NL St. Louis Cardinals (3)
The Tigers roared into Game 1 by setting a then-team record with 103 victories on the season and were appearing in their first World Series in 23 years. The Tigers led the American League with 185 home runs. Team batting average was .235, fourth best in the League; the team only stole 26 bases on the year. The Cardinals could fly on the bases stealing 110 bases, leading the NL with 48 triples, had a team average at .249, but hit only 73 home runs. Pitching was about even as both teams set their rotations for Game 1 with solid starters and adequate relievers.
Fans overflowed Busch Stadium for Game 1 to watch the highly anticipated matchup of the Major League's top two pitchers, the Cardinals Bob Gibson (22–9, 1.12 ERA) and the Tigers Denny McLain (31–6, 1.96 ERA). Gibson was looking to become the first National League pitcher to win six World Series games while McLain would be pitching in his first World Series game. Indeed, the Cardinals had far more World Series experience than the Tigers with most of the Cardinal lineup (including all nine Game 1 starters) having played in a prior World Series. Both pitchers were highly competitive, fast workers, sporting overpowering fastballs coupled with excellent control.
Gibson's performance in Game 1 was phenomenal. The menacing right-handed pitcher shut out the Tigers on just five hits, and he struck out a World Series-record 17 Detroit Tigers batters.
The Cardinals broke through with three in the fourth off McLain. After McLain walked Roger Maris and Tim McCarver, Cardinals third baseman Mike Shannon singled in Maris and went to second base when Tiger left fielder Willie Horton misplayed the ball. McCarver pulled in at third. Cardinals second baseman Julian Javier followed this by singling in both baserunners to make the score 3–0. Outfielder Lou Brock added a home run in the seventh inning to complete the scoring.
Gibson finished by striking out the last three hitters to end the game.
The Tigers' starting pitcher Mickey Lolich earned a complete-game victory and the Tigers evened the Series.
Tiger outfielder Willie Horton hit a home run in the second inning, and Lolich also helped his own cause with a homer in the third inning off the Cardinals starter, Nelson Briles, scoring the go-ahead run. This was the only home run that Lolich hit during his entire professional career. The Tigers broke the game open in the sixth inning when first baseman Norm Cash led off with another homer, and second baseman Dick McAuliffe later provided a two-run single.
Cardinals' first baseman Orlando Cepeda gave St. Louis a run with an RBI single in the sixth, but that was all they scored. Al Kaline scored in the seventh inning when Jim Northrup hit into a double play, and the Tigers scored their final two runs with bases-loaded walks to Don Wert and Lolich.
In the first of three games at Detroit's Tiger Stadium, Al Kaline started the scoring with a two-run homer in the third inning, but the Cardinals came back in the fifth inning on an RBI double by center fielder Curt Flood off starter Earl Wilson. After Wilson put another batter on base, catcher Tim McCarver launched a three-run home run off relief pitcher Pat Dobson. The Tigers cut the deficit to just one run on a home run by Dick McAuliffe. But Orlando Cepeda put the game out of reach in the seventh inning by smacking a three-run home run.
Cardinals' reliever Joe Hoerner entered the game in the sixth in relief of Ray Washburn and earned a save. Hoerner also collected a single batting in the eighth and became the first major leaguer to get a hit in the World Series after going hitless for the entire season.
Tiger manager Mayo Smith, needing another left-handed bat in the lineup, made a major change by inserting veteran Eddie Mathews at third base. Mathews, recovering from a spinal operation that nearly ended his career, had one hit, but this would be the last game of his major league career. After a 35-minute rain delay, hard-hitting Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg threw out the first pitch.
McLain had trouble warming up amidst the rainfall, and was throwing with less velocity from the outset. A 31-game winner during the regular season, he struggled for the second time in this World Series, as this one-sided pitching matchup with Bob Gibson showed. Lou Brock led the game off with a home run, and Mike Shannon added an RBI single later in the first inning. Two more Cardinals runs were knocked in during the third inning on Tim McCarver's triple and Mike Shannon's double. McLain's troubles continued, and after a walk to Julian Javier, the umpires stopped the game due to rain with two out in the third inning. McLain did not return when play resumed after a one-hour and 15-minute rain delay. Bob Gibson did return after the delay, and helped his own cause by hitting a home run off Joe Sparma in the fourth inning. Next, Lou Brock knocked a triple and scored on a ground-out by Roger Maris.
The Cardinals' final runs came in the eighth inning when Gibson walked with the bases loaded, forcing in one run, and then Lou Brock drove in three more runs with a double. Brock was just a single short of hitting for the cycle in this game.
The Tigers' only run came in the fourth inning when Jim Northrup hit a home run. Other than that, Gibson was a nearly perfect pitcher, tossing his second complete game in this World Series while striking out ten batters. The Cards now had a commanding three-games-to-one lead in this Series.
With the World Series on the line, the Tigers used their winner of Game 2, Mickey Lolich, as their starting pitcher. Lolich's first inning in this game was not too promising, as he allowed an RBI single by Curt Flood and a two-run home run to Orlando Cepeda. However, Lolich soon settled down, striking out eight Cardinals batters and allowing no more runs.
Tigers' first baseman Norm Cash began the team comeback with a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning, plating Mickey Stanley who had tripled. This was followed by a Willie Horton triple and Jim Northrup's RBI single, making it a 3–2 game. In the fifth inning, the Cardinals had a chance to go up by two runs after Lou Brock hit a one-out double. Cardinals second baseman Julian Javier followed with a base hit to left. Outfielder Willie Horton fielded the ball off the ground and then fired the ball towards home plate. Instead of sliding into home plate, Brock tried to bowl over Tiger catcher Bill Freehan. However, Freehan caught and held onto the ball while blocking the plate with his foot, and Brock was called out. This was the last time that the Cardinals threatened to score in the game.
Cardinals' starting pitcher Nelson Briles was taken out of the game in the seventh inning with one runner on base, and was replaced by reliever Joe Hoerner. The Tigers began a game-winning rally off Hoerner, with Al Kaline hitting a two-run single to give the Tigers a 4–3 lead. Norm Cash then knocked in an insurance run with a single.
Jose Feliciano's unconventional pre-game singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" aroused considerable controversy, with the Tigers and NBC receiving thousands of angry letters and telephone calls about the performance. Lolich also blamed Feliciano's unusually long rendition for causing him to get cold after his warm-ups and thus give up three early runs.
Now needing two wins in St. Louis to win the World Series, Tiger manager Mayo Smith chose Denny McLain again as his starting pitcher, even though he was on only two days' rest and had not been very successful in his two prior Series starts. (This was made possible by the previous day's game getting rained out, and McLain only pitching 3 1⁄3 innings in his Game 4 start.) Cardinals' manager Red Schoendienst stayed with his normal three-starter rotation, selecting Ray Washburn, who had won Game 3. The choice of McLain paid off for the Tigers, as he pitched a complete game in a 13–1 rout of the Cardinals.
The Tigers went up 2–0 in the second inning on RBI hits by Willie Horton and Bill Freehan. In the third, the Tigers sent 14 batters to the plate and scored 10 runs off of three Cardinals pitchers. Jim Northrup's grand slam home run highlighted the inning. Al Kaline added a home run in the fifth inning.
In a fitting end to this Series, the two teams' hottest pitchers, Mickey Lolich and Bob Gibson, squared off in what was almost a classic duel, until an infamous hit over the head of Curt Flood. Like McLain in Game 6, Lolich was starting on only two days' rest.
Lolich and Gibson matched scoreless innings for six innings, but, in the top of the seventh, Gibson surrendered two-out hits to Norm Cash and Willie Horton. Jim Northrup then hit a hard smash to deep center; Curt Flood, who won numerous Gold Glove awards in his career, misjudged it and briefly started in on the ball before turning around to go back. The ball one-hopped the warning track, two runs scored, Northrup wound up with a triple, and Lolich had all the runs he needed. Flood has been criticized by some who believe he would have caught the ball had his first steps been back instead of in. Jim Northrup said the hit was "40 feet over [Flood's] head. He never had a chance to catch it." However, his teammate Denny McLain claimed in his 1975 book that "Flood blew it." Orlando Cepeda, in his book "Baby Bull", asserts that Flood would have caught the ball, had he not misjudged it. In the October 29, 1968, issue of The Sporting News, both Flood and manager Red Schoendienst indicated they would have expected the normally sure-handed outfielder to catch such a ball. By starting in, Flood had to attempt to both reverse direction and then regain his acceleration. He then slipped on the wet grass before recovering his speed, and by that time the ball was well beyond him. Bill Freehan then doubled in Northrup, and in the top of the ninth, Don Wert would add an RBI single.
The Cardinals would get a run in the ninth on a Mike Shannon homer, but that was all as Lolich would pitch his third complete game. The final out of the series was recorded when Bill Freehan caught a pop foul off the bat of Tim McCarver. Gibson struck out eight in the losing cause, giving him a record 35 strikeouts by one pitcher in a World Series, but Lolich would be named World Series MVP.
Cardinals shortstop Dal Maxvill went hitless in 22 World Series at-bats, a record.
1968 World Series (4–3): Detroit Tigers (A.L.) over St. Louis Cardinals (N.L.)