As America goes, so does the game of baseball. The game reflects changes in America’s fabric, its culture and values that shape the Nation.

Wars have affected baseball. So has civil unrest. Pearl Harbor did. The events of September 11th 2001 certainly did. Presidential policies have as well.

Examples range from President Roosevelt’s “green light” letter to play the 1941 season to President Bush’s decision to throw out the opening pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium.

And then there’s 1968.

Before the baseball season even started, the Vietnam War turned from bad to worse. The Tet offensive shocked the nation, as the US Embassy in Saigon even came under attack. A U.S. Marine garrison was surrounded and under siege at Khe Sanh. Casualties mounted. Protests increased. An incumbent President announced he would not seek re-election.

Opening Day approached in Cincinnati. The Reds and Manager Dave Bristol were optimistic. Bristol had a hot shot rookie named Johnny Bench as a catcher. He had Tony Perez and Pete Rose. 1966 Rookie of the Year Tommy Helms was back. Jim Maloney anchored the pitching staff. The ’67 Reds had been surprise contenders. The closest to tragedy the Reds came to in 1967 was when lefthanded reliever Ted Davidson was shot twice by his estranged wife in a bar during spring training. “I visited him in the hospital,” said Bristol, “and he showed me where he got shot. I saw the wound and passed out right there in his room.”

4177070656_df70ce0f9e_z

The 1968 Cincinnati Reds

The Reds broke spring training camp and were in Birmingham, Alabama. “That’s where we heard the news,” said Reds pitcher George Culver.

And it was bad news.

On April 4, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis at the Lorraine Hotel. Over 100 cities in America were rocked by riots in the days that followed. The worst were in Louisville, Chicago, Kansas City and Washington DC where rioters got within two blocks of the White House.

Opening Day was scheduled for Monday, April 8 in Cincinnati. It was canceled. Instead of baseball, riots hit Cincinnati. “I remember there was a curfew in Cincinnati,” said Culver. King’s funeral was April 9 in Atlanta and President Johnson declared it a day of national mourning. So shaken was Johnson, he requested Secret Service Agent Clint Hill to be at his side when he gave a public speech. Hill was the lone agent that reacted when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

The Reds rescheduled their Opener to Wednesday, April 10. Despite rumors of trouble at Crosley Field, the game sold out. A ban on the sale of liquor, initially announced days before the game, was lifted that morning.

2012opening-daycrosley-field-19681

Crosley Field, Opening Day 1968

Tied 1-1 with the Cubs in the 5th, Vada Pinson rapped a bases loaded double. Perez followed with a three-run homer and the Reds hung on for a 9-4 win. Milt Pappas started for Cincinnati but it was George Culver’s 3 2/3 innings of one-hit relief that helped bail the Reds out. “The first batter I faced was a future Hall of Famer in Ernie Banks,” said Culver. “I was lucky enough for him to hit into a double play. Opening Day is such a big deal in Cincinnati, it was a great atmosphere to play in.”

“That’s Culver,” said Bristol. “He always wanted the baseball. He always wanted to pitch.”

1968 was also known as the Year of the Pitcher. What better reflected that than when the Houston Astros edged the Mets 1-0 in a 24 inning game on April 15? Eleven days after that, Ohio State students stormed and took over the Administration Building on campus in Columbus.

Meanwhile, the Reds got off to a slow start. They muddled around the .500 mark. St. Louis, the defending World Champions, was above .500 but no one was running away with the National League pennant. The Cubs, under Manager Leo Durocher, were making some noise. San Francisco was  in contention as well. But the Cardinals were clearly the team to beat. And they were on there way to Crosley for a big four game series in June.

There was already some bad blood between the teams from a brawl on the field in 1967. “Bob Gibson threw a fastball over Tony Perez’ head the year before,” said Bristol, “and all hell broke loose.”

”Nobody could hit Gibson that year,” said Culver. “We faced him three times and got a total of 10 hits. Gibson hated everybody, but he especially hated the Reds because of what happened the year before.” For the ’68 season Gibson posted an incredible ERA of 1.12, pitching 304 innings and allowing 251 hits while striking out 268 batters. He started 34 games for the Cardinals and completed 28 of them.

BOb-Gibson-1968

Bob Gibson, 1968

It was at this time that Senator Robert Kennedy was in a tight Presidential race for the Democratic nomination. With Johnson’s refusal to run, the field was suddenly open. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Wisconsin) got in the race early and was the leader of the anti-war vote. Young followers boosted his campaign race. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Johnson guy through and through, was running as well. Kennedy entered late and fought McCarthy for the youth and anti-war vote. The next big primary fight was in California.

This was also when Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale was on a shutout binge. He had tossed five in a row and was on a consecutive inning scoreless streak that threatened the record held by Walter Johnson (56 innings). Drysdale’s pursuit of this record had captivated the baseball public. McCarthy, and RFK arrived in California for the election.

Tuesday June 4 was Election Day in California. Kennedy’s campaign headquarters was at the Ambassador Hotel in LA. A waiter/busboy there named Juan Romero wanted to go watch Drysdale pitch that night at Dodger Stadium against the Pirates. But with business booming at the Ambassador, he was forced to stay at work. Since Romero couldn’t watch Drysdale pitch, he vowed to meet and shake hands with Kennedy. The returns came in and the election was close. But RFK was proclaimed the winner late that night — Kennedy gathered 46% of the vote, McCarthy 42%. Drysdale was a winner too, shutting out the Pirates 2-0, his sixth straight shutout. Kennedy gave an impromptu victory speech to his supporters at the Ambassador and left the hotel through the kitchen. Romero waited for him in there.

It was also in that dingy kitchen where Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian militant — reportedly upset at Senator Kennedy’s support of Israel — shot and killed RFK. Sirhan was quickly subdued by Rosey Grier, a massive Rams defensive lineman and ex-Olympian Rafer Johnson. The next day, a widely circulated photo showed 17-year old Juan Romero (below) cradling Kennedy’s head while the Senator was dying on the floor of the kitchen. Romero put his rosary beads in Kennedy’s hand.

sirhan2

Once again, the Nation was shocked. Kennedy’s funeral train slowly made it’s way east from California to Washington DC. Americans mourned as it came through town after town. Veterans saluted as the train passed. Little Leaguers held their hats over their hearts. Bowie Kuhn, in his first year as the newest baseball commissioner, wasn’t sure what to do. The funeral was scheduled for Saturday, June 8. The Cardinals would be in Cincinnati that night.

In the series opener Friday night, Jim Maloney pitched a 7-2 complete game win over the Cardinals. By chance, Gibson wasn’t scheduled to pitch that weekend. Culver was scheduled to start Saturday. “We were in shock with what happened as the rest of the Nation was. It came right on the heels of the King assassination. It was a horrible time.”

The start of the game was delayed. “I warmed up, then was told to sit down. Then I warmed up again. I did that three times and the fans were getting restless and the players were getting angry.”

“We were at the mercy of the higher ups,” said Bristol.

Reds players were divided on the issue of playing the game that night. “Pappas called a meeting and asked if the players want to play that night,” said Culver. “So we took a vote and it was 12-12, split down the middle,” said Culver. “But that couldn’t have been right because there were 25 of us. Then someone said, ‘Alex (Johnson) didn’t vote.’. So we asked Alex what he wanted to do. He said ‘What do you guys want to do?’ So we were split down the middle.”

culver0001_20130719856

“[NL President] Warren Giles called me on Saturday afternoon,” said Bristol. “We had a sold out crowd for that Saturday night game against the Cardinals at Crosley. I promised Mr. Giles we would play baseball that night. I gathered the players around a table and told them, ‘one way or another, we’re gonna play this game tonight.’ and then Pappas threatened to resign as the player representative over the whole thing.”

“I remember Bob Howsam came down and talked to us. I think Dick Wagner was with him too. Then Dave came to us and said we needed to play ball. ‘Just give me nine guys’ he said. He wanted nine of us to play that night,” said Maloney. “I put my name down to play rightfield,”

The Reds played, fielding their normal lineup but lost 7-2. “It was hot and I was wore out after warming up so much,” said Culver.” I don’t think I made it to the 5th inning.” The Reds hammered Cardinal lefty Steve Carlton the next day and jumped to an 8-0 lead in the 5th inning. Bristol’s lineup featured three players hitting .300 or better — Rose (.366), Helms (.301) and Johnson (.325). His other starters were Bench, Perez, Lee May, Pinson and Leo Cardenas. But Gerry Arrigo blew the lead and the Cardinals won 10-8, scoring all 10 runs in the 5th off Arrigo and two relievers. Despite that horrible loss, the Reds stormed back from a 6-0 deficit in the final game. Cincinnati tied it late and Cardenas rapped a game winning RBVI double off Carlton to win in 13 innings.

cardinals-si-cover-1968-thumb-500x659

The series with St. Louis epitomized the 1968 Reds. In a three week period starting on June 30,  Cincinnati won 7 of 8, then lost seven straight, then won six straight. They reached their high water mark of the season on August 28 when they were 71-59 but by then the Cardinals were soaring. The Reds were 13 games out. They finished with an 83-79 record, good for fourth place behind the Cardinals, Giants and Cubs. “Our pitching staff was depleted,” said Culver. “We had great guys but no younger guys.”

“The pitchers we had gave it their all but we battled injuries. Nolan was hurt. So was Arrigo and Maloney. Ask a pitcher today especially in the bullpen what his role is and he’ll say ‘my role is to pitch the 8th inning’ or  ‘I’m the closer’ We felt, right or wrong, our role was to do whatever it is to help the team so you can keep wearing a big league uniform. We did whatever we could for Dave Bristol. We loved that man.”

The main interest for Bristol and the Reds the last weekend of the season was Pete Rose. He was in a tight race for the batting title with Pittsburgh’s Matty Alou. Rose went 1 for 7 in a 15-inning loss to the Giants on the Friday night of the last weekend of the season. “Pete didn’t look good at the plate entering that last weekend so I had him take extra batting practice,” said Bristol. “He took thirty minutes extra bp the next day and then he went 5 for 5 against Gaylord Perry. But Alou went 3 for 3 against Ferguson Jenkins in Chicago.” Alou was a lefthanded hitting slap hitter who finished the season with 0 home runs, 52 RBI’s and struck out only 26 times.

CAlbKAlUwAA9DHo

Rose won the title by a hair, batting .335 for the season with a 1 for 3 performance on the last day of the season. Alou finished at .332. Maloney fired a two-hit shutout in what turned out to be the last game Vada Pinson played for the Cincinnati Reds in his career.

It was the first of three batting titles for the eventual Hit King. “I wish with all my heart Pete would have confessed to his betting on baseball years ago,” said Bristol. “I’m not sure he will ever get in the Hall of Fame. I know it wasn’t going to happen with Bud Selig. It’s a tragic thing but he broke the law. Every year before the season began, I read the rules to the players in the minors and in the majors. And I read Rule 21, paragraphs a, b, c and d to Pete Rose.”

Johnny Bench was Rookie of the Year in 1968. Pappas was traded by Howsam in June along with Ted Davidson to the Braves for Clay Carroll, Tony Cloninger and Woody Woodward.

164968

Drysdale broke Walter Johnson’s record. His streak ended at 58 and 2/3 innings against Philadelphia when little-known reserve player Howie Bedell hit a sacrifice fly that scored Tony Taylor from third base. It was Bedell’s only run batted in of the season. Orel Hershisher later broke Drysdale’s record in 1988.

Juan Romero blamed himself for RFK getting shot because he wanted to meet the Senator so badly and felt Sirhan could have been spotted if not for him being in the kitchen. Romero visited Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery on what would have been Kennedy’s 85th birthday, and asked for forgiveness.

McCarthy lost the Democratic nomination to Humphrey. The “Happy Warrior” then lost to Richard Nixon in the Presidential election. The Vietnam War raged on for another four years. President Nixon ended the draft in 1972.

Sirhan is still in a California prison. He later claimed that he was drunk the night he shot Kennedy and was still angry at him over Israel’s victory in the 6-day war in 1967. Parole Boards have rejected his release the 14 times Sirhan appealed.

And in the Year of the Pitcher, Denny McLain won 31 games. Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich beat the Cardinals three times in the World Series and Detroit dethroned the champions and Bob Gibson.

14 Responses

  1. Tom Gray

    1968 is a memory filled year for me. The MLK, Jr and RFK assassinations shook the USA at its core. The Democrat convention in Chicago was an ugly site on TV.

    For me, the 1968 St X Bombers went undefeated in football for the first time in school history. (9-0-1 tied by Moeller) Only the 2005 X team has gone undefeated (15-0) since. It was my senior year (graduated in June 1969) at St X. I picked my future college (Purdue) in 1968.

    The Pappas trade with the Braves brought back Clay Carroll, Woody Woodward, and Tony Cloninger. Each of those 3 would have a role in the development of the Big Red Machine starting in 1969 and bursting into the national limelight in 1970.

    C Bench, 1B May, 2B Helms, SS Cardenas, 3B Perez, LF Johnson, CF Pinson, RF Rose. Not a bad lineup.

    • Steve Mancuso

      My dad was good friends with Tom Ballaban.

      • Steve Mancuso

        Right around the same time as Steve Rasso, who my dad also knew well. All members of the Cincinnati HS football coaches community. Tom Ballaban refereed a number of my dad’s playoff games.

      • Tom

        As was my dad – he misses him badly and heads to the basement each day to say a prayer for Bal (as he always calls him), who’s shown with the rest of my dad’s ’57 GCL championship team in a large picture on the wall.

      • Tom Gray

        He always told us to call him Bal. Nor Mr. Ballaban (whom he said Was His Dad) or Coach. Simply Bal. Whether teenager or 60 something (plus), didn’t matter.

      • vegastypo

        I was a little later at St. X, but had Ballaban for one class. And basketball coach Dick Berning, I think it was, for another class. Man, where have the years gone!

  2. Tom Gray

    One more thing about 1968 (in terms of MLB) is that the NYM had sophomore P Tom Seaver and rookies Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan in their SP rotation. The Mets got 73 W that year but won the NL Pennant in 1969.

  3. DavidTurner49

    Thanks for a great piece John. I remember hearing of the MLK tragedy on AM radio while sitting in my car at OU-Chillicothe where I was a freshman with a high draft number.

    Loved all the images too, especially the one of Gibson defying gravity.

  4. peter ponds

    Very nice piece of writing. Thank You!