Editor: This is the seventh installment of a season-long series by our resident Reds historian, John Ring. The series is examining the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Cincinnati Reds, a team on the brink (of huge success) playing during a year that it seemed the world was on the brink. Enjoy!
Part 1: Remembering 007’s Reds: a 50 Year Celebration
Part 2: King’s assassination delays 1968 Opening Day
Part 3: The Reds’ Raging Bull: Alex Johnson
Part 4: Another assassination, another baseball crisis
Part 5: The Battle for Rookie of the Year
Part 6: Jumpin’ Jack Flash – Reds get hot in ‘68
As the Cincinnati Reds prepped for a big four-game series with the first place and defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals on August 5, 1968, the Republicans were beginning their convention to nominate Richard Nixon for President in Miami Beach, Florida.
The Reds had streaked to second place but were a distant twelve games out with just eight weeks left in the season. The odds were slim of them making any semblance of a charge for a variety of reasons; the Cardinals had the best record in baseball, they had Big Bad Bob Gibson, the Reds pitching staff was struggling and the National League was balanced that year. The Mets were respectable, Houston was getting legs, and the last-place Dodgers had a more than respectable pitching staff.
As the teams prepared for their four-game series, Nixon got ready for his coronation. His earliest challenger was Michigan Governor George Romney. Trailing by just eleven points in the polls to Nixon in August 1967, Romney made the egregious mistake of saying he was “brainwashed” during a trip to Vietnam and therefore was changing his stance on the war.
It didn’t take long for the jokes to begin. “In Romney’s case, all he needs is a quick rinse,” said another Senator. Two weeks later, Nixon was ahead of Romney by 26 points. New York Senator Nelson Rockefeller then tried to save the day and enter the race but Nixon crushed him in primary after primary once Romney withdrew from the race. Then-Governor James Rhodes of Ohio said infamously that Romney’s Presidential campaign was “like a duck trying to make love to a football.” Here’s Romney’s fatal interview that doomed his campaign. Funny how just a single word could blow it up.
The Reds caught a break when it was determined Gibson would miss the four-game series. But Cardinal righthander Nelson Briles out-dueled Gerry Arrigo and the Cardinals won the opener 3-2. Reds ace Jim Maloney threw a beautiful five-hit shutout the next night at Busch Stadium in a 5-0 Cincinnati win, but unknown Cardinal pitcher Mel Nelson held the Reds to just a single run (a home run by Pete Rose) in a 3-1 St. Louis victory the next night.
The last game of the series hurt the most. Tony Cloninger threw a brilliant two-hit shutout over nine innings but the Reds couldn’t scratch a run off St. Louis’ Ray Washburn, who beat Cincinnati 1-0 in 10 innings.
In Florida, Nixon named Spiro T. Agnew, Governor of Maryland, as his running mate. The choice of Agnew was a head scratcher. He brought virtually nothing to the ticket in terms of political acumen or delivering a key state in the general election. He was best known for busting a police union strike in Baltimore and lambasting that city’s African-American leadership during the race riots of 1968.
After stumbling out of St. Louis back in fifth place, the Reds ran off a seven-game winning streak. They shot back to second place but were a distant 13.5 games behind the Cardinals. But then the Pirates absolutely routed the Reds by the score of 19-1, scoring eleven runs in the final two innings off two back-end Reds relief pitchers (Jay Ritchie and Bob Lee).
The Republicans left Miami Beach after a rousing Nixon speech, closing with “Let’s win this for Ike!” in a reference to President Eisenhower who was ill at the time and would die just a year later. The polls were tight; the Republican didn’t get much of a bounce but they had a “Southern strategy” to try and dislodge the Democrats’ solid foothold due to civil rights and desegregation.
After the Pirate debacle, the Reds turned it around again, winning seven of eight games. A trip to New York City for a series against the Mets coincided with the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a political convention the likes of which America had never seen before or witnessed since.
The Democrats selected Chicago as their site because of “geographic location” and the fact that Chicago had hosted previous conventions by both political parties. The truth was Chicago was selected in a sweetheart deal between President Johnson and Democratic Mayor Richard Daley in 1967 because Johnson feared the loss of Illinois’ 29 electoral votes. In 1968, the Land of Lincoln was a swing state and LBJ would need it to win.
And so it was that the Democrats descended upon Chicago. So did thousands of protesters, mostly young, mostly white, and all fervent anti-war activists. Daley countered with 12,000 Chicago cops and 6,000 state and federal officers, including the Illinois National Guard.
The Democrats themselves were irrevocably fractured; RFK had been killed, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey had enough delegates to win the nomination, and those supporting anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern couldn’t unite their factions. All the ingredients were there for a disaster. It was the Perfect Storm.
As tensions rose and the Convention started, Chicago cops got testy. Hundreds of protesters were arrested. Inside the Convention Hall, private security guards were zealous and aggressive, leveling CBS’ Dan Rather to the floor and angering Walter Cronkite.
All this culminated with the Battle of Michigan Avenue on August 28, 1968. Chicago cops, in their Tar Heel powder blue helmets, tore into the protesters with a vengeance, taking swings with their billy clubs that Alex Johnson would have been proud of. Tear gas was so liberally used that it drifted inside Chicago hotels, rousing delegates. Humphrey himself got a dose of it after coming out of his shower that night.
Wisconsin delegates put forth a motion to adjourn and relocate the convention due to the violence and mayhem on the streets but were shouted down. Abraham Ribicoff, a New Jersey Senator, ripped Daley during a speech calling out “Gestapo tactics on the streets.” Daley yelled back some choice obscenities of his own.
During the rout of the protestors, the Reds routed the Mets ¬ Jerry Koosman at Shea Stadium. Tommy Helms and Don Pavletich each had three hits and Arrigo got a 5-2 win despite giving up a pair of home runs to Ed Charles and Cleon Jones. The streaky Reds shot back to second place, 11.5 games behind St. Louis and the Cardinals were coming to Crosley Field with time running out.
The Reds couldn’t avoid Bob Gibson this time. Gibson and Gary Nolan hooked up in a classic pitchers duel at Crosley. Nolan pitched nine innings and scattered five hits while striking out eight. Gibson pitched ten innings of four-hit shutout ball, striking out eight as well. The Cardinals got the only run of the game off relief pitcher Ted Abernathy in the tenth inning. It was Gibson’s 20th win of the season.
Cincinnati then went on to lose seven of the next eight games. They were finished for 1968.
The Democrats looked finished as well. Americans watching the Democratic Convention were appalled at the images they saw. Nixon took a huge lead in the polls.
George Wallace launched an independent third-party bid for the White House and his foothold in the Democrats Solid South was bad news for Humphrey.
The Reds still had a lot to play for in September. Johnny Bench was in the hunt for Rookie of the Year. Tony Perez continued to establish himself as a legitimate star. Jim Maloney was still Jim Maloney.
And Peter Edward Rose was in the hunt for a batting championship. Starting in 1965, Rose had batted over .300 every season since. He was at .347 as August ended.
But there was one problem: a lefthanded hitting slap hitter who seldom struck out and was on the heels of Pete Rose.
His name was Matty Alou. And as The Beatles got set to release a brand new single on August 30, 1968 which would make history, the Rose-Alou dogfight was going on in the Year of the Pitcher. Alou was batting .334 after going 2 for 5 off Braves pitching in an 8-0 Pittsburgh win. When he wasn’t leading off, Alou had Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente hitting behind him. He was getting pitches to hit. He had won the batting champion ship in 1966 with a .342 average.
The 1968 race — both Presidential and the batting title — would go down to the last day of the season.