Editor: This is the eighth installment (of nine) of a year-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
Part 7: Chaos in Chicago, Rose on a roll, and “brainwashing”
On September 1, 1968 the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates were both out of the National League pennant race, buried hopelessly by the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
And in the “Year of the Pitcher,” Pete Rose led the NL in batting on that day with a .347 average. It would be the fourth straight year Rose would hit above the .300 mark and he was looking at a career-high batting average. After going 1 for 3 with a walk in the Reds 4-3 loss to the Phillies, the Reds rightfielder held a twelve point lead over a guy who would prove to be his nemesis in the next few weeks.
That would be Matty Alou.
At the same time, Richard Nixon held a double-digit lead in the polls over Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 Presidential race. Humphrey was gaining no traction. Anti-war protesters heckled him at rallies. The “American Independent Party candidate George Wallace had a 21% share of the voters approval. Humphrey challenged Nixon to a debate but the former Vice-President was having nothing to do with that, not after what happened in 1960 with JFK. Humphrey was comparing himself to Harry Truman but no one was buying that, either.
Here’ a sample of a couple of campaign ads from that era.
Now, back to Matty Alou.
Originally with the Giants, Alou was a good, but generally average, hitter. A centerfielder, Alou was 5′ 9″ and 160 pounds. He hailed from the Dominican Republic and batted/threw lefthanded. The Giants then traded Alou to the Pirates.
It was there that Harry “The Hat” Walker, a coach for the Pirates, switched Alou from a light to a heavy bat. Alou choked up, slapped the ball, and made contact with little or no power. It worked. He won the batting title in 1966 with a .342 average. With Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell batting behind him, pitchers couldn’t afford to walk him.
Walking wasn’t in Matty’s resume anyway. In 598 plate appearances in 1968, Alou walked just 27 times and struck out only 26 times. He had no home runs, 28 doubles and knocked in 52 runs.
On September 15, 1968, Rose was holding steady with a .340 average after going 1 for 4 in a George Culver shutout of San Francisco by a 4-0 score. Alou was hanging around at .329. But then the Reds visited Forbes Field for a four game series (September 23-25). The two teams split the series but Rose went 1 for 13 with four walks. Alou went 7 for 14 in the first three games but Cincy’s Jim Maloney quieted him down (0 for 4) when the Reds ace fired a complete game, two-hit shutout. And when the dust settled, both Rose and Alou were batting .332.
There were just four games left in the 1968 season.
As the Reds and Pirates battled, the recently released Beatles’ hit Hey Jude reached #1 in the U.S. charts. It would be #1 for nine weeks. The song, written by Paul McCartney, is generally regarded as one of the best ever in the history of rock and roll. McCartney, who wrote the song for John Lennon’s son Julian, recorded the song with the Beatles in London along with a 33-piece orchestra. McCartney felt the orchestra wasn’t motivated enough and stood on a piano to encourage them to play with some emotion.
And Hubert Humphrey was feeling motivated too. Wallace’s poll numbers started to tank when his Vice-Presidential nominee — Curtis LeMay — suggested using a nuclear bomb or two in Vietnam. LeMay’s choice as a running mate hurt Wallace, who originally considered Happy Chandler (former baseball commissioner) and Harland Sanders (of KFC fame). Humphrey also got a better-late-than-never endorsement from anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. The unions were coming through for him. His base was consolidating. The polls were down to single-digits.
Pete Rose held off Matty Alou but it went own to the last day of the season. In Game 161, Rose went 5 for 5 off Gaylord Perry yet Alou went 4 for 4 the same day against Fergie Jenkins and the Cubs. But on the last day on the season, Alou went 0 for 4 while Rose had a 1 or 3 day (and a walk) against Ray Sedecki and the Giants.
In the end, Pete Rose batted .335 while Matty Alou came in at .333.
Here are the Reds batting champs—
1916 Hal Chase .339
1917 Ed Roush .341
1919 Ed Roush .321
1926 Bubbles Hargrave .353
1938 Ernie Lombardi .342
1968 Pete Rose .335
1969 Pete Rose .348
1973 Pete Rose .338
Runners-up: Vada Pinson (1961), Frank Robinson (1962), Ken Griffey Sr (1976), Hal Morris (1991), Joey Votto (2010), Scooter Gennett (2018)