This article was written by Brendan Bingham
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the Space Age (Houston, 2014)
The 1968 baseball season took place against a backdrop of racial violence. The late 1960s trembled with social and political turbulence, with the summer of 1968 at its epicenter. Given the tenor of the times, Houston was a good place for Major League Baseball to showcase its talent in the 1968 mid-summer classic. In the early 1960s, each of the recent expansion cities played host to the MLB All-Star Game, New York in 1964, Anaheim in 1967, Houston in 1968, and Washington DC in 1969.
The 1968 baseball season took place against a backdrop of racial violence. The late 1960s trembled with social and political turbulence, with the summer of 1968 at its epicenter. The season’s Opening Day games were postponed due to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.[fn]Leonard Koppett, “Baseball Season Opens Today With All 20 Clubs Listed for Action,” New York Times, April 10, 1968.[/fn] Throughout the year, rioting took place in many American cities, including Detroit, Baltimore, Louisville, and Miami.[fn]“List of incidents of civil unrest in the United States,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_civil_unrest_in_the_United_States, accessed February 22, 2014.[/fn] The All-Star Game in Houston on Tuesday July 9 was a mere five weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles and seven weeks before the violent demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Houston experienced some unrest, but less than many American cities. The Texas Southern University riot of 1967 and the 1970 shooting death of militant activist Carl Hampton stand as Houston’s two most noteworthy cases of racial violence during that era.[fn]Brian D. Behnken, “Texas Southern University riot of 1967,” in Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, vol. 2, ed. Walter C. Rucker and James N. Upton, 635-636. (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007).[/fn], [fn]Martin Waldron, “Black militant slain by Houston police; gun fight injures 4,” New York Times, July 28, 1970.[/fn] Reflective of the city’s place in the political landscape of the time, in 1966 Houston had elected Barbara Jordan to the Texas State Senate. Jordan was the first African-American since 1883 to serve in that capacity, and in 1973 she would become her state’s first woman and first African American since 1883 to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.[fn]Francis X. Clines, “Barbara Jordan dies at 59; Her Voice Stirred the Nation,” New York Times, January 18, 1996.[/fn]
On the professional sports scene, Houston had been the solution to a racial problem a few years earlier. In January 1965 the American Football League All-Star Game was scheduled to take place in New Orleans, but a player boycott in response to racial discrimination in the city threatened cancellation of the game. The game was instead played in Houston.[fn]William N. Wallace, “Race Issue Shifts All-Star Game From New Orleans to Houston,” New York Times, January 12, 1965.[/fn] Given the tenor of the times, Houston was a good place for Major League Baseball to showcase its talent in the 1968 mid-summer classic.
Starting position players were elected to the All-Star team by the leagues’ players in 1968. Fan voting had last taken place in 1957, the year of the Cincinnati ballot box stuffing incident, and would not be re-instituted until 1970.[fn]“3 Dodgers Named to All-Star Team,” New York Times, July 4, 1957.[/fn] The AL player vote produced this starting roster:
- Bill Freehan (C, Det)
- Harmon Killebrew (1B, Min)
- Rod Carew (2B, Min)
- Brooks Robinson (3B, Bal)
- Jim Fregosi (SS, Cal)
- Frank Howard (OF, Was)
- Carl Yastrzemski (OF, Bos)
- Willie Horton (OF, Det)
Regular-season left fielders Yastrzemski and Horton started in center and right field, respectively. Robinson was the AL starter who was most experienced in All-Star competition, making the team for a twelfth time, while Howard, who led the AL in home runs at mid-season, was in his first All-Star contest.[fn]“Howard Is Named to All-Star Team,” New York Times, June 27, 1968.[/fn]
The NL voting resulted in this roster of starters:
- Jerry Grote (C, NY)
- Willie McCovey (1B, SF)
- Tommy Helms (2B, Cin)
- Ron Santo (3B, Chi)
- Don Kessinger (SS, Chi)
- Pete Rose (OF, Cin)
- Curt Flood (OF, StL)
- Henry Aaron (OF, Atl)[fn]“Aaron, at .236, Grote on All-Star Team,” New York Times, June 25, 1968.[/fn]
Aaron, having narrowly edged Willie Mays (SF) for the third starting outfield position, was the only surprising selection.[fn]“Voting by Players,” New York Times, June 25, 1968.[/fn] Aaron had struggled through May and June, batting only .195 for the two-month period, but he would return to form after the All-Star break, ending the season with 29 home runs and a .287 batting average.[fn]“Hank Aaron 1968 Batting Splits,” Baseball-reference.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=aaronha01&year=1968&t=b, accessed February 24, 2014.[/fn] Rose suffered a broken thumb only days before the All-Star break and would be replaced in the starting lineup by Mays.[fn]“Mays to Replace Rose in All-Star Line-Up,” New York Times, July 8, 1968.[/fn]
AL manager Dick Williams of Boston assembled a pitching staff of Luis Tiant (Cle), Sam McDowell (Cle), Tommy John (Chi), Denny McLain (Det), John “Blue Moon” Odom (Oak), Mel Stottlemyre (NY), and Jose Santiago (Bos),[fn]“McLain, Stottlemyre Named American League All-Stars,” New York Times, June 28, 1968.[/fn] with the injured Santiago later being replaced by his teammate, pitcher Gary Bell.[fn]“Visitors Study Grass and Roof,” New York Times, July 9, 1968.[/fn] Tiant and McLain were the league’s most dominant pitchers at mid-season, en route to their post-season honors, the AL ERA title for Tiant and the MVP and Cy Young awards for 31-game winner McLain. Although it would later become customary to rest All-Star pitchers on the weekend prior to the break, in 1968 this practice was not yet in place, limiting how Williams could deploy his pitchers for the game. McLain and Stottlemyre had each pitched complete games on the Sunday before the All-Star Game, and Tiant had gone 6 1?3 innings.
To complete the AL roster, Williams chose catchers Joe Azcue (Cle) and Duane Josephson (Chi), first basemen Mickey Mantle (NY) and Boog Powell (Bal), second baseman Davey Johnson (Bal), third baseman Don Wert (Det), shortstop Bert Campaneris (Oak), and outfielders Rick Monday (Oak), Ken Harrelson (Bos), and Tony Oliva (Min).[fn]“Mantle Named to All-Star Team 16th Year by American League,” New York Times, July 2, 1968.[/fn] All but Mantle and Oliva were first-time All-Stars.
NL manager Red Schoendienst selected a pitching staff of Don Drysdale (LA), Steve Carlton (StL), Bob Gibson (StL), Woody Fryman (Phi), Juan Marichal (SF), Ron Reed (Atl), Tom Seaver (NY), and Jerry Koosman (NY).[fn]“Mays an All-Star for 19th Time As Schoendienst Fills Out Squad,” New York Times, July 4, 1968.[/fn] Ninth-time honoree Drysdale and eighth-timer Marichal brought the most All-Star experience to the staff, while Carlton, Fryman, Koosman, and Reed were first-time All-Stars. Koosman and Seaver were the only NL hurlers who had pitched on the Sunday before the break, but they had not been taxed, combining for one relief inning to close out a Mets victory.
Of greater consequence, a day earlier Gibson and Marichal had faced off against each other in a game at Candlestick Park in which both went the full nine innings. At season’s end, Gibson would be the NL’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner, with Marichal finishing fifth in the MVP voting.
The NL roster was filled out with catchers Johnny Bench (Cin) and Tom Haller (LA), first baseman Rusty Staub (Hou), second baseman Julian Javier (StL), third baseman Tony Perez (Cin), shortstop Gene Alley (Pit)—later replaced by Leo Cardenas (Cin)[fn]“Reds’ Cardenas Replaces Alley in All-Star Contest,” New York Times, July 7, 1968.[/fn]—and outfielders Felipe Alou (Atl), Matty Alou (Pit), and Billy Williams (Chi).[fn]“Mays an All-Star for 19th Time As Schoendienst Fills Out Squad,” New York Times, July 4, 1968.[/fn] Williams was the roster replacement for the injured Rose.[fn]“Visitors Study Grass and Roof,” New York Times, July 9, 1968.[/fn] In contrast to their AL counterparts, the NL reserves were mostly an experienced lot, with only Bench and Matty Alou as first-time All-Stars.
The game was the first mid-summer classic to be played indoors. Calling attention to it also being one of the first All-Star Games broadcast in prime time, New York Times writer Leonard Koppett referred to the venue as “the world’s largest television studio and only indoor ballpark.”[fn]Leonard Koppett, “Drysdale and Tiant Chosen to Start in All-Star Game at Houston Tonight,” New York Times, July 9, 1968. Two previous All-Star Games had broadcasts that overlapped prime time viewing hours in the East: Both the second game in 1959 and the 1967 contest started at 4:00 pm Pacific, so were “day games.”[/fn] The Astrodome was in only its fourth year of existence, and the game would be the first chance that most of the AL All-Stars would have to play there. Schoendienst, the St. Louis skipper, denied that there would be a home field advantage for his squad of All-Stars. “Our club comes in here three times a year,” he noted, “and it takes us a couple of games to get used to it each time.”[fn]“Visitors Study Grass and Roof,” New York Times, July 9, 1968.[/fn]
Play began auspiciously enough for the AL team. Fregosi led off the game with a double, but he would get no farther than third base, as Drysdale, starting his fifth All-Star Game, set down Carew, Yastrzemski, and Howard to quell the threat.[fn]Accounts of the game action are from three main sources: “July 9, 1968 All-Star Game Play-By-Play and Box Score,” Baseball-reference.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NLS/NLS196807090.shtml, accessed January 3, 2014; “All-Star Game Played on Tuesday, July 9, 1968 (N) at Astrodome,” Retrosheet.org, http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1968/B07090NLS1968.htm, accessed January 3, 2014; and David Vincent, Lyle Spatz, and David W. Smith, The Midsummer Classic: The Complete History of Baseball’s All-Star Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2001).[/fn] The AL would not produce another baserunner until late in the game, as Drysdale, Marichal, and Carlton handcuffed the AL hitters through the sixth inning.
For the NL the opportunities came early and often. Mays led off the bottom of the first with a single. A series of missteps followed. Before offering another pitch, starter Tiant made two pick off throws to first base, the second of which caught Mays off base. He would have been out, except that the throw got past Killebrew. Mays advanced to second, and Tiant was charged with an error. Flood then walked. Two on, no out would have been bad enough, but to make matters worse, ball four was a wild pitch, advancing Mays to third. McCovey then grounded into a double play, scoring Mays. Tiant allowed another walk, to Aaron, but then ended the inning by inducing Santo to ground out. Mays’s run was unearned, and no RBI was awarded, but the damage was done. The NL led, 1–0.
As the game proceeded, the NL team threatened, but failed to build on their lead. Facing Tiant, Helms led off the second inning with a double to right field, but two strike outs and a fly ball ended the inning. Odom offered up walks to Santo and Helms in the fourth, but allowed no hits and no runs. McLain walked Flood in the bottom of the fifth, but allowed no further damage. A sixth-inning Aaron single and stolen base followed by a Santo base on balls made for the beginnings of another rally, but McLain worked out of the jam, retiring Helms, Staub, and Williams. The NL’s last base runners came in the bottom of the seventh, when Matty Alou beat out an infield single, and Santo singled in the eighth.
Meanwhile, it was the top of the seventh before the AL threatened to snap the shutout. Oliva touched Seaver for a double to left-center field. The ball struck high off the outfield wall, just shy of becoming a game-tying home run, but the rally ended as the next batter, Azcue, struck out. The AL managed another two-out double in the eighth, this one by Wert, but Seaver struck out Monday to end the threat.
To face the AL in the top of the ninth, Schoendienst chose Reed, who did not disappoint. The tall right hander retired Campaneris on a grounder to third and Johnson on a strike out. Koosman closed the game with a strike out of Yastrzemski to seal the 1–0 NL victory.
In the heat of battle, it is best to remember that the All-Star Game is an exhibition, the outcome of little consequence no matter how seriously the players might take it. The bottom of the third inning offered such a reminder. Fregosi’s throw to first on a Flood ground ball headed wide of the mark. Killebrew made an all-out stretch and successfully fielded the throw for the put out, but his maneuver left him with a torn hamstring, an injury that would keep him out of the Twins’ lineup until September.[fn]Joseph Durso, “Baseball in Grip of a Power Failure,” New York Times, July 11, 1968.[/fn] A less serious incident took place in the top of the seventh. Earlier in the plate appearance that produced his opposite field hit, Oliva let go of his bat on a wild swing, launching the lumber into the NL dugout. Fortunately, no damage resulted, just minor bumps to Schoendienst and Felipe Alou.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
From the historical perspective of a veteran sportswriter, Koppett saw an absence of star power on the 1968 squads.
It’s all a far cry from the first All-Star Game in 1933, whose cast included Babe Ruth, Al Simmons, Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Lefty Grove, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, Gabby Hartnett, Carl Hubbell, Bill Terry, Pie Traynor, Paul Waner and Frank Frisch—all subsequently elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
It’s unlikely that 14 of this game’s participants will attain that honor.[fn]Leonard Koppett, “Drysdale and Tiant Chosen to Start in All-Star Game at Houston Tonight,” New York Times, July 9, 1968.[/fn]
Time and the baseball writers have proved this prediction wrong, as the Hall of Fame has enshrined 17 players from the 1968 game. In Koppett’s defense, could anyone in 1968 have anticipated that first-time All-Stars Bench and Carlton would in time be considered among the game’s elites? Moreover, the notion that the 1933 game was populated with the greater number of all-time greats continues to hold true, as four more 1933 All-Stars have since been inducted as Veterans Committee picks, bringing those squads’ tally to 18 (17 who played: Bill Dickey did not get into the game.) Then again, Cooperstown might not be finished summoning 1968 All-Stars, as John, Staub, Tiant, and perhaps others continue to be candidates for enshrinement.[fn]John was listed on the Expansion Era ballot in 2010 and 2013 and Staub in 2010 (“Twelve Finalists Comprise Expansion Era Ballot For Hall of Fame Consideration in 2014,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, http://baseballhall.org/news/press-releases/twelve-finalists-comprise-expansion-era-ballot-hall-fame-consideration-2014, accessed February 24, 2014); Tiant ranks among the top five pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, according to one player ranking algorithm (“Hall of Stats,” http://www.hallofstats.com, accessed February 24, 2014).[/fn]
The 1968 season has been tagged the Year of the Pitcher, and the All-Star Game in Houston was 1968 in microcosm. Precise and overpowering, the NL pitchers allowed only three base runners—all on doubles— while also striking out 11. The AL pitchers, giving up only five hits, replied with nine strikeouts of their own, but the Mays first-inning unearned run proved decisive.
BRENDAN BINGHAM was a contributing author to “Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 Yankees” and was a poster presenter at SABR 43. He currently works in the medical device industry. During a 25-year career as a research scientist, Brendan has published original work in genetics, endocrinology and neuroscience.