Ruane: A Retro-review of the 1968 MLB season

From SABR member Tom Ruane at on April 16, 2014:

It had been a rough five years for major league hitters, or ever since the strike zone had been reinterpreted prior to the 1963 season, but in 1968 things were about to get even worse. The first inclination that offense had hit bottom occurred on April 15th when the Astros beat the Mets 1-0 in twenty-four innings. Two different Mets, Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda, went hitless in ten at-bats. It was the first time a player had done that since George Kell in 1945, and it has been done three times since, by Danny Thompson in 1972, Wayne Garrett (also playing for the Mets) in 1974 and by John Shelby in 1989. (Ironically, Swoboda was in the middle of the best month of his career, as he would end April leading the NL in homers. Unfortunately, he would hit only four more the rest of the year, and never as many as ten again in a season.)

In late April, the shutout streaks began. Since the start of the live-ball era in 1920, there had been three occasions when pitchers had thrown four or more shutouts in a row: Bill Lee in 1938, Sal Maglie in 1950 and Ray Herbert in 1963. In 1968 alone, there were four. They started with Luis Tiant, who pitched the first of his four straight shutouts (a two-hitter, three-hitter, four-hitter and five-hitter, although not in that order) on April 28th, a scoreless run that eventually reached 42 innings41. Before that ended, Don Drysdale had already pitched a two-hitter against the Cubs, the first of six straight shutouts, part of a record-breaking scoreless string that would end in the fifth inning of his 5-3 win over the Phillies on June 8th.

His streak probably should have ended at 44 innings, when he hit Dick Dietz with the bases loaded and no one out in the top of the ninth on May 31st, but umpire Harry Wendelstedt ruled that Dietz had not tried to get out of the way of the pitch. This was a very unusual call and it is likely one that was only made because Drysdale was three outs away from a record-tying fifth straight shutout. But before Drysdale had given up that run to the Phillies, Bob Gibson had already pitched the first of his five straight shutouts. And finally, Ray Culp had a salary drive to remember when he threw four shutouts in a row, including a one-hitter, in September.

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Originally published: April 17, 2014. Last Updated: April 17, 2014.