There are records in baseball thought to be untouchable. The most eminent case is Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, followed by Nolan Ryan’s career seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts. Ted Williams’ .406 batting average in 1941, despite occasional threats from the likes of Rod Carew and George Brett, will likely be the last time anyone hits above .400. Records are meant to be broken, but given the complexity and intricate evolution of baseball as years go by, there are certain ones that manage to remain untouched.
For 55 years, one such record was Hall of Fame Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson’s scoreless inning streak, which ran for 55 2?3 innings. “The Big Train,” a logical choice for the greatest pitcher in the history of the game, commenced the streak on April 10, 1913, and carried it all the way to May 14. To top it off, Johnson attained this feat during the Deadball Era, years before Babe Ruth’s Wonderboy bat led to the growth of the home run. As offensive output increased in the following years, the likelihood of anyone challenging Johnson’s impeccable stretch was highly unlikely.
That is, until 1968, when Major League Baseball seemed to turn back the clock to the time in which Johnson pitched. It was the “Year of the Pitcher”, the polar opposite of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s home run record chase that kicked off the decade in 1961. Thanks primarily to the official increase of the size of the strike zone, pitching reigned supreme thereafter, none more so than in ‘68. Detroit’s Denny McLain won 31 games, the first to pass 30 in 34 years, while San Francisco’s Juan Marichal threw 30 complete games. Oakland’s Catfish Hunter pitched a perfect game, and Detroit’s Mickey Lolich threw three complete games in the World Series. Most of all, St. Louis ace Bob Gibson notched a record 1.12 ERA and struck out 17 Tigers in game one of the World Series.
Consequently, hitters were overwhelmingly emasculated, with Carl Yastrzemski being the only batter in the American League with an average above .300. Altogether, there were 339 shutouts pitched in the 1968 season, almost twice the amount thrown in 1962. Unsurprisingly, measures were quickly taken to rectify this situation. The pitcher’s mound was lowered by five inches, and the designated hitter was introduced in 1973, ensuring offense would prosper again well before the era of steroids and the “juiced ball”.
In this year of unprecedented pitching dominance, Dodgers ace Don Drysdale would make his own historic mark. It wasn’t during an especially fruitful year for the team as a whole, as Los Angeles was still in their subpar malaise immediately following the 1966 retirement of Sandy Koufax. Furthermore, Drysdale was in the twilight of his own career, as he would retire the next year. But in 1968, he had one last accomplishment to go alongside three World Series titles, nine All-Star selections, and a Cy Young Award.
It all started 50 years ago today on May 14 at Dodger Stadium, opposite the Chicago Cubs. Three years prior, the Cubs had been the victim of Koufax’s perfect game, a taut 1-0 victory on a perfect night at Dodger Stadium. This game was almost a mirror image, as Drysdale dueled with Cubs Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, trading zeroes for the first five innings. In the bottom of the sixth, the only run of the game fittingly came on a groundout by L.A. outfielder Ron Fairly that scored Wes Parker.
It was all “Big D” would need. He pitched all nine innings, surrendering only two hits and no runs while striking out seven. The Cubs did manage three more baserunners via walks, but none would score. At the time, fans couldn’t have assumed it would amount to too much. Only 14,671 passed through the Dodger Stadium turnstiles to witness Drysdale’s gem on a cool, 57°F night. But it was only the beginning of history.
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