Over the last two weeks, the writers at I-70 Baseball have shared their perspectives on the 1985 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals. It was an amazing time for both organizations, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the I-70 Baseball series, especially from the perspective of the Kansas City writers and those too young to have experienced it firsthand. No coverage of that great Series would be complete with a discussion of Don Denkinger’s call in Game Six. If you have not already done so, please read Aaron Stilley’s outstanding article, 22%: Quantifying the Denkinger Call. Whether or not you can put the call behind you, as Bill Ivie suggests, one area where we can all find agreement is that there have been other controversial calls in baseball’s history. What you may not know is that one such call by a future Hall of Fame umpire had a similar impact on the outcome of the 1968 World Series. Here is story of October 7, 1968.
For fans of pitching, Game One of the 1968 World Series was one of the best in the history of the game. It featured two of the most dominating pitchers of their era, Bob Gibson and his 1.12 ERA versus the 31 game winner in Denny McLain. The two did not disappoint. Gibson pitched one of the best games in his career, striking out a record 17 batters on the day, including seven Tigers the first time through the order. Gibson had all of his pitches working – fastball, slider, change-up (yes, a wicked change-up) and a completely devastating curveball that Gibson won’t even acknowledge to this day. While Gibson breezed through the Tigers batting order, McLain struggled early. He fought Tom Gorman, the home plate umpire from the National League, all afternoon. Gorman refused to give McLain the high strike he had been getting in the regular season, and the big right hander was slow to adapt to the smaller strike zone. The Cardinals started exploiting McLain’s troubles in the third inning, finally breaking through in the fourth with three runs on a pair of walks and two RBI singles. McLain would exit the game early, turning the ball over to Pat Dobson and Don McMahon, who both pitched well. The only blemish was a solo home run to Lou Brock off Dobson. The Cardinals would win the game 4-0 behind the record setting performance of Bob Gibson. What the box scores don’t tell you is that even though McLain struggled, he nearly matched Gibson for the first half of the game.
Games Two, Three and Four
After a brilliant pitching duel in Game One, the respective offenses were on display for Games Two, Three and Four – or perhaps it was the vulnerabilities of the two bullpens. Because of Nelson Briles inability to keep the ball in the park, the Tigers were able to get into the Cardinals bullpen in Game Two, and bad things happened rather quickly. After surrendering his third home run of the game, all solo shots, an infield single by Willie Horton ended the day for the young right hander. Manager Red Schoendienst would go to his bullpen for the big left hander, Steve Carlton. Lefty would get hammered, giving up two more runs to the bottom of the Tigers batting order. Side armer Ron Willis was not any more effective the next inning and the Tigers had opened a huge lead. It is all Mickey Lolich would need as he shut the door on the Cardinals with a nifty complete game.
Fortunes would change for the Cardinals as the series moved to Detroit. Veterans Ray Washburn and Earl Wilson would do battle in Game Three. The Tigers jumped out to a 2-0 lead when Al Kaline took Washburn deep in the third inning. There is no shame in giving up a long ball to the Detroit slugger, and Washburn limited the damage to just two runs. The Cardinals would get to Wilson and reliever Pat Dobson, taking a 4-2 lead in the fifth. Washburn would give one of those runs back when Dick McAuliffe hit a solo homer. Schoendienst would again go to his bullpen, calling on Joe Hoerner who had been victimized badly late in the previous game. This time, Hoerner was solid as a rock, earning a save in 3 2/3 innings of nearly perfect relief. Meanwhile the Cardinals would again get to the Tigers bullpen on their way to a 7-3 victory.
The Tigers bullpen would again be torched in Game Four. While Bob Gibson was cruising to another dominating victory, the Cardinals bats lit up starter Denny McLain and relievers Joe Sparma and John Hiller. When the dust, or maybe more accurately, the mud settled, the Cardinals won in a 10-1 laugher. More importantly, they had taken a 3 games to 1 lead in the World Series while making the Tigers bullpen throw a lot of innings.
This brings us to Game Five, the pivotal game of the 1968 World Series.
This last game in Detroit featured the starters from Game Two, Mickey Lolich for the Tigers and Nelson Briles for the Cardinals. This time it was Lolich that had trouble with the long ball, and early. The Cardinals would jump out to a quick 3-0 lead in the first inning on a lead-off double by Lou Brock, a single and stolen base from Curt Flood and a two run homer off the bat of Orlando Cepeda – a bat that had been far too quiet for most of the 1968 season. Lolich would bear down and limit the damage, pitching effectively against the bottom of the Cardinals batting order.
On the other side of the diamond, Briles was cruising along, as he had done throughout most of the 1968 season. A couple of hard hit balls in the home half of the fourth inning caused a bit of trouble for Briles as Mickey Stanley and Willie Horton both tripled and scored in the inning. At least the ball was staying the field of play this time around. Like Lolich in the first, Briles settled down and limited the damage by retiring Bill Freehan to end the inning.
With the Cardinals holding on to a slim 3-2 lead and just 15 outs from their second consecutive World Series Title, we now proceed to the fifth inning, and the “other” blown call of the World Series.
After Nelson Briles leads off the inning by striking out, Lou Brock nearly hits the ball out to left field. A great play by Willie Horton holds Brock to just a double. This defensive gem would become significant when Julian Javier singles to left field on the next play. Willie Horton comes up firing and throws a strike to Bill Freehan, who was blocking the plate. Brock actually beats the the throw to the plate, and unbelievably, Hall of Fame umpire Doug Harvey calls Brock out. A huge argument breaks out, involving the on deck batter, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, coach Joe Schultz and manager Schoendienst. Through all of this, Harvey remained resolute on his call, and the inning would eventually come to an end with Cardinals still nursing a slim one run lead.
After the game, Brock would defend his decision not to slide into home plate, as everybody expected. With Freehan blocking the plate, the only way for Brock to score would be to run through the Tigers catcher, which he did. What Harvey missed was Brock’s foot clearly on home plate before Freehan was able to turn and tag the speedy Brock. In his post game interview, Harvey even admitted to turning his attention away from the tag, calling it inevitable.
The best comment came from Bill Freehan, prior to Game Six in St. Louis. The Tigers catcher said, “After the game the other day, the writers came up to me and everybody wanted to know if Lou Brock had touched the plate or not. I told them I had to be the worst person in America to know because I was trying to catch the ball and couldn’t see a thing.” The grin on his face suggested otherwise.
Had Harvey called Brock safe, the Cardinals would have had a two run lead at 4-2, instead of 3-2. They would also have had a speedy runner at second in Julian Javier. With only one out and the heart of the order coming up, the fifth inning in Game Five might have been a huge inning for the Cardinals. St. Louis had trouble with Lolich in Game Two, but he had not been particularly sharp thus far in Game Five. The momentum shift of a Brock run might have been all it took to rattle the Tigers lefty. The actual call had the opposite effect – Lolich toughened and the Cardinals would never really challenge him again.
The second domino to topple would happen in the bottom of the fifth inning. Trailing by two runs, with Briles crusing, Tigers manager Mayo Smith might have lifted Lolich for a pinch hitter. That would have put the game back in the hands of the Tigers bullpen, who had just been torched in the last two games. Down only a single run, Smith gambled, leaving Lolich in the game and that turned out to be the right decision as Lolich would be the one who cruised to the complete game victory, not Briles.
And we’re not done with the implications quite yet. With a two run lead, Red Schoendienst might have stayed with young Briles a bit longer when he got into trouble again in the bottom of the seventh inning. Down to just 8 outs for another championship, Schoendienst went to his bullpen, again calling on lefty Joe Hoerner. The Tigers ripped Hoerner just as they had at the end of Game Two, taking a 5-3 lead before the Cardinals reliever could record a single out. Ron Willis would finish the game, but the Tigers would go on to win this pivotal game.
The record books tell us how this story would end. In Game Six, the World Series would return to a soggy St. Louis. Denny McLain would shake off his early World Series troubles and pitch a dominating complete game. Cardinals starter Ray Washburn would not be so lucky, giving up five runs before leaving without getting a single out in the third inning. Larry Jaster, Ron Willis and Dick Hughes would follow Washburn in the third inning, and would also be hit hard. The game was not even an hour old and the Tigers had an insurmountable 12-0 lead. They would go on to win Game Six in a laugher, setting up a decisive Game Seven.
Not even Bob Gibson could salvage this series. He pitched well, but a late defensive miscue by the always dependable Curt Flood led to three tigers runs in the top of the seventh inning. That proved to be the difference in the game, and ultimately the series as Lolich continued his domination of Cardinals hitters, winning his third game and earning the 1968 World Series MVP award.
When looking back at the 1968 World Series, many historians will point at the Jim Northrup fly ball that Curt Flood played into a triple in Game Seven as the turning point. If you are willing to take a closer look, the controversial call by Doug Harvey in Game Five was just as devastating as Don Denkinger’s now infamous call in Game Six of the 1985 World Series. The difference is that Harvey’s call happened in the middle of the game, in the middle of the series.