Editor: This is the first installment of a season-long series by our resident Reds historian, John Ring. The series will examine 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!
1968. It was a wild year if you lived through it.
It seemed like the world was turning upside down. It was crazy. It was spontaneous. A lot of times, it was heartbreaking. And most of all, memorable.
It was the height of the Vietnam War. The year before, there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” The Tet Offensive blew up the tunnel. Marines were surrounded at Khe Sanh. Endless sorties by B-52s flew over North Vietnam. Even Walter Cronkite, the icon of television news, bailed out in support of the war– much to the dismay of President Johnson.
At home, race relations were tense and getting worse after riots blanketed the nation in 1967. Martin Luther King was gunned down on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis. Senator Robert Kennedy was murdered in the dingy kitchen of an LA hotel 63 days later.
There was a presidential election with nominees from three parties. The Democratic convention in Chicago was marred by protests and what was later called “a police riot.” CBS’ Dan Rather was punched and knocked down on the convention floor. “I think we got a bunch of thugs here!” said an angry Cronkite.
A U.S. Navy ship (USS Pueblo) was seized and its 85-man crew imprisoned in North Korea. The crew was released 11 months later but the ship is still listed as “captured” and sits off the North Korean coast as a tourist attraction.
Apollo 8 flew around the Dark Side of the Moon. The Space Race, launched just a few years earlier by President Kennedy at Rice University in Houston, was clearly being won by the United States.
Rockets weren’t the only things being launched. So was the Big Mac (price was 49 cents) and the Boeing 747 jet.
There was unrest on college campuses. Protests in Washington DC.
In the midst of all of this, the 1968 baseball season began. Baseball inevitably, reflects American society. Baseball cannot escape war. It reflects the changes in society. Baseball is a part of our American culture. Jose Feliciano performed the National Anthem on his guitar before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Deemed controversial then, it seems pretty cool now:
1968 was the Year of the Pitcher in baseball. Denny McLain won 31 games for the Tigers. Don Drysdale set a record for consecutive scoreless innings with the Dodgers. Bob Gibson had a stretch of 95 innings pitched in which he allowed just two runs and he posted an incredible ERA of 1.12 for the season. The Astros and Mets struggled and were both punchless in a 1-0, 24 inning game won on a bad hop single past Mets shortstop Al Weis. The All-Star Game was a 1-0 affair in which the only run scored on a double play. 22-year old Catfish Hunter pitched a perfect game. The Giants and Cardinals exchanged no-hitters on consecutive days. Carl Yastrzemski was the only player in the American League to bat over .300 and only a late surge got Yaz to .301 at the conclusion of the season.
The second-best hitting team in the National League were the Atlanta Braves, with a .252 average. The best hitting team was your Cincinnati Reds with a .273 average.
The Reds didn’t have a spectacular season. Their high-water mark was on August 25 when they had a 71-59 record. That got them a second-place tie in the 10-team National League but they were a staggering 11 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who were defending NL champs. The ’68 Reds could hit but were last in the 10-team NL in ERA (3.56), complete games (24), runs allowed (673), walks allowed (573) and next to last in home runs allowed (114.)
(Of course, in comparison to those numbers, here’s what the 2017 Reds pitching staff did– 5.17 ERA, 2 complete games, 631 walks and 248 home runs allowed.)
Cincinnati was managed by Dave Bristol. Nicknamed “007” by his players– Bristol loved James Bond movies– the Reds skipper was a young, up and coming manager. General Manager Bob Howsam had came from St. Louis the year before. Howsam was in the early stages of creating what history now calls the Big Red Machine.
It wasn’t there yet. The nickname ‘Big Red Machine’ didn’t come about until 1969. It would take Howsam seven more years, several trades, and a huge gamble made by George Lee Anderson to finish the process. But it got done.
So 1968 -— while not productive in wins -— was a big building year for the Cincinnati Reds.
Johnny Bench would capture the Rookie of the Year Award. Pete Rose would win the first of his three batting titles. Howsam erased the vestiges of the disastrous Frank Robinson trade and got some return for the Reds. Plans were in motion to build Riverfront Stadium.
Redleg Nation will have a series of articles on the 50th anniversary of those 1968 Reds over the course of this baseball season — from Opening Day until October. For those of you who lived through it, some good (and tough) memories will return.
There may be some strange terms for our younger readers– such as doubleheaders, complete games, and Don Drysdale’s mathematical formula for protecting his teammates. As sharp as you young folks are, you’ll be able to figure it out. But you’ll also learn about some interesting Reds players– such as Alex Johnson, Vada Pinson, and Lee May, who was one of the most beloved Reds of his time.
And it’s fitting that during the 50th anniversary season of the ’68 Reds, Dave Bristol will be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.
Our series starts today, just before Opening Day when our present-day Cincinnati Reds will take on the Washington Nationals.
On March 31, 1968, the Reds were getting ready to break spring training camp in Florida. Bristol had selected Milt Pappas to be the starting pitcher against the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day at Crosley Field.
Three days earlier, 6,000 African-American sanitation workers in Memphis who were on strike had marched on Beale Street with Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. The event started out peacefully but erupted into violence and looting. A 16-year old boy was shot and killed during the night. Police said the victim had a knife. 25 witnesses said he didn’t.
A group of 500 black activists in Detroit led by Robert F. Williams assembled to proclaim their intention to create a “Republic of New Africa” (an independent new nation) to be created in the southeastern part of the United States.
But that night, the President addressed the Nation on television. What he said shocked the entire country. It set the stage for a tumultuous 1968 that affected Opening Day, the Reds and the American Pastime. Here it is: