The summer of 1968 was a pivotal and contentious year around the world, and especially so in America. The country was at war in a place few had ever heard of. The Tet Offensive in January signaled a problem there in Vietnam far greater than U.S. leaders would admit and an increasingly embattled incumbent president decided not to seek re-election. Assassins ruthlessly took the lives of two major political and social figures — one, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — was the architect of profound and necessary societal changes that established civil rights to African-Americans. The other, Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate and brother of a slain president, was gunned down while campaigning in California. The Democratic convention that summer in Chicago exploded in riots, students protested everywhere and Richard Nixon was elected president in a three-candidate race that included segregationist George Wallace. Wallace captured more than 9.9 million votes, won five states and 45 electoral votes.
And people think we’re divided now.
I was going to turn 9 that summer with the arrival of August — that South Carolina gas station bathroom of a month — and was relatively unscathed by those tumultuous events. We were a news-consuming household so I was aware of these tremors in the landscape but still unsure of what it all meant. Growing up in a rural area in the South during this period insulated us from a lot. Still, the assassinations scared me — as they did the adults — because it made the world around us seem so dangerous and uncertain. My parents read two daily newspapers and watched the local and national news on TV, but they seldom discussed the deteriorating global condition in front of their two young boys. They didn’t want to alarm us, would be my guess. Like most parents of that time, their hope for us was that we would be happy, make good grades in school, graduate and get the hell out of the house.
My dad insisted on that last one.
With such turmoil roiling in the backdrop 50 years ago I turned my eye to a wondrous and magical thing, a burgeoning love of baseball. I had become infatuated with it the previous year. I watched the World Series of 1967 with interest because my grandmother put me in her office pool for each of the seven games between the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals and the surprise American League pennant winners, the Boston Red Sox. I was randomly assigned scores by luck of the draw for each game and competed with her colleagues who worked in the Stokes County Courthouse. I won no money that year, but the Cardinals, with phenomenal pitcher Bob Gibson leading the way with an epic season, stole my heart. In most ways, the team still has it. I was also a huge Gibson fan then and now.
I didn’t follow the Cardinals raptly for all of 1967 but my life was devoted to the team and its outstanding collection of players for all of 1968. I began to read the daily sports section in the Winston-Salem Journal for any news of the team. I tried to find Sporting News, the baseball bible of that time, and tracked it to a drug store in Walnut Cove. When the season started I became a hostage to the NBC Game of the Week, which aired on Saturday afternoons, especially if the Cardinals were scheduled to play. In those pre-cable days the only access to televised baseball was this small patch of Saturday bliss.
In response to my new obsession, my mom and dad planned a family vacation trip to Atlanta. At that period it would be my longest trip from home. Usually our summer sojourns involved beaches in South Carolina or quick jaunts to North Carolina mountain destinations like Tweetsie Railroad or Ghost Town. They scheduled the trip for a time when the Cardinals would be visiting the Atlanta Braves. The best opportunity turned out to be August. In June my mom ordered four tickets for August 9 — a Friday night. The seats were a few rows above the visiting team’s dugout — in this case, the Cardinals — along the third-base line. We planned other stuff to do in Atlanta, too. We spent a day at the theme park, Six Flags over Georgia. We checked out Underground Atlanta. We visited the Cyclorama, which has since moved.
But really, I was only interested in the game. I already knew, for example, that Gibson, who was setting a new standard for greatness with every start in 1968 — the Year of the Pitcher — would be facing righthanded knuckleballer Phil Niekro. The Cards best, vs. the Braves best. In 1968 Gibson was the best pitcher in baseball. Niekro was among the top 10.
We traveled on foot to the stadium from a downtown hotel — short enough to traverse in the daytime but dicey enough at night to necessitate my first cab ride. I can still remember the sweeping view of the field as we emerged through the concourse to the interior where our seats were located, like walking from a tunnel and into a wonderland. I still remember the feeling as I enter stadiums to this day.
Because we arrived in time to see the Cardinals take batting practice, I was able to watch Roger Maris launch multiple balls over the wall. Maris was near the end of his storied career but my dad gave me the background I needed to understand that he was the player who broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding mark of 60 home runs in a season. The 61 homers Maris hit in 1961 is still the standard for those who accomplished it without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. The man really should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As it was, though, the two teams had a large number of future hall of famers on the field that night. Gibson, of course, was one. leftfielder Lou Brock, first baseman Orlando Cepeda and manager Red Schoendienst were the others. Lefthanded pitcher Steve Carlton was in the Cards bullpen but he went on to a hall of fame career with Philadelphia. The Braves countered with Niekro and rightfielder Henry Aaron, who in 1974 would become the all-time home run king, eclipsing Ruth’s mark — still the only non-drug using player to do so. Joe Torre, a solid player who made the hall of fame as a manager, played first base and caught that night.
As it turns out, I remember quite a few pertinent details about the game. For years when discussion turned to first games, favorite games, worst games, I would tell people simply that my first game was a 1-0 win by the Cardinals, one of Gibson’s incredible 13 shutouts that season, in which he also recorded the lowest earned average in a half-century (no one has bested it since). His 13 shutouts in 1968 were the most by a pitcher in the NL since 1916 and no one has recorded more than 10 since. Last year the league leader had two.
The Cardinals only run came when Brock singled, stole second (something he did a few hundred times in his career) and scored on a single by Maris. I remembered that Gibson had a hit in the game and that the game was played at an incredibly fast pace. I thought it might be among the quickest games ever played.
Last week I began to doubt my memory. Things that happen in childhood often get conflated with other similar or even totally unrelated events. Our minds are funny that way. Recollections can be pretty far off. So I was surprised to learn how closely my memory matches what actually happened. The basic facts were exactly as I recalled. Through a Google search I found a complete report on the Cardinals-Braves game on Aug. 9, 1968. Brock did single, steal second and score on a single by Maris. Gibson did get a complete game and a hit. And it all happened so quickly it still seems like a dream — one hour and 49 minutes. It wasn’t the fastest nine-inning game ever played (that would be a 51-minute contest between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies in 1919) but it’s like comparing a Gibson fastball to Niekro’s knuckler in terms of the speed games are played today. For example, the average length of a Major League Baseball game in 2017 was three hours and five minutes.
The game report included complete boxscores with hitting and pitching lines. It’s incredible to be able to find such information with only a rudimentary search. It took just a handful of seconds and provided tons of rich detail from a game played nearly 50 years ago.
I remembered Gibson being great on the mound that night, and he was. He gave up four hits, walked none and struck out five — one of his lower strikeout totals that season. He earned his 16th win against just five loses. He would end the season 24-10. Niekro scattered eight hits over eight innings, gave up just one run and fanned four.
Gibson managed to hold Aaron hitless that night but yielded a single to Felipe Alou, one of the famous Alou brothers.
A couple of years later we returned to Atlanta for a weekend series involving the Braves and San Francisco Giants. The tickets came courtesy of a friend of my father’s who had a cousin on the Giants team. I was lucky enough then to see games involving Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. I watched Aaron, Mays and McCovey hit home runs — McCovey’s was a rising rocket to centerfield whose momentum was broken only by the empty seats at that deep part of the ballpark.
I’ve returned to a few Major League games since. A Mets-Cardinals game in St. Louis in old Busch Stadium. A memorable NLDS playoff game between the Mets and Cardinals at Shea Stadium in New York. A Cardinals-Nationals game in Washington. And in 2016 I visited Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Mets. A few months later, the Cubs would break the longest drought in professional sports by winning the World Series.
But nothing at all beats the first game in 1968 and a birthday gift that came a day or two later, after we returned home to Stokes County. I’ll save that story for August.