1968 was the year of the pitcher. The collective ERA of the National League was 2.99. The American League’s ERA was 2.98.
Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers won 31 games. This was the first time a major league pitcher had won 30 or more since Dizzy Dean won 30 in 1934. Carl Yazstrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 batting average. Bob Gibson pitched to an ERA of 1.12, the lowest since the dead ball era.
As of mid-September of 1968, however, there had not been an abundance of no-hitters. Just three pitchers had managed this feat — Tom Phoebus, Catfish Hunter (perfect game), and George Culver. There had been more no-hitters as of September 16 in 1967 than as of the same date in 1968, and would be more in 1969.
On September 17, in a game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Bob Gibson faced Gaylord Perry in a battle of future Hall of Famers. Gibson, who at that time sported a 1.13 ERA, had already pitched 12 shutouts. He had pitched a one-hitter in May and limited teams to three hits or fewer on five other occasions.
Perry was having a good year, but not a great one. He came into the September 17 games with a record of 14-14 and an ERA of 2.55. He had pitched just two shut-outs.
Runs, nonetheless, figured to be hard to come by for both teams. But in the bottom of the first inning, Ron Hunt, a journeyman infielder known mainly for being hit by pitches, smashed a home run off of Gibson. It was just the second homer of the year for Hunt, who would finish his 12-year big league career with only 39 round-trippers.
The Cardinals figured to get that run back. After all, as noted, Perry had pitched only two shut-outs all year.
However, the Cards had trouble managing even a loud out. They didn’t reach the outfield until the fifth inning, when McCarver hit a fly ball to Willie Mays in center field. They would reach it again only once more, on a Gibson fly ball, also to Mays, in the sixth inning.
The Cardinals drew walks from Perry in the second inning (by Mike Shannon) and in the eighth (by Phil Gagliano). But both came with two out and neither runner advanced beyond first base.
The Cards came close to getting a hit only in the sixth inning. Gibson’s lazy fly ball was sandwiched between a shot up the middle by Dal Maxvil, snared by Perry, and a sharp ground ball towards right field by Bobby Tolan. Willie McCovey made a nifty stop on Tolan’s ball and flipped it to Perry, who beat the speedy outfielder to first base.
Gibson, who had allowed no runs and only three hits following Hunt’s home run was due to lead off the top of the ninth inning. Lou Brock, being rested that day, the Cardinals having just clinched the pennant, batted for Gibson. He grounded out shortstop to first. Tolan was next up. He grounded out second to first.
Now, with two outs, it was Curt Flood’s turn. Year of the pitcher or not, Flood was a tough out in 1968. His .301 batting average led the club by a big margin.
Flood was no match for Perry on this day, though. He had been retired three times on balls in the infield. In his fourth at-bat, Perry struck him out. It was Perry’s ninth strike-out of the day. Gibson struck out ten.
Gaylord Perry was famous for throwing spitballs, and it seems reasonable to assume he used this weapon in his no-hitter against St. Louis. Perry, for his part, attributed his success on the day to his control. He stated:
The best thing I had going was my control. I was hitting the corners consistently and I was keeping the ball down. The hard slider was my best pitch.
The hard, wet slider? I don’t know.
Either way, this was a masterful performance against the pennant winners and defending world champions, and against the best pitcher in baseball, who himself pitched a great game.