The meaningful confrontations in sport come along so seldom that when one arrives it transcends quick-buck promoters, deep-thinking statisticians and television spielers. The genuine events feed on anticipation and argument by the fans themselves. Swaps vs. Nashua at Washington Park. John Landy and Roger Bannister in "the mile of the century" at Vancouver. The professional debuts of Pancho Gonzalez and Wilt Chamberlain against Jack Kramer and Bill Russell. Michigan State vs. Notre Dame.
Next week another event comes along that is already surrounded by enough glamour to assure it a place alongside those fine confrontations of the past. This one is called merely "Gibson against McLain" and it has been building since the middle of July. The matter of which team, the St. Louis Cardinals or Detroit Tigers, will win the 64th World Series somehow seems secondary to the question both devoted baseball fans and people who have never seen either man or team perform in person have been asking for months: "Who do you like, Gibson or McLain?" By now you are supposed to have cultivated your prejudices to such a degree that you can take a positive stance on one side of the question or the other. Do you like Denny McLain, the clever and delightfully unpredictable young organist who pitched the Detroit Tigers to their first pennant in 23 years while winning 31 games himself, or do you like Bob Gibson, the agile, complete athlete who strung zeroes across National League scoreboards all season long to build one of the coolest earned run averages the game has ever seen?
But this World Series is much more than Gibson against McLain or McLain against Gibson. The St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers are fine, exciting and tough teams possessing genuine folk heroes capable of playing baseball with a flair and style not seen in many recent Series. This is, for instance, the first World Series for Al Kaline after 16 years of excellence frequently interrupted by injury; the last for Roger Maris, the man who. It is a Series bringing together the two most highly regarded all-round catchers in the game, Tim Mc-Carver of St. Louis and Bill Freehan of Detroit. Louis Clark Brock, the man who a year ago stole everything in Boston but the light in the Old North Church, is going to try to put his act together again, and if you like power Detroit has several men who can knock a ball out of any park, as the saying goes, including Yellowstone. Curt Flood of the Cards and Mickey Stanley of the Tigers, the two finest centerfielders working today, could turn the whole thing into a spectacular defensive show. Even the parks themselves, Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis and Tiger Stadium in Detroit, are interesting and will probably have an effect on the outcome.
Perhaps the best thing about this Series, though, is that it has a chance to save what has been a very dull season. Many things went wrong in baseball in 1968; they included too much pitching, sinking attendance, a lack of responsible leadership and no pennant races at all. By Mother's Day everyone knew that Detroit and St. Louis were going to win, because they were obviously the two best teams and had enough spirit to take them over whatever hills might rise in front of them.
In a season that lasts 173 days Detroit and St. Louis were each in first place for all but 15 of them, and that is not the sort of competition to spur pennant fever in the poor town stuck with a fourth-place team 20 games out. St. Louis entered the season with its personality and style already developed. The Cards had speed, defense, power, pitching and spirit and they wanted to get themselves into another World Series so that they might become the first National League team to win consecutive world championships since John McGraw's New York Giants of 46 years ago. Detroit, on the other hand, started the year with the unenviable reputation of being a team that got things lodged in its throat when the going got sticky. But what did the 1968 Tiger team do? It developed a method for winning that was the direct antithesis of its past reputation. If you went to Tiger Stadium—and more than two million people did—you could lean back, set your alarm clock for the seventh inning and when you woke up all hell would be breaking loose. In one-third of the games they won the Tigers were trailing in the seventh inning or later. They suffered an abnormal number of injuries but heroes kept popping up, and Tiger followers fell back in love with their team because of its new and totally unexpected image.
It is appropriate that in this year of the pitcher it will be Gibson and Mc-Lain warming up for the first game Wednesday afternoon in St. Louis. Each has dominated his own league and each is certain to be named Most Valuable Player. That has never happened. Of equal importance is the fact that each is chasing history in a Series that already has history lingering all around it. Should a man sit down at a Hammond X-77 organ in a melancholy mood and try to conjure up the names and deeds of past 30-game winners who pitched in a World Series, he might shove in all the stops and quit in fright. Should that man be Dennis McLain, he might be doubly troubled. Leopold Stokowski, Charlie Chaplin, Walter P. Chrysler and Thomas E. Dewey, like McLain, were born under the sign of Aries and the horoscope for Oct. 2 says "difficult." Further, when McLain plunks his cap down on whatever color his hair happens to be that day and walks to the mound he joins only seven other 30-game winners ever to pitch in a World Series. To pronounce their names aloud is to hear the pounding of a drum: Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jack Coombs, Smokey Joe Wood, Lefty Grove, Jim Bagby, Dizzy Dean. None had a losing record in a Series. The seven won 23 Series games while losing 12.
Bob Gibson, like Richard Burton, Walter Cronkite, Charles de Gaulle and Pablo Picasso, was born under the sign of Scorpio. His horoscope for the day on which he will meet Denny McLain suggests that he "make his motives quite clear." One clear motive is a record. Should Gibson pitch a complete game, it will be his sixth in a row. He will stand alone as the steadiest pitcher in Series annals. The matchup of McLain and Gibson, in other words, is not, as the pitchers themselves might say, "just another Series game." Already the overtones are classic.
The best judges of that are the other players. They are talking about almost nothing else but the McLain-Gibson duel. Jim (Mudcat) Grant, a man who won two games in the 1965 Series for Minnesota and now has moved over to Los Angeles in the National League, says, "This will be the best matchup in a World Series in a long time. Both teams are real strong, with St. Louis having a little of everything. But I think Detroit may be one of the strongest teams in baseball in a long time. The Tigers have average speed, good pitching and they have the big thing going for them—incentive. I'd say Gibson is the key. If he pitches the way he has been, he wins three games. That makes St. Louis tough—mighty tough."
Hank Aguirre, for 10 years a Tiger and now a Dodger, says, "The Tigers have tremendous power and maybe more important is the fact that last year they felt they should have won the pennant and didn't. This has driven them all year. They gained great determination by losing last year and they never lost that determination this season. Detroit sends so many good batters at you—seven tough hitters at all times and every one with a club capable of clearing the fence." Ken Boyer, a former Cardinal who has played in both leagues and is a fine student of the game, likes Gibson over McLain, observing, "St. Louis has the great one in Gibson."
Many people feel that Gibson has an advantage over McLain because of his experience in two previous Series. McLain, however, is not something that just arrived full blown at Detroit in the spring of this season. He has pitched in Busch Memorial Stadium before, and his performance there ranks very high in the happenings of recent seasons. He was the starting pitcher for the American League in the 1966 All-Star Game in 105° heat, and the National League batting order that he faced was formidable: Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron, Willie McCovey, Ron Santo, Joe Torre, Jim Lefebvre, Leo Cardenas and, just to make it a little tougher, Curt Flood as a pinch hitter in the third inning. McLain pitched three perfect innings against that lineup with only two balls being hit out of the infield. He was fast and sharp—bing, bang, up, down, who's next?
The Cardinals and Tigers met once before in a World Series, and it turned into one of the most talked-about ever played. The year was 1934 and the city of Detroit had not seen a pennant fly above its ball park in 25 frustrating years. It was a memorable Tiger team, with Mickey Cochrane, Schoolboy Rowe, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg and Goose Goslin. St. Louis had to struggle to make it to the Series and entered only by beating out the New York Giants on the final day of the season. These were the Gashouse Cardinals of Frank Frisch, Leo Durocher, Joe Medwick, Pepper Martin and the Dean Boys—"Me [Dizzy] and Paul." Dizzy was a spectacular 30-game winner that year. He got his 30 wins by winning six times in the final 21 days of the season.
The Series opened in Detroit and as the Cardinals pulled into Union Station on the Wabash Cannonball several hundred people were there to see what they looked like. The next day the front page of the Detroit News told them. "Of course," said the News, "everybody wanted to see the Dizzy Dean and the Daffy Dean, who are presumed to be here to teach America's Schoolboy a few lessons in speed-ball throwing. The Daffy Dean was first off the train, and the Dizzy Dean brought up the rear. Mrs. Dizzy Dean was with him, and they are a couple of nice folks."
It wasn't a World Series of niceties, however. The teams played six games even. In the sixth inning of the seventh game, with the Cardinals leading 8-0, Medwick slid hard into Tiger Third Baseman Marv Owen. The Tiger fans became enraged at the force of Medwick's slide, and when he tried to take his defensive position in left field fruit and vegetables cascaded down on him. Judge Landis, the Commissioner of Baseball, held court on the field with the two managers, Cochrane and Frisch, as well as Medwick and Owen. He removed Medwick from the game, .379 batting average and all, but the Cards won anyway.
What a marvelous paradox it is that in 1968, Detroit's biggest year, one of the men put into the Hall of Fame was Ducky Medwick. And before the start of the second game this year he will throw out the first ball. But there are other paradoxes. The two first basemen, Orlando Cepeda and Norm Cash, enter this Series as controversial men—Cepeda because he has been one of the finest hitters in the game but has compiled an All-Star and World Series batting average of just .093, and Cash because he has never come close to equaling his 1961 season when he hit 41 homers and led the league in batting with .361. Recently Cepeda has started to hit, but his average of .246 is the lowest in his career. Cash, who was batting .192 at the end of June, suddenly reverted to the Stormin' Norman of seven years ago and over the last two weeks has been hitting around .500. There are a lot of men who couldn't throw a ball safely into the outfield often enough to compile an average of .500.
Mayo Smith, Detroit's manager, is confronted by a unique situation—one of those damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't things. Al Kaline is one of the most respected men ever to play baseball and he has been in 14 All-Star Games and rung up an average of .340. Many years ago he promised himself that he would never go to a World Series unless he played in it. Now-he is going, but will he play? Injured twice this season, he has appeared in fewer than 100 games, but he has played well. Smith must decide whether to use him in right field or to rely on Jim Northrup, who won many games with his base-clearing homers; or should he put Kaline at first instead of Cash? Smith has the sympathy of everybody but the Cardinals.
Roger Maris, one of the stars of the Red Sox-Cards Series and one of the key St. Louis players, announced some weeks ago that he was retiring at the end of the season to run his beer distributorship in Gainesville, Fla. "I just can't keep that desire up anymore," he said recently. Consider some of the things Roger Maris has done:
1960—First game as a New York Yankee, four hits in five at bats, two home runs, four runs batted in. First time at bat in a World Series, home run off ElRoy Face.
1961—Hit 61 home runs. Sixty-second home run of that season came in third game of Series against Cincinnati, won game for Yanks.
1966—Last at bat as a Yankee, pinch-hit home run.
1967—First game as a St. Louis Cardinal, two hits in five at bats. First home stand as Cardinal, 8 for 17. First game back in New York (and receiving boos), 2 for 4; first series of games in New York, 5 for 11.
1968—Last appearance in New York, 3 for 4.
The Series this year is being compared—without much sense or originality—to the race between the tortoise and the hare. The premise is faulty. Detroit has hit many more home runs than the Cardinals (at the end of last week it was 182 to 72) but St. Louis has power in its lineup almost all the way down. As the Boston Red Sox remember, Julian Javier is stronger than he seems. Detroit is not really a speed team but it runs the bases well. It need not live and die by the home run, although it sure makes living a lot easier when the Tigers have it. Dick McAuliffe, one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, can open a game with a homer and has true power, as his 16 homers, 24 doubles and 10 triples will attest. Willie Horton looks like he may someday hit a ball out of Tiger Stadium all the way to Willow Run, and Northrup and Cash can be hard on any right-handed pitcher.
Bill Freehan is Detroit's leader. Had it not been for super years by Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 and McLain this season, he also would have been the American League's leader as Most Valuable Player two years running. Late in August, when the Tiger lead was cut to five games as Detroit lost four straight to the New York Yankees (all by one run), a lot of baseball writers thought they could sniff panic in the air. Freehan did not. He took a piece of chalk and wrote on the blackboard, "Anybody who thinks the world ended today doesn't belong here." Freehan, however, has had problems throwing out base runners, and the Cardinals will certainly test his arm during the Series.
Since the first of August, St. Louis has been playing unconvincing ball. It has, in fact, lost four more games than it has won, and that hardly seems like the stuff of champions. Being so far in front for two straight seasons might have caused a psychological letdown, but St. Louis has been making far too many mental mistakes. It is important that the Cards enter the Series in the right frame of mind because the Tigers are not the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Atlanta Braves.
Detroit, by contrast, has been all but unbeatable during the last few weeks. It has been getting excellent pitching, and at one point the staff ran off 12 straight complete games. Mickey Lolich, as usual, is having a fine second half of the season despite having to take care of his seven motorcycles, and Earl Wilson, a good pitcher who has been hit three times by line drives this year, has pitched some excellent games. Wilson has also hit seven home runs. For most of the season Detroit's bullpen has been splendid. The Cardinal bullpen, with the exception of Joe Hoerner, has been inconsistent.
But the St. Louis pitching situation behind Gibson is not exactly grim. Manager Red Schoendienst also has a man named Nelson Briles, an 18-game winner who won a well-pitched game in last year's Series. Recently Ray Washburn, who has been a solid performer for the Cards all season long (15-7), threw a no-hitter. Lefthander Steve Carlton still has a tremendous amount of promise, even if his recent performances have not been as good as his early ones.
This year's Series, of course, will be the last true World Series. Next year, under new divisional setups, teams will arrive at a "Series" by some silly system that includes almost everything but tossing the rosters up Commissioner Eckert's stairs and seeing in what order they land. The Cardinals and Tigers are two fine teams to have in any Series, and both have a lively baseball tradition besides. Outside of Tiger Stadium in Detroit is a plaque of Ty Cobb with the simple inscription "Greatest Tiger of All—A Genius in Spikes." In front of Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis is a recently unveiled statue of Stan Musial. Through the years these two teams have given baseball many extraordinary players—Hornsby, Heilmann, Manush, Frisch, the Deans, Cochrane, Alexander, Gehringer, Greenberg. They now give Gibson against McLain.