I have a collection of recordings of old baseball radio broadcasts. Recently I was listening to the September 20, 1968 game between the Cardinals and Dodgers; Harry Caray, while reviewing the out-of-town scoreboard, mentioned the Detroit Tigers’ streak of 12 consecutive complete games had come to an end.
I’ll bet that Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak will both be broken before any team throws 12 straight complete games again.
To put the streak in perspective: as I write this, no major league team has had 12 complete games in an entire season in any of the last three years (2012-14). In fact, no team has had as many as 10 in a season during that period. In 2014, pitchers threw a complete game in just 2.4% of their starts (118 of 4860). The Mets, Rockies, Cubs, Mariners, Pirates, Phillies and Twins COMBINED had just 11 complete games.
But things were different in 1968, the most offensively-challenged season of modern times: the 20 major league teams combined to average just 3.42 runs per game with a .237 batting average and .340 slugging percentage. And starting pitchers went the distance more than a quarter of the time (27.6%, to be precise, 897 of 3250), making it more than 10 times as likely as it is today. The Tigers had 59 complete games in 1968 and didn’t even lead the majors; the Cardinals, the team Detroit defeated in the World Series, had 63, while the Giants had 77, nearly half their games (and the second-most of any team in the last 60 years; the team with the most will come up later).
Still, the odds against a team that gets a complete game even half the time stringing together a streak of 12 straight are pretty staggering. (Just to show how difficult it is, the 1917 Red Sox had complete games in 115 of their 157 games, and yet their longest streak was 12. Those 1968 Giants? Their longest streak was seven.) And yet, in looking at issues from The Sporting News from 1968, I find no acknowledgment of the Tigers’ streak, let alone how unusual it was.
Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool, I found the streaks of 12 or more consecutive complete games in a season going back to 1914, which is as far as the database goes:
Notice 12 of these 21 streaks came before 1920, during the deadball era. That means there have been just nine complete game streaks of 12 games or longer in a single season since 1920…the last of which was by the 1968 Tigers. Theirs was the longest since the 1943 Reds finished the season with 12 straight complete games (and then opened the 1944 season with six straight CGs). The last team before the Tigers to have a longer stretch of complete games was the 1923 Yankees, who had 17 in a row.
Let’s look at that Tiger streak. The last game before it came on September 4, when starting pitcher John Hiller was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the eighth in a tie game at Oakland. The Tigers scored two runs in that inning, and Pat Dobson pitched the final two frames to get the save and keep Detroit eight games ahead of second-place Baltimore.
September 6: The Tigers scored four runs in the bottom of the first, three of them on a home run by Willie Horton, and went on to beat the Twins 8-3. Denny McLain struck out 12 to improve his season record to 28-5, the most wins for any major leaguer since Hal Newhouser won 29 for the Tigers in 1944.
September 7: Rookie Graig Nettles led off the top of the ninth with a home run, his second of the game, to give the Twins a 2-1 win over the Tigers. Nettles had also homered off McLain the previous night in his major league debut. Dobson took a four-hitter into the ninth, and Tiger manager Mayo Smith left him in to finish the game after giving up the tie-breaking homer. Had the Tigers tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, after Dobson was lifted for a pinch-hitter, a relief pitcher would have entered the game, but when the Tigers failed to score Dobson got credit for the complete game.
September 8: For the second straight day a Tiger pitched a complete game in defeat, as Earl Wilson lost to Dean Chance and the Twins 3-1…and again the hero was the rookie Nettles, who for the second straight game drove in all the Minnesota runs, hitting a three-run homer in the sixth inning. After Tom Matchick singled to open the bottom of the eighth, Smith let Wilson go to the plate as the tying run and he struck out. Letting Wilson bat in that situation wasn’t a shock; he hit seven homers in 88 at-bats in 1968 and was used as a pinch-hitter six times. (By the way, the record for most consecutive complete game losses for a team, at least since 1914? Seven, by the 1940 Philadelphia A’s.)
September 9: In Anaheim, Mickey Lolich pitched a two-hit shutout and drove in a run himself with a double as the Tigers blanked the Angels 6-0. A three-run first inning (including a two-run homer by Horton) got the Tigers off to a flying start.
September 10: McLain struck out 12 for the second straight time and coasted to a 7-2 win over the Angels, his teammates having staked him to a 6-0 lead before the Angels hit a pair of solo homers in the sixth. McLain had three hits of his own, including the first triple of his major league career (he would hit another in 1971), and drove in two runs in earning his 29th win; to that point he was 17-1 on the road (he would lose his only start away from Tiger Stadium after that). California starter Andy Messersmith took his first major league loss.
September 11: The Tigers got off to another hot start, scoring five runs in the second inning and two more in the third (Horton leading off both innings with a homer), allowing John Hiller to go the distance in a 8-2 win over the Angels despite allowing 10 hits and walking three. Hiller would go on to have some outstanding seasons as a relief pitcher for the Tigers, but in 1968 he started 12 games and went the distance in four of them.
September 13: After a day off to get home from the West Coast, the Tigers blanked the A’s 3-0 on a 10-hit shutout by Wilson, whose homer accounted for Detroit’s final run. (Claude Osteen of the Dodgers pitched a 10-hit shutout the same day; there were only two other 10-hit shutouts in 1968, and nobody allowed more hits in a shutout that year.) Manager Smith allowed Wilson to pitch out of trouble, as the A’s put runners on second and third with nobody out in the seventh inning, first and third with nobody out in the eighth and first and second with one out in the ninth. In his roundup of American League games in the next day’s newspapers, Associated Press writer Hal Bock noted the Tigers had turned in seven straight complete games.
September 14: Coming into this game, McLain had already pitched 304 innings on the season; that, combined with the tension that had mounted as the possibility grew that he could win 30 games, made Denny a little shaky in this game in front of a home crowd of 44,087 (the box score shows just the paid attendance) and a national television audience (back in the era when just one game each week was available to the whole country). Reggie Jackson, in his first full major league season, hit a two-run homer off McLain in the top of the fourth; then, after Norm Cash hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning, Bert Campaneris tied the game with an RBI single in the fifth and Reggie put the A’s ahead with a solo homer in the sixth.
But McLain settled down after that, retiring nine of the last ten men he faced. The Tigers still trailed 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth, and manager Smith used Al Kaline to pinch-hit for McLain leading off. Kaline walked, later scored on a throwing error by Danny Cater, and Willie Horton then singled home Mickey Stanley to give the Tigers a 5-4 victory. making McLain the major leagues’ first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. (No one has done it since.) This was the only game of the streak in which the Tigers allowed more than three runs.
It was the second time in the Tigers’ complete game streak that the pitcher had been removed for a pinch-hitter in the Tigers’ last at-bat. McLain nearly didn’t make it to the ninth inning. In the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers had men on first and second with two out when Smith called on Gates Brown (who went 18-for-40 as a pinch-hitter in 1968) to bat for Don Wert, with McLain on deck. Had Brown walked, or gotten a hit that did not give the Tigers the lead, McLain may well have been lifted for a hitter. But Brown popped up on the first pitch and McLain was free to return to the mound.
September 15: The Tigers again scored early, with three runs in the first inning, and kept the runs coming in a 13-0 rout of the A’s. Mickey Lolich pitched a three-hitter, striking out 12, for his second straight shutout.
September 16: A familiar formula…the Tigers scored four in the first inning, five more in the second, and Hiller cruised to a 9-1 victory over the visiting Yankees. That ended a 10-game winning streak by the Yankees and allowed the Tigers to clinch at least a tie for the American League pennant (the Orioles defeated the Red Sox that night to prevent the Tigers from winning the flag outright).
September 17: Joe Sparma, who had driven in the only run of the game in the fifth inning, took a three-hit shutout into the top of the ninth, only to have the Yankees tie the game on Jake Gibbs’ two-out RBI single. Manager Smith left Sparma in the game to face the next batter, Mickey Mantle, who struck out. The first two Tiger batters were retired in the bottom of the ninth, then a walk, single and walk loaded the bases and Don Wert singled to give the Tigers a 2-1 victory. (Sparma did not come to the plate in the ninth.) Sparma had been a last-minute choice to start the game after scheduled starter Earl Wilson strained a muscle in his pitching shoulder while warming up. It marked the 29th time in 1968 the Tigers had won a game in their last at-bat, and it gave the team its first pennant since 1945. Detroit had actually clinched the pennant a few minutes before Wert’s winning hit, when Baltimore lost to Boston, but Tiger general manager Jim Campbell didn’t announce that result to the Tiger Stadium crowd of 46,512, fearing they would swarm the field before their own game was done.
September 19: After the Tigers’ first rainout of the season on the 18th, McLain took the mound again and defeated the Yankees 6-2. Norm Cash broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth, and the Tigers went on to score another run in that inning and two more in the seventh. The game is best remembered for Mickey Mantle’s 535th major league home run, breaking a tie with Jimmie Foxx and moving him into sole possession of third place on the all-time list at that time, behind Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. (To that date Hank Aaron had 508.) The home run came in the eighth inning with the Tigers leading by five and was a gift from McLain (“a medium fastball delivered with senatorial courtesy,” Joe Durso wrote in the next day’s New York Times). “That Mantle — he was my idol,” McLain said after the game. “Baseball is going to be sad when he leaves.” (Mantle retired the following spring.) The win was McLain’s 31st and last of the season; he made two more starts and allowed just one earned run but won neither.
That made it nine straight wins and 12 straight complete games for the Tigers (and note all the complete games went nine innings, no rain-shortened games or road losses in which the home team didn’t bat in the bottom of the ninth). The winning streak continued the next night, when the Tigers went to Washington and defeated the Senators 6-3, thanks to three homers accounting for four runs in the top of the eighth inning. But Mayo Smith intentionally ended the complete-game streak when he batted for Mickey Lolich in the top of the eighth after the Tigers had gone up by three runs. “I’d like to leave [Lolich] in long enough to get the win, but I don’t want him to go the full nine,” Smith had told his Senators counterpart Jim Lemon before the game. Pat Dobson, who had been the last relief pitcher used by the Tigers two weeks earlier, worked the final two innings to save the Tigers’ 100th win of the season. Detroit played eight more games, and no starting pitcher worked more than seven innings in any of them as Smith cut back on their workload to prepare for the World Series.
Since 1968, no team has threatened the Tigers’ complete-game streak. The closest any team came was the 1980 Oakland A’s, when the combination of Billy Martin and the designated hitter led to 94 CGs, the most of any team since the White Sox finished what they started 106 times in 1941 (their longest consecutive streak was 10). The A’s had nine straight complete games from August 9-17; they also had seven straight in July and six in a row in September. Since 1980, the longest streak was five, by Martin’s A’s in 1981; the longest streak since then has been four, most recently by the 1992 Red Sox. The last team to get three in a row was the 2010 A’s. The Tigers and Braves were the only teams to get back-to-back complete games (once each) in 2014.
The 1968 Tigers had another unusual pitching achievement, although I don’t know how it stacks up all time. Mayo Smith went more than three weeks — 20 games — without changing pitchers during an inning. On September 3, Roy Face replaced Earl Wilson with two out in the bottom of the eighth in Oakland; that was the last mid-inning change until the next-to-last game of the season, September 28, when Jon Warden replaced Don McMahon with two out in the top of the ninth against the Senators. In between the Tigers either had complete games or relief pitchers entered at the start of an inning.