I never pitched in a playoff game. But I pitched—was outpitched, actually, by Mickey Lolich of the Detroit Tigers—in the last World Series game prior to the advent of the playoff system that has transformed October. That unpleasant memory was made in 1968, the season before the National and American Leagues split into divisions, Major League Baseball expanded the postseason, and the World Series lost a little something.
Until 1969, the World Series, every time, matched the winningest team in the National League against its counterpart in the American. There’s no longer a guarantee of that, which, to some extent, cheapens the six-month, 162-game regular season. On the other hand, the playoffs offer layers of drama that didn’t exist in my day.
I’ve often wondered what that whole gauntlet would mean to a pitcher. In a season like 1968, the rest of the Cardinals and I had at least a full month to prepare for the World Series: We were 13 games out in front on the first of September and knew that we’d be playing the Series opener in St. Louis on the second day of October, most likely against the Tigers, who were up seven games in the American League and would remove any lingering doubt within a couple weeks. All month, I was able to continue my normal pitching routine without pennant-race pressure. My last start—a 1-0 victory over the Astros that lowered my ERA to 1.12—set me up nicely for Game 1 five days later.
Of course, it didn’t always work out as cleanly as that. My first World Series, in 1964, followed a memorably crazy, convoluted race that went down to the final Sunday afternoon of the season, with three teams still alive. After losing 1-0 to the Mets on Friday night, our manager, Johnny Keane, called me back for four innings of relief in the pennant-clinching victory. Then I was on the mound for Game 2 of the World Series against the Yankees on Thursday; then the following Monday, for Game 5, and Thursday again, for Game 7, when Keane allowed me to finish in spite of two home runs in the ninth inning, explaining later that he was committed to my heart. I honestly believe that his faith in me, in that situation, supplied nourishment that I was able to feed on for years to come—especially at World Series time. The nourishment came in the form of confidence.
If I had to explain what it takes for a pitcher to succeed in a World Series, I believe I’d boil it down to two things: fearlessness and the quality of his pitches—“stuff,” as we say. Both of them are predicated, to some extent, on confidence. You could argue that you need fearlessness and stuff—which doesn’t do a pitcher a whole lot of good unless he has confidence that he can put it where he needs to put it—to pitch effectively in any situation, and you’d be right; but the World Series calls for extra portions of both. The fearlessness is needed to cope with the stakes involved and the intimidation of the big stage. The stuff is required to get through consecutive starts—three, perhaps, if you had the trust of the manager and happened to pitch before 1969—against the same lineup as it becomes more and more familiar with what you throw and when you throw it.
I played in three World Series, and clicked off 27 innings in each one. That’s not likely to happen these days. For one thing, complete games are now few and far between. But that’s practically a moot point, because with two prior rounds of playoffs, not to mention a wildcard game, the schedule would have to work out perfectly for a pitcher to get three starts in a World Series. Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants, for instance, has fast become one of the greatest World Series pitchers of all time—the kid is amazing—but in three Series, he’s started only four games and thrown a total of 36 innings. Part of that has to do with the fact that the Giants swept one Series and wrapped up another in five games; but he wouldn’t have started three times in either of those, regardless. The rigors of the extended postseason necessitate that the best pitchers be used to maximum capacity in the qualifying rounds, strongly discouraging them from making three World Series starts.
I’m pretty sure that, if I’d had to navigate two rounds of playoffs, I wouldn’t have been the same World Series pitcher that I was against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers. The postseason takes a toll. The demands are draining. The atmosphere is stifling. I welcomed all of that, and was fully ready for it, because it represented the climax to a tedious and triumphant regular season. It was what we played all spring and summer for. No matter how worn-out or beaten-down I felt, I could rally myself for one tense, exciting, decisive World Series matchup.
But to sustain that level of intensity for nearly a month, series after series? I just don’t know about that.
When it directly followed six exhausting months of baseball, the World Series was a fresh, invigorating challenge. Personally, I found motivation in every new opportunity to prove myself. The World Series, champion against champion, was the greatest of those opportunities. In those days, there was no inter-league competition during the regular season. For that matter, there was no digital video. There was, instead, a mystique; a great unknown; an ultimate occasion, come the World Series, to declare yourself as the best in the game.
Now, you win your division and move on to play a preliminary set against a team you’ve already played at least six and as many as 19 times that year. It’s a different drill altogether.
Then, if you survive, you do that again.
Then, if you survive once more, you’re where we found ourselves on Oct. 2, 1968.
I set a record that day by striking out 17 Tigers, which I mention only because nobody since has struck out more than 12 in a World Series game. I suppose we have the playoffs to thank for that. I’m kind of glad I didn’t have to pitch in them.
But they make for good baseball, and while I may wax a little nostalgic over the way things were back in the day, I don’t mind watching the playoffs. As long as my Cardinals are involved.
Bob Gibson is the author of Pitch By Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game (Flatiron Books). He is a baseball Hall of Famer who played 17 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals. During that time he was a two-time Cy Young Award and World Series winner.