As casual baseball fans know, Joe DiMaggio holds the record for the number of consecutive games in which he had a hit. The more than casual fan knows that number is 56. Those approaching fanaticism know he did it in 1941. In the ensuing 70 plus years, no one has come close to equaling that feat. Ted Williams? Didn’t do it. Stan Musial? Nope. Come on, not even Willie Mays? Not even Willie. Rod Carew? ‘Fraid not. Surely George Brett did it, right? No way, and neither did Tony Gwynn, Pete Rose, or any other of the great hitters during and since DiMaggio’s stint in the majors.
It’s widely assumed that record will never be broken. Baseball’s faithful once felt the same way about Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games. Cal “2,632 Consecutive Games” Ripken not only broke that record, he smashed it. Still, DiMaggio’s record stands, and likely will for as long as the game is played. But, like Gehrig’s record, it could fall. There is one number in MLB’s record book, however, that seems serenely and undoubtedly out of reach – 1.12.
The number itself is unimposing. It looks like an updated software version – “Statscrunch 1.12” – but it’s not. It might be the average number of quality starts for a certain highly paid left-hander since he joined the Giants. I haven’t done the math on that one, but I’m betting 1.12 isn’t far off. The number looks like some Olympic record expressed in meters, a record old school idiots like me are unable to fathom until it’s expressed in feet and inches, but it’s not. It’s Bob Gibson’s single-season ERA record for the modern era. That’s right. Gibson gave up barely more than 1 run per 9 innings pitched for an entire year.
I have to admit some bias here: Gibson was a boyhood hero of mine. When I pitched, I tried to imitate his powerful motion, but I didn’t have the legs to get the push that nearly sent him to first base on each follow through. I had Gibson’s SI poster (he was pictured in his road greys which was disappointing) hanging in my room; it was the first thing I’d see when I woke up each morning. I read his autobiography From Ghetto To Glory when getting me to read a book was not an easy task. And, of course, 45 was my favorite number.
Bias aside, try to wrap your mind around that number – 1.12 – for a minute. Not including the deadball era, the guy who has come closest to Gibson’s phenomenal achievement is Dwight Gooden. In 1985, at the age of 20, Gooden compiled a 1.53 ERA, an astounding accomplishment, but almost ½ a run per 9 innings off Gibson’s mark. Some other great pitchers have come in under 2.00 since 1968. Pitchers like Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Vida Blue are on the list. But, with all due respect, none of them came close to 1.12. Felix Hernandez won the 2010 AL Cy Young in part thanks to an MLB-leading ERA of 2.27. In Tim Lincecum’s first NL Cy Young year his ERA was 2.62, and his second Cy Young year saw him bring that down to 2.48. Back in 1968, Luis Tiant recorded a mark of 1.60 for best in the AL.
All of this brings me to why Gibson’s mark will never be surpassed – 1968 was “The Year of the Pitcher,” and MLB likes offense. In ’68, only Carl Yastrzemski managed to hit over .300 in the AL, posting a league-best average of .301. Pitchers were so dominant that year that even though Gibson threw 13 shutouts, and even though he barely gave up 1 run per 9 innings, he still lost 9 games. That’s right, he was 22 – 9. Unbefreakinglievable! Anyone with a 1.12 e.r.a. should be undefeated, right? Gooden lost 4 games in 1985, so you’ve got to figure that a guy who gives up almost ½ a run a game less wouldn’t lose any games. But the fact is that in 1968 no one was scoring runs – low-scoring pitching duels were the norm rather than the exception. Denny McLain won 31 games. Gibson struck out 17 in the first game of the World Series. And the All Star game was a 1 – 0 affair with no runs batted in, the only run being scored on a double-play ball. The powers that be were worried that fans wouldn’t come to see a game dominated by pitching duels, and in many respects that was what baseball had become. So MLB did what it thought it had to; it lowered the mound and contracted the strike zone to make things easier for hitters. The results, for better or worse, speak for themselves.
Under the current rules, it’s certainly imaginable that someone out there might break DiMaggio’s record. Nothing in the rule book stands in the way. Not so with Gibson’s record. Unless MLB and its fans decide they’ve seen enough extra base hits, enough late inning, high scoring comebacks powered by the likes of Derek Jeter, Josh Hamilton, or even Marco Scutaro, that they’d rather watch Matt Kemp spray the field like Matty Alou, then Gibson’s record is safe. And I, for one, am okay with that.
Jonathan Dyer teaches History and Government at a small high school in Northern California. He practiced law for 10 years before switching to teaching, and spent 5 years in Army intelligence before going to law school. He worked for 3 of those 5 years as a Russian linguist at Field Station Berlin during the Cold War. Mr. Dyer and Kerry, his wife of 27 years, are certified baseball junkies. You may email Jonathan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.