By Bijan C. Bayne
The 1968 season has been labeled “The Year off the Pitcher.” Dodgers righthander Don Drysdale pitched 58 2/3 scoreless innings; St. Louis Cardinals hurler Bob Gibson threw 13 shutouts and posted a record 1.12 earned run average; and the Tigers’ Denny Mclain had 31 victories.
Luis Tiant also had a season to remember in 1968. He led the American League in ERA at 1.60, threw nine shutouts, including four in a row, and surrendered a major league record low 5.3 hits per nine innings. He struck out 9.22 per nine innings. These accomplishments were overshadowed McLain, Gibson and Drysdale.
Yet it was Tiant, not McLain, who started the All-Star Game for the A.L. Who was this pitcher with the puzzling delivery and challenging stuff, who put it all together during one of the long hot summers of the 1960s?
Luis Clemente Tiant y Vega is the only child of Cuban baseball legend and Negro League pitcher Luis “Lefty” Tiant and Isabel Vega. He was born November 23, 1940, when his father was still an ace. The elder Tiant starred for Cienfuegos at home and primarily for the New York Cubans in Negro Leagues.
The father tutored his namesake on the mechanics of delivering a screwball, though they were cut from different molds. The younger Tiant is a righty, built more compactly than his dad. Overcoming the legendary shadow cast by his father, he carved out his own niche at every level from Cuba’s Juvenil, to Havana’s city youth squad. It was there that the first Latino big league batting champ, former Cleveland Indian Bobby Avila of Mexico, recommended the younger Tiant to the Mexico City Tigres. Just 17, Tiant signed for $150 a month. Over the next three years he split time between Mexico City and Havana in the Cuban league.
On Avila’s advice, the Indians signed young Tiant in 1960. Starting professional careers in the United States meant that he and contemporaries Dagoberto “Bert” Campaneris, Miguel Cuellar, and Dagoberto “Tito” Fuentes, were barred from visiting Cuba again. Tiant had to endure the foreign atmosphere of the Jim Crow minor leagues from Charleston, W. Va., of the Eastern League, to Burlington, N.C., of the Carolina League. The latter folded in 1964, the year the U.S. Civil Rights Act was passed.
“I couldn’t speak very good English, but I understand racism,” he said. “They treated me like a dog.”
The pitcher’s mound was his refuge in the midst of racial hostilities and his unfamiliarity with the U.S. His performance earned him a promotion to the Indians Class AAA team in Portland, Ore. He posted a 15-1 mark by July 1964, including a no-hitter and a one-hitter in the highly competitive Pacific Coast League.
Answering the Call
Shortly after the ’64 All-Star Game, Tiant was called up to the Indians. He debuted July 19 at Yankee Stadium. No pressure. He scattered four singles, struck out 11, and beat the defending A.L. champions, 3-0. He had a 10-4 record for the balance of 1964.
The Indians of the mid 1960’s were mediocre. Between 1965 and 1967 Tiant won 35 and lost 31. Following his father’s advice (they still had not seen each other since 1961), Tiant cut fatty foods from his diet and lost 20 pounds in 1966. Senior was still trim. The lighter version of Junior led the A.L. in shutouts in ’66, and strikeouts per nine innings in 1967.
Before the 1968 campaign, Tiant toyed with his pitching motion. He added a distraction for batters, turning his back to them before pivoting with his delivery, hiding the ball, his grip and his intentions. Tiant made the adjustment to compensate for losing something off his fastball after a shoulder injury.
Tiant stymied A.L. foes. In May he went 5-2, allowing only 35 hits in 60 innings while fanning 58 batters. In his first three starts that month he surrendered no earned runs, and threw three straight shutouts. In June, he was 5-1, limited hitters to 26 hits in 51 innings, striking out 50. Tiant allowed only five earned runs all month.
A Cuban All-Star
Tiant’s first July start was special. He struck out 19 Twins over 10 innings, dominating a lineup that featured Tony Oliva and Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew. In those days the players selected the All-Star Game participants. They chose Tiant with his 14-5 record, 1.24 ERA and 157 strikeouts. A.L. skipper Dick Williams chose Tiant to start the All-Star Game, making history as the only Cuban to have served as the starting pitcher in the Midsummer Classic.
The 1968 All-Star Game was played at the Houston Astrodome. It was an affair dominated by pitching, even with the wild start. Willie Mays led off for the National League, singled off Tiant, and enticed an errant pickoff effort by Tiant, upon which Mays took second. Mays scored that inning on a double play ball. That run was enough for the N.L. to win 1-0.
Tiant was not done dazzling. In July he was 5-1 with a 1.71 ERA, striking out 53 in only 47 innings. He was then 17-6. He then followed a 1-3 August with a 3-0 September. He finished with a 21-9 record for a team that was 82-79. His 1.60 ERA was the lowest in the A.L. since Hall of Famer Walter Johnson posted a 1.49 ERA in the dead ball era 1919. His 264 strikeouts exceeded his 258 innings pitched.
A Golden Year
Only four others have thrown at least four straight shutouts since the expansion era of the 1960s. He held opposing batters to a .168 average, which remains a major league record. Applying today’s metrics, Tiant led the A.L. in Adjusted Pitching Wins, Base-Out Runs Saved, Win Probability Added, and Fielding Independent Pitching. His WAR of 8.4 was better than McLain’s 7.4. Tiant allowed 5.3 hits per nine innings.
After the 1968 season, Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10. Of the dominant hurlers of 1968, the change affected Tiant and his delivery most. He again injured himself and was dealt to Minnesota in 1969, where he floundered. He revived his career as a Red Sox fan favorite after 1972.
He saw his father and mother for the first time in 14 years when they visited for the 1975 World Series, providing one of the highlights of his career.
On the 50th anniversary of the Year of the Pitcher, it’s important to remember Luis Tiant, Jr. among the greats of 1968.
Featured Image: Focus on Sport
Inset Image: TOPPS