The 1968 Indians were a good team. You read that right, in a decade that saw the Indians needing to go on stretches where they’d win 25 out of 30 just to finish the season at .500, the 1968 iteration of the team was actually quite good. They weren’t great, it’s hard to say any team that finishes 16.5 games out of first place is, but they were good. Led by a dominant pitching staff in a year where pitchers ruled baseball, the Indians finished the ‘68 season at a respectable 86-75 mark, good for third place in the American League.
To give some context on just how good the pitching staff was I want to take a look at two other dominant pitching staffs from the franchise’s history, 1954 and 2017. Notably these are two of the three seasons in franchise history where they won 100 games or more. The ‘54 rotation was legendary, consisting of Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, and the aging but still effective Bob Feller, together they baffled AL hitters en route to a 111 win season. The 2017 rotation featured Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, and pitchers like Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar, and Josh Tomlin (also here’s your yearly reminder that Ryan Merritt exists). Certainly the 2017 team didn’t have the hall of fame pedigree of the ‘54 rotation, but they were dominant nonetheless setting all time records for strikeouts by a pitching staff.
The ‘54 team finished with an absurd 439 Earned Runs against, and the ‘17 team finished with a less jarring, but no less dominant (considering era) 529 Earned Runs against.
How many did the ‘16 team give up? 432!
That’s right, the 1968 Cleveland Indians rotation was 7 whole earned runs better than the ‘54 rotation, and nearly 100 runs better than the ‘17 team. Even without the semi subjective nature of an “earned run” the ‘54 and ‘68 teams were dead even in total runs allowed at 504.
While there is no doubt that pitching numbers were inflated league wide in the late 60s, eventually prompting the lowering of the mound, a case could certainly be made that the ‘68 team, not ‘54 or ‘17, was actually the greatest pitching staff the club has ever assembled. Unfortunately the biggest hurdle the ‘68 team had to face was that the only team that gave up fewer runs than them was whoever they were playing that day as they only scored a paltry 516 runs on the entire season.
The ‘68 Indians had 23 shutouts on the year, 33 games where they gave up only a single run, as well as an additional 32 games where they only gave up two runs. For those of you doing the math at home that’s 88 games allowing two or fewer runs, or 54% of the total games they played that year. Imagine as an offense knowing that all you have to do is show up and score 3 runs to win over half of your games, and somehow finding a way to still lose 16 times in games where your pitchers held the opposition to 2 runs or fewer.
They didn’t have the name recognition of the original “big 4” but it’s hard to argue with the results that Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, and Stan Williams put together. Both McDowell and Tiant finished with ERA’s below 2.00, McDowell at 1.81 and Tiant at 1.60, somehow they lost 23 games between the two of them. As a staff they struck out more batters than they allowed hits, I can’t oversell to you just how good the pitching on the ‘68 team was.
The offense, however, was an unmitigated disaster. If you were to look at the offensive statistics of the 1968 Cleveland Indians on Baseball Reference you could be excused for thinking you had misclicked and ended up looking at the 1908 team. The only way to accurately describe the type of offense the Indians had would be “dead ball era.”
The 1968 Indians finished with 75 home runs. That’s not a typo, I didn’t forget a 1 at the beginning, 75 home runs on the entire season. If you thought 2023 was bad that team at least hit 124, still terrible but nearly 50 more than the ‘68 team.
Let’s put it this way, if Chico Salmon didn’t hit those 3 home runs he had in ‘68, then the Indians would’ve ended up with fewer homers as a team than Barry Bonds had by himself in 2001. Tony Horton paced the team with 14 homers, a whole 14 of them. Horton was one of just two Indians in double figures (Duke Sims, 11).
While it’s easy to attribute the lack of power to the era, Frank Howard still somehow found a way to hit 44 of them, so it was clearly possible. Though it was almost certainly a personnel issue doing the heavy lifting, the approach that first year manager Alvin Dark was trying to instill in the players certainly made an impact.
Rich Rollins, as quoted in “The Curse of Rocky Colavito,” said that “If you couldn’t bunt or couldn’t hit to right field behind the runner you didn’t play for Alvin Dark.” Terry Pluto would continue “Dark was the opposite of Earl Weaver, he believed any manager who waited for the three-run homer was a man who would stand on the corner waiting for a bus that would never come.” His approach was antiquated and inefficient, but a dominant pitching staff carried him to one of the better records the team would have in the decade. After they had dramatically underperformed in ‘67 under Joe Adcock, Dark looked like he had fixed many of the problems with the club and was setting them up for success in ‘69.
Unfortunately, Dark’s tenure as manager would be 3 years of turmoil, he built a strong relationship with owner Vernon Stouffer, and Gabe Paul grew paranoid that Dark was gunning for his job as GM. The two men never really were on the same page and this would inevitably hold the franchise back. For an organization to be successful everyone has to be pulling in the same direction, the Indians of the late ‘60s simply weren’t.
Join us tomorrow as we break down the ‘69 Indians who were a rainout on the last day of the season away from a 100 loss season.