Bob Gibson

“Pitching First” was another roster-building strategy explored in those draft leagues we had in college.  This usually went hand-in-hand with choosing strong defenders, and a belief that “little ball” would help a team win the close ones.  As we have seen, Davenport was dealt a strong defensive hand.  But the offense, which looked great on paper, has been sputtering (probably due to ballpark effects), and the team is currently dead last in terms of runs scored.  Lineup tweaks might help a little, but it looks like the Knights will need lights-out pitching to match its predicted 1st-place finish.


The hurlers are led by 1968’s marquee pitchers, Bob Gibson and Denny McLain, and currently Davenport is tops in the league with an ERA of 2.61.  So even with a weak .230 team batting average, the club has been able to go 12-9 to date.  And it’s not just “Gibby and McLain and two days of rain” — in 1968 all 13 of the team’s pitchers had an ERA under 3.00, and eight were under 2.50.  

Gibson's biography, From Ghetto to Glory, was a library staple that I read in junior high.  Along with its tales of his hard childhood are painful stories of the racism he encountered.  Just as in the movie The Natural, when the manager wouldn’t play Roy Hobbs because of his age, in the early 1960s the manager of the Cards let Bob Gibson and some of his black teammates rot on the bench.  In economic terms, the inefficiencies that result from failing to make proper use of assets — whether they be minorities, women, or older workers — are enormous, and fortunately by 1968 the times were changing.  Depending on perspective and luck, change can either seem rapid or glacial.  My mother, for one example, was born in 1926, graduated high school at the top of her class, and went to college.  Her going to college was ‘modern’ but I don’t think she ever seriously considered a professional career.  The Ruth Bader Ginsbergs would come later.

An interesting wrinkle in Gibson’s story is that he played both basketball and baseball at Creighton, and after college would initially play for both the Cards and the Harlem Globetrotters.  Ballplayers didn’t make tons of money back then, and this arrangement allowed him to get a decent check during the off-season (and note initially his favorite sport was basketball).  Back then, Gibby choosing baseball wasn’t particularly remarkable.  It was an era in which the demographics of rosters changed in significant ways:

Year     White     Black    Latino
1957       88%       7%       5%
1968       74%      15%      11%
1979       71%      18%      11%
1990       69%      17%      15%
2001       61%      12%      26%
2012       64%       7%      27%   

During my youth, the percentage of MLB players from minorities rose pretty sharply.  You would still hear stories about franchises that were vaguely hostile to blacks well into the 1990s (I’m thinking Twins and Red Sox, but there may have been others), but I have not found a satisfying explanation for why black athletes are now choosing other sports over baseball.  Whatever the reason, in  today’s game you seldom see a team like our Davenport Knights, with five African-American stars on the roster: Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Willie Horton, and Earl Wilson.

McLain card

Davenport's other star pitcher, Denny McLain, was also an interesting case.  As a kid, it was hard for me to fathom how he could win 31 games at 24 and then be a bum at the ripe age of 28 — but looking at his baseball card it seems obvious now that the workload of 300+ IP  in both ’68 and ’69 was a mistake, to say nothing of letting him toss 264 innings as a 22-yo kid.  Then again, Gibson threw a ton of innings too, which just goes to show that usage is just a factor and not the sole cause of arm injury.  By the time I was in high school, the sore-armed McLain was knee-deep in connections to organized crime and book-makers.  He was the first Tiger with a salary of $100,000 and yet was forced to declare bancruptcy in 1970.  Suffuce to say the tail-end of his career was quite colorful.  It even included a scheme by he and Jim Northrup to produce a nude baseball calendar!

The Knights are truly blessed to have these two men at the top of their rotation.  It’s hard to believe, but 24-yo Denny McLain (31-6 with a 1.96 ERA) is the clear #2 on a staff that also includes Bob Gibson, who went 22-9 with an amazing 1.12 ERA (a season which rates as 15.2 wins above replacement).  Also turning in the best season of his career is Ray Washburn, who went 14-8 with a fine 2.26 ERA.  The remaining sixty starts or so will go to 24-yo Nelson Briles (19-11 and 2.81), 33-yo Earl Wilson (13-12 and 2.85), and 23-yo Steve Carlton (13-11 and 2.99 ERA).

Lefty Joe Hoerner only had 49 IP, but leads the bullpen with 17 saves and a great 1.47 ERA.  Four righties give Davenport strong options should one of the starters get in trouble: Pat Dobson (2.66 and 125 IP), 38-yo Don McMahon (1.98 and 82 IP), 24-yo Daryl Patterson (2.12 and 68 IP), and 24-yo Wayne Granger (2.25 and 44 IP).  Another pair of southpaws, John Hiller (2.39 and 128 IP) and Mel Nelson (2.91 and 53 IP), round out the bullpen. 

A trio of excess starters with the sorting requirement of 120+ IPs and/or a WAR of 0.5+ didn’t make the final 30-man roster for Davenport: Mickey Lolich (17-9, 3.19, 220 IP), Larry Jaster (9-13, 3.51, 154 IP) and Joe Sparma (10-10, 3.70, 182 IP) were the excess starters.  They were easy cuts.

This concludes our look at Week 4.

© John Kisner 2019