In 1968 baseball’s golden era did not go gently into that good night of historical lore and remembrance. It went out with the bang of Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich fighting it out in one of the great pitching duels ever, one that played out in the final game game of the ’68 World Series. It was a time when the sporting world was still glued to a television set hanging on their every pitch. Tim Wendel’s new book, The Summer 0f ’68, The Season that Changed Baseball and America, does that watershed moment justice and I found it deeply affecting.
The large majority of current American sports fans were either born after 1968 or were too young at the time to have any memory of its historic events. Many regard the events of “the 1960’s” disdainfully, as if indulging the stories of that era can only taint their own world view with the deeply partisan divide that dates to that time. But that is exactly why it is so important to read Tim’s book. So much of our current situation has its roots in those events that changed baseball and the country forever.
I should say at the outset that I was disappointed to walk away without a better understanding of the core premise of the book: that the nation and game were deeply affected by the events of 1968. Tim provides wonderful insights into how the tragedies of that year–the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy–affected ballplayers like Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver; Willie Horton and Gates Brown. He catalogs the tragedies that unfolded in Chicago during the Democratic Convention with insights from Tom Hayden on his baseball roots. It doesn’t get better than that.
Yet the changes to the game that date from the lowering of the mound and the shrinking of the strike zone at the end of the 1968 season, do not get enough ink. Tim talks briefly about the first nibble of steroids as the game sought ways to muscle up. Yet the thrill of that great ’68 World Series pushes it all aside. And maybe that is the way it should be.
There was no shortage of drama that October. Bob Gibson provided pure energy on the mound and Lou Brock was a perfect counter point on the base paths. As a Cardianl fan at the time, the Tigers seemed a more pedestrian affair. Denny McLain may have sought media attention, but he was not a proven star despite his 31-win season. Nor were most of the other Tigers. Al Kaline was the lone Tiger with a CV full of All-Star appearances.
Yet Tim Wendel brings them to life, drawing on interviews with the surviving Tiger players as well as from the numerous books from Tiger sports writers, announcers, and others. And he sets up early one of the key narratives of the St. Louis-Detroit match. The city of Detroit was the one that needed the win more. In George Cantor’s book, The Tigers of ’68, he quotes Willie Horton as saying the team was, “put here by God to save the city.”
The Tiger players never set out to win one for a city more beset by urban chaos than any other. However, several of their key players, Horton, Bill Freeham, Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup were Michigan natives, and many on the team had played most of their careers in the Tiger organization–as Tim documents artfully. They were well aware of the dynamics of the city and the tensions that swirled beside them.
Wendel makes the point repeatedly that in 1968 Detroit was a tender box just waiting for a spark that everyone knew was just around the next corner. Yet somehow the drama of the Tiger pennant drive through those hot summer days captured the attention of the city and held it until October 10 when there was “Dancing in the Streets.” The celebration was legendary. “Beers were passed from car to car, as well as cigarettes of the illegal variety,” wrote Cantor of the celebration that brought traffic to a standstill in the same downtown areas victim to riots the summer before.
As much as the city needed it more, the Tiger players wanted it more. And that is why the Cardinals lost. Not because the Tigers were a better team, but because they played with more heart. That is difficult to say for a Cardinal fan. But Wendel and others make the point unerringly. For a team to get up off the floor like the Tigers did in ’68 and win one against one of the most dominating pitchers in the game, in his career year–that is heart.
So yes, I was disappointed that Tim Wendel could not explain how Richard Nixon was elected president several short weeks after the 1968 World Series. Baseball books, however, are about a game that we love because it is a refuge from the world around us. It provides a safe haven from the boss we work for, the elections our champions lose.
There are those rare occasions, however, when sweeping change to the wider world walks in tandem with baseball, as it did in 1968. Tim Wendel’s book captures the spirit of those times, the way that great players were humbled by the loss of their own heroes, how they recovered–as did the nation–and how they gained new strength to achieve greatness and walk away winners.
The Summer of ’68, by Tim Wendel is published by Da Capo Press and will be out on April1st. Tim will be a Seamheads Podcast Network guest on the Outta the Parkway Show, March 30, 7-7:30 pm.