Book Review: Summer of ’68

Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball, and America, Forever

By Tim Wendel

Da Capo Press, 2012 ($25)

America endured so much in 1968 that many of the events of the day remain part of the nation’s consciousness. Within a two-month span that spring, Martin Luther King Jr. and Democratic presidential frontrunner Robert Kennedy were gunned down by assassins. Riots marred the Democratic National Convention that August in Chicago. Cities across the country saw protests in support of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.

With so much turbulence, Americans were looking for an escape. They found one in baseball, where pitchers were rewriting the record books. Bob Gibson posted the lowest ERA since the dead-ball era with a mind-boggling 1.12 mark. Don Drysdale spun shutout after shutout into a remarkable 58 2/3 innings scoreless streak. Catfish Hunter tossed the American League’s first perfect game since Don Larsen’s gem in the 1956 World Series. Denny McLain won 31 games for the Tigers, becoming the first man to reach 30 since Dizzy Dean in 1934. And Luis Tiant established a new big league standard by holding opponents to a .168 batting average while recording a 1.60 ERA, the lowest in the AL since the days of Walter Johnson.

Even such heroics weren’t enough to allow baseball to monopolize the sports headlines. Led by player/coach Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics won a thrilling NBA Finals in six games over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Summer Olympics in Mexico City became a huge television phenomenon. And the AFL finally earned some respect from the NFL thanks to the offensive firepower of a fleet of quarterbacks, including Joe Namath, who capped off the ’68 season by guiding the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III in January 1969.

Tim Wendel, author of 2010′s “High Heat,” weaves it all into an ambitious account of the unforgettable year in “Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball, and America, Forever.” While sports are often insulated from the outside world, in 1968 there was no escaping the stories shaking up America.

King’s assassination, in fact, delayed the opening of the major league schedule. The league didn’t afford Kennedy the same courtesy, however, thanks to the indecisive leadership of Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert. Only games scheduled in New York and Washington were postponed, leaving the rest of the teams to do as they chose. Several prominent players, including Pittsburgh’s Maury Wills and Houston’s Rusty Staub, refused to take the field, throwing the game into a brief period of chaos.

In addition to melding the political turmoil with the happenings on the diamond, Wendel does a fine job of detailing the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, who ran away with the pennants in the NL and AL, respectively. Through interviews with a number of players on both rosters he establishes the character of the clubs and sets the stage for one of the game’s most memorable World Series, a seven-game tilt captured by the Tigers, who rode the arm of Mickey Lolich in digging out of a three-games-to-one deficit. Lolich, who pitched in the long shadow of McLain for most of the year, won all three of his World Series starts, including Game Seven, to earn MVP honors.

Wendel does a good job of interlacing the King and Kennedy assassinations with the baseball stories, and those come naturally, but some of the other pairings are disruptive. The story of Drysdale’s record scoreless streak is interrupted with a two-page non sequitur on football’s rising popularity. Other NFL-related notes seemed forced as well. Even more jarring is a section that veers from a discussion of Busch Stadium in the 1960s to an anecdote about Tommy Herr spraying Wendel with champagne after the Cardinals won the NL Championship Series in 1987.

While many of the year’s events and records were so significant that their impact is obvious, the book doesn’t quite close the case on why 1968 wasn’t just an extraordinary season but one that “changed baseball forever.” To be sure, a case can be made that events of the year did change the game moving forward, but the most significant occurrences took place off the field.

Wendel mentions the decision to lower the mound to rebalance a game ruled by pitching and touches briefly on the expansion that added four new teams for 1969, but other lasting changes are touched on only in passing, if at all. For example, Wendel covers Eckert’s failings, both after Kennedy’s death and again in the World Series when he allowed Game Four to be played in a downpour, without mentioning that those decisions contributed to the owners’ unprecedented vote to fire Eckert that December, just three seasons into his seven-year term. Bowie Kuhn was later selected as a compromise choice to replace him, when none of the original candidates received enough support.

Kuhn’s reign saw a great shift in power from ownership to the players, and that has roots in 1968, when Players Association head Marvin Miller negotiated the first complete collective bargaining agreement in any sport, boosting the minimum salary from $6,000 to $10,000. Later that year, Miller advised his membership to refuse to sign their 1969 contracts until the owners came to an agreement on funding a pension plan. With only a handful of exceptions, the players remained unified. Faced with the possibility of opening spring training with a massive holdout, the owners finally negotiated in good faith and a deal was struck.

Unlike the toothless and short-lived associations that had come before it, the Miller-led union established itself as a force, and would eventually change the economic structure of the game—and indeed all sports. Yet the only mention of Miller comes in the context of Curt Flood’s battle against baseball’s reserve clause in the book’s “Aftermath” chapter, a rundown of what happened to a number of key players later in their careers. One could argue that Miller had a greater hand in “changing baseball forever” than anyone else involved in the game in 1968, so failing to include him is a significant oversight.

Tigers and Cardinals fans will be willing to overlook that, however. Wendel’s interviews with old favorites like Lolich, Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Nellie Briles, Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver bring his coverage of the pennant races and World Series alive. Horton, in particular, helps establish the mood of the day in Detroit, which had been ravaged by riots the year before, when the Tigers were narrowly edged out for the AL pennant by the Boston Red Sox. Their success in ’68 is credited with helping to prevent more mayhem in the streets, in what was truly a turbulent time for the Motor City and the rest of America.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. His novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, is now available. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2012 #Book Guide

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