30 baseball books in 30 days of April, ’12: Day 20 — Why ’68 is still great, or at least, a game changer

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The book: “Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball — And America — Forever”

The author: Tim Wendel

The vital stats: Da Capo Press, 257 pages, $25

Find it: At Powell’s (linked here) or Barnes & Noble (linked here). And at the publisher’s website (linked here) and author’s site (linked here).

The pitch: Wendel, who two years ago came up strong with delivering “High Heat” (linked here), says he was channel surfing one night and noticing the usual banter between talking heads, wondered: Could we be any more divided?

Well, perhaps. Like in 1968, where he concludes that “the gods were angry.”

With the time to go back to his University of Michigan roots and take a tour of downtown Detroit to see what once was, Wendel’s task came more into focus. The Tigers had seen its city left in ruins from rioting the year before, mirroring the turbulent times. Now, there’s been some time to pause and reflect on how the game somehow grinded out a season amidst the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, a Democratic presidential campaign that led to more unrest in Chicago, plus a divisive Vietnam War. That didn’t even take into account an upcoming controversial Summer Olympics in Mexico City, adding to the force of the political tornado.

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There were some profound connections between baseball and the real world in ’68, including having Kennedy congratulate the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale for setting the scoreless inning streak after winning the California Democratic nomination at the Ambassador Hotel. Both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey later awkwardly linked themselves to baseball during the October World Series while doing their final campaign runs for president.

This was a season that already began late as time was taken to mourn MLK’s death. But once it got rolling, 1968 remains known as the Year of the Pitcher, where Drysdale’s 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings may have been the third most-impressive feat, behind Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain’s 31 victories.

Yet, during that time, it was also about a dynamic of white and black players in open dialogue about civil rights, while trying to stay united as a team.

As it turned out, it was also the last time the NL and AL division champs went straight to the World Series without an additional tier of playoffs. Expansion also happened in ’69 with four more teams. And rule changes in the height of the mound gave hitters more of a fighting chance.

An excerpt: From page 28:
“Bob Gibson, like most athletes, often tried to insulate himself from the so-called real world. The goal was to keep the focus on the next game, the next pitch. But it 1968 that soon proved to be impossible. Early that year, a few weeks before spring training, Gibson passed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the Atlanta airport. ‘He’d looked at me as thought he recognized me,’ Gibson wrote in his memoir,’ but wasn’t sure who I was.’ That’s unlikely …
“‘Many of us in the movement were sports fans,’ recalled Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles. “Martin enjoyed sports and he really championed Jackie Robinson after his playing career was over …
“Kyles, who was a part of King’s inner leadership circle … has no doubt that the civil rights leader recognized the Cardinals’ pitching star.”

From page 36:
“The next morning in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Cardinals’ spring training camp was like most places in America: The King assassination was the major top of conversation. Gibson was devastated by the news and got into a heated exchange with his catcher, Tim McCarver. After telling McCarver that he couldn’t possibly comprehend what it was like to be a black person on this morning, and that it was impossible for whites, no matter how well intentioned, to totally overcome prejudice, Gibson turned his back on his batterymate. To McCarver’s credit, he didn’t let the situation go. …”

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From page 46:
“(After Kennedy’s assassination), the Astros were supposed to host the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, but players on both teams didn’t really want to play. Three of them took matters into their own hands. The Pirates’ Maury Wills stayed in the training room, reading Kennedy’s book, ‘To Seek A Better World.’ …
“Reds pitcher Milt Pappas, the ballclub’s player representative, pleaded with his teammates not to take the field against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. … ‘You guys are wrong,’ Pappas shouted as his teammates prepared to take the field. ‘I’m telling you, you’re all wrong.’ …
“Soon afterward, Pappas resigned as his team’s player rep … Less than seventy-two hours later, Pappas was traded as part of a six-player deal to Atlanta …”

From page 50:
“While Martin Luther King’s death had greatly saddened him, Gibson found that Kennedy’s assassination affected him as no event ever had. Whether or not it was coincidence, Gibson pitched his first shutout of the season the day after Robert Kennedy died. At that point in the ’68 season, Gibson considered himself a mediocre pitcher, who hadn’t done much yet to warrant any accolades. It bugged him that Drysdale ‘was hogging the headlines. After Kennedy’s assassination he felt he had so much rage he might as well try to utilize it to raise his game. …”

Few may recall that Gibson nearly broke Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak later a month later in ’68. He was throwing a shutout against the Dodgers — one that could have pulled Gibson to within three innings of Drysdale’s fresh mark. But a controversial wild pitch scoring decision (rather than a passed ball) during a game at Dodger Stadium, no less resulted in an earned run being charged to Gibson, ending the streak.

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How it goes down in the scorebook: Halberstam-esque.

We have our own reference point to all the craziness that happened that year.
It was my on seventh birthday — Saturday, June 8, 1968 — when RFK’s funeral took place in the morning, and Drysdale’s streak of 58 inning ended that night at Dodger Stadium against the Phillies.

No, it was hardly a day of celebration anywhere. But then, events in the real world interrupted many times that year. Those may have been our “Wonder Years,” but we wonder why a book like this took so long to come to happen. Maybe, it’s just the right time.

Read it, if you can, with CCR or Bob Dylan or even the Beach Boys in the background. It’ll make sense.

More: Check out a podcast Ron Kaplan did with Wendel (linked here)

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