The book: “One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided with the National Pastime”
The author: John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro
The vital statistics: University of Nebraska Press, 256 pages, pages, $29.95, released April 1, 2017
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans, at the publishers’ website and at the authors’ website.
The pitch: With the right amount of perspective – it’s been a half-century now, as if we need to be reminded – the 1960s can be looked back on as a gloriously creative time in history, as well as a violently liberating period when the world changed from black-and-white TV to color and dragged everything, including the Vietnam War and the assassinations of our civil rights leaders right along with it.
We were born at the start of the decade (same year as the Los Angeles Angels, 1961) and are still shaped by how we exited it.
Discovering baseball in that period was all of the above. We had Little League coaches who were basically hippies, but pretty cool dudes (dads as well). We watched Dodgers-Giants games that were dripping in hatred based on the color of the jerseys instead of the players. We had just a Game of the Week on NBC and we lived with it, Curt Gowdy and all. We appreciated Ron Fairly as much as Jim Fregosi.
To go back to that time with these 21 chapters by Florio and Shapiro, who give that period a renewed framework without inserting their own opinions or going nostalgic in any sort of way, we come out with a better appreciation for how things went down. A very educated approach but also easy to consume and ponder about what happened and why, we can go back and submerge ourselves in things we may have misremembered a bit but now figure out how they were all interconnected in some non-psychedelic way.
“Over the course of a single decade, the national pastime had come of age. It now resembled the new America, one that had survived persistent upheaval,” they write. “The game wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even close. But it finally reflected the country in which it was played.”
We know much about Jim Bouton and his journey with the book, “Ball Four,” which was written about the 1969 season and shook up the baseball world in 1970. Some in the media were down on it, like the L.A. Times’ John Hall, who suggested Bouton had “gone beyond the foul line in the matter of good taste a few times.” But the New York Times’ Robert Lipsyte praised it as “enlightening, hilarious and most important, unavailable anywhere else. They breathe a new life into a game choked by pontificating statisticians, image-conscious officials and scared ballplayers.” That gave Bouton a renewed energy as he was called into the office of Bowie Kuhn, then MLB commissioner, and forced to defend it. As it turned out, in Bouton’s interview for this book explains, Kuhn actually made the book a best-seller by virtue of him getting all bent out of shape about it. “He had just made Jim Bouton the most popular sportswriter in the country,” the authors sum up in up Chapter 20.
In Chapter 11, about the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale spring training holdout for a better contract, we see more clearly how Ginger Drysdale, Don’s wife at the time and interviewed for this project, suggested they hire an agent. She was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and didn’t understand why athletes wouldn’t use representation. It was Ginger who suggested: “Why don’t you just walk in there and hold out together?”
The agent they picked, J. William Hayes,knew about how California had a law that made it illegal to extend a personal services contract beyond seven years, the result of a 1944 lawsuit that Olivia de Havilland brought against Warner Brothers studios. Hayes began preparing a suit based on that finding – a law that interestingly came up recently as someone suggested as a way for the Angels’ Mike Trout to get out of his current contract should he decide he’d rather play with another team. When movie producer Mervin LeRoy tipped off Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley about the strategy, a deal was brokered instead.
Bouton, Lipsyte, Ginger Drysdale, Peter O’Malley, Fay Vincent, Bill White, Ron Sheldon, Tim McCarver and Andrew Young are among the 50 important interviews done between 2013 and 2015 to freshen up accounts culled from more than 400 reference materials in the bibliography.
We appreciate this collection of stories about the decade probably more than any other book done about these times, because of the fact there is more distance from it and it can now be framed in a more understanable context.
And again, because those were our “Wonder Years,” we always had wondered what really happened.
= A review from the New York Journal of Books
= A review from Kirkus Review at this link.
= Another book on the subject to check out: “Baseball on the Brink: The Crisis of 1968″ by William J. Ryczek, released March 24
= A recent piece for Tthe New Yorker magazine by Florio and Shapiro entitled “The Women Succeeding in a Men’s Professional Baseball League”