Book Review: Summer of '68

I was asked and delighted to read and review Tim Wendel’s latest book, Summer of ’68 – The Season that Changed Baseball – and America – Forever, published by De Capo Press. The book centers on the fantastic 1968 baseball season, which is often described as the ‘Year of the Pitcher’. There are amazing stories about the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers who battled for the World Series title, eventually won by the Tigers in seven games. Wendel covers more than just the two teams, he relates stories from all over the game and how the results on the field in 1968 intertwined with the many socio-political elements citizens of the United States were experiencing. It is a must read for Cardinals’ and baseball fans alike.

At no other time did baseball mean more to me than in 2001. During the September 11th attacks, I was working in mid-town Manhattan. Watching the events unfold right in front of my eyes was and still seems surreal. The thousands of people who were killed, the many thousands more who lost loved ones and friends, it was hard not to be affected. Amid the somber moments, I remember when baseball returned. In New York and I’m sure elsewhere, it seemed like we all needed something to divert our attention.

I was fortunate enough to be able to see many New York Yankees’ games during those years, but none of them meant more than the games in September through November of 2001. First, the security was unbelievable, but it was warranted and accepted as necessary. Mostly, I recall the astonishing display of patriotism during the games. Everyone sang the National Anthem, the renditions of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch which brought tears to the eyes of me and countless others, the signs reading “U-S-A” and the chants echoing the same. Maybe most of all we wanted to win and we needed the New York Yankees to win. While it wasn’t meant to be in the end; if there is a season where victory didn’t mean everything it was 2001.

In times of dire circumstances, we all need a diversion. Baseball has provided that diversion for many, many years. This is the story that Wendel tells in absolute wonderful fashion.

1968 was a trying time in the lives of many Americans. Racial tensions were at a high. There were many people out of work and the country was at war. Baseball was a means to step away from all that was bad and focus on the amazing talent on the field. It was like this for fans, but also for the players.

In 1967 Detroit, there were horrible riots in the streets and players like Tigers’ outfielder Willie Horton risked injury to go out to encourage people to go home and stop the destruction and violence. Horton felt the best way to change things in 1968 Detroit, the city he called home even during the offseason, was by winning baseball games. He and his teammates are described by Wendel as a group focused on one thing, winning the World Series.

In 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other which incited more riots and civil unrest. While Horton took to the streets the year before, St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Bob Gibson took his anger to the mound. He channeled his fury and produced one of the most electrifying seasons by a pitcher in the history of the game. Wendel explains how Gibson bottled up his feelings, especially after Kennedy was killed, and focused his attention on pitching and winning. It worked as Gibson threw over 300 innings in 1968. He had a 1.12 ERA, 28 complete games and threw 13 shutouts, along with 47 straight scoreless innings at one stretch.

In the year of the pitcher, there were many hurlers who strung together shutout after shutout. Luis Tiant threw four straight shutouts for the Cleveland Indians, but he felt disrespected as a person by team management who questioned his heart and the pain he was in that season. Many players, like Tiant were still battling the divisions of race which even baseball couldn’t fully overcome at the time. Tiant felt that his background was used against him.

Don Drysdale set the all-time scoreless streak at the time of 58 innings. Drysdale would feel a slight taste of what Tiant was going through as he was doubted as being able to accumulate such a streak without cheating by doctoring the ball. One thing many ball players do not like is being called a cheater.

Players dealt with the events and the social divide in different ways. Roy Campanella just flat out refused to play the day that Kennedy was killed. He and others felt it disrespected the notion of everything that King and Kennedy had preached. Some players, like Tiger’s pitcher Mickey Lolich and then New York Mets pitcher Nolan Ryan missed time in the game due to war time commitments as members of the National Guard. Denny McClain, the 31-game winner that season for the Tigers, grabbed as much of the spotlight as he could, which in its own way masked what was going on around the country. His time on the mound and in the papers was a side show for the people of Detroit.

Wendel is terrific at providing us with a balance of the game itself, the players involved and their ties to the situations surrounding the racial divide, the unpopular war and tumultuous political circumstances. He is able to describe the anger, the fears and the disgust felt by citizens and players alike. Most importantly and thankfully, he is able to meld the social elements with the play on the field. He provides smiles to the readers, by stringing together the historic events on the field that any true baseball fan can admire. As Wendel says, baseball and America changed forever in the summer of 1968.

The book is set to be available from retailers on April 1st, 2012. Tim Wendel is the author of nine books, including High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time. He is a founding editor of USA Today Baseball Weekly and has written for such magazines as Esquire and GQ. He teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Vienna, Virginia.

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Tags: 1968 Bob Gibson Denny McClain Don Drysdale Luis Tiant Martin Luther King Jr. Mickey Lolich Nolan Ryan Robert Kennedy Roy Campenella St Louis Cardinals Tim Wendel Year Of The Pitcher

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