In Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball–and America–Forever, author Tim Wendel beautifully documents the 1968 baseball season in a vivid, novelistic detail.
The 1968 season is best remembered for being the last of an era. It was the final season before the pitching mounds were lowered and the last season before the National and American Leagues were split into divisions. It was rule changes such as these that would have an effect on baseball forever.
There were forces going on during the 1968 season that baseball couldn’t control as the country was being torn apart. Opening Day was mired by tragedy after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. MLB postponed Opening Day as a result. As the pennant races started to heat up later in the summer, another tragedy happened with the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. This was followed by the riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention.
At the ballpark, fans were seeing pitchers dominate in a way that they never had before. Records fell and shut-outs mounted during “The Year of the Pitcher.” Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski was the only American League player that hit over .300, finishing the season with a .301 batting average. In the National League, only five players hit over .300 that year, including Curt Flood (.301) of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Wendel guides us on a tour of the season that saw Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Don Drysdale, and Luis Tiant set the new standards for pitchers. Baseball became a retreat for many players with the tumoil that surrounded them. For others, like Bob Gibson and the Cardinals, the conflicts in ’68 helped take their performances to new heights as they set the stage for another run at the World Series.
After Detroit burned in 1967, the Detroit Tigers saw the city rally behind them in 1968. This was a team led by McLain, Mickey Lolich, Willie Horton, and Al Kaline. They would go on to face the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. It was a collision that was made for television with two of the best pitchers that year in Gibson and McLain. The World Series itself was one that was for the ages. The Cardinals, having won in 1964 and 1967, were looking to establish a new dynasty. The Tigers were hoping to help pull Detroit out from the ashes. But what was really at stake was that baseball’s place in America was never going to be the same.
With America being torn apart in 1968, the country needed baseball more than ever.