We’re now past Memorial Day, traditionally the first milestone of any baseball season, a time to see who are contenders or pretenders. (As this is written, the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Padres, Rockies and Twins seem out of it.) The holiday also launches summer for most folks, and offers a chance to reflect.
Reflecting on a new book, Tim Wendel’s Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball, and America, Forever, one realizes that as divided as the country seems, it’s been worse – and better, too. Despite the Occupy movement, Wall Street’s ongoing shenanigans, the unpopular war in Afghanistan, and Fox News/talk radio cheerleading to obstruct reform, the nation has endured turbulence before and excelled.
Forty-four years ago – after about 44 games of the baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals trailed both the Giants and Braves, and the Detroit Tigers had a 28-16 record to lead the American League – half a million U.S. troops remained at war in Vietnam, where the Tet Offensive showed that fighting was not slowing and the new Peace Talks weren’t working. President Lyndon Johnson had announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election; the draft continued to send young men to Southeast Asia. Both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated; riots broke out in 100-plus cities. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested at the Mexico City games. George Wallace and Curtis LeMay, a racist and a military man who advocated nuking Vietnam, sought the White House as a third-party ticket.
Baseball offered escape and also role models showing sport as an outlet to express rage, sadness and hope.
It was “the year of the pitcher,” as true seamheads and casual fans recall. Detroit’s Denny McClain would win 31 games; St. Louis’ Bob Gibson would go 22 and 9 with a 1.12 ERA and a streak of five shutouts; Dodgers hurler Don Drysdale threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings; five no-hitters were pitched that season.
Wendel focuses on the Cardinals and Tigers, who’d eventually battle in the World Series, but he also interviews others, from American League ERA leader Luis Tiant to Chicago 8 and SDS leader Tom Hayden. Houston pitcher Larry Dierker, who became an Astros manager decades later, recalled visiting Chicago for a Cubs series during the Democratic National Convention and witnessing the police riot on the streets outside their hotel.
Dierker said, “Once you see something like that, you don’t forget it so easily. Looking back on it, that night changed me.”
Washington slugger Frank Howard agreed, saying, “Looking back on that time in our country, things were as screwed up as they can ever be. As a ballplayer, you try to protect yourself by wrapping yourself up in the game. It rarely works. Things worm their way inside you and how that didn’t happen to just about everybody back then I don’t know. Think of all the crap that was happening.”
There’d been moments of hope, too. Dozens of sports figures supported the presidential bid of the progressive Kennedy, including the Bears’ Gale Sayers, Packers coach Vince Lombardi, Olympian Rafer Johnson, basketball legends Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy, and baseball players such as Hank Aaron and Redbirds great Stan Musial. When Kennedy was killed, Major League Baseball cancelled games in Washington and New York but told the rest of the teams to play. Baseball stars ranging from Maury Wills and Rusty Staub to future Cub Milt Pappas and the whole Mets squad refused to and protested.
Gibson was profoundly distressed, Wendell writes, saying, “While Martin Luther King’s death had greatly saddened him, Gibson found that Kennedy’s assassination affected him as no event ever had. After Kennedy’s assassination he felt he had so much rage.”
Gibson’s teammate, the late Curt Flood – a great center fielder and a pioneer in sports labor relations – noted that Americans from all walks of life were engaged then. Flood later told filmmaker Ken Burns, “I’m a child of the Sixties, a man of the Sixties. During that period of time, this country was coming apart at the seams. We were in Southeast Asia. Men, good men, were dying for America and for the Constitution. In the southern part of the United States, we were marching for civil rights, and Dr. King had been assassinated and we lost the Kennedys. And to think that merely because I was a professional baseball player I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium is truly hypocrisy.”
After the World Series, Major League Baseball added new teams, divisions and playoffs, expanded the strike zone, lowered the pitcher’s mound and introduced the Designated Hitter to the AL. As Wendel’s fascinating narrative shows, baseball in 1968 was a window to a distraction from division but also a mirror of U.S. society.
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.