Crossing another non-fiction book off my TBR list, this reading again combined history with another one of my favorite things: baseball. I also just so happened to pick it up at the perfect time to carry me right into the start of Spring Training!
One of the things that I like about the baseball season is that it serves as a steady constant throughout much of the year, providing daily news and entertainment throughout the spring, summer, and (hopefully) most of the fall. This is a sentiment shared by the author as well, who from that perspective looks at what happens to the fun and distraction of the game when it is being played in a time of historic unrest and change. In Summer of ‘68, he uses the 1968 baseball season, in particular the paths of the league champion Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, as a lens through which to look at the tumultuous events of the year and highlight some of the drastic changes occurring in society, sport, and media at the time.
I really enjoyed this book and found it very informative without being overly dense. I’ve actually spent a good amount of time studying 1968 from various historical and activist perspectives, but never really thought about any of that as contemporary to what I knew of the year’s baseball season. Having not been there I lacked the context needed to put these two worlds together, and providing this connection was something at which the author excelled. His use of anecdotes and interviews throughout the narrative gave clear voice to the people who were there and really drew the reader into the scene, regardless of whether that scene was stepping into the batter’s box against Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson or watching the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Easily the most moving part of this book for me was the lengthy recollection of Martin Luther King’s final hours followed accounts by the outrage that erupted in streets across the country several weeks later when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Setting aside the historical events, what surprised me the most in this reading was how directly the players were affected by everything that was going on in the world. It was common for players, journeymen and stars alike, to miss games weeks at a time to train with their Army Reserve units, a frustrating distraction for some and for others a very real reminder about the potential of serving in Vietnam. Also, in these days before free agency, players were, for both better and worse, more closely tied to their teams and cities than they are today. This was particularly true for the 1968 Detroit Tigers, a team that featured several players who grew playing with and against each other in the Detroit area. Hanging like a dark cloud over their season were the events of the previous summer, during which they saw their city erupt into one of the worst riots in American history while playing a doubleheader. In scenes nearly unimaginable today, two Tigers were themselves drawn directly into the chaos. Pitcher Mickey Lolich, the eventual 1968 World Series MVP, in the course of a day went from pitching for the Tigers to guarding a radio tower with his reserve unit. Elsewhere, outfield Willie Horton rushed from the stadium and, still in uniform, drove out towards his old neighborhood to plead with rioters from atop his car for them to go home peacefully. There was a very real sense in the Tigers clubhouse that the team had an essential part to play in keeping their hometown together through another summer.
On the baseball side of things, I was really fascinated by how much the game changed after this season. Dubbed the “Year of the Pitcher” because of the many dominant starting pitching performances throughout the league, officials were concerned that the lack of offense would drive fans away to football, a sport deemed more favorable for viewing on TV and rapidly rising in popularity. As a result, the strike zone was tightened for the following season and the pitcher’s mound was lowered five inches to its present day height of 10 inches. The structure of the league would change in the next season as well, as four new expansion teams were added and the American and National Leagues were for the first time divided into Eastern and Western divisions. Finally, it was during the 1968 season that the seeds of two concepts that would revolutionize the game were planted. The first was Pitcher Tommy John suffering the shoulder injury that would ultimately lead him to get an experimental surgery that bears his name to this day. The second, and even more dramatic, change was set in motion by the Cardinals’ owners, who after losing the World Series, began dismantling their roster, typically something players have little control over. However, when they tried to move outfielder Curt Flood to Philadelphia a few seasons later, he resisted and instead sued Major League Baseball for Free Agency. Although he lost, his case did pave the way for a successful challenge shortly thereafter that would forever change player salaries and how teams were assembled.
I could go on and on about all the interesting stories and bits of information I got out of reading this book. As it is I feel like I only managed to scratch the surface in my discussion above. The author provided an interesting and engaging account of the 1968 season and I highly recommend this book to anyone out there with an interest in baseball or American history.