As the first month of the 2012 major league baseball season winds down in April, fans will recall that the game has long batted cleanup in the lineup of American sports nonfiction. The extensive history of the game provides a fertile field for authors bent on telling tales of memorable teams, players, pennant races, ballparks, and even scandals. Despite the game's obsession with statistics, baseball overflows with opportunities to tell stories about real people and real drama.
Author Tim Wendel specializes in telling great baseball stories. Da Capo Press recently released his latest work: "Summer of 1968, The Season that Changed Baseball -- and America -- Forever." While the book focuses on the two major league teams that met that year in the World Series, the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, and the pitchers who led them, Wendel frames that story within the larger context of social, racial and political upheavals that rocked the country in 1968.
Many folks, especially those of draft age in1968, will easily recall the tumult -- the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive; student anti-war demonstrations; the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the riots that followed King's death; and violent demonstrations in Chicago during the Democratic Party's national convention.
Wendel enriches his narrative with highlights from other sports, including the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, which featured both Bob Beamon's high altitude long-jump marvel and social statements by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But it's the challenges that the upstart American Football League offered to both the older National Football League and baseball that Wendel offers as a major parallel story line. More on this later.
In major league baseball, 1968 was the "Year of the Pitcher." In 1961 and 1962, both expansion years, the average earned run average in each league was about 4.00. As the minors gradually produced more big league pitchers to fill the rosters of the four new teams, the average ERA dropped. By 1968, that National League average was 2.99, with the Cardinals' Bob Gibson winning the ERA crown with a measly 1.12. Cleveland's Luis Tiant led the American League with a 1.60, and the league average was 2.98. Each league's overall batting average was the lowest since the dead ball era -- .243 in the NL and .230 in the AL.
Examples of pitching highlights during the year are easy to come by. The Dodgers' Don Drysdale broke the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings with a run of 58 2/3. Catfish Hunter threw a perfect game for the Athletics, and the Giants' Gaylord Perry and the Cardinals' Ray Washburn pitched back-to-back no-hitters.
Detroit's Denny McLain and St. Louis's Bob Gibson each won their respective league's Cy Young and MVP awards as they led their teams to the Fall Classic. Wendel follows their brilliance as the season progress, especially McLain's collection of 31 wins, a total unmatched since. He offers engaging comparisons of the party-going and publicity-chasing McLain to the private and determined Gibson.
The book devotes 54 pages to the Detroit-St. Louis World Series, which the Tigers won in seven games. If you like detailed game reconstructions with lots of eyewitness accounts, you're in luck.
Now, back to the NFL-baseball competition. Wendel marks the immediacy of the NFL's challenge to America's national pastime with the "Heidi game" on Nov. 17, 1968 between the AFL's Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. NBC pulled the plug late in the game to show the regularly scheduled, made-for-TV movie "Heidi," at 7 p.m. Eastern and 6:00 p.m. Central. Oakland won in the waning minutes, but few witnessed the exciting finish. The ensuing hubbub underlined the increasing preference by TV viewers for pro football over baseball. Football action fits better on TV and its all-weather game beats rain delays. Baseball is best watched in person on a warm summer afternoon with a cold beer and peanuts at the ready.
Major league baseball soon realized that pitcher's duels couldn't compete with the sizzle of Joe Willie Namath and the Jets, as the Baltimore Colts would attest in Super Bowl III. The year of the pitcher forced an expansion of the strike zone and a lower pitcher's mound for the 1969 season as MLB raced to keep its fans. The juxtaposition of the social change that 1968 wrought on America with baseball's attempt to revitalize the excitement of hitting yields the book's title.
Wendel is a master storyteller and he must have a huge compendium of anecdotes, revealing quotes and interviews with baseball people stored in a secret mountain cave. He is also skilled at integrating multiple story lines into a book-length narrative. He uses a technique that he pursued in his last book about fastball pitchers, "High Heat," of bouncing from one three-page vignette to the next. The rhythm might be a bit quick for a few readers, but the content and flow within each scene keeps the flow moving along.
Wendel skillfully ties the baseball season to domestic events at every opportunity, especially how the African-American Gibson reacted to King's death. He also describes major league baseball's response to the King and Kennedy assignations.
The author used extensive interviews with Tigers leftfielder and Detroit resident Willie Horton to connect the 1968 season to the racial and social unrest in his hometown. Additionally, Tigers southpaw Mickey Lolich, who won three games in the World Series, had been in the National Guard at the time and was called up to help safeguard Detroit during the city's riots of 1967. The recollections of these players added texture to the story of growing divisions within America in the summer of 1968.
Wendel added a nice touch at the book's end -- brief thumbnails on the subsequent lives of the major characters. He uses the historical present tense in the section, which makes it more vivid.
A founding editor of "USA Today Baseball Weekly," Wendel has written nine books, including the novel, "Castro's Curveball." He has contributed regularly for the "New York Times," "Esquire," "GQ" and other periodicals. Wendell teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University and lives with his family in Vienna, Va.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also wrote "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.