Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball and America Forever by Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel's nostalgic book Summer of 68 looks at that historic year through the lens of a baseball fan.  The tensions of the decade came to a crashing head with the Vietnam War, racial tension, and political assassination dominating the headlines.  Baseball in the words of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams, remained the only constant in American life.

The 1968 season was the end of an era (for lack of a better term).  The NFL and NBA began to overtake the baseball in popularity.  Football and basketball were much better suited for television because they were fast paced and seemingly made for the instant replay camera.  Meanwhile, baseball seemed seemed slow . . . and boring.

Even the style of the game in 1968 looks archaic by today's standards. Pitchers were still obligated to bat and were not relegated to pitch counts.  Most games were still played during the day  And there was no extended post-season as we know it today, the best two teams from the American and National League advanced immediately into the World Series.  Free agency still loomed on the horizon, as players usually remained the property of their owners.

Baseball historians remember the 1968 season for one thing: dominant pitching.  Bob Gibson (St. Louis Cardinals), Luis Tiant (Cleveland Indians), Don Drysdale (L.A. Dodgers) put up record breaking statistics.  Denny McClain won 30 games for the Detroit Tigers.

Wendel brings all these personalities to life.  Bob Gibson finished with a 1.12 ERA and struck out 17 batters in Game One of the World Series.  Wendel wrote of Gibson's World Series heroics:

For there is something in the way Gibson pitched that perhaps wasn't simply directed at the hitters he faced, but rather at the world in general . . . Gibson unleashed pitches as if he were a man on fire.
Gibson fires a fastball.

Wendel devotes most of the book to the 1968 Detroit Tigers, a motley group who ended up winning the World Series against the powerful St. Louis Cardinals.  Starting pitcher Mickey Lolich, who served in the National Guard during the 1967 riots, won three games for the Tigers, including the climatic Game Seven.

The heroics of the Tigers helped assuage a city on the edge. Baseball gave everyone in Detroit a much needed respite from the challenges their city faced.

Weidel's writes with a novelist touch, providing a acute perspective. An educational trip back in time for any baseball fan.

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