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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Did the 1968 baseball season change America forever?

Posted By on 05.29.12 at 06:40 AM

The book in question
  • The book in question
I haven't read the book, but the title is excellent:

Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever.

Phil Rogers interviewed the author, Tim Wendel, in Monday's Tribune.

"I was beginning to work on an op-ed for USA Today on how things are so divisive today, and how nobody ever listens, there's no dialogue, everything's polarized," Wendel told Rogers. "One of the cool things about history is you can usually go back to times when things were as bad or worse, and in my mind I thought of 1968, which was a lot worse."

War, riots, assassinations. 1968 was a terrible year.

"The country was about to start to fly apart. My friend (historian and journalist) Hampton Sides says that's as close as we've probably ever come to a second Civil War in this country. I got intrigued by that."

In his chatty way, Wendel speaks with admirable precision. Things did not fly apart in 1968. They did not start to fly apart. But if he insists that they were about to start to fly apart, well, who can say they weren't? I don't recall that they were about to start to fly apart in a way that threatened civil war. Chaos, yes. But America would have flown apart into too many pieces for civil war. We're probably much closer to that today—though not very close—simply because America's now divided into two camps that demonize each other.

At any rate, Wendell's focus is on the baseball season, which changed America forever. His book is the latest entry in my favorite literary genre, which is grounded in the precept that there's no argument that someone cannot make with a straight face, and it might as well be you. The most distinguished example of this genre is The Games That Made America, a study of the 1904 Olympics in Saint Louis that, alas, was never actually written. My friend A.E. Eyre explained his thesis in a bar one night but the project went no further.

I recall protesting that Eyre's title was absurd. The 1904 Olympics were a fiasco. Of the 625 athletes who competed, 533 were American. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, didn't bother showing up—but then neither did a single French athlete. The winner of the marathon rode 11 of the 26 miles in an automobile.

But Eyre set me straight. "After they read The Games That Made America they'll know 1904 for what it was, the year America learned to say 'To hell with France.' The year Americans discovered that it's much easier for a nation to win everything and cover itself with glory if the rest of the world doesn't show up. Did you know it was thanks to 1904 that our nation could boast of a year-old competition between the champions of the American and National baseball leagues as the World Series—though the world had nothing to do with this series and barely knew the sport?"

A mere 64 years after the Saint Louis games—a blink of an eye to a nimble historian—the grandiose title of world champions was won by the Detroit Tigers, who overcame a three-games-to-one deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series that concluded the season that changed America forever. It had been "the year of the pitcher." Denny McLain of the Tigers won 31 games, Bob Gibson of the Cardinals turned in a 1.12 ERA. The Tigers won the AL pennant by 12 games and the Cardinals the NL pennant by 9. It's been remembered as one of the dullest seasons in major league history, and 15 of the 20 teams reported lower attendance than in 1967. The way it changed baseball, if not America, is that the next season the Major Leagues lowered the pitcher's mound to boost scoring and introduced a division setup so more teams would make the playoffs.

At least that's been the conventional wisdom. "You had communities flying apart," the perspicacious Wendel told Rogers, "yet you could go to see a Cardinals game and see blacks, whites, Latinos all wearing the same uniform." It was a sight thoughtful Missourians took to the polls that November, when Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them got over 55 percent of the presidential vote and the Republicans carried Missouri for only the second time since 1928.

If A.E. Eyre is thanked in the credits of Wendel's book for his invaluable moral support, I will not be surprised.

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