April 1, 2012

Book Review: Summer Of '68 by Tim Wendel

In time, there will be at least one great book about every season in baseball history. There is no shortage of stories to tell.

Tim Wendel's Summer of '68 (Da Capo Press) focuses mainly on the two pennant winners - the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals. It also, by necessity, detours away from the nation's ballparks, reporting on the chaotic, contentious, and divisive social and political movements of the time, putting the season into context.

Bob Gibson, the Cardinals' pitching ace, said: "There was no escaping the pervasive realities of 1968 - the assassinations, the cities burning, the social revolution."

The start of the season was delayed because of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Two months later, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was murdered in California. Throughout the summer, there were riots and protests in various American cities. US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Police and National Guardsmen rioted outside the Democratic convention in Chicago in August, beating protesters as members of the Houston Astros, including pitcher Larry Dierker, watched from the eighth floor of a nearby hotel.
At the time I was more selfishly concerned with my own life and career. I didn't feel a great kinship with the ones protesting, But you see something like that, you don't forget it so easily. Looking back on it, that night changed me.
It was a year in which Detroit outfielder Willie Horton would sometimes leave Tiger Stadium after a game, still in uniform, and travel to Twelfth Street and Clairmont, where the worst of the rioting had happened in 1967. There, he would climb on top of a parked car and talk to the crowds, pleading with them to go home. "As a player you like to insulate yourself from the rest of the world. ... But back then it was next to impossible to do that."


The Tigers believed they should have won the 1967 pennant, which the Red Sox won on the final day of the season. The Tigers ran away with the 1968 pennant, beating the Orioles by 12 games, finishing with a 103-59 record. They were led by the bats of Willie Horton (.285/.352/.543, 36 HR, 165 OPS+), catcher Bill Freehan (.263/.366/.454), Norm Cash (.263/.329/.487), and Jim Northrup (.264/.324/.447).

The two Detroit newspapers - the News and Free Press - were on strike for much of the season and fans leaned heavily on the radio, where Ernie Harwell called the action. Although some writers still travelled with the team, their reduced presence was a boon to the players. "I swear it helped the club," Freehan said. "We didn't have any of this ridiculous divisive gossip floating around."

In the National League, outfielders Lou Brock (.279/.328/.418, 62 SB) and Curt Flood (.301/.339/.366), third baseman Mike Shannon (.266/.309/.401, 79 RBI), and first baseman Orlando Cepeda (.248/.306/.378, 16 HR) led the Cardinals to their second consecutive pennant.

1968 was called the "Year of the Pitcher", but that barely scratches the surface of how dominant the men on the mound were. The American League, collectively, hit .230/.297/.339; that slugging percentage was the lowest for the league since 1915.

Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox won the AL's batting crown with a .301 average; he was the league's only player to top .300. The average ERA for all 20 MLB teams: 2.98. The National League won the All-Star Game (fittingly) 1-0, with the lone run scoring on a double play ball.

Detroit's Denny McLain won an eye-popping 31 games (he had only four no-decisions that year) with a 1.96 ERA. Cleveland's Luis Tiant posted the lowest ERA in the AL (1.60) in fifty years and set a new record by holding his opponents to a .168 batting average.

Don Drysdale of the Dodgers set a new scoreless innings streak (58.2 innings). Gibson had five different streaks of at least 20 scoreless innings, with a high of 47 innings.

Looking at the league averages for several seasons - roughly 30 years apart - shows that comparing players from different periods in history is a fool's game. A .300 average was slightly below average in the 1930 NL, but it won Yaz a batting crown in 1968.
1908 American League .239/.294/.304 
1930 National League .303/.360/.448 
1968 American League .230/.297/.339
2000 National League .266/.342/.432
Gibson finished the season with a 22-9 record and a 1.12 ERA. He had a 2.14 in his nine losses, which would have put him 5th-best in the NL. Even if St. Louis had averaged only one run a game in his starts, Gibson still would have had a winning record (13-10).

From June 6 to July 25 - 10 starts - Gibson allowed only two earned runs in 90 innings: a 0.20 ERA. ... From June 6 to August 2 - 18 starts (165 innings) - Gibson's ERA was 0.60. ... After a 10-inning shutout on September 2, his season ERA was actually under one run (0.99)!

Gibson finished the season with an ERA+ of 258. Since the mound was moved back to its present distance, only four pitchers have had better seasons, with Greg Maddux doing it in back-to-back years (1994 and 1995) and Pedro Martinez's 291 in 2000 being the all-time mark.

MLB made significant changes in the game to benefit the hitters after the 1968 season was over. The mound was lowered by five inches, the strike zone was shrunk, and four expansion teams (Kansas City, Seattle, Montreal, San Diego) were added. Runs jumped from 3.4 per team per game to 4.1 in 1969.

In Gibson and McLain, Wendel has two pitchers who were polar opposites of each other. The taciturn Gibson was all business on the mound, displaying "a countenance of determination and perhaps even scorn that crackle[d] with energy and purpose". McLain craved the spotlight: "I wanted the attention of the writers so badly that I'd get depressed between starts because they weren't in front of my locker. ... I've been in situations where a writer's pen ran out of ink and I've given the one out of my pocket."

The accounts of the seven World Series games - which makes up about half of the book - are expertly told. Tigers pitcher, and eventual MVP, Mickey Lolich hit the only home run of his 16-year career in Game 2. Two rain delays turned Game 4 into a farce as the Tigers tried to delay the game (hoping for a washout) and the Cardinals tried to speed it up by making outs.

With their backs to the wall in Game 5 - the Cards led the series three games to one - the Tigers were aided immeasurably one brilliant bit of inside baseball. Cardinals speedster Lou Brock had fallen into a bad habit of slowing down coming around third base when scoring from second because teams rarely bothered to make a throw. Detroit's attention to that detail paid off handsomely.

In Game 6, Detroit exploded for a record-tying ten runs in the third inning, and Lolich - who had been sent to the bullpen in mid-August - outdueled Gibson in a climatic Game 7. It was Lolich's third win of the series. (Gibson had won three games against the Red Sox the year before.) The only pitcher to accomplish the feat since Lolich is Arizona's Randy Johnson, who did it against the Yankees in 2001.

Wendel's seamlessly narrative juggles players' quotes from 1968 and reminiscing in the present time. He also folds in a modern-day trip through Detroit, including a stop at the abandoned lot where Tiger Stadium once stood.

1 comment:

FenFan said...

As always, Allan, you book reviews intrigue me enough to add them to my gift wish list. Thanks for the suggestion!