Murray Polner: Review of Tim Wendel's "Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball -- and America -- Forever" (Da Capo, 2012)
Murray Polner, a regular HNN book reviewer, wrote Branch Rickey: A Biography; No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran; and edited with Thomas Wood, Jr. We Who Dared To Say No To War.
Tim Wendel has set out to portray the 1968 baseball season against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of that year. 1968 witnessed the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. We seemed to be undergoing a nervous breakdown, with anti-Vietnam dissenters and draft opponents battling the FBI, police forces, the National Guard, pro-war politicians, and, until perhaps 1970, the majority of the American public that still believed in the war.
Still, an extraordinary number of men from all economic and social classes did what they could to avoid fighting. Tens of thousands of resisters fled to Canada and Europe. Deserters went underground. Conscientious objector status was granted to an unprecedented number of applicants. At the height of the fighting and dying Congress Weekly counted only 14 representatives and senators with close relatives in Vietnam.
Perhaps Wendel should have spent more time on what was happening off the field that summer. But baseball, after all, is an escape. It was serious business, though, for major league players, who benefited from what may well have been a tacit, if immoral, agreement between the Selective Service Administration and Major League Baseball to spare players the rigor of military life and the possibility of being shipped to Vietnam. While for most it was hard to gain a slot in the National Guard and Reserves -- the era’s draft havens, unlike our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when entire units were activated -- baseball players were welcomed. Only one major league player, Roy Gleason, who appeared in eight games as a pinch runner with one at-bat in 1963 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, served on active military duty in Vietnam, where he was wounded.
It’s important to note this background since Summer of ’68 retells the story of that baseball season by occasionally weaving in some of the historic events with the action on the diamond, culminating in the dramatic victory of the Detroit Tigers over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Wendel’s smoothly-written text recreates the excitement of one of our best post-season games, which featured stars such as Detroit’s Norm Cash, Bill Freehan, Al Kaline, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and St. Louis’s Orlando Cepeda, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Roger Maris, and the incomparable Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson. No lover of the game could ask for more, especially since the scars of Detroit’s 1967 race riots had only begun to heal.
Wendel does reference the occasional player in the National Guard and in one instance a player, seriously or not, claimed his part-time service disrupted his career. He also describes a young pitcher arriving with his team in Chicago while police were battling protestors at the Democratic Party convention, but he has nothing to say about what he sees from his hotel window.
Not that many players were immune to the passions of their times -- who could be? -- but the war and its politics, as Wendel rightly points out, were “left to others” and players simply steered clear of the subject. In 1969, when the Mets unexpectedly won the World Series, their exemplary pitcher Tom Seaver, who had served in the Marines before the war, was the exception, famously saying, “If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam.”
Wendel does well in telling how players who admired Robert F. Kennedy responded after his murder. Many refused to play the next day. While half the Cincinnati Reds roster voted to play, the other half did not and Milt Pappas, their player representative, defied them and Reds management, saying “You guys are wrong, I’m telling you you’re all wrong.” For this, he was traded to Atlanta, the Reds naturally denying he was punished. Wendel cites with approval Bob August of the Cleveland Press: “Baseball’s observance of Senator Kennedy’s death was disorganized, illogical and shabby.” Of course, much the same happened in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was killed and the NFL opted to play their Sunday game while the upstart AFL chose to stay home. The AFL, Wendel reminds us, had surpassed the older football league in desegregating its teams.
However, Wendel attempts too much in claiming the summer of ’68 “changed baseball and America.” 1968 also saw the emergence of millions voting for George Wallace, the rise of a disaffected white working and middle class and millions .more electing Richard Nixon. Clearly, the country has since changed. Now baseball is controlled by billionaires and corporate advertisers and TV. Players are paid enormous salaries. Stadiums are built with public subsidies and poor whites, blacks and Latinos are poorer now and many can’t afford a good seat at a game.
Baseball, which usually moves at a glacial pace, did in fact eventually change after 1968. Its players' union arguably became the most powerful union in the country, new stadiums were often built with public subsidies and unlike pro football, they offer reasonably priced seats. The mass arrival of Latino players has been accepted without problems. Though still few in number, there are more black managers than ever and, now there is a black co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In fact, many of the racial tensions in dugouts and front offices have been sharply diminished because of changing public attitudes and perhaps because of Bud Selig’s enlightened role as commissioner. Tim Wendel has written a compelling book about a pivotal season.
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