Authors: Tim Wendel
Tags: #History, #20th Century, #Sports & Recreation, #United States, #Sociology of Sports, #Baseball
Table of Contents
Also by Tim Wendel
High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the
Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time
Going for the Gold: How the U.S.
Olympic Hockey Team Won at Lake Placid
Buffalo, Home of the Braves
Far From Home: Latino Baseball Players in America
The New Face of Baseball: The One-Hundred-Year Rise
and Triumph of Latinos in America’s Favorite Sport
My Man Stan (a novel for young readers)
In memory of Eric Wendel, John Douglas, and Bill Glavin.
For Jacqueline, Sarah, and Chris, my heart of the order.
So often we look to sports for an escape. We prefer to imagine it inhabiting a place that’s cordoned off from the fractured and complex world outside the lines. And in many ways it is. It’s a place where well-defined rules govern the action and outcomes are resolute; where the drama plays out in familiar ways we can easily understand and appreciate (if not always predict); and where we can celebrate victories vicariously, but still keep the pain of failures at arm’s length.
But what happens when events in the outside world become so chaotic, so divisive, that it’s no longer possible to fully escape them? When larger issues begin to permeate sports in such a way that it impacts our ability as fans to follow the action and the story lines in the usual way? In such a situation the games we watch and play cease to be merely diversions, but perhaps that’s also when they matter to us most, and when the potential is there for their outcomes to mean something more.
How does such added pressure impact players? What happens when even they are no longer able to stay above the fray, and when it becomes impossible for them to isolate themselves by focusing on single moments—one game, one at-bat, one pitch at a time?
Time and again throughout the remarkable, turbulent year of 1968, the best in sports had to fall back on something else and find other ways to persevere. In the case of World Series champion Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals ace channeled his anger into one of the most dominant pitching performances of all time. Detroit’s Denny McLain, his counterpart in that season’s World Series, found it best to embrace celebrity and fame in an effort to assure things never cut too close to the heart. For Tigers’ slugger Willie Horton, he had to expand his definition of home to include something more than Detroit, the divided city he had grown up in. For Luis Tiant, who was about to have his break-out season pitching for the Cleveland Indians, it was finding the personal strength to be a witness to the sea changes in everything from politics to music to sports. And for Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood, perhaps it was realizing that the boundaries between sports and the outside world weren’t so impermeable after all; that he could be a catalyst for change, too.
And yet it also remained true that sometimes all it takes to propel an athlete is the chance to win with everything on the line. That was the fervent hope that kept Detroit pitcher Mickey Lolich going: that he would one day have the opportunity to succeed when few believed he could ever rise to the occasion.
Today we often place our sports heroes beyond arm’s length. Maybe it’s a natural result of a day and age when professional athletes make so much money and no longer live in our neighborhoods that our closest glimpses of them are captured through fleeting images on the JumboTron or our TVs at home. They are regarded as celebrities, perhaps more so than at any other time in history. Yet it didn’t use to be this way. In ’68, for better or for worse, we were often in it together—even when we rallied to different sides of the political argument and allowed the storms of protest to wash over everything. The idea for this book came one night when I was channel surfing, bouncing between the talking heads on cable television and thinking to myself, “Could we be any more divided?” The great thing about history and our nation’s narrative is that we can take Mr. Peabody’s WABAC Machine back to a previous era or moment when things were seemingly just as difficult in order to gain perspective and maybe even glean a few lessons. In looking back at times in which we struggled and yet somehow carried on perhaps we can find a way to move ahead again.
In 1968, the gods were angry. It’s been called “the year that rocked the world,” and it rarely showed any mercy. How else to describe a single year in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet and weeks later Robert Kennedy met the same fate? In which riots broke out in the streets in cities across the country, and millions gathered to protest the issues surrounding the Vietnam War and civil rights, often to be met with resistance and in some cases brutality. In which everything boiled over late that summer in the streets of Chicago. Thanks to television, our world in 1968 was shrink-wrapped forever. We were able to view all this on a nightly basis, with much of it cued up for instant replay. Seemingly overnight we had become Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and what we saw was that things everywhere were unraveling, being pulled apart at the seams, often with unbearable force.
And yet, through it all, juxtaposed against the turmoil, there was sports. In 1968, baseball was still regarded as the national pastime, but the barbarians were at the gate, so to speak. Only a few weeks into the new year, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers won their second consecutive Super Bowl. From this point on, empty seats at the Super Bowl were unheard of, and football would soon surpass baseball in popularity, with Joe Namath and the upstart American Football League poised to “guarantee” victory in the next championship game.
Much has been written about the impact of this tumultuous year on politics, music and our culture in general. But in our discussions of ’68, the glories and struggles that occurred in sports during that time are too often cast aside. Bill Russell, the legendary player-coach for the Boston Celtics, once said that sports favor the short view. Little in this realm lasts longer than a season, regardless of how epic the team or contest maybe. And yet, while scores fade and names and even outcomes may recede in our memory, select moments—so fully representative of larger forces and events that we refer to them as iconic—remain. And once pieced together, these moments can form a narrative that still speaks to us to this day.
A Bad Moon Rising
The image was so overwhelming, so unforgettable, that
people’s common sense ended up somewhere else....
The shape of their world changed.
—TOMAS ELOY MARTINEZ, SANTA EVITA
Back before times became so chaotic and turbulent, contentious, and even dangerous, Willie Horton made it his mission to ask Bob Gibson for his autograph. The Tigers’ slugger doesn’t recall when this curious quest began. Was it 1963 or maybe 1964? To this day, Horton isn’t exactly sure. What is certain is that his first real chance came during spring training. As Horton recalled, he could have opted out of a particular Grapefruit League swing, which saw the Tigers’ split squad stopping by Winter Haven to play the Red Sox, then heading another seventy miles west for a contest against the Cardinals at their spring training home at old Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Instead, he signed up for the trip, with a purpose in mind.
“My father had been a big Bob Gibson fan,” said Horton, whose parents died in a car crash in 1965. “My father knew that he was a great basketball player, too, so I thought why not? I’ll make this trip. I’ll get him to sign.”
Little did Horton realize how difficult it would be. After taking batting practice at Al Lang, Horton waited, pen and paper in hand, for the rest of the home team to appear. As Gibson strode out to shag balls with the other St. Louis pitchers in the outfield, Horton approached and asked if the right-hander would be kind enough to sign.
“What position do you play?” Gibson replied curtly.
Horton told him outfield.
“Outfield?” Gibson answered. With that he turned away, wanting nothing to do with an opposing player.
Crestfallen, Horton slunk back to the visiting dugout, where his friend and teammate Gates Brown waited for him. Brown had seen the snub and knew exactly what had happened. “You’re a damn fool for making this trip,” Brown said. “Anybody could have told you that guy is all business, all the time.”
Indeed, the Cardinals’ ace rarely smiled and always seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder. “The basis of intimidation, as I practiced it, was mystery,” Gibson later explained. “I wanted the hitter to know nothing about me—about my wife, my children, my religion, my politics, my hobbies, my tastes, my feelings, nothing. I figured the more they knew about me, the more they knew what I might do in a certain situation. That was why, in large part, I never talked to players on other teams. That was why I never apologized for hitting anybody. That was why I seemed like such an asshole to so many people.”
Sometimes things start from a long way off, build and build over the seasons without anybody really noticing or being any the wiser. That’s how it seemed to Willie Horton years later, on a bright autumn day in St. Louis in 1968. The stands at old Busch Stadium were filled to overflowing with fans wearing straw hats with either a cotton tiger or cardinal stapled to them. The color of that afternoon—many games, even World Series contests, still began before sunset back then—stood out as firehouse red. Of course, that was the respondent hue of the hometown team, the St. Louis Cardinals. At stake was something far bigger than a spring training contest between two split-squad teams. This was Game One of the 1968 World Series, and as Willie Horton watched starter Bob Gibson warm up, he couldn’t help thinking back to that day in Florida and whether the Cardinals’ ace was about to give him a hard time all over again.
Anybody who had picked up a bat that year could have identified with Horton’s trepidation. It had been a season that would be forever known as the “ Year of the Pitcher,” a time when hitting streaks were usually measured in days rather than weeks. Early on in ’68, Jim “Catfish” Hunter of the Oakland Athletics pitched a perfect game, the first tossed in the American League regular season in forty-six years. Meanwhile, in the senior circuit, two no-hitters were thrown on back-to-back days in the same ballpark for the first time in major-league history. Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers kept the opposition off the scoreboard for a record 58 2/3 innings, while Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians held hitters to a paltry .168 average. Both were new standards. In every ballpark across the country hitters, even the best in the game, struggled. Carl Yastrezemski of the Boston Red Sox, the previous season’s Triple Crown winner, hit just .301 for the year, but that was enough to win the batting title in the American League. In fact, the junior circuit’s collective slugging average of .340 stood as the lowest since 1915 and the dead-ball era.