Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tim Wendel's "Summer of '68": Book Review

This narrative history examines America's "Great Confrontation". Not the murders of Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy or the Nixon-Humphrey campaign, but the Tigers-Cardinals contest that led to their showdown in the 1968 World Series. Tim Wendel, however, does not neglect the political and social upheaval that pivotal season.

He uses that background of national unrest to compare and contrast with Major League's Baseball's last competition when, all year long, the National League's best team fought against nine contenders and the American League's did against theirs. Before the rise of the Super Bowl's dominance, and football's replacement as the Great National Pastime, Wendel tells of the major leagues' final old-fashioned World Series. The teams that autumn would square off as the best of one league's brutal weeding-out process, before expansion changed--and weakened--a century's balance of teams.

Wendel had begun his own reporting career in the late 1960s. He tells the story of not only the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers with verve, in the familiar cadences found in sports journalism. While the details of most of this book will understandably appeal to baseball fans, the added angle of how teams and players faced unrest in their own cities, and how they contended with each other on teams as well as on the field against their rivals enriches this presentation. The Cardinals' Bob Gibson possessed an aloof demeanor and a ready scowl. These only deepened after the news of King's and Kennedy's deaths, and his rage channeled into his pitching. He tried to hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Don Drysdale. This season showed off amazing pitching against sluggish scoring.

Another rival on the pitching mound, Denny McLain for the Tigers, epitomized what Wendel characterizes as a frat-house attitude of that team, compared to a multi-ethnic, composed, fashion model ambiance for the Cardinals. McLain had to hold off Luis Tiant of the Cleveland Indians for his own success as a pitcher. While a few teams, such as the Indians, had not enjoyed a Series appearance since the popularity of television allowed games to be broadcast, the Tigers had their first chance in a generation to play before their fans who could watch them--on the air--compete for the championship.

Wendel wryly examines a debacle of the rising American Football League in a notorious gaffe late that year, when the film Heidi was aired at 7 p.m. and interrupted the climax of a Jets-Raiders match. He reminds readers how television brought images of riots along with the Summer Olympics, itself mired in demonstrations in Mexico City, where Black Power fists were raised and Mexican students fell. While the context of political change feels more muted than expected, given the perspective promised in this book, Wendel uses some interviews now and summary of back then to establish a brief feel for what happened that dramatic summer.

For instance, he returns to Detroit's depopulated neighborhoods blighted by an increasingly open cityscape. The gaps appear due to deserted and torn-down buildings. "It was sort of like viewing a film that breaks off time after time, revealing a giant blank screen where the image should be. We were literally moving through a landscape with built-in pauses, giving anybody plenty of room for reflection and, dare we say, regret." There, outfielder Willie Horton had risked his life trying to calm a riot in July of '67; meanwhile, pitcher Mickey Lolich had to report to his National Guard unit.

Out of such juxtapositions, Wendel demonstrates how the nation's tension infiltrated its storied sport.  Perhaps his subtitle dramatizes his moral, but he makes a telling point with one vignette. Old Tiger Stadium has been razed; a chain-link fence prevents anyone from pickup games on its site.

Baseball comprises, no surprise, nearly all the text. Wendel fits in asides that enliven the scene. Even those less enchanted by sports may appreciate his storytelling. Richard Nixon had dedicated San Francisco's notoriously windy Candlestick Park, telling The City it could call the field "the finest ballpark in America." Wendel adds: "It wouldn't be the last time Nixon stretched the truth."

A coda to this narrative follows the '68 Series, won to restore some dignity to riot-torn Detroit. Not only the Cardinals and Tigers earn credit, but such names as the New York Jets' Joe Namath, the Oakland A's Catfish Hunter, the Boston Celtics' Bill Russell, the NFL's Roone Arledge. Out of such a list, the future emerges: the rise of the NFL, the continuing careers of teams made by pitching, and the rivalries of basketball competing against those of baseball for many fans. Finally, Tom Hayden appears, as a Michigan radical who had little time in '68 for the Tigers, but grew up by the '80 to attend the Dodgers' fantasy camp. So ends Wendel's last comment on how now differs from then. (PopMatters 3-16-12 and Amazon US in shorter and altered form 6-29-12.)

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