Thursday, August 16, 2012
Talking ball with Tim Wendel and the Summer of ‘68Posted by Bruce Markusen
I find it difficult to read baseball books over the summer because there is just so much live baseball to be seen on TV. Still, I’m glad I took some time this summer to read Tim Wendel’s Summer of ‘68.
More than just a baseball book, Wendel’s work weaves the 1968 season into the greater context of American culture. A year of tragedy, it was lowlighted by two assassinations on American soil. The year became even more notable with the staging of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where both triumph and political controversy made international news.
Earlier this month, I posed a number of questions to Tim Wendel, who responded graciously with detailed answers. Here is our interview about Summer of ‘68:
Markusen: What motivated you to write about the year of 1968, not just as a baseball season but from the perspective of American news developments and the Olympic Games?
Wendel: I was channel-surfing one evening, going back and forth between the political talk shows, when it hit me: We don’t really listen to each other these days. There is very little that passes for dialogue or conversation anymore. Of course, the great thing about history is you can go back to a time when things were as bad or even worse, and 1968 was certainly worse.
The more I read about and talked with people about that year, I realized that the sports were played at an amazing level. I mean we had a great baseball season and the Olympics, the rise of football, the Boston Celtics, etc. Much of the way the sports world is today has its roots back in that era.
Markusen: What was the toughest area to research and write: the baseball developments or the real world events?
Wendel: With both areas, there was plenty of material. What I was looking for were intersections where sports and world events came together, even collided. That’s where guys like Tom Hayden and Larry Dierker proved to be invaluable. Here you have Dierker, then a young pitcher with the Houston Astros, watching the riots in Chicago from his hotel room window. Not only was he a witness to the event, but the event changed his life. He will tell you that it opened him up to really experiencing the world. In essence, it urged him to be more than a ballplayer.
Markusen: Did you watch a lot of videotape from the 1968 season in putting together this book?
Wendel: Yes, watching video of Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and so many others was great. It was incredible how fast they worked and with such purpose and determination. But I was also moved by the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, especially in early April 1968. In both cases, they spoke from the heart, with little or no notes, and a grateful nation listened. After the book came out, I did a story for American Scholar about those speeches, with links to the video of those speeches—http://theamericanscholar.org/king-kennedy-and-the-power-of-words/
Markusen: You interviewed many people for this book. Who provided the most insight?
Wendel: I already mentioned Hayden and Dierker. But ballplayers like Orlando Cepeda, Willie Horton, Gates Brown also immediately come to mind. All of them emphasized that in 1968 you couldn’t separate yourself from what was going on. At some point, the year, which was so tragic and tumultuous, simply broke your heart. The last question I often asked people was “How did you cope or how did you persevere through such a difficult time?” The answers were as varied as the characters in the Summer of ’68.
Markusen: Was there anyone that was particularly difficult to interview, or perhaps someone that eluded you altogether?
Wendel: Bob Gibson can be elusive. I had to send messages to him through his friends about particular situations. A key one was when he passed Dr. King in the old Atlanta airport early in 1968. They nodded at each other and kept going. Gibson confirmed the story for me and didn’t think much of it. He didn’t seem to think that King would know who he was. But then I met with Rev. Billy Kyles, who as member of King’s inner circle, in Memphis. Actually it was one of the last interviews I did for the Summer of ’68. Kyles said King certainly knew who Gibson was. The civil rights leader was closely following the pitcher’s career. That led to Kyles helping me put together a hypothetical situation, but I hope an intriguing one—what could have been said if Gibson and King did stop and talk that day in 1968?
Markusen: Baseball in 1968 was dominated by pitching, some would say to a dangerous extreme. How do you think fans today would react to that kind of baseball?
Wendel: Of course, everything in sports goes in cycles. The fans know that better than the powers that be sometimes. This was a golden age of pitching and so many things were rolled out (lowering the pitching mound, shrinking the strike zone) that were too drastic, in my opinion. As Jim Bouton of Ball Four fame told me, “Expansion was scheduled for the next season. That would have given the hitters more of a chance anyway.”
Markusen: Was the baseball of 1968, without divisions and a true pennant format, better than the game of today?
Wendel: Many of the guys who played in that period think so. It was a real test. Not only did you have to prove yourself over the long haul of the regular season and be the lone team from the NL or the AL to go directly to the Fall Classic. Then you had to rise to the occasion in a best-of-seven series.
Markusen: You write extensively about Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and Luis Tiant. Of those three pitchers, whom did you find the most interesting?
Wendel: They all had very different reactions to what was going on that season. Gibson somehow found a way to channel the anger he felt about what was going on around him (the assassinations, the riots) to put together an epic season (1.12 ERA). Tiant was just coming into his own, doing his best on a Cleveland Indians team that was missing too many pieces to win it all. What he learned that season paid off later for him with the Boston Red Sox. McLain embraced celebrity better than anybody in baseball since Babe Ruth. McLain burned the candle at both ends, but he made it work for him. You can’t argue with 31 victories.
Markusen: Were you surprised by the rivalry between McLain and teammate Mickey Lolich, with the resentment between them continuing until this day?
Wendel: Not really. It was really a big brother-little brother rivalry that many of us understand. It sure worked for the Tigers that season, though, especially in the postseason. McLain raised the bar and Lolich was determined to beat it. And he ultimately did with three complete-game victories in the World Series.
Markusen: The cover of the book features the famous Bill Freehan/Lou Brock play in Game Five. How did you come to that as the choice for the cover?
Wendel: We had a lot of discussions about the cover. We decided upon the Brock/Freehan image because it was somewhat confrontational, which fit the times, and players on both sides felt it was the turning point of the Series that year. Many felt that if Brock would have scored on that play in Game Five, the Cardinals would have clinched the Series. In fact, trying to throw Brock out on the basepaths became a rallying cry for the Tigers went they fell behind three games to one in the Series.
From there we had some fun with the background color and lettering. The title font is reminiscent of the old style concert posters from the time, kind of a cross between the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Markusen: How does the 1968 World Series stack up against the great World Series in history?
Wendel: I believe it remains one of the most captivating. It proved that nothing ever can be taken for granted. Here you had the St. Louis Cardinals, with a three-games-to-one advantage, and they let it slip away. The Tigers were just trying to show America they could play, and then they got on a roll with McLain and Lolich in games six and seven. In doing so, they held a riot-torn city together.
Markusen: If there is one “takeaway” that you would like your readers to emerge with after reading this book, what would it be?
Wendel: I hope it’s the realization that sports can be so important. Sports can rally communities, even when they’re being pulled apart at the seams. Detroit suffered the worst riots in this country since the Civil War in 1967. But a baseball team, of all institutions, helped them move ahead in 1968.
Ultimately, that year is a reminder that our nation has endured and been tested before. Sure, things are difficult now. But somehow we got through 1968. With that in mind, we can survive whatever we face now, too.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.