Many of us remember 1968 as one of the 20th century's most iconic and turbulent years: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; rioting, fires and looting in the streets, the nadir of the Vietnam quagmire and the rising tide of protests against it.
Our astronauts orbited the moon, a flare in the Cold War, and Olympic track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists during the national anthem, a flare against racism.
Against this backdrop, Sridhar Pappu chronicles the 1968 baseball season, focusing on the lives of Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals and Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers, two dominating pitchers who personified another milestone of 1968 — paradoxically one of the quietest years in baseball history, with an average fewer than 3.5 runs per game.
In "The Year of the Pitcher" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), Pappu — who write the "Male Animal" column for The New York Times — brings historical context and fine biographical narrative to baseball's place in society in 1968.
The game's executives blamed the deficit of swat on the height of the mound. Average run production had been about four per game throughout the '60s, but by '68, baseball was losing people's attention with the ascent of football, and its pastoral nature was in danger of seeming irrelevant in a world of burning trash cans.
To pump up interest in the game, the suits lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches for the 1969 season, hoping that by cutting down on the pitcher's trajectory batters would produce more hits and runs. That year, a line-up of nobodies except for a dominant pitching staff, the New York Mets, won the World Series, proof that no year lives in isolation and that no remedy is fixed.
Yet pundits tagged 1968 the year of the pitcher since average runs per game began inching up from that point.
Pappu pays great attention to society's larger story in context. At times, you forget you are reading about a baseball season with all the side trips and interpositions — kind of like an actual game with its time-outs, mound conferences and other delays. But that season was particularly thrilling as these key mound opponents led their teams to the World Series.
Gibson was so dominant, with a stare so withering that he intimidated batters even before he started his wind-up. He was known for being surly with the press and taut in his forbearance with fans, but Pappu delves into his life, starting with his fatherless childhood in the projects of Omaha, and introduces the reader to a man of valor and great emotional stamina.
McLain's gift was that of a prodigy. While Gibson was the model of a working man, McLain was soft-looking, self-indulgent and flaunted the rules. He was a flaming egotist, a self-promoter, preening in his desire to become rich, and yet Pappu delves and gives us an understanding of why Denny was Denny, from his youth in Chicago with strange parents and a great amount of emotional insecurity.
McLain's life would spiral out of control from the shady company he kept to the prison time he served for mistreating other people's money. But not before he set his own milestone, one that still stands. No one since McLain hsas won 31 games in a season, as he did in 1968. Bob Welch came the closest in 1990 with 27 wins for the Oakland A's.
The Tigers beat the Cardinals in seven games in 1968. Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich won all three of his starts, all complete games. McLain lost two of his three starts while Gibson won two of his three.
As someone who consumed 1968 in all its clamor and consequence, I enjoyed this great read in part for the nostalgia. It was also part oh my goodness how much I didn't understand at age 10, but it was familiar.The biggest reward was learning about Johnny Sain.
Before my time, he was part of a rhyme I had heard — "Spahn and Sain then pray for rain." Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain were the dynamic duo of the Boston Braves of the 1940s. Sain pitched four 20-game seasons, but his greatest gift was coaching pitchers. His pitchers loved him, but he ran afoul of management with unorthodox methods. He would bounce from team to team, hotly sought-after at first then gone in a few years. Jim Bouton, a former Yankees pitcher and author of the classic "Ball Four," called Sain the greatest pitching coach who ever lived. Sain was a reader, patient, empathetic and wise. He championed his pitchers. He understood them. He was able to rein McLain in and persuade him to listen to advice, apparently the height of his magic.
Sain died in 2006. McLain and Gibson are still with us. And so, in many ways, is 1968.