1968 was a fascinating and turbulent year in America, rocked by assassinations, protests, and riots. Baseball, though frequently cited as a respite from the violence and fear, was also in the midst of a sea-change and was not so far removed from the outside world. The 1968 World Series was at the precipice of all these changes. It was the last so-called “true” World Series, where the two teams earned their way into the series by winning their league’s pennant. The next year divisional playoffs came into effect. Labor trouble was on the horizon in 1968. Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood was about to kickstart a revolution by refusing an off-season trade and demanding free agency. His case would make its way to the Supreme Court. 1968 was also the Year of the Pitcher, as hurlers took full advantage of the 15-inch mound and batting averages and run totals plummeted. The star pitchers of that year’s World Series teams had the most conspicuous success. Bob Gibson of the Cardinals put up a breathtaking 1.12 ERA while Detroit’s Denny McLain won 31 games. The mound was lowered to 10-inches in 1969.
For hard-core baseball fans, the series lingers in public memory for several reasons. In Game 1 Bob Gibson set a record which still stands by striking out 17 batters. The Tigers made an unbelievably risky tactical decision by moving their star centerfielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop for the World Series. Before Game 5 in Detroit singer Jose Feliciano’s slow, soulful version of the National Anthem attracted boos and angry phone calls from the television audience. Al Kaline, Detroit’s Hall of Fame outfielder, had 13 hits in the only World Series appearance of his legendary career. Lou Brock of the Cardinals stole seven bases but was also thrown out at home plate at a pivotal moment.
The Series unfolds in an oral history largely told by the players themselves, with occasional interjections from broadcasters, umpires, and fans. There are sporadic digressions into topics like nicknames, nerves, and their own memories of watching the World Series as young fans. The players are a mixed bag. Some of their memories aren’t as sharp as you’d like and you can tell that many of them are exaggerating their stories and inflating their own roles. Author Brendan Donley does a pretty good job using juxtaposition to undercut some of this. He’ll put several different versions of the same event back to back, highlighting the unreliability of the narrators.
I was dreading the usual “back in my day” stuff from these old-timers, but they quite often surprised me. Sure, some of them think things were better back then, but enough of them are honest enough to concede that some things have improved. Mickey Stanley regrets that he didn’t have as much information as today’s hitters. Several of the pitchers wish they had known more about conditioning. They certainly all wish they’d gotten paid the way players do today, though they don’t seem bitter about it for the most part.
Spoiler alert for a sporting event that happened over fifty years ago coming up: Eventually the Tigers defeated the Cardinals in seven games, despite falling behind 3 games to 1 and having to face Bob Gibson in Game 7. The Tigers players claim with some satisfaction that their remarkable success gave all of Detroit something to cheer about after race riots tore the city apart. In an epilogue they talk about the bond that was established between all of them and how it has persisted over the many years since.
Though decidedly only for baseball superfans, this is a charming, breezy oral history about a pivotal moment in the history of America’s pastime.