Baseball and the Fate of America A recent book looks at the intersection of baseball and 1968.

Baseball on the Brink: The Crisis of 1968

By William J. Ryczek (2017, McFarland) 247 pages including index, notes, and photos

    1. The Agony of the White Horse

 

Star Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle, voted three times the American League’s Most Valuable Player and considered by many the greatest ballplayer of the 1950s and early 1960s, hit just .237 in 1968, the lowest average of his career. He had 18 home runs and only 54 runs batted in, acceptable numbers for a shortstop with some power, not a Hall of Fame-bound player with over 500 career homers. The famed switch-hitter could not get around on fastballs anymore, not good ones for sure or even ones that were only decent; his legs, which were a constant source of pain throughout most of his career, could barely carry him around the bases. He limped like a man severely injured in a war. And the great Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb said baseball was war.  If so, he had become one of the walking wounded. A physical wreck on the field and an alcoholic away from it, Mantle could not help his team as he used to and baseball did not much matter to him anymore. It is that way with great players, great athletes; the end comes with a whimper, the fadeout is pathetic. They all overstay their welcome. In his prime, Latino players would have called him El Caballo, the horse, the man upon whose back the team rides.

Mantle wanted to quit after the 1965 season, when the Yankees finished 77-85, placing sixth in a ten-team American League, just a year after they played in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Yankees would not appear in a World Series again until 1976 against the Cincinnati Reds. Mantle hit only .255 in 1965 with 46 runs batted in, and 19 homers. He was nearly prostrate from shoulder pain. It was surprising he played as well as he did. He would have retired except Yankee general manager Ralph Houk talked him out of it. Mantle’s last year, 1968, marked the end of an era in major league baseball. As William J. Ryczek writes in Baseball on the Brink:

 

“Although Mantle was still the most dangerous hitter in a decidedly non-menacing Yankee lineup, that was not the main reason his fans (and the Yankees) wished he could play in 1969. Baseball was losing more than just a great player, for Mantle, in many ways, was the face of baseball in the 1950s and early 1960s, a sanitized product in baseball’s last innocent era. Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were outstanding players, but the face of baseball in the 1950s had to be a white face. Blacks were too new to major league baseball to define an era. They were symbols of tolerance, integration, and of a change in the game, but they were not symbolic of the game’s essence. Mantle was.” (183)

 

Perhaps it is more accurate to call Mantle El Caballo Blanco, the white horse. It would certainly be true that the public, the white public, was not ready or willing to accept a black player as the face of baseball and not simply because blacks were too new, although they were that. Twentieth-century integration of the major leagues occurred with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signing of Kansas City Monarch shortstop Jackie Robinson in 1945. He began playing for the Dodgers in 1947. By 1968, blacks had been playing in the majors for 20 years. (The Negro Leagues had existed longer than that.) They had become a significant presence, particularly in the National League where they were overrepresented among the truly elite players of the 1960s: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Jim Ray Hart, Jimmy Wynn, Dick Allen, Al Downing, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Maury Wills, Willie Stargell, to name a few. New York/San Francisco Giant center fielder Mays came as close as any black player of this period to being the face of baseball. He was almost certainly the most popular black player in the game, in part because he played a significant portion of his career in New York, in part because of his seemingly boyish personality. But Ryczek is right that Mantle represented a kind of white innocence (an oxymoron, indeed) that did sanitize the past. Of course, this was an innocence that came at whose expense? An innocence that remonstrated against what accusations? And what exactly was being sanitized?

By 1968, blacks had been playing in the majors for 20 years. (The Negro Leagues had existed longer than that.) They had become a significant presence, particularly in the National League where they were overrepresented among the truly elite players of the 1960s. 

By 1968, the African American had become a troubling and troublesome figure in the United States, the perpetrator of urban riots, an insistent political agitator, a chronic complainer, the un-American American, and even though the black ballplayer on the field was largely apolitical engaged in an apolitical activity, he still symbolized a social reality that existed beyond the sports stadium, just as the location of many major league stadiums in inner city areas at the time reminded the fans of a turmoil from which they wish to escape. The adoration of Mantle was certainly not unjustified as he was a great player;  I saw him strike out in a World Series game in the early 1960s  and thought it was more exciting than seeing any other player get a hit. It gave me goosebumps. But as his career progressed during the era of integration, civil rights, and urban uprisings, he became a form of white nostalgia. He became increasingly the legend of the Great White Horse, afflicted yet enduring. Nineteen sixty-eight, the last year of Mantle and the memory of the mighty New York Yankees of the Eisenhower administration, might be said to have ended at last the idea of white baseball, the tragic white hero. In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates would field a starting nine made up entirely of black and Latino players. Pittsburgh was by no means then or now a majority black city. During the 1970s, the percentage of African American major league players would be over 20 percent. The retirement of Mantle after 1968 signaled the end of something profound in baseball and American life. To paraphrase, major league baseball is white no longer and will never be white again. It took a long time for baseball than integrate than adding Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby to major league rosters in 1947. Maybe it took a long time for the public, the white public, to stop thinking in the back of their minds of black players as guest workers.

There is one other thing to note about Mantle in 1968. He was his team’s best hitter despite his unimpressive numbers, terrible numbers, really. How can that be? Well, it was 1968, the year of the pitcher.

 

 

  1. Why Baseball Survives in Spite of the People Who Run It

 

“If they think we’re stupid for playing this game, how stupid are they for watching us?”

—Outspoken Detroit pitcher Denny McLain criticizing the fans for the booing the team during a losing streak, 1968

 

What St. Louisans remember about 1968 was Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average (ERA), and his 13 shutouts. Only one pitcher in the 20th-century history of major league baseball threw more shutouts in a season: Pete Alexander of the 1916 Philadelphia Phillies who threw 16. Even the redoubtable lefthander Sandy Koufax, considered by many the greatest pitcher of post-World War II baseball history threw “only” 11 in 1963 for the Dodgers. Gibson’s 1968 ERA ranks as the third lowest in the 20th-century history of MLB. Naturally, he won the 1968 National League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award, the latter a rarity for a pitcher. St. Louisans also remember that the Cardinals played in the World Series that year against the Detroit Tigers, losing in 7 games when Gibson was out-pitched by a pudgy lefthander who worked in the off-season as a baker (he made $25,000 a year, good by working class standards at the time but hardly the income of a wealthy person)—Mickey Lolich.

Gibson did outpitch Detroit’s ace pitcher, organ-playing, Pepsi Cola addicted, smart-mouthed Denny McLain who won 31 games that season and had a 1.92 ERA. McLain too won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards in the American League. He achieved his feats despite taking 12 cortisone shots during the season for an ailing shoulder. Ironically, Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals was the last pitcher to win 30 games. He did this in 1934. No pitcher has done since McLain and, with the way pitchers are used now, no pitcher ever will again. Most starting pitcher today in five-man and even occasionally six-man rotations, get, at most, 34 starts a year which would mean that he would have to win virtually all of them, which is impossible, no matter how good he is. McLain pitched in a four-man rotation, common in baseball in the 1960s and before. And because there were no pitch-count limits as there today, a starting pitcher was expected to finish a game, if he was pitching effectively, no matter how many pitches he had to throw to do so. No pitcher will ever throw 13 shutouts in a season either and this is because starting pitchers so rarely finish games now because of the pitch-count limit and because the strategy for winning games is different now. Bring in fresh arms that can throw hard for short stints. Never let a starting pitcher “gut” it out to prove himself. The macho factor of the game has changed.

The other important thing to note about the World Series of 1968 is that it was the last time that the teams from each league that had the best regular season record were assured of going to the World Series. This is because there were no divisions in baseball and no playoffs. There were two, bloated ten-team leagues.

What McLain and Gibson did in 1968 was extraordinary but not so unusual:  lefty Sam McDowell had only a 15-14 record but a 1.81 ERA. Luis Tiant threw 9 shutouts for Cleveland and had a 1.60 ERA. Consider that Oakland’s Jim “Catfish” Hunter’s numbers of 13-13 and a 3.35 ERA were mediocre even he pitched a perfect game. (Such numbers for a pitcher today would earn him anywhere from $8 to $12 million a year.) As Ryczek notes, “During the season’s first 290 games, teams were held to three hits or fewer 40 times. Cleveland pitchers threw 12 shutouts in their first 36 games. By Mid-May, 32 major league pitchers had ERAs of less than 2.00. By late May, there had already been 22 1-0 games.” (33)  “There were 43 shutouts in the first 192 National League games … and that was far too many, almost double the 1967 total.” (36) Yastrzemski won the American League batting title hitting only .301. (Cincinnati’s Pete Rose the National League title with a more normal .335 average.) “Everyone had a theory to explain the mystery of the disappearing offense. Many blamed the slider. Willie Mays thought umpires had enlarged the strike zone. Brooks Robinson believed that pitching coaches were better than hitting coaches. Mets executive Johnny Murphy thought the shortage of runs was due to poor lighting and too many night games. Houston manager Harry Walker blamed Little League.” (34-35) Baseball offense was so weak that when the season ended, the club owners decided to reduce the height of the mount from 15 to 10 inches, to give pitchers less of an advantage. That seems to have helped as statistics in 1969 were more typical. For instance, Rose won the NL batting title again with a .348 average, while Minnesota’s Rod Carew won the AL batting title with a .332 average. San Francisco’s Juan Marichal won the NL ERA title with a 2.10 and Washington’s Dick Bosman won the AL title with a 2.19, both a run more than Gibson’s otherworldly ERA in 1968 and more in keeping with what title-winning ERA looks like.  Nonetheless, the American League decided to open the 1973 season with an innovation called the designated hitter who would hit in place of the pitcher, always the weakest hitter, by far, in any lineup. This was done to generate more offense. It succeeded. The National League never adopted this rule and so the pitcher continues to bat in that league’s games. Since the adoption of the DH, the American League teams generally score more runs than National League teams do.

The other important thing to note about the World Series of 1968 is that it was the last time that the teams from each league that had the best regular season record were assured of going to the World Series.  This is because there were no divisions in baseball and no playoffs. There were two, bloated ten-team leagues. In 1969, both leagues split into two six-team divisions, with the division winners playing each other for the right to go to the World Series. A most sensible business decision as now baseball had four pennant races instead of two and had the excitement of playoff games with their additional revenue. What was lost was the certainty that the team with the best regular season record would go to the World Series. This loss did not bother most fans, although most players believe that what a team does over a grueling 162 game season is the true test of its quality and not what it does in a 5-game or 7-game playoff. Baseball is truly the game about the “long game.”

Alas, all of this Inside Baseball stuff is not what made 1968 such a crucial year for the so-called National Pastime. Ryczek discusses how major league baseball responded to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Baseball commissioner William Eckert’s indecisiveness left the decision to play up to individual clubs which, in the case of the Kennedy, produced complete chaos, some clubs playing, others not, others delaying games on the day of RFK’s funeral. The growing racial consciousness of many black players was apparent as they were under increasing pressure from radical young blacks including those involved in 1968 Olympic Boycott movement to take a stand. In the case of King, black players made it clear that they would refuse to play games on April 9, the day of King’s funeral. But no games were played on the 8th either. The 1968 season did not start until the 10th. Ryczek writes: “Fan reaction to the postponements was mixed. Many agreed with the players that the games should be postponed out of respect. Others felt that King should not be treated like a head of state, and invoked the example of the NFL’s decision to play the weekend of Kennedy’s assassination. Still others viewed the situation from a practical point of view. Many ballparks, they pointed out, were in ghetto areas and might be subjected to violence if games were played.  It was also likely that there would be tension between black and white players if they were forced to make the individual choice of playing or defying a club order.” (89); Ryczek also relates how major league baseball used its influence to try to protect as many of its players as it could from being drafted and going to Vietnam—a few did, in fact, go.  Most importantly, he reports how baseball and the players responded to its time when the game seemed to many antique and out of touch with the youth of the day. “As the summer of 1968 played out its unique scenario, many baseball players who were the same age or the same race as the revolutionaries wondered how they fit into the American scene. Despite evangelist Billy Graham’s statement, ‘Athletes, you notice, don’t take drugs,’ some of them did. Players who gravitated toward team sports tended to be more conformist than those who didn’t, but the counter-culture was so pervasive that even ballplayers were affected. Most players had lived a sheltered existence, shielded by their talent, but reality was rapidly encroaching upon the world of baseball. If the young players melded with mainstream American youth, would they have a place in the atavistic world of baseball?” (94)

Baseball was enduring a generation of conflict: the young players were not the products of the Depression and World War II as many of their managers, coaches, and the owners were. They saw America differently, were less grateful that they were permitted to “play a game” as a way to make a living, were more conscious of being exploited by management, were less straitlaced about their appearance. In an age of non-conformity, they too were becoming non-conformists. After all, the two most famous professional athletes of the moment were boxer Muhammad Ali and quarterback Joe Namath, who were certainly not their father’s type of athlete.

Baseball was floundering in the presence of professional football which had become the preeminent spectator sport in the United States. The men who ran baseball, the team owners, were not very imaginative or innovative; they were, in fact, small-minded, obsessed with controlling their players’ salaries and careers, angry at any sign that players were “ungrateful,” and refused to understand the impact of the social changes swirling around the game. What they hoped is the game would simply withstand the tumult.  What they wanted was to continue to sell baseball as something innocent, as the hybrid of the patriotic grandeur of a national monument crossed with the affective purity of childhood. The falsity of baseball’s image was not merely an inconvenience but ultimately a trap of nostalgia: Baseball does not have a future; it only has a past. The tension between owners and players was symbolized by the players hiring Marvin Miller to be their union representative in 1966. Even before Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood decided to challenge the reserve clause that bound a player to a team for life when he refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1969 season, the militancy of the players was displayed during 1969 spring training when players went on strike because the owners would not increase their contribution to the players’ pension fund despite receiving considerably increased revenues from new television contracts. The owners eventually caved but this was simply the opening salvo in the baseball labor wars that afflicted the sport throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, as the owners relentlessly but unsuccessfully tried to break the players union.  Perhaps the 1968 season was a harbinger of the turmoil to come, the shape of things to come.

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