Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball — and America — Forever
- Tim Wendel
- Da Capo
- Reviewed by David L. Robbins
- April 30, 2012
A sports writer takes a swing at illuminating baseball’s place amid the culture, history and violence of one of our nation’s most turbulent summers.
Reviewed by David L. Robbins
I’m a lifelong baseball fan.
I have bona fides. At the drop of a cap I can tell you the greats I’ve seen play, the memorable games I’ve watched, the heroes I’ve imitated and admired as both boy and man. I have stats at my fingertips to measure my favorite players and argue against yours. I’ve explained this game I love to girls, even taught one to keep score. I have defended baseball against those who say it’s too dull, the players too fat, the games too long. As a youngster, I fell asleep in front of the window a/c unit to Curt Gowdy’s drone on TV and Vince Scully’s on radio. I could go on. All baseball fans go on.
Which brings me to Tim Wendel’s book, Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball — and America — Forever. I don’t know exactly what it’s about, but it’s not baseball, and it’s not the politics of 1968. There’s baseball here, though not enough and not for its own sake. There’s recent American history, too, but with far too little depth and analysis. Wendel set out to link our national pastime to the zeitgeist of our most troubled post-war 20th century year. By conflating the two, he apparently hoped to unveil some deeper point — but this is how he misses the point. Baseball is the opposite of news; it resists comparison to anything but itself. It is America’s traditional refuge, our longstanding island separate from national troubles.
Wendel had good material to work with. The summer of ‘68 was crazy, bloody and riotous. A sea change of sentiment swept the country’s support away from Vietnam. Martin and Bobby were shot. People took to the streets, especially in D.C., Baltimore and Chicago. Only the year before, Detroit was put to the torch. On the diamonds, many titans of the game played in their primes, including Killebrew, Flood, Bench, Brooksy, Aaron. Record-setting pitching was the order of the day on the arms of Drysdale, Tiant, McLain and, the fiercest of them all, Gibson.
Summer of ‘68 is a thin volume. Even so, it runs out of gas long before it turns to epilogues and indexes after 200 pages. Reading it was like watching a big first baseman try to leg out a triple. By the time he reaches third, he’s meat. Had Wendel done what the players did and shut out the troubles beyond the stadiums, Summer of ‘68 might have been a pitch right down the middle for baseball as safe harbor, as poultice. Instead, Wendel pieced together a balky story of too many different textures — sports, culture, history, violence — that defied combination. The stitches are too prominent, the thing won’t fly straight.
Wendel is not an historian. His portrayals of the trials of ‘68 (assassinations, war, roiled race relations) look derivative; his depictions are clearly cribbed from other published works. He’s not a philosopher, either. His swings at establishing a nexus between baseball and culture meander, come off as quotidian. There’s not one revelation or original thought to be had, except for the prologue where he waxes over his own affection for baseball, as if he can tell any true fans something they don’t know about loving the game. He can’t.
What Wendel is, obviously, is a sports writer. He’s practiced at recounting a game in the hours after it’s concluded. But the games in this book have been over for four-and-a-half decades. They’re no longer fresh but famous. To interest informed readers (a/k/a fans), you’d better have something new to say. Wendel adds nothing to the canon or understanding of the contests and bloodletting of ‘68 — unless dull anecdotes of hitters staring at pitchers after striking out or which player refused to play the day after Bobby Kennedy’s murder interests you.
In the book’s early innings, it becomes clear what Wendel’s greatest error is: he uses too many bland quotes from athletes. Professional athletes are rarely quotable; the physical demands of mastering their games frequently distract them from eloquence (Yogi notwithstanding) — their performances may be riveting, their observations commonly are not. One look at the Notes clarifies. Wendel relied almost exclusively on previous works written by or about these athletes. He conducted few personal interviews, and so could not direct the flow and quality of the responses.
Quote after quote slumps, such as Bob Gibson on Frank Howard, “He wasn’t a good hitter in the way that the really good hitters were,” and Frank Howard on the mood of America, “My goodness, you think of all the crap that was happening.” Or Catfish Hunter on his relief at getting the final out of his perfect game: “That boy kept on fouling off everything I threw up there. I sure was glad to see him strike out.”
Wendel himself puts the wood on very few phrases. He’s likely a fine journalist; however, his reportorial prose lacks the velocity and movement a full-length book requires to engage readers beyond the material. His control is off, too: the story’s timeline is difficult to follow, curving from spring to September, back to August, then to April. The wide cast of characters checks in and out abruptly, giving few the chance to perform well. The story loses momentum every time Wendel looks away from the game to national events or — oddly — other sports, even movies. I tapped my fingers waiting for baseball to reappear. Worse, he injects himself as a first-person narrator into random spots, knocking the reader out of the box. We don’t know Wendel — he’s the author, not the story. He needs to stay in the stands.
Summer of ‘68 just doesn’t have starter’s stuff.
David L. Robbins began his a career as a freelance writer in 1981. He started writing fiction in 1997 and has since authored nine novels. Robbins stays active with his sailboat, sporting clays, weightlifting, and travel to research his novels. He is the founder of the James River Writers, a non-profit group in his hometown of Richmond, Va. that helps aspiring writers and students work and learn together as a writing community, and co-founder of The Podium Foundation(thepodiumfoundation.org), working with public school teachers and students to support creative expression.