At the heart of the story of America is the tale of a mixture of people – different, but the same – thrown together in pursuit of a better life. These people may come from different nations far ashore, varying backgrounds, disparate neighborhoods, different religions and races. But at the core they are seeking the same things: freedom and opportunity. Being an American is a special experience, at times wonderful and rewarding, but often agonizing and difficult.
In his latest book, Summer of ’68: The Season When Baseball and America Changed Forever, Tim Wendel focuses his lens on a particularly difficult but moving period in American history: the summer of 1968. Set on a backdrop of one of the most remarkable baseball seasons in the history of the sport, Wendel’s book succeeds in showing how transformative the events of that period were.
1968 was a time when assassinations rocked the country just a year after rioters took to the streets, when cities burned, when the city of Detroit had a curfew that cleared the streets by 9 PM. There was also a newspaper strike in Detroit, which meant that the presses were silent as the Tiger ballclub roared to one of the greatest seasons in team history.
That magical season in Detroit culminated in a World Series triumph that was as unsurprising to some as it was unlikely to a sea of others. Inside the Tiger clubhouse, the American League champs were confident.
“We knew we were underdogs,” star Al Kaline recalls. “But we were a good ballclub – in every way a team could be good – we could hit, run, field, pitch.”
But the St. Louis Cardinals and their ace pitcher Bob Gibson – he of the greatest season anyone had seen in a generation or more – were also confident, perhaps even cocky.
“We honestly thought we’d handle the Tigers pretty easily,” Lou Brock recalled years later. “Why not? We felt the National League was the better league and we were the champions.”
But the Tigers won a thrilling seven-game Series, of course, marked by the gritty performance of Mickey Lolich, an everyman hero who took the ball three times and went the distance three times, defeating Gibson in the process. But you’ll find when reading this book that you look forward to the sections that are not about baseball: those parts that delve into the personal stories of those caught up in the historic summer.
The Summer of ’68 reminds us how human each of the principal characters in that season were. Willie Horton, who grew up in Detroit, took to the streets to plead with rioters to stand down and go home. Lolich patrolled the streets of the city as a member of the National Guard. On the Cardinals, white players like Tim McCarver teamed with black stars Gibson and Brock and Latino stars Orlando Cepeda and Julian Javier to form a diverse but united unit. The Tigers knew cohesiveness was critical too.
“We learned that if we could pull together as a team — that meant everybody, blacks and whites — perhaps we could set an example for the rest of city. There was a lot more riding on that ’68 season for us, for the city, than just wins and losses,” Horton said.
Wendel interviewed nearly every living member of the Tigers and Cardinals teams of ’68, finding stories that will both suprise and inspire.
Wendel’s book isn’t a recitation of the Tiger season and a classic World Series, though he shares stories you probably have never heard about those topics. No, his book illuminates events and news that grabbed headlines in 1968 and in many ways still shape America today. No other book to date so poignantly tells the history of that year and the city of Detroit as does Summer of ’68. And for that reason, Wendel’s book isn’t just a must-read for every orange-blooded Tigers fan, it’s a must-read for every red-white-and-blue blooded American.