My favorite son
A big kid and his dad talk baseball, Detroit and a new, Tigers-centric book
Review by Scott Harrison
The Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball
by Tim Wendel
Da Capo Press, $25, 304 pp.
Finally baseball is back. The Detroit Tigers will face the Boston Red Sox moneybags. Yeah, Ilitch spent a shitload on Prince Fielder but Boston and the New York Yankees are still baseball's spending kings (no salary cap).
It was quite different in 1968. Spending more than six figures on a player was huge money. Free agency wasn't even a dream until a few years later when Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals thought otherwise.
The Summer of '68 by Tim Wendel, which comes out on Opening Day, covers the gamut of baseball, social strife and mainly the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals. Heavier on stats (the key to baseball) than social climate, Wendel writes from a modern perspective, showing, for instance, how football took over as the most popular American sport. But he delves deeper into statistical analysis of 1968, the era remembered by the phrase "the year of the pitcher."
To this writer, Wendel's coverage of the '67 Detroit riots is up to snuff, but, as my dad points out, for Detroiters who lived through them, Wendel only touches the surface.
So after reading the book and while writing this review I felt too "young" to comment on the era because I was born in the '70s. So I asked my dad, George Harrison, to read the book and offer his insight on Detroit as the Tigers tried to reach the '68 pennant.
My pop's memories weave in and out of my comments on the book:
"Scott, you need to understand '68 was marked by much more than just great baseball and great pitching. 1968 was tense in the Detroit and in the lily-white suburbs. The riots of 1967 were fresh in the minds of anyone with a brain. I was 23 and will never forget driving eastbound on I-94 from Ypsilanti to my temporary home in Allen Park. After completing summer school classes at Eastern Michigan, I saw a caravan of Michigan National Guard vehicles and troop carriers headed to Detroit. The Governor had called up the Michigan National Guard. The riots were in full and people were afraid. And rightfully so, the sights and sounds — covered dramatically by the Detroit and national media — had everyone on edge. That fright and unrest was still alive as the 1968 season was to open up. Yet one of the most significant tragedies of the century delayed season openers across the major leagues — Martin Luther King Jr. was dead and the national recognition for his funeral set the stage for a season of mind-twisting events, on and off the diamond."
Wendel sources players and public figures from the era, both through his own interviews and outside quotes, and not in a dense way; his writing flows and it's an easy read. Wendel also talks Vietnam War stories with the infamous Tiger Denny McLain and others.
"The Vietnam War was a personal war if you were male in your 20s or 30s," my dad says. "Hell, it was personal if you were a teenager and your draft status or lottery number wasn't just right. If you were in that exposed age group, you had friends, relatives, drinking buddies or fraternity brothers who had been killed in that godforsaken war. The war gets personal too, when you have to report to Fort Wayne to your military physical and you proceed to spend the next five hours in your underpants with 400 other men. It's only the rare bird who wants to pass a physical that may mean your death. One of my happiest days was the day I flunked my physical because of severe shoulder injury and necessitated surgery."
One book highlight is the fantastic passages on the sights and sounds of the old Tiger Stadium, which can bring a smile and tear to any Tigers fan. I noted to my dad the times he took the family to several games in the 1980s. It's hard to forget the 35-5 start of the 1984 Tiger season, but Wendel notes, as does my dad, how the 1967 season into the 1968 for the Tigers was unforgettable.
"After reading Wendel's passage, Scott, the '67 season still bugs me (but the memories of going to the games are great; I went to more than 20-odd games in '68). In 1967, the Detroit Tigers lost the American League pennant on the last day of the season. It was a sad day. The Tigers were a good ball club. Detroit and all of Michigan could not wait for the 1968 season to begin. That was the Year of the Tiger, guaranteed to be special.
But going to a ballgame at the old, classic Tiger Stadium was always special to me. ...
Seats so close to field, the grass was so green and the aroma of the hot dogs and mustard are never forgotten. And getting to the old ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull was a field trip in awareness of the social outburst of '67. Traveling south on Trumbull after exiting from I-94 was a slow, slow drive. It wasn't possible to make that trip without contemplating the tragedies of the previous summer. The ruins left behind, homes, stores, restaurants, bars, just burned out. And the families, sitting on front porches or stoops, watching folks headed for the ballgame. ..."
Several times Wendel writes of that old baseball romance, like Ken Burns or Bob Costas, and then he nails what's best about the sport: it's a patient game, a social game, an intelligent game. It's also a family game.
"The Tigers clinched the pennant on Sept. 17, 1968," dad remembers. "Your mom and I were there. She had purchased two tickets as a birthday present and she just picked out any old date and what a game it turned out to be. Don Wert, No. 8, a slick-fielding, light-hitting third baseman drove in Al Kaline with the winning run. The place went crazy. Security personnel couldn't keep the fans off the field. The players ran for the dugouts, the stadium lights were dimmed and finally, the irrigation system was engaged! Folks had the greatest time. The strangest part was that, unless you went on the field, you didn't move. The fans just stayed in their seats to relish the thrill of having watched their Tigers win the American League pennant, the first in 23 years and they were going right to the World Series. It was the final pennant to be won, because the ensuing years saw the current format of wild cards, divisional playoffs and so forth. But, the night of Sept. 17 was still on. ... As your mom and I headed back to our car, parked in a family parking lot, I noticed this older woman and a younger boy walking in front of us. They both had rather large clunks of the green sod of Tiger Stadium draped over their shoulders! What a sight! Then, to my amazement, that 'older woman and younger boy' turned out to be your grandmother, 52, and your uncle, my 15-year-old younger brother! Didn't know they were going to game and I never did believe how they got the sod. ...
"Scott, you need to remember that baseball has changed. Baseball's no longer the National Pastime. Some fans say it's too slow, not quick enough. Football is a spectacle, the college game, followed by the National Football League and the grandeur of the Super Bowl. But, if you're a baseball fan and understand its nuances, it's tough to beat. I think Wendel is a baseball fan and he truly captured the grit and change of the 1968 season. A great season that became a precursor to significant changes in both baseball and our country."
Scott Harrison is an area musician and writer. His dad wasn't in the Beatles. Send comments to [email protected].