Just finished reading “Summer of ’68,” Tim Wendel’s retelling of the 1968 baseball season intertwined with the horrific series of events that happened while I was learning how to crawl: Assassinations of MLK & RFK, Vietnam War, racial riots in American cities, riots at the Democratic Convention, pretty much riots everywhere.
I much prefer nonfiction over fiction when I get a chance to read anything longer than the back of a cereal box. Here are some fascinating snippets I learned in the book:
1. The 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers were credited with preventing their city from burning down that year.
Slugger Willie Horton, not to be confused with the furloughed convict who brought down the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign, put his life on the line to keep peace in the streets. After a July 1967 night game at Tiger Stadium against the Yankees, Horton climbed up on the roof of his car (still in his baseball uniform) and pleaded with a crowd of rioters in his childhood neighborhood to go home and chill out. The rioters recognized Horton — and presumably respected him because he was not hurt — but they were not in the mood to listen to speeches.
Days later, the U.S. Army and National Guard was sent in to quell the violence. There is now a Willie Horton Day (October 18) in the state of Michigan. According to Wendell, many police officials credited the Tigers for providing a positive distraction that united the city that year, keeping things relatively “quiet” compared to 1967. Unfortunately for Detroit, the city returned to full flammability once the confetti was cleaned up.
2. Some Major League Baseball stars refused to play the day after U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The Pirates’ Maury Wills — then the game’s best base stealer of all time — and Astros slugger Rusty Staub — refused to play in the Pittsburgh-Houston game the day after RFK was shot. They thought all of baseball should have had a day of silence in his memory. Wills stayed in the locker room and read Kennedy’s book “To Seek a Newer World” in protest. Staub was fined a day’s pay by his team. In Cincinnati, star pitcher Milt Pappas tried to convince the Reds to sit out their game but was overruled. After causing a stink with Reds’ management over the issue, Pappas was traded three days later.
3. Some of the Tigers who avoided military service in Vietnam had to patrol the streets of Detroit with the Michigan National Guard during the season.
Mickey Lolich, the MVP of the 1968 World Series for winning three complete game starts, was in a National Guard Reserves unit and sometimes needed to trade in his baseball uniform for fatigues during some of the deadliest riots. Not sure what he thought was so funny in this picture.
4. RFK’s assassin was captured by an ex-NFL defensive tackle and a skinny sportswriter.
I had only heard of Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier as the former Los Angeles Ram who wrote a knitting book for men. Turns out that he was a bodyguard for the 1968 Kennedy campaign and wound up tackling assassin Sirhan Sirhan and taking control of his gun. Author George Plimpton, who a few years earlier had written “Paper Lion” about what it’s like for a regular guy to try out for the Detroit Lions, also helped bring the killer down. Plimpton and RFK were college buddies. I’m sure this news was common knowledge to anyone paying attention at the time, but I was still focused on stuffed animals.
If you’re a baseball fan and a history fan, get your hands on this book. Wendell makes you feel like you were there.