Books

book review

When pitchers ruled the earth

This is the autumn of shimmery reminiscences about Red Sox baseball in 1967, occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Impossible Dream team of Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, Tony Conigliaro, and the season that changed Boston forever. So it is somewhat incongruous to encounter yet another reminiscence from the same general era, this one at the inconvenient juncture of 49 years, but a season as remarkable, as memorable — and as transformative.

Nineteen sixty-eight looms large in historical memory for its assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the election of Richard M. Nixon, and the breathtaking year-end space flight of Apollo 8. All that plus the unforgettable heroics of a number of baseball pitchers, especially the Cardinals’s Bob Gibson and the Tigers’s Denny McLain, who led their teams to one of the most thrilling World Series ever.

New Englanders can be forgiven if they consider 1968 an afterthought. The rest of the world does not. Instead, let’s consider 1968 a bravura coda, a season never to be surpassed for its virtuoso performances on the mound. In that context, “The Year of the Pitcher,’’ by Sridhar Pappu, stands up and stands out, though baseball fans everywhere, accustomed to investing their hopes in next year, may quibble with the book’s subtitle, which declares 1968 “the End of Baseball’s Golden Age’’ (although it undeniably marked the end of the dominance of pitchers, who were required to throw from a mound five inches lower the following year).

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Consider: Five pitchers finished that year with ERAs below 2.0. Two, the Giants’s Gaylord Perry and the Cardinals’s Ray Washburn, pitched no-hitters on consecutive nights against each other’s teams. (Never happened before, or after.) Don Drysdale pitched 58 2/3 scoreless innings — surpassed only by Orel Hershiser in 1988. Catfish Hunter pitched a perfect game. (There’ve only been 14 in the nearly five decades since.) And that’s without mentioning the accomplishments of the pair at the heart of Pappu’s book: Gibson, who finished the year with a 1.12 ERA, and McLain, who won 31 games.

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Pappu tells his clear-eyed story chronologically, carefully situating the shifts of the season against the backdrop of historical events. His interests clearly tilt more toward the lives of real people than play-by-play or the propagation of myth.

Pappu forswears the temptation to say that Gibson and McLain and their seven-game Series distracted America from its woes. It did not. Their performances did not for a moment ease the hurt of the families of Vietnam dead or that caused by the twin assassinations, racial discrimination, or one of the closest presidential races in history.

Nor does Pappu argue that Gibson and McLain are protagonists representing America. As baseball stars, the two lived American dreams in 1968, but they didn’t represent the American Dream, or much else.

Gibson, the fearless pitcher and master of the slider, was a fan favorite but no clubhouse clown, nor even a soothing locker-room presence. “Being disagreeable,’’ Pappu tells us, “worked for him.’’ However, he “owned the frame to his own story’’ and “had become not only a complete pitcher but one capable of sustained greatness.’’

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McLain, meanwhile, was likewise no day at the beach. “Uncontrollable and bratty,’’ Pappu says. Also “petty and desperately immature.’’ The Detroit pitcher drank more than five dozen Pepsi Colas a week and was capable of spending hours on end at a craps table. He may have been a master on the mound, but at home he was a mess. Later he lost all his money, went to prison, threatened to cut off the ears of his wife and children, and earned his living at a 7-Eleven.

These Cardinals were but one edition in a great collection of St. Louis baseball teams, remarkable mostly for the presence of Gibson. These Tigers are remembered as the team that, in the wake of the city’s riots, saved Detroit — at least in the popular imagination. But Pappu deserves credit for not buying it. “This was not a city on the mend,’’ he writes, for white flight, municipal corruption, and racial tensions have persisted into the present.

One of the unintended but sweet assets of this volume is that it answers the lingering question, posed in movies and at sports bars, of the importance of those time-consuming conferences on the mound. Once, when catcher Tim McCarver approached Gibson for a consultation, the hurler hurled this:

“What the hell are you doing out here? Get the hell back behind the plate where you belong. The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it.’’

Of such gems is this book constructed. Seldom does an era, and do sports personalities, come alive so vividly, and so unforgettably.

THE YEAR OF THE PITCHER:

Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age

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By Sridhar Pappu

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 381 pp., illustrated, $28

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.