For Americans older than 55, it might seem like the 1960s all over again. That was a time of political awakening, excitement, tragedy and polarization. The baby boomer generation was coming to maturity, and it was not content to just let things continue as they had in the staid, placid 1950s of their parents. It was a time of change. I still believe that in my lifetime, 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in United States history. Donald Trump lovers and bashers cannot hold a candle to what happened that year — or during the entire decade of the 1960s, for that matter.
Major league baseball felt the effects of these seismic changes in American culture, too. And in One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided With the National Pastime, (University of Nebraska Press; hardback; $29.95; 222 pages), authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro provide a readable, fast-paced primer of the 1960s.
Baseball is the backdrop, and there are plenty of stories about the national pastime. But the authors expand their scope to include subjects like Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Beatles, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and racial unrest in the country’s urban areas. Other sports mentioned include boxing and the Olympics.
This book is more radical than most in its approach, at least from a formal standpoint. There is no table of contents and no index. The authors note at the outset that their work relies on first-person interviews and archival materials. When quoting from the 59 interviews they conducted, the authors omit attribution. They add that when using secondary sources like books and newspaper accounts, “we’ve provided attribution within the narrative.” It’s almost a 1960s-like “up yours” to the publishing business, radical but fresh.
Still, there is a substantial bibliography that has a wonderful cross-section of opinion. It is not skewed toward liberal or conservative thought, but provides an excellent balance.
The book opens with pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant receiving an invitation to have breakfast with presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in Detroit during the 1960 campaign. It continues with Jackie Robinson’s perceptions of Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, and a sit-in at Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta that included King.
It continues through the decade, addressing many of the social issues that also confronted baseball — segregated living facilities during spring training, which was prevalent in Florida cities. Contract disputes, the locker-room writings of pitchers Jim Brosnan (The Long Season) and Jim Bouton (Ball Four), and the double holdout of Dodgers teammates Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
But it all came back to racial tensions and hatred. “America was coming to grips with a new wave of hatred,” the authors write. Florio and Shapiro discuss the race riots in Philadelphia in late August 1964 and the Phillies’ subsequent collapse, and the 1965 fight between Richie Allen and Frank Thomas that assumed ugly racial overtones.
There is lots of good baseball that gets mentioned in this book, too. The Tigers’ comeback victory in the 1968 World Series and the New York Mets’ “miracle” the following season are dutifully chronicled. The book ends with Curt Flood’s lawsuit against baseball’s reserve clause and Muhammad Ali having his draft evasion conviction overturned.
Florio and Shapiro selected some very interesting stories to tell, and they tell them well. There is not much nuts-and-bolts sportswriting in this work, but the authors’ ability to place baseball in the context of the 1960s makes this a compelling read.