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Wednesday, April 11,2012

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Two authors of baseball books come to town on the same night

by Bill Castanier
In 2010, President Obama threw out the first pitch of the baseball season in recognition of the 100th anniversary of President William Howard Taft’s first toss.

Mark Twain once umpired a baseball game. Earvin Magic Johnson and a group of investors are willing to pony up $2 billion for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Detroit Tigers celebrated opening weekend of the 2012 season by pummeling the Boston Red Sox with two walk-off hits and a 3-0 record. Fans are already speculating about a World Series appearance. 

That’s why baseball is called America’s pastime. It’s hard to imagine an American president kicking the first soccer ball.

Two noted baseball authors, Peter Morris and Tim Wendel, will be in Lansing next week to discuss why the game of baseball seems larger than life. Unfortunately, you will have to make a “fielder’s choice” since they are scheduled to speak at the same time in different locations. 

Morris talks about the sport’s influence on American culture for the Historical Society of Greater Lansing at 7 p.m. April 19 at the Capital Area District Library in downtown Lansing.

In addition to making the case that baseball is the national pastime, he will provide an overview of early baseball in Lansing and its continuing presence. Morris has written “A Game of Inches,” “Catcher,” “Level Playing Fields” and “Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan.” He recently published the electronic book “Don’t Kill the Umpire” about the history of violence in the sport.

Wendel, author of “Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball — and America — Forever,” will talk about the impact the 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers had on the game and on the nation. He appears at 7 p.m. April 19 at the Eastwood Towne Center location of Schuler Books & Music. Wendel’s book serves as a testament to a team that is credited with holding a city together and giving its residents something to cheer about after the devastating 1967 riots.

The book also gives a game-by-game analysis of the iconic 1968 World Series and in-depth profiles of its larger-than-life players, such as the Vegas entertainer and 31-game-winner Denny McLain and St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson, who was deeply disturbed by the death of Martin Luther King but still managed to put together a season for the ages by “playing like a man on fire,” according to Wendel.

Wendel said the Cardinals and the Tigers were very different teams: “The St. Louis Cardinals looked like they stepped right out of Gentleman’s Quarterly, while the Tigers looked like they had just come from the bar. They came from very different backgrounds, but when the time came they both closed ranks.”

Wendell also makes the case that the 1968 series represented the last pure games of baseball in a time before league playoffs and wild-card spots. 

“It was the best team from the American League and the best team from the National League — period,” Wendel said.

The series also saw pitchers who still retain records that may never be broken, such as Gibson’s single season earned run average of 1.12 and Denny McLain’s 31-7 season record. After the ‘68 season, Wendel said baseball recognized that the “pitchers were too good” and lowered the mound and shrunk the strike zone to accommodate batters.

His book also reinforces the popular idea that the Tigers pulled the city of Detroit together. He recalls in the book how Tiger and Detroiter Willie Horton, following a game on the night the riots started, went into the city to help quell the disturbance, at great risk to his own safety.

Contrast that with teammate Mickey Lolich, whose National Guard unit was called in to patrol the streets.

Morris concurs that baseball has always been intertwined with the fabric of America.

“Baseball has taken on the mantel of the national pastime and the American character,” he said. “That’s why issues like the color barrier, steroids, the baseball strike and teams leaving hometowns were seen as a great betrayal by society.

“That’s why baseball and teams like the ‘68 Tigers played such a hallowed role in living up to the billing of the national pastime.”

Morris said sometimes we forget how much baseball shaped America. He cites baseball terms such as “level playing field,” “fair and square” and “not coming out of left field” that have crept into our language.

Wendel said he was inspired to write the book on the ’68 Tigers while channel-surfing and watching the talking heads yell at each other.

“I wanted to go back in history and find as difficult of time to write about and I was captivated by the 1968 season.”

Wendel also found an unlikely source for baseball love in Royal Oak native and counterculture activist Tom Hayden, who spent the summer of 1968 planning disruptive demonstrations.

Hayden provides a wonderful contrast to the typical baseball analyst or expert. Here’s a 1960s activist who seemingly reviles everything traditional but, having grown up as a high school friend of Tiger catcher Bill Freehan, finds himself on the outside looking in as the Tigers enter a singular and remarkable time in baseball history.

Today, Hayden, 71, plays baseball nearly every day in a California league. 

Wendel said baseball “has always cut against all neighborhoods.”

Morris agrees, adding that “baseball’s core values and its promise and betrayals have always shaped America at all levels.”

Peter Morris

Author of "Donīt Kill the Umpire"

7 p.m. Thursday, April 19

Capital Area District Library

401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing

Free

(517) 367-6308


Tim Wendel

Author of “Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball — and America — Forever,”

7 p.m. Thursday, April 19

Sculer Books & Music

2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing

Free

(517) 316-7495

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