baseball on the brink

Reviewed by by Mark Noe, Pennsylvania College of Technology (Retired)

12 february 2019       archive

The '68 baseball season came at the heart of my youthful baseball fan years. I was full of the sport—the excitement, the chaos, the pitching-rich low-scoring ten-team league pennant races that finished in mid-September. (Not that I'd have thought about the latter points at the time.) So I'm the perfect sucker for a book like this by William J. Ryczek, the author of a number of fine baseball studies. This one pulled me right along as it revivified my memories of that season on the cusp of baseball change. Ryczek captures well the events of 1968 in baseball and in America and the world. So well, in fact, that he not only reminded an old guy of lots of baseball memories, but he also made that old guy rethink the historic events—baseball and otherwise—of that long-ago time.

It would be inaccurate to say that many of the changes coming to the game had their genesis in 1968. Ryczek makes it obvious, though, that the game bottomed out in many ways that year, speeding the changes that had been slowly building. He devotes chapters to pitching's dominance, to the fa├žade behind which players were hidden, to incompetence in the commissioner's office, to fragmentation among owners and the concomitant rise of the players' union. Other chapters focus beyond the game, though always in terms of effects on the game: war, race, politics—effects that forced those playing a game to acknowledge a greater and more serious context. Though McLain's 31 wins and Mantle's pending retirement and other star-level issues get their necessary share of ink, so do events involving the journeymen and the rookies and those who had no place in the spotlight. While some players made headlines as characters, others were pawns buried under headlines, as their reserve units were activated to deal with rioting across the nation, much of it in baseball towns. Of course, the misfortune of these players was fortunate, as they often had league or team assistance in getting into those reserve units rather than being drafted into the regular army and maybe shipped to Vietnam. A generational divide manifested itself around that time, too, separating players from team owners, players from coaching staffs, and even veteran players whose careers began in the 1940s and 1950s from younger players who entered the majors during the 1960s. This divide developed amid the background of those same international and national political and cultural phenomena. Professional baseball existed, Ryczek argues, in its own little world during the post-war years—even through the early 1960s—but it was unable to remain in that isolated realm after about 1965. By 1968, a new situation was fast on its way.

In Baseball on the Brink, Ryczek does not attempt to cover all these areas in depth. Making use of good research and a wealth of player interviews, however, he does capture the gist of the various issues, personalizing each sub-topic with the experiences of individual ballplayers I thought of as great men during that long-ago summer. (Among those he interviewed was an older Billy Cowan, but I got the young player's autograph beside the Cub dugout in Wrigley Field in '64, right before he went 0-6, including four strikeouts.) The fast-paced narrative provides a grounding in the era for any reader, and it whets the appetite of the reader who knew the year well, even if not as well as he had thought.

Ryczek, William J. Baseball on the Brink: The Crisis of 1968. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. 255pp, Illus.

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Noe

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