What I’m Reading: “The Year of the Pitcher” by Sridhar Pappu

In The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age, author Sridhar Pappu seeks to put the 1968 baseball season in the larger context of political and societal turmoil embroiling the nation.

While I always appreciate it when baseball books place the events taking place on the field in a larger context, in this instance it felt forced. At times it feels as though Pappu is actually writing two different books – one about Gibson, McLain, and the 1968 Cardinals and Tigers, and another about Jackie Robinson, his post-baseball career, and the way it intersected with the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to the events taking place on the field, Pappu focuses primarily upon Gibson and McLain. The book is well researched, and Pappu clearly lays out the vast personality differences between the two star hurlers, though he doesn’t dive too deeply into the biographies of either player. Instead, he seeks to tell a variety of stories, focusing primarily upon Gibson’s smoldering personality, McLain’s refusal to follow either the Tigers’ or society’s rules, Robinson’s role as a national figure and civil rights leader in the late ‘60s, and Johnny Sain’s masterful skill as a mentor for generations of pitchers.

At times, as Pappu jumped between these stories, it became difficult to follow the chronology. Sometimes he jumped ahead to an event that took place after the ’68 season, then leapt back to events that took place that summer. More importantly, Pappu struggled to tie Robinson’s presidential campaigning to the remainder of the book.

Large portions of the book detail Robinson’s post-baseball life and his relationships with Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and Kennedy. It’s interesting content, but the only way it ties into the rest of the book lays in the fact that Hoover and Robinson attended one of the World Series games together. Gibson and McLain’s interest in the politics of the day is never laid out, and Pappu doesn’t really never ties any of the other players to these events either.

As a result, the book feels a bit unfocused and never seems to find a narrative flow.

Nonetheless, Pappu shares some interesting scenes, including Gibson and McLain appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show after the season and Gibson’s appearance on a show called Gentle Ben. Some of my other favorite anecdotes include:

  • Gibson’s Creighton University baseball coach Bill Fitch notes that there was a “fire burning” in Gibson, and “there’s dynamite there if you roll it the wrong way.”
  • Pappu backs up Gibson’s longstanding contention that he wasn’t a headhunter, pointing out that Gibson hit 102 batters over his 17-year career for an average of one every 157.5 batters. By comparison, Don Drysdale hit one out of every 91.5 batters.

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