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      Baseball Books Reviewed: Swinging '73

      By Andrew O'Toole

      When I was offered the opportunity to review a book on the 1973 baseball season my first reaction was, “Should be lots of Tug McGraw; I’m in.”

      In Mathew Silverman’s Swinging ’73: Baseball’s Wildest Season, the reader gets McGraw and much more. On the surface the hardly memorable ’73 campaign is an unlikely subject for a full length book. Silverman, however, makes his material work for him. The beauty of a seemingly mundane season lies in its ordinariness and in Swinging ’73 we are introduced to a cast of irrepressible personalities, notable events, and memorable episodes.

      The season kicked off with a historic event of sorts when, on April 6, 1973 Ron Blomberg of the News York Yankees stepped to the plate. Blomberg’s at bat introduced the designated hitter and forever bastardized one league’s version of the game.

      And the regular season ended with a bittersweet goodbye to the original Yankee Stadium. The house that the Babe built would be restructured but the finished project would be lacking the enchantment of the ball yard that played home to Ruth, Gehrig, and those countless Yankee heroes through the years. Tradition was going by the way-side as the game’s landscape had become dotted with indistinguishable concrete bowls and old ballparks went the way of the wrecking ball.

      The game wasn’t all nondescript stadia and plastic grass, however. With characters like the two Charlie O’s, (one a charming ass, the other simply an ass) baseball was never dull. Charlie O Finley, owner of the champion Oakland A’s, and his mule, which Finley named “Charley O,” made a striking couple. Many observers believed Finley treated the mule better than he did his players. Charlie O (the mule) was given his own press conferences, uniform, and hotel room. On at least one occasion Finley brought an especially gaseous Charlie O into the press room to visit members of the media. For all his eccentricities, Finley did have an astute knack for gathering baseball talent. In the summer of 1973 the A’s were on the way to their second of three consecutive World Series victories. The A’s, with a roster full of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers including Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue, battled one another as often as their opponents. In fact the one thing that united the Oakland A’s was their dislike of Charlie Finley. The A’s were colorful off the field and on. Fittingly, their uniforms were as bold and outlandish as their owner. In an era of brash jerseys, Finley decked his A’s out in the most garish ensemble in the big leagues. White pants topped with a gold, Kelly green, or white jersey. Each day Oakland players arrived at their locker to find that game’s combination, selected by Finley, laid out for them.

      In the Bronx, where pinstriped conservatism reigned supreme, the Yankees were closing in on a decade out of contention and out of the postseason. The “Horace Clarke Era” was coming to a close and change was afoot in New York. CBS bought controlling interest in the Yankees following the 1964 season (which not coincidently marked the beginning of the Horace Clarke Era) and by 1973 the communications company was looking to get out of the baseball business. CBS found a willing buyer in a shipbuilder from Cleveland, George Steinbrenner III.  Though he entered the business with the promise of being a hands-off owner, Steinbrenner’s rookie season as Yankee owner gave notice to the autocratic regime to come.

      The arrival of Steinbrenner may have been the most historically significant event of the Yankees season, but the most titillating was certainly The Trade; the first time in major league history players exchanged families. It was the swinging seventies indeed., But even those hardened by the stunning truths found in the pages of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four were shocked at the reports of ball players trading spouses. News that Yankee pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped wives broke in spring training and immediately tongues began wagging. The biggest deal of the year went beyond wives and included kids, homes, furniture, and family pets. As could be expected, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn feared for the sanctity of our National Pastime. Kuhn, the living embodiment of a stuffed shirt, admitted that he was “appalled” at the transaction. The Commissioner’s revulsion didn’t slow the voyeurism, however.

      Across town the Mets were entertaining their fans in an entirely different manner

      At the mid-way part of the season M Donald Grant’s club was floundering in mediocrity, 12 ½ games out of first place. Grant, the owner of The New York Met’s gathered his players in their clubhouse and began an extemporaneous speech. In the midst of a rambling, uninspiring, motivational speech, Grant spoke the words that sparked Tug McGraw.

      “We believe in you,” Grant assured his last place club, and which point McGraw leapt from his locker stool and bounced around the clubhouse grabbing his teammates. “Ya Gotta Believe!” McGraw declared.

      Thus a catchphrase was born. The stagnant Mets began to turn their play around and whenever good fortune found the team, McGraw cried out, “Ya Gotta Believe!”

      McGraw’s effective work out of the bullpen was but one component of a dramatic Mets turnaround. Tom Terrific certainly played apart, as did Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman among others. Though much joy that can be found in the ’73 edition of the New York Mets, there was also the sad denouement of Willie Mays. The brilliant career of Mays was coming to an end one year too late. But while the once graceful Mays hobbled and stumbled his way around the diamond, the Mets came oh so close to winning it all. In the end, of course, the Mets fell just shy of their objective, losing the World Series in the seven games to Finley’s A’s.

      Throughout the book Silverman provides a sprinkling of cultural touchstones that permeated 1973 America. Vietnam, the Watergate hearings, and Roe v Wade, vital moments in our history, indeed But we are also reminded of Maude, Billie Jean King, and Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, passed out on animal tranquilizers and brandy.

      Swinging ’73
      is entertaining, irreverent, and fun. The book takes nothing serious, yet is serious as hell. It is only a game but it is our game, our memories, our lives… “Ya Gotta Believe!”
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