One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided with the National Pastime by John Florio & Ouisie Shapiro
Forward by Bob Costas , University of Nebraska Press, 2017 Review by Bob Mayberry
Half a century later, the seismic collision of baseball and the social/ political/cultural upheaval of the Sixties can still be felt in the ethnic composition of major league teams, MLB’s expansion into new cities, the strength of the Players Association, the way ballplayers look, and the way we think about them, their salaries, their agents and their private lives. Everything about baseball has changed since the Sixties and was changed because of the Sixties ... except the way the game itself is played.
Florio and Shapiro argue that baseball was profoundly altered by the various movements of the 1960s, and their evidence is persuasive. Though Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrated baseball in the Forties, throughout the Fifties most American League teams, and several National teams too, had strict quotas for the number of black players. Jim Crow laws in the South prevented black players from residing or eating with their white teammates during Spring Training. And Southern stadiums restricted where black fans could sit, what water fountains and toilet facilities they could use. By the end of the Sixties though, stadiums and teams were fully integrated, Jim Crow laws overturned, and baseball’s ignominious Reserve Clause was about to be voided for good. Baseball, in the words of authors Florio and Ouisie, “finally reflected the country in which it was played.”
How did all that happen? That’s the question One Nation Under Baseball strives to answer.
Throughout the Sixties, the Civil Rights Movement was the driving force of change in this country, and baseball was part of it. In 1963, Jackie Robinson flew to Birmingham, Alabama to lend support to Martin Luther King’s cause, after King’s home had been firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Black journalists called for “colored ballplayers of the Senators and Twins” (playing a scheduled series in the Capitol) to join the March on Washington in August, but no active players did. Jackie Robinson was there, but baseball’s Reserve Clause prevented any active players from attending.
In DC, King delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Two weeks later a federal court mandated the integration of Alabama’s public schools, prompting the KKK to dynamite the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls. In November, President Kennedy was assassinated. The country, Florio and Shapiro remind us, “was coming to grips with a new wave of hatred ... By 1963, America was more divided, more chaotic, and more traumatized than ever before. ... Something had to give.”
And give it did.
The whole culture did a somersault, with the youth counterculture bobbing to the surface at brand new Shea Stadium. The lovable Mets, who set a record for games lost while playing in the Polo Grounds during their first season, moved into their new digs, the hyper-modern Shea Stadium, in 1964. Though they lost 109 games, they outdrew their more famous and more successful cross-town rivals, the Yankees, by a half million fans. The Big Apple belonged to the Mets and their underdog-worshipping fans. The atmosphere in Shea resembled a block party more than a baseball game. Fans “showed up with tambourines, hoisted flags on fishing poles, hung banners, blew trumpets, and lit firecrackers.” It was “an age for zaniness,” as sportswriter Leonard Shecter put it.
In August of 1965, the collision between baseball and politics was thrown into high relief in Los Angeles as riots broke out in Watts, a black community twelve miles south of Dodger Stadium. South LA became a war zone, prompting city officials to order a curfew. Several Dodger players were unable to go home to their families in Watts.
Later that week, when the Dodgers traveled to San Francisco to play their rivals, the Giants, players were still on edge, including Dodger catcher John Roseboro, who had friends and family in Watts. Giant starter Juan Marichal, on the other hand, was troubled because he hadn’t been able to reach any of his family in the Dominican Republic, where civil war had broken out. Marichal threw knockdown pitches at several Dodgers. When Marichal came to bat, Roseboro zinged his throw back to the pitcher close to Marichal, who brought his bat down on Roseboro’s head. Benches emptied.
This strange incident in baseball history was precipitated by political violence in another country (the Dominican Republic) and another city (LA). Sixties political violence had invaded baseball.
After the Dodgers won the 1965 World Series, their two star pitchers, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, refused to sign their contracts, holding out for thirty-two days. They hired Hollywood agent J. William Hayes to represent them. Dodger management ignored the players and their agent until Hayes threatened to challenge baseball’s cherished Reserve Clause in court; the Dodgers quickly settled.
Major league ball players hired a new head of the Players Association, Marvin Miller, former attorney and negotiator for the United Steelworkers. At baseball’s annual Winter Meeting in December of 1967, major league owners did their best to undermine the ball players by refusing to negotiate with Miller and ignoring the players’ requests, especially the issue of arbitration. But the players stood behind Miller, extending his contact, raising his salary, and compelling the owners to come to the table. In the end, the 1968 agreement included a new minimum salary of $10,000 and the right to bring grievances before an outside mediator. No one understood just how revolutionary that new agreement would prove to be.
It took seven years before the tremors from that Winter Meeting were felt, but when they were, they rocked the baseball world.
In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally refused to sign their contracts, sending their case to arbitration, where Marvin Miller and the Players Association argued that the Reserve Clause was illegal. The independent arbitrator agreed, limiting a club’s ownership of a player to one year, after which Messersmith and McNally were free to take bids from other clubs.
The era of free agency had begun. The Seitz ruling, named after arbitrator Peter Seitz, was, according to Florio and Shapiro, “the most transforming event in baseball history.”
But wait! That came later, in the 70s. What happened in the second half of the 60s? More than you can imagine, if you didn’t live through it.
Atlanta acquired a new team and built a new stadium; both were integrated. Jim Crow was dead; black players lived and ate with their white teammates during Spring training. And then came 1968. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the Civil Rights Act passed, the Chicago police used “Gestapo tactics” on young protestors outside the Democratic Convention, and Richard Nixon was elected.
That same year, the Pittsburgh Pirates voted to sit out the first game of the season to honor MLK, forcing baseball Commissioner William Eckert to postpone Opening Day; Don Drysdale wore a black armband to honor Bobby Kennedy as he set the consecutive scoreless inning record; Bob Gibson finished the season with a record-setting 1.12 ERA; Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win thirty games; and Jose Feliciano was booed for singing his jazzy Latino version of the National Anthem at the start of game five of the World Series.
1968 was a year of historic events, the year of the counterculture, a year of rebellion, the most turbulent year in America’s social history. After the 1968 World Series ended with the Tigers defeating the Cardinals in seven games, St. Louis’ catcher Tim McCarver said, “You can’t make 1968 bigger than it was.” And he wasn’t talking only about baseball.
In One Nation Under Baseball, Florio and Shapiro demonstrate how the political, social and cultural upheavals in America during the entire decade reverberated in baseball, and how baseball’s own conflicts helped create that tumultuous decade. It’s a brilliant history, both of baseball and our nation. It reveals that, contrary to some of our wishes, baseball is not an escape from the turmoil around us but a reflection of it. To understand baseball in the 60s is to understand America today.