The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age

TheYear of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s GoldenAge, Sridhar Pappu’s first book and a finalist for the 2018 Casey Award, gracefully details the closure of baseball’s Golden Age. During one of the most violent times in our nation’s history that included the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to run for reelection, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, baseball witnessed its own conflicts encompassed by labor disputes, the strengthening of players union headed by Marvin Miller, and a level of personal and professional competition that fans have rarely seen since. While Pappu isn’t the first writer to explore this topic, The Year of the Pitcher is one of the finest books to cover the Golden Era of baseball.

The Year of the Pitcher focuses primarily on the 1968 baseball season that witnessed Denny McLain become the last pitcher to win thirty-games in a season and Bob Gibson post a 1.12 ERA and strike out seventeen batters in Game One of the World Series. Pappu details McLain’s arrogance, which eventually led to his fall from grace. We meet a man who thought he was invincible, someone who believed he was worth $100,000, but as we learn, McLain's decision to ignore the intensifying pain in his throwing arm combined with his perceived invincibility led to suspensions and admonishments from the commissioner that evolved into an early departure from baseball at the age of 29. Pappu describes McLain in a way that leaves readers to decide for themselves how to feel about baseball’s last thirty-game winner.

Pappu gives readers a renewed and comprehensive view of Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals’ ace and one of the most prominent pitchers of his time whose legacy as a fierce competitor on and off is as strong as ever. Only a few years ago he engaged in a fistfight with a driver who cut him off in traffic (Keep in mind that Gibson is 82 years old now). Pappu explores Gibson’s psyche without making unfounded assumptions about what made him tick. Any die-hard baseball fan knows who Bob Gibson was and how intimidating he could be on the mound, but few know how he felt about his teammates and opponents. Readers receive more insight into Gibson’s thoughts about facing the Red Sox Impossible Dream team in 1967, followed by a one-on-one match up with McLain, his American League archrival, in the 1968 World Series. I knew Gibson was an intense person before I started reading the book, but Pappu’s portrayal of the Cardinals’ ace will leave readers feeling secondhand intimidation as if they were the ones facing him in the batter’s box.

This era also saw the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) grow in power and prominence after Marvin Miller became its executive director in1966. Miller’s era would set the stage for an eventual showdown between the players and the owners. What sets the details of these events apart from other works about this era is Pappu’s reliance on anecdotes and quotes from those who lived and played during this era. Pappu describes the events through his writing with authenticity. He allows the book’s principal characters to speak for themselves through direct quotes rather than trying to paraphrase their words while sparingly inserting his own opinion in the book, but doing so with presence and authority when he does. This technique shines no brighter than in Pappu’s description of Johnny Sain, who, along with southpaw Warren Spahn, was part of one of the top one-two pitching duos in the post-World War II era.

A four-time twenty-game winner, Sain went on to become one of the best pitching coaches in the history of baseball, if not the best. What I enjoyed about Pappu’s description of Sain was how he portrayed him in completeness. He didn’t just discuss Sain’s role in the development of players like McLain and Jim Kaat, Pappu delved into Sain’s life that included his days with the Boston Braves, his troubled family life, conflicts with managers and owners alike, and his philosophy of coaching that included reading and quoting inspirational self-help books. I appreciated how much detail Pappu went into when describing the unreserved praise pitchers that had for Sain and how clear his impact was on the major league teams he coached for. Pappu has ensured that readers will finish the book with a much greater appreciation for who Johnny Sain was and the influence he had on many of the best pitchers of this era and beyond.

Finally, in the middle of this topic emerges Jackie Robinson, twelve years out of the game but just as determined to fight for equality. Readers may be surprised to learn that Robinson aligned himself with Republicans like Richard Nixon and Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, politicians that Robinson thought could do more for African Americans. We see a side of Robinson that might leave a bad taste in readers’ mouths. Many remember Robinson as a man who kept his cool when he first integrated the game in 1947, but did not hold anything back at all in his criticism of people like Bobby Kennedy. Pappu’s portrayal of Robinson isn’t quite raw, but he certainly doesn’t handle him with kid gloves.

Pappu not only writes a clear and interesting narrative, but is able to maintain its momentum throughout the entire book. Trying to write about 1960s baseball and its place in American history can be like cooking a meal calling for a hundred different ingredients. One wrong step is the difference between a gourmet meal and an inedible spread. Pappu not only includes all of the necessary ingredients, but he adds them carefully at the right moments to create something that readers’ eyes will be more than happy to feast on. Casual fans will finish the book with a deeper appreciation of the toll baseball takes on a player’s body while more serious scholars of the game will appreciate the new perspective Pappu offers on the 1968 season.

The Year of the Pitcher gives readers an honest and in-depth look into a time that will take older baseball fans as far back as possible to a lost era while giving younger fans an intense and meaningful understanding of its impact on the history of baseball.

Reviewed by: R. Zachary Sanzone 1/3/18