Book Review: The Year of the Pitcher

The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age
by Sridhar Pappu
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
(c) 2017 by the author

1.12 and 31.

The two numbers that essentially defined the 1968 baseball season.

The former is Bob Gibson’s earned run average for the season (basically, he only gave up one run for every eight innings he pitched); the latter is the number of games won by Denny McLain – the most in over thirty years. These stats epitomize the low-scoring environment of baseball in the 1960s. But rather than focus on the actual games of that season, Pappu takes a much broader look.

The year was one of massive unrest (to put it mildly). The season was delayed a little by the murder of Martin Luther King, and both players and owners discussed taking a day off in respect after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Pappu looks at the intersection of baseball and the Civil Rights movement of the era. He doesn’t just write about Gibson and McLain; he also writes about Jackie Robinson and his involvement in that movement.

One other person is intertwined in that tapestry – pitching coach Johnny Sain. A former star with the Braves, Sain understood that there was more to pitching success than simply being great at throwing the ball. He mentored many of the star pitchers of the 1960s, and probably more than anyone else is responsible for the depressed offense of the decade.

A couple of other rule tweaks get mentioned in passing. After the Mantle & Maris home run chase of 1961, baseball raised the pitching mound by five inches (after 1968, they’d lower it by the same amount), and the strike zone was expanded at the start of the 1963 season. One has to consider their effect on the lowered offense of the decade.

As far as being the “end of the golden age”, Pappu doesn’t directly blame the low scoring for the decline in attention and attendance to the sport. There were plenty of things distracting people from the game. The rise of the NFL, for one. Expansion and free agency also changed baseball beyond recognition.

But again, this really isn’t a book about baseball. It’s more about being a baseball player while the country is undergoing radical changes. As such, it’s a welcome addition to the shelf of books about individual baseball seasons.

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