Baseball and America

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Part VII: Vietnam, Changing Times, the Amazin’ Mets

dark cloud hovered over America in the sixties and seventies. Newly elected President John F. Kennedy faced a critical situation in fall of 1962 when it became clear that Russia was planning to set up missile sites in Cuba. Cuba had fallen under the rule of communist dictator Fidel Castro in 1957 and had become an ally of Russia. The United States would not stand for missile and arms shipments to a foreign enemy only 90 miles from the Florida coast. On October 22, 1962, Kennedy declared that the United States would move forward with a full retaliatory military response against Russia if they proceeded with planned shipments to Cuba.  There was at that time, an armada of Russian ships headed for Cuba. After calling for military preparedness, Kennedy did not blink an eye as the ships approached the coast of Cuba. In the final moment Russia Premier Nikita Khruschev commanded his ships to turn around, thus preventing a possible nuclear war. Americans who were glued to their TVs as the drama unfolded, let out a sigh of relief.

Thirteen months later on November 22, 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, as his motorcade went through the city of Dallas, Texas. The country went into absolute mourning as they continuously watched the tragedy and funeral unfold on their television sets over the next five days. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency. Kennedy’s assassination marked the beginning of a dark era in American history.

President Johnson took a very aggressive stance on the growing communism threat in the country of Vietnam. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy had been keenly aware of the communism threat to the divided countries of North and South Vietnam. American advisers were on the ground aiding the government of South Vietnam as it faced the growing invasion of North Vietnam, but Johnson took a step further. “I am not going to lose Vietnam,’ he vowed shortly after assuming office. “I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” In August of 1964 Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which handed Johnson a mandate to conduct operations in Vietnam as he saw fit. By 1966 there were 380,000 American soldiers in Vietnam.  Thus came a 10-year unwinnable war that saw over 50,000 American troops killed and hundreds of thousands of casualties. A divided America watched in horror as the nightly news broadcasts showed the carnage of  war.  It was the beginning of societal changes that have dramatically changed our lives today. Anti-war demonstrations began in Washington and spread across the country. College student activist groups marched on campuses and in October 1967, more than 100,000 students marched into D.C. as part of “Stop the Draft Week.” The counterculture climate was emboldened by the anti-war music of folksingers such as Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago turned violent as protestors confronted police using tear gas and clubs. The intensity and number of the demonstrations was undoubtedly a major factor in President Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968. It became President Richard Nixon’s war that despite attempts to end it did not conclude until 1973 with the capitulation of the South Vietnam Capital City of Saigon to North Vietnam. American troops returned defeated.

The war movement became a social movement. Big changes in how society viewed the civil rights of blacks, gays and women evolved, causing confusion and discontent among older Americans. The young generation opened the door to the drug culture and a more liberal view of sex. Marijuana became the casual drug of choice but drug experimentation with LSD, heroin and cocaine was causing serious concerns and dangers.   

Once again Americans turned to baseball for relief from the nations woes. Although the game remained constant, Major League baseball organization went through changes starting in 1961 when  expanded to 10 teams in each league. The American League placed franchises in Minneapolis (Twins) and Los Angeles (Angels). The National League followed suit with the addition of the Houston Colt 45s (later to be renamed the Astros) and the New York Mets. The expansion was not an overnight success as the poor play of the new teams added more imbalance which hurt attendance. However the new stadiums proved to be an enhancement.  The Houston Astrodome became the first air conditioned domed stadium and was often cited as the eighth wonder of the world. Later in the decade four more teams were added: Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Mariners in the American League, The San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos in the National League. This allowed each league to create two divisions and hold five game playoffs between the division champs at the end of the season to determine who played in the World Series. This action immediately provided better balance in the competition, increasing attendance and interest.

As They Played the Game:

The Amazin’ Mets

In 1962, expansion brought baseball back to New York,  replacing the Dodgers and the Giants in the name of the New York Mets. In the words of Bill Veeck, previous owner of the lowly St. Louis Browns, upon witnessing the Mets lose game after game,  “They are without a doubt the worst baseball team in the history of baseball.” Veeck proved to be right. The Mets lost 120 games while winning only 40 but New Yorkers fell in love with the “lovable losers.” They were led by the ole professor, 71-year-old manager Casey Stengel, former manager of the champion NY Yankees, who was well known for his zany quotes. It was a team comprised of old ballplayers well past their prime and young ball players not ready for the major leagues. New York fans who were starved for baseball since the departure of their two National League teams to the west coast did not seem to care if they won or not. The cast of characters made it fun. During one of the team’s many losing streaks, Casey asked “ Can’t anybody play this game?”  Another time he asked a battered pitcher if he was tired and after the pitcher said no, Casey replied “you might not be, but your outfielders are.”  Outfielder “Marvelous Marv” Thronberry earned his nickname by such plays as getting called out after hitting a triple because he failed to touch neither first or second base on his way to third. The pitching staff had two 20-game losers,  a 19-game loser and the league’s worse earned run average. They also had the worst team batting average. For the next seven years the Mets finished either last or next to last until 1969 when they became the “Miracle Mets” by winning the pennant and proceeded to win the World Series by beating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. The song “Meet the Mets” was on the lips of many New Yorkers in the sixties.

Another notable change came in 1966 when labor lawyer Marvin Miller took command of the Major League Players Association. His leadership was dramatic as he forced team owners to negotiate with the union and gained the rights for players to hire agents. These were the beginning steps of the momentum that would grant players the high salaries they earn today. 

The Yankees with Mantle, Maris, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford continued their dominance in the American league for the first half of the decade. In the National League the Dodgers, Cardinals and Giants were battling each other for the pennant.  Pitching dominated this era. Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, Bob Gibson of the Cardinals and 30-game winner Denny McClain of the Tigers took center stage. In 1968, batting averages had fallen to an all time low of .237 forcing the commissioner to shorten the strike zone and lower the height of the pitching mound to satisfy the fans desire for more offense. The move also pleased sluggers like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial.

The mid-sixties saw the fall of the Yankees. Having dominated baseball for the better part of forty years the Yankees fell from first place in the American League in 1964 to dead last in 1965, 26 ½ games behind the Baltimore Orioles, followed by a ninth place finish in 1966. The old guard had faded. Mantle could hardly run on his chronic bad knees and retired along with pitcher Whitey Ford and catcher Yogi Berra. Aside from the Yankees, other notable retirees of the era included Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax. They were replaced by such stars as outfielder Frank Robinson, catcher Johnny Bench and Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds, Reggie Jackson and pitcher Catfish Hunter of the Oakland A’s, outfielder Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox and outfielder Roberto Clemente.

The country’s problems of the sixties did not end. On   April 4, 1968 civil rights leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Adding to the grief of the nation, two months later Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, brother of John, was assassinated in Los Angeles. This was followed by the fatal shooting on May 4, 1970 of four student protestors on the campus of Kent State University by National Guardsmen who were called in to quell an anti-war rally.  About the only uplifting event of the era was the fulfillment of President Kennedy’s vow to put a man on the moon when, on July 10, 1969, Neil Armstrong took “ one giant leap for mankind” when stepped onto the moon.

The nation looked forward to better times in the seventies unaware of the continuation of the war and the coming Watergate scandal in the White House.

Next week: Watergate, the Big Red Machine, Curt Flood

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