Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties
University of Nebraska Press, 2016
288 pp., $26.95
Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game
Flatiron Books, 2016
256 pp., $16.99
The Pine Tar Game: The Kansas City Royals, the New York Yankees, and Baseball's Most Absurd and Entertaining Controversy
256 pp., $25.00
Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Review 2016, Part 1
On Curt Flood, his closest friend on the team, Gibson is unexpectedly tender: "When I spoke at his funeral in 1997, I pointed out that he was one of the few people I knew whom I could never be mad at. Not even for an instant. And that's in spite of him being my roommate for a long time." And despite an anxiety even worse than Brock's—"Curt was always thinking, and that can be hazardous in our profession"—on the field Flood was a rock for the team: "He arrived at the '68 Series as the only .300 hitter on either team. That year, his fourth as cocaptain with McCarver, he also won his fifth of six straight Gold Gloves." But it is Flood's unselfish demeanor, hitting behind Brock, his patience and perspective, that Gibson most admires in remembering Flood the player: "It was a tremendous feat to bang out 200 hits—he led the league with 211 in 1964—while doing all the team-first things required of a good two-hole hitter with a great base stealer in front of him. He made Brock better, made the hitters behind him better, and made the rest of us better, too."
Of course it is for Flood's hold-out against the old reserve clause and his wrenching battle in baseball exile to press for player rights and free agency that he is best known and remembered today. Gibson offers his blunt but clearly loving commentary to that as well. He mentions Flood's "deep-seated, unshakable sense of principle," which would not allow him to accept the heart-rending trade to the Phillies after the 1969 season without having a say in it. Gibson admits, "I was not as idealistic as Curt, and too pragmatic to consider doing what he was doing; less urgently motivated, for sure. I hadn't read James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison as avidly as he had. I hadn't protested in Mississippi with Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson, as he had. I hadn't been traded or disrespected in contract negotiations. But I sympathized with his repudiation of the plantation culture that seemed to guide baseball's treatment of its players." Nevertheless, they drifted apart after Flood sank deeper into depression and alcoholism, Gibson bluntly reveals, though there was a brief and meaningful reconciliation when Flood was dying of throat cancer. Gibson's final reflection is on the manliness and dignity beneath the damage: "Curt's story was tragic, in the personal sense, but it was also essential on a level that makes him both historic and heroic. It set the narrative for a punishing process that had to occur in the interest of progress. Somebody had to take the brunt of it. Somebody, in effect, had to martyr himself, and Curt was the guy. He fully understood the ramifications of what he was doing."
The painfulness of change is a constant theme in Gibson's narrative, the necessity and the cost of stubbornness, the tensions and strains of true friendship (Brock was thrown out at home not sliding in Game Seven, and Flood misplayed a ball off the bat of Northrup that turned into the decisive triple in that same game, costing Gibson and the Cardinals the win and the World Series title—but Gibson offers no accusations). The richest vein of these reflections, and the one I'll end on, comes in Gibson's frequent mentions of his long-time battery-mate Tim McCarver, well known after his playing days as a baseball announcer, the catcher, number-five hitter, and captain of the Cardinal teams that played in three World Series in five years: "The man with whom, off the field, I treasured a connection that, from the time we met in 1959—me a blunt, stubborn black man and Tim a rugged white teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, with all the sensibilities which that implies—had evolved both unforeseeably and wonderfully." I felt my own heart leap at that final phrase, that the world of baseball 50 years ago, for which Gibson's term "plantation system" seems so apt, could foster such a border-crashing fellowship. Gibson points out that McCarver's arrival brought some tension to a team that "as a whole, had no tolerance for ethnic or racial disrespect. We'd talk about it openly and in no uncertain terms. In our clubhouse, nobody got a free pass. But of those who required some talking to, few entertained the subject as sincerely as McCarver … . If a teammate made any distinctions based on color, my practice was to confront him, let him know how we felt about it as a ball club, and give him every chance to change. Tim did, quickly and completely." What might have been a showdown, or fuel for quiet enmity waiting to erupt, turned into something radically different: "It wasn't too long before he was like a brother to me; and still is."