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
Gibson plunges right into the narrative with a Conradian authorial presence. Of the Tigers pugnacious leadoff hitter Dick McAuliffe, Gibson admits his caution regarding his vulnerability to left-handed pull-hitters—"I respected power. I also respected McAuliffe's competitiveness"—and "McAuliffe, matching no familiar stereotype, was the kind of hitter I'd have to figure out for myself, probing, mixing, and challenging." He extends such observations to several opponents, noticeably to his counterpart in this game and this great pitchers' season, Denny McLain of the Tigers, who won 31 games that year (an achievement unchallenged in the subsequent decades). I thought Gibson might malign the showboat McLain, who later served prison time for drugs and racketeering and who was a 'me first' player throughout his career. And indeed, Gibson duly notes the contrast between them: "It was hard for me to imagine the pace he kept up … . He had two-week Vegas gig all lined for just after the Series, sharing a lounge with Shecky Greene. While he was dazzling the audience with 'The Girl from Ipanema,' I'd be tinkering on our house in Omaha, putting model cars together, listening to jazz records, and maybe strumming a few easy chords on my ukulele. We were, needless to say, different." But Gibson drops hints here and there of clear admiration. In the third inning, working the bottom of the Tigers' order, Gibson notes: "McLain was a hell of a bunter. I thought I was a good bunter, and I had seven sacrifices in '68. McLain led the American League with thirteen—twice as many as my best year. And this was a guy known to blow off batting practice. He had an extraordinary feel for playing the game."
Of Tiger slugger Willie Horton's at bat to open the seventh, Gibson recounts a story of Horton killing a pigeon with a foul ball at Fenway, then admits: "the pigeon fatality came to mind in connection with the foul ball he hit on my first delivery of the seventh inning, a four-seamer on the outer half. This one was not life-threatening, thanks to the screen behind home plate, but it was a murderous cut that Willie unleashed. Even with the heavy bat he swung, the big man could explode on a fastball." Of Willie's later personality clashes in Detroit, his hometown, Gibson suggests with a certain empathy: "Willie was a proud guy, and reacted emotionally when he felt unappreciated or unfairly judged." Of his battles with Tigers outfielder Jim Northrup (who later tripled off Gibson late in Game Seven to seal the Series win for Detroit—I guess I should have said 'spoiler alert'): "It seemed to me that Northrup embraced the gamesmanship involved with what we all did for a living." Of the Tigers' stalwart catcher Bill Freehan (who was runner-up to McLain in the AL MVP voting), Gibson comments in the midst of describing the fifth inning at-bat: "He was proving once again that he was admirably stubborn." Freehan was a former college football player, which Gibson notes was true of several of the burly Tigers. Also, when describing Mickey Stanley (from my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids), the Tigers' Gold Glove centerfielder who had moved to shortstop for the World Series to make way for Al Kaline's return from injury, Gibson offers a side-note referring to Horton, Freehan, Northrup, and Stanley: "The Michigan natives were all Tigers together for eleven season." Here Gibson reveals that secret ingredient for success so valued by his own beloved Cardinals, and so rare in today's free-agent defined game, namely, the consistency and depth of relationships on a team.
In some ways, in fact, this book seems to have provided an occasion for Gibson to reflect on the loyalties and commitments of long-term teammates. He is laudatory of Lou Brock, whose exploits in World Series play have been undervalued. According to Gibson, "the trade that brought Brock to St. Louis, in June of 1964, was a turning point in Cardinals history." Brock, a struggling outfielder with the Cubs, was a "very smart, very sensitive guy with a tendency to think and worry himself into knots." When the Cardinals turned him loose to swing away and to run the bases like a madman, he flourished. (His power is never talked about nowadays, but Gibson points out that: "Just before the Polo Grounds were torn down, he'd become the first player ever to hit a ball over the 483-foot sign in dead center field"—the very sign beyond Willie Mays when he made his famous catch off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series.) And though Gibson is rather grudging with his honorifics throughout the book—of Willie Mays as a hitter of mistake pitches, he simply says, "Willie Mays did not hit singles off hanging breaking balls"—he calls Brock "the best money player I'd ever seen."