A Not-So-Golden Anniversary

Robert F. Kennedy consults with President Johnson. (via White House Photograph Office)

What happens when events in the outside world become so chaotic, so divisive, that it’s no longer possible to fully escape them? When larger issues begin to permeate sports in such a way that it impacts our ability as fans to follow the action and the story lines in the usual way?

– Tim Wendel, Summer of ‘68

While Senator Robert Kennedy was being laid to rest, they played baseball.

Oh, it wasn’t supposed to have worked out that way. Most of the decision-makers tried to be more sensitive than that. But that whole year of 1968 wasn’t supposed to work out the way it did.

That season marked a major milestone in major league baseball history. It’s a half century ago now, and the anniversary will occasion much in the way of recollection and analysis among baseball pundits. It was The Year of The Pitcher, the year Bob Gibson’s 1.12 earned run average and Carl Yastrzemski’s American League-leading .301 average symbolized baseball’s turn away from offense. Rules changes would rebalance the game shortly.

Depressed batting averages are trivial, though, as we look back on the real-world events of 1968: The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Unrest, often violent, in many major league cities. The Bobby Kennedy assassination. The Democratic National Convention, with its images of police employing billy clubs and tear gas. Yippies and hippies. Black Power salutes at the Olympics. Nearly 17,000 Americans killed in Vietnam while antiwar protests raged at home.

The game went on, but it was not unaffected by what was going on around it.

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?

— Dion, Abraham, Martin and John, 1968

James Earl Ray’s .30-06 bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a motel balcony in Memphis on the morning of April 4. By that evening, there was rioting in Washington–where 12 people were killed–Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. It was four days before baseball’s season openers. What to do?

Nominally in charge was baseball’s commissioner, William Eckert, a retired Air Force general whom the club owners had hired three years earlier because, well, no one exactly knew why. One theory was that, with no background in baseball, he would not be beholden to anyone in the game. Others pointed out the corollary: With no background in baseball, he knew nothing about baseball. Someone dubbed him “the Unknown Soldier.”

Eckert went AWOL when it came time to decide what to do about Opening Day, telling the clubs to do whatever they felt best.

In the interim, exhibition games went on here and there. The day after the assassination, the Cardinals and Tigers proceeded with a game at St. Petersburg. The starting pitchers were Gibson and the Tigers’ Earl Wilson, both black.

In his 1994 book, Stranger to the Game, Gibson wrote, “I reeled from the impact of the assassination–the cold-blooded murder of the one man in my lifetime who had been able to capture the public’s attention about racial injustice, break through some of the age-old social barriers and raise the spirits and hopes of black people across the country.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver, a Memphis native, is quoted in the Gibson book as recalling an intense conversation before the game with Gibson about King’s death. Said McCarver:

Everybody on the club was dismayed by what happened to Martin Luther King. It was a very disorienting time in many respects and that was probably the hardest moment. Bob and I had a very serious discussion in the clubhouse that morning. He was very emotional and initially he turned his back on me.

Probably the last person he wanted to talk to that morning was a white man from Memphis, of all places. But I confronted him on that, as I knew he would have done if the tables had been turned. I told him that I had grown up in an environment of severe prejudice, but if I were any indication, it was possible for people to change their attitudes.

He didn’t really want to be calmed down and told me in so many words that it was plainly impossible for a white man to completely overcome prejudice…I found myself in the unfamiliar position of arguing that the races were equal and that we were all the same.

Finally, baseball took a day off: President Lyndon Johnson declared Sunday, April 7, a day of national mourning for King. All spring training exhibition games were canceled.

A few teams had postponed their April 8 home openers, but when the Houston Astros decided to go ahead with their game against Pittsburgh, the Pirates, led by Roberto Clemente, Donn Clendenon, and their nine other black players, refused to play. They also said they wouldn’t take part in their next scheduled game against the Astros because it was April 9, the day of King’s funeral.

In St. Louis, some Cardinals players had gathered in the apartment of first baseman Orlando Cepeda and decided to tell Cardinals management they wouldn’t open the season as scheduled either. The Dodgers said they’d go ahead with their home opener against Philadelphia, but Phillies general manager John Quinn said his team would forfeit rather than play.

In the end, conflict was avoided. No games were played until April 10.

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?

Two months to the day after King was shot, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy won the California Democratic presidential primary. The brother of slain President John Kennedy, he had started his campaign late, after Johnson declared he wouldn’t seek another term. California was crucial. His was something of a celebrity candidacy, drawing support from famous people, including sports figures, among them Hank Aaron and Stan Musial.

In the wee hours of June 5, Kennedy took the stage in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom to address his supporters. He began not by talking about politics, but about a baseball friend:

“I’d like to express my high regard to Don Drysdale, who pitched his sixth straight shutout tonight.” (Remember, this was The Year of the Pitcher.) “And I hope we can have as good fortune in our campaign.”

After his speech, he left the stage via the hotel kitchen, where a Palestinian Christian named Sirhan Sirhan waited with a .22 caliber revolver.

Baseball seemingly had learned nothing from its MLK experience. Its reaction to Kennedy’s assassination was even more indecisive. To be fair, unforeseen circumstances made the game’s establishment look even worse.

Kennedy’s funeral was to be held in Washington on Saturday, June 8, at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, and President Johnson declared that the following day would be a national day of mourning. Eckert again was unsure of the course baseball should take; he conferred with staff and league owners in an attempt to gain a consensus. Finally, Eckert decided to postpone the start of Saturday’s games until after the funeral and to leave it up to the individual clubs to decide the fate of Sunday’s games.

The Yankees, Senators and Cubs called off their Saturday afternoon home games. The Astros called off one of their doubleheader games against the Pirates and said the other game would be held after the burial.

At San Francisco, Mets players, with the support of manager Gil Hodges, refused to play the Giants that Saturday out of respect for their home state senator. Mets management supported the players’ decision. Giants management, expecting a 40,000-plus Bat Day crowd at Candlestick Park, was enraged. Owner Horace Stoneham demanded that the Mets cover his $80,000 in losses. National League president Warren Giles initially declared the game a forfeit but softened his stance when he realized the potential embarrassment to baseball.

Other afternoon games, including St. Louis at Cincinnati, were moved to night starts. The Cardinals-Reds game was rescheduled for 7 p.m.

But Kennedy’s funeral train from New York to Washington was delayed for hours because of huge crowds along the tracks. The burial would be pushed back several hours. Baseball parks were filled with fans, with no one knowing when the games would start.

In Cincinnati, Cardinals and Reds players held separate pre-game meetings, took the field for warm-ups, then went back into the clubhouses, when they learned the burial wouldn’t be held before the scheduled game time. Cardinals players wanted to call off the game, but because they were the visitors, they left the decision to the Reds.

Reds manager Dave Bristol urged his team to play. Pitcher Milt Pappas, the Reds’ player representative, disagreed. Pappas told Bristol most Reds players preferred not to play the game. Bristol responded that if he could find nine players to take the field, the Reds would play.

“If we go out (on the field to play), we all go out,” Pappas replied. “If we do go out, find yourself a new player representative.”

Pappas took a vote of Reds players on whether to play. The outcome was 12-12, with one abstaining. A second vote was held. This time, the result was 13-12 in favor of playing.

Pappas, telling the Associated Press his “days with the club are numbered,” resigned as player representative. (Two days later, Pappas was traded to the Braves.)

In Los Angeles, the Dodgers and Phillies played, Vin Scully intoning in his opening, “…from almost the pits of despair, we concentrate on a child’s game…” That night, Drysdale’s right arm broke Walter Johnson’s 55-year-old record for consecutive scoreless innings. On his left arm, he wore a black armband.

Then, Sunday, the official day of mourning for Kennedy.

Pappas and McCarver, the Cardinals’ player representative, said both clubs voted not to play the scheduled doubleheader. But they played anyway, as did all clubs except the White Sox and Red Sox in Boston and the Orioles and A’s in Baltimore.

At Houston, Astros third baseman Bob Aspromonte and first baseman Rusty Staub, and Pirates third baseman Maury Wills, refused to play. Wills sat in the training room reading Kennedy’s book, To Seek a Newer World.

Pirates outfielder Clemente first decided to join Wills in sitting out the game but changed his mind after a meeting with manager Larry Shepard. “I preferred not to play,” Clemente said. “The disturbing thing to me was the indifferent attitudes of some of our players.”

Houston general manager Spec Richardson fined Staub and Aspromonte a day’s pay. Wrote famed columnist Red Smith, “Among all the mealy mouthed statements, it remained for Richardson to come up with the nauseating prize. The games would go on, he said, because ‘Senator Kennedy would have wanted it that way.’”

To the contrary: Frank Mankiewicz, press secretary for Robert Kennedy, sent telegrams to Pappas, Aspromonte, Staub, Wills and Hodges (on behalf of the entire team), thanking them for the stances they took. “Please accept my personal admiration for your actions,” Mankiewicz wrote in the telegrams. “Senator Kennedy indeed enjoyed competitive sports, but I doubt that he would have put box-office receipts ahead of national mourning.”

Wrote Bob August of the Cleveland Press, “Baseball’s observance of Senator Kennedy’s death was disorganized, illogical and thoroughly shabby.”

Under the headline, “The Aftermath–Baseball Takes A Beating,” The Sporting News summed up the situation: “Baseball wallowed in a morass of confusion.”

Other quarters chimed in. “I keep pinching myself,” said Marvin Miller, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, “and telling myself they can’t be this stupid.” Ron Fimrite of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Eckert is even more slavish in this regard for his employers than were the rubber stamps who preceded him.” Detroit television personality Al Ackerman noted that Eckert, “has the scorn of both the public and the owners, and I predict his career as commissioner will not last long.”

He was gone after that year’s winter meetings.

Didn’t you love the things that they stood for
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?

It didn’t have the impact of Korea, or certainly World War II, but the Vietnam War made its mark on baseball. Among the ways to look at a team’s strengths and weaknesses was to look at how many of its players were military reservists. This was the era of the military draft. Almost a third of players had joined the National Guard, often at the urging of their ball clubs, which didn’t want to see the players they’d developed being drafted and going off to active duty–maybe in Vietnam–for two years.

The flip side was that those players were required to attend drills one weekend a month and often two weeks of summer training at a far-off military base.

Summer of ’68 tells the stories of Nolan Ryan, distracted during this, his rookie year with the Mets, by having to fly back and forth to Houston to help his Reserve unit build landing strips, and of Mickey Lolich, interrupting spring training for 15 days of National Guard training.

Those were scheduled, predictable events. Not so what happened after the King assassination. As baseball struggled to figure out whether to play games, civil authorities struggled to put down rioting, calling up reserves and Guardsmen to patrol city streets.

And so, when the Orioles finally opened at home in Memorial Stadium, shortstop Mark Belanger was absent, wearing the uniform of his Maryland Air National Guard unit rather than baseball spikes. O’s pitcher Pete Richert was away from the ballpark, too, helping secure city blocks so firefighters could get through to battle the work of arsonists. The Sporting News published a photo of him patrolling outside D.C. Stadium.

Inside their stadium, the Senators played without shortstop Ed Brinkman, who was patrolling American University in Washington. He slept one night on a D.C. Stadium ramp.

The upheaval and social tensions of the outside world were felt more than usual in ballparks. In Detroit, where anger from tragic rioting of the year before still seethed, fan unrest spilled onto the field, where ballplayers feared for their safety.

All this was a precursor of the violence that would hit Chicago during the Democratic Convention. While the White Sox played home games before sparse crowds a few miles away, turbulence boiled up at the convention in the International Amphitheatre, and police-demonstrator violence boiled over elsewhere south of the Loop. (Ironically, Cubs pitcher Ken Holtzman’s National Guard unit was among those called up in response.)

The Houston Astros arrived in town the night after the worst rioting to begin a series with the Cubs. Years later, pitcher Larry Dierker recalled:

“When the team bus came to the Conrad Hilton, we couldn’t pull up in front of the hotel. Instead we had to enter through the back entrance–through the kitchen. When we got to the lobby you could smell the smoke and the tear gas.”

He and roommate Jim Ray watched the turmoil from their hotel window.

“I was in the same age group as the people who were upset about the war…I didn’t feel a great kinship with the ones protesting. But once you see something like that, you don’t forget it so easily. Looking back on it, that night changed me.”

Much has changed since that night, that year. Today, you turn west off Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago to get to U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox play. Washington’s major league team, the Nationals, played its first three seasons in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Gen. William Eckert died three years after the events of 1968; baseball has had six commissioners since.

And no one thinks 2018 will be The Year of The Pitcher again.

References and Resources

  • Baseball-Reference
  • Briley, Ron, Class at Bat, Gender on Deck and Race in the Hole. 2017
  • Devaney, Sean, Fun City: John Linsay, Joe Namath and How Sports Saved New York in the 1960s
  • FanGraphs
  • McKenna, Brian, William Eckert for SABR.
  • Pappu, Sridhar, The Year of the Pitcher. 2017
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 21, 2013
  • RetroSimba, While national mourned RFK, Cardinals reluctantly played. 2013
  • Ryczek, William, Baseball on the Brink, The Crisis of 1968. 2017.
  • Tully, Jeff, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 10, 2012
  • Wendel, Tim, Summer of ’68. 2012

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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87 Cards
87 Cards

The oblique references to 1968 military-service by MLBers reminds me that Roy Gleason, once of the Dodgers and then of the USA 9th Infantry Division in Dong Tam, Province, Vietnam (that is in the Mekong Delta), took 155 mm shrapnel in his left-arm and both legs on June 24, 1968. He came back baseball to the minors in 1969 but it was a rotator-cuff injury from a car-wreck that ended his playing days.

He has a World-Series ring from the ’63 Dodgers, a .1000 batting average and a Purple Heart.

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider

He also still had his life, not an insignificant achievement considering where he was.


I hadn’t even considered how MLB would have handled that awful summer. Thanks for the piece.

Minor thing: Washington’s major league team moved out of RFK after the 2007 season. Barring setbacks in completing Audi Field, DC United played its last season in RFK last year.


Beautiful piece. Thank you for writing it. A small correction for you: in a perfect example of how so much of major league baseball continues to operate in a tone-deaf, socially unself-aware way, the Chicago White Sox stadium is no longer US Cellular Field, but Guaranteed Rate Field. Guaranteed Rate is a thrift mortgage lender, one of the many that helped crash the US economy just one short decade ago.


Thanks for a thoughtful piece.