Author Explores Overlay Of Baseball And The Vietnam War In New Book

Jan 18, 2018

The late 1960s were a turbulent time in the United States. Society was changing, from experimenting with drugs, to racial tensions, to Vietnam. Leaders were assassinated -- and even the game of baseball was affected by the real-world turmoil. 

Baseball historian Paul Hensler, a Connecticut resident, has written a new book: "The New Boys of Summer: Baseball's Radical Transformation in the Late Sixties."

In the book, Hensler takes a closer look at the imprint these issues had on the game.

Paul Hensler, Author: I touch on exactly some of those subtopics we have the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Baseball's reaction to those [were] very, very poorly executed on the part of the main offices -- the office of the commissioner.

I talk about drug use also, and I try to give a little bit of a back story with that, because I encountered an interview given by Leonard Koppett -- the great New York Times sports writer -- and he mentioned what happened was: you had GIs during World War II who had to stay for prolonged periods of time, and thus we have the introduction of pep pills.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Yup.

So that has a carryover into sports. Pep pills not only energize a down athlete, but it is also somewhat of a cure for a hangover.

In that particular chapter, I talk also, of course, about Vietnam. It's a very touchstone moment throughout the 1960s.

Right, and the draft. 

And the draft. In some cases, players were literally pulled right off their team because they had a military obligation to fulfill. So, for example, the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 -- I believe it was '68 -- lost three players right off the roster in the middle of the season. There was no recourse for this, they just had to do what they had to do.

And because we've been under an all-volunteer army for two generations now, a lot of people lose sight of this, and the impact that it had at that time.

And you mentioned racial issues also. And Curt Blefary became a road roommate of Don Wilson. This was the first pairing of a white and black player -- you know as, biracial road roommates, if you will. So it's not just the civil rights movement -- there's also these impacts and overlays that are taking place within baseball itself.

Part of the book that had me hooked when I was thinking about my own Topps baseball card collection, and how it really sucks kids into really investing time, and love, in baseball. And how those Topps baseball cards, though, wasn't a very fair contract at the outset, in the late '60s? 

Yes. Marvin Miller becomes the head of the players association in 1966. And at this time, a lot of players have a very, very conservative mindset. They've bought into this brainwashing, if you will, on the part of the owners and management, that you're being paid to play a game. So this is something that's really, really special.

What Topps was doing at that time was signing players to a five-year contract. I think it was something like $250, either in cash, or you could get merchandise out of a catalog. Then what Topps was doing was about three years into that existing contract, they would come back and renew again. So it was almost like Topps kept renewing and renewing, and was a miniature version of the reserve clause, in a way. That this was just a situation that just kept perpetuating itself.

Well, Miller calls time out on this, and indicates to a lot of the players, "You know, you're not getting a fair shake." It's slow gains like this that enable Marvin Miller to change the mindset of how players felt about him. This is one of the little gains that he gets to win players over to his side, and he has a different mindset with not just strictly paying attention to the pension, but he's still looking even beyond that, in terms of economy -- and those particular benefits that the players can gain.

So when he brokers the deal to have the first collective bargaining agreement in 1969, all of a sudden, he's getting deeper and deeper toeholds, and getting more players over to his side, in their battles against management.

So, in the research for this book, I noticed that there are an awful lot of end notes. What kind of resources did you use to research this?

I'm very proud of that! I spent a lot of quality time up at the research center at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, of course. It's not just books. They also have a huge trove of team publications, such as media guides. But especially dear to my heart were the papers of Bowie Kuhn, and the diary that he kept when he took the trip to Vietnam in November 1969. And I found the military papers that were filled out on behalf of the USO tour.

I had this wonderful marriage of the same event from two slightly different perspectives. One in particular, Kuhn is very emotional meeting some soldiers [who] were in very, very bad condition -- they've come off the battlefield in extremely critical condition -- and he notes [that] one is all hooked up with IV, tubes and everything. He whispers to Kuhn as best he can, thanking him for what he's done fro baseball.

'Cause 1969 is a big turnaround year for major league baseball. When you look at the records that he himself wrote out for the military, questioning whether they should have been allowed as USO guests to tour some of these wards, where some of the most critically injured soldiers were being brought to. So in one perspective, it's a wonderful moment that Kuhn's able to visit these people, but also, questioning whether they should have been allowed to see these soldiers who were in such bad condition. And that really plays so much to an overlay of baseball and the Vietnam War. That's probably the touchstone moment of the book, where I'm able to bring those two pieces together.

Yeah. I get the sense that you're a lifelong baseball fan. After researching and writing this book, do you watch the game differently?

Yes. Stepping back to a simpler time -- the late 1960s -- you look at old box scores and you realize games that are nice and crisp and "moving along," and now we're caught up with pitch counts. We have to have statistical analysis of everything that's going on.

And some of it's quite fascinating. I've seen some incredibly interesting aspects of that.

But for on-the-spot study, while you're just sitting and relaxing, watching a game, I have kind of a detachment from it. And that's very different for me from years ago, when I was a kid following the game. I've become a little bit more detached at this point.

Before I let you go: where are your favorite seats when you watch the Hartford Yard Goats play?

There are seats down the right field line. There's a whole section that angles back, right toward the infield. It's just very comfortable to watch the game, because you're not craning your neck for nine innings. So it's very comfortable, but I've only been to two games there.