The mid-1970s was not a great time for America. The country, which had just gone through Watergate, Vietnam, and the dissolution of the original Bretton-Woods system, faced widespread gas shortages, high inflation, rising unemployment, and geopolitical turbulence. There was a sense that we were falling behind and the Soviet Union was ascendant. (Of course, 10 years later that would be completely reversed, but few Americans could have predicted the turnaround that would unfold over the next decade.)
There were a few bright spots amid the gloom of those days, though. For instance, if you were a baseball fan in 1975 — or even if you weren’t — you probably caught a few games of what was arguably the best World Series of all time.
That’s according to author and lifelong Boston Red Sox fan Doug Hornig, and after reading his book The Boys of October, it’s tough to disagree. He breaks this emotional event down in a way that’s characteristic to baseball — with stats. To make a definitive case, he goes through a process of elimination with all the World Series up to the point his book was written. It was published 2003, which makes you wonder if he revised his opinion following the Sox’ championships of 2004 and 2007.
Probably not. (And the fact that he rates the Series in which his team lost as the best ever should tell you something about Red Sox fandom.) According to Hornig, the qualities that make for the greatest World Series are as follows:
▪ The maximum possible number of games played (7).
▪ Games decided by a single run, especially the final contest.
▪ Frequent lead changes.
▪ A high number of comebacks and late-inning rallies.
▪ Memorable plays. (Incidentally, this series featured what’s probably the most famous play in the history of televised sports.)
▪ The Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks aren’t involved. (This is, perhaps, the most indisputable point of the bunch.)
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Put all of the above aside, and let’s examine other aspects of the series — like rosters, for example. This series featured players such as Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski, Carlton “Pudge” Fisk, Dwight Evans, and Freddie Lynn. And that was just on the losing side! (Note: The great Jim Rice was unable to play for the Sox due to injury.)
It’s hard to believe the ’75 Sox were considered to be a somewhat unpolished group. That is, until you look at the other team. Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” was absolutely stacked. Joe Morgan. Pete Rose. Johnny Bench (whom I interviewed once — nice guy). Davy Concepción. Ken Griffey Sr. And, of course, the great Sparky Anderson at manager.
That’s a ton of talent on both sides, obviously. But we haven’t even gotten to the book’s true “stars” yet. The first is pitcher Luis Tiant, the Cuban-born “master of deception” on the mound. Tiant had a truly distinctive delivery: He would turn his back to the batter, do a little twitchy dance, then spin around in a flash and send some unpredictable pitch toward home plate. (I know if I tried to throw like that, the ball would end up in the dugout.) Tiant is clearly Hornig’s favorite player for his actions on and off the field, and I think it would be very hard to finish this book without becoming a fan of El Tiante, too.
That said, the other most prominent figure is my favorite baseball player: lefty Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Why was he called “Spaceman” (a nickname he actually didn’t care for)? This nugget could probably tell you all you need to know: When Lee was once asked if he preferred natural or artificial grass, he replied, “I dunno. I never smoked the fake stuff.”
But Lee wasn’t some dumb stoner. Quite the opposite: He was outspoken on the issues of the day. Also, he offered what might be the best description of being “in the zone” that I’ve ever come across. Via Hornig:
“When your arm, mind and body are in sync, you are able to work at peak performance level, while your brain remains relaxed. It’s Zen-like when you’re going good. You are the ball and the ball is you. It can do you no harm.”
In addition to the colorful characters, there’s a sense that the game was just better back then. For one thing, this was a few years before crack and steroids started becoming commonplace in clubhouses. Also, the games didn’t drag on: Hornig writes that when batters went up to the plate, they stayed there until they struck out, got walked, got beaned, or got a hit. They didn’t step back after every pitch and adjust their batting gloves, knock dirt out of their cleats, spit, and otherwise waste several seconds like you see today. As a result, the games moved along much faster.
Plus, it seems like going to a pro baseball game was an unfussy, inexpensive affair in those days, something that anybody could partake of and enjoy. For example, Hornig, who was barely scratching out a living at the time, was able to get a pair of tickets to Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway Park. This wasn’t because he was buddies with a Senator or had an uncle who was a Fortune 500 CEO or anything like that. He simply entered a lottery by submitting an application and a check for the amount of the tickets, and happened to be one of the lucky ones chosen.
There’s one other thing about the 1975 World Series that was striking: how much it mattered to people. In Boston, it united a city that had been torn apart just one year earlier by busing riots. It helped Hornig get through the ass end of a failed marriage. And practically the entire country stayed up late to watch Pudge Fisk “wave” his home run shot to right fair in the 12th inning of Game 6.
I’m not sure that any sporting event could generate that kind of passion and unity in America today. Anything involving baseball definitely would not. Case in point: We just had perhaps the most down-to-the-wire regular season, and one of the best World Series, of my entire life. (I turn 32 next month.) But only 10 percent, 20 tops, of all the people I know were even remotely interested.
As many other people have noted before, we live in a much more culturally balkanized society today, and I’m not sure I could identify a single experience that would bring people together like that. The Super Bowl, Oscars, Summer Olympics, U.S. Presidential elections, and Kardashian weddings may approach it, but I still know plenty of people who don’t watch, participate in, or care about at least one of those things.
And that’s too bad. We could really use that kind of coalescence and inspiration right now. Where have you gone, Pudge Fisk? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.