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Summer of '68

The Season When Baseball and America Changed Forever

Lorraine Motel, Memphis

Billy Kyles waited in Room 306 as Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy got ready. Any time Kyles tried to hurry things along, King told him he had been told dinner was at six. Several times Kyles began to argue the point, after all the dinner was at his house, he would know, and King simply replied, “Six.”

“I was frustrated at the time,” Kyles recalled, “because I wanted to get going. But in looking back on it, I realize what a blessing it was. I was able to spend that last hour of his life with him.”

About six that evening, King and Kyles went out on to the balcony that still overlooks a small parking lot in south Memphis. Back in the room Abernathy was finishing shaving. As King waited, he lingered on the balcony outside the room, resting his arms on the balcony rail. He called out to Jesse Jackson and others in the parking lot and Kyles began to walk down the stairs to his car. Finally, as Andrew Young later remembered, the group was prepared to “have us a dinner.”

A moment later, a blast echoed through the Lorraine Motel courtyard. Kyles and Abernathy turned to see King lying on the balcony landing, the right side of his face ripped open and his head beginning to rest in a halo of blood. He had been stuck down by a .30-06 caliber bullet.

Kyles ran back inside Room 306 and tried to call an ambulance—an attempt that was stymied when the hotel switchboard went dead because the operator had raced into the courtyard to see what had happened.

King died hours later and across the country cities began to burn in protest, with more than one hundred American cities soon erupting in flame. In Washington, D.C., smoke could be seen only a few blocks from the White House. Just days before, President Lyndon Johnson had announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection. The move seemingly gained him traction for ongoing efforts to end the war in Vietnam and settling things on the domestic front. Yet as the reports of rioting came in, the president realized that any political momentum he had gained in recent days was now lost forever.

In Indianapolis, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was about to speak from the back of a flatbed truck to a predominately black crowd at a campaign stop when he received the news that King had been assassinated. In what would later be looked back on as the second of two extraordinary speeches in as many days, and a stunning example of the healing power that words can offer, Kennedy told his audience about King’s death. For most of them it was the first they had heard of the tragic news.

After asking many in the crowd to lower their signs, Kennedy said, “I have some very sad news for all of you and I think some sad news for all our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

A gasp ran through the crowd, followed by shouts of “No!” and “Black Power!” Indianapolis, like so many cities across the nation, seemed to ready to come apart at the seams. But here Kennedy, speaking only from a few scribbled notes, and beginning in a trembling, halting voice, slowly brought the people back around and somehow held them together.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings,” Kennedy said. “He died in the cause of that effort.”

Listening to the speech decades later, you can hear the crowd soon become still, ready to hear the candidate out. Speaking from the heart, Kennedy told the crowd how he “had a member of my family killed” -- a reference to his brother, of course, who had been assassinated less than five years before.

“But we have to make an effort in the United States,” the younger Kennedy continued, “we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

“My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget/ falls drop by drop upon the heart,/ until, in our own despair,/ against our will,/ comes wisdom/ through the awful grace of God.”

A few minutes later, Kennedy closed by telling the crowd, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Indianapolis was one of the few cities that didn’t burn that evening in April 1968, or in the days ahead.

Back at the Kyles's home, the home-cooked food that had been laid out for that evening’s dinner still sat on the table. Kyles’s youngest son, Dwain, couldn’t bring himself to eat any of it. He made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead.

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The next morning, in St. Petersburg, Florida, the spring training camp of the St. Louis Cardinals was like most places in America: the King assassination the major topic of conversation. Gibson was devastated by the news and got into a heated exchange with his catcher, Tim McCarver. After telling McCarver that he couldn’t possibly comprehend what it was like to be a black person on this morning, and that it was impossible for whites, no matter how well intentioned, to totally overcome prejudice, Gibson turned his back on his batterymate.

To McCarver’s credit, he didn’t let the situation go. Undoubtedly, he realized that the last person Gibson wanted to hear from at that moment was a white man, who had grown up in Memphis of all places. Yet McCarver told Gibson that it was possible for people to change. If anything, he was Exhibit A. Back when McCarver was new to the team, Gibson and Curt Flood had ribbed him about his reluctance to share a sip of soda offered by a black man. McCarver had seen a lot of truth in their teasing. Perhaps that’s why he wouldn’t let things drop after King’s death. In talking with Gibson, McCarver found himself in “the unfamiliar position of arguing that the races were equal and that we were all the same.”

Years later, McCarver wrote that “Bob and I reached a meeting of the minds that morning. That was the kind of talk we often had on the Cardinals.”

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A few days later, the Detroit team bus pulled up to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the site of old Tiger Stadium. It was Monday, April 8, 1968 -- a mild spring evening in the Motor City. Despite the pleasant weather, the city streets were already deserted by six o’clock at night -- a scene that Warden found disappointing, even a bit disturbing.

After pitching for Class A Rocky Mount in the Carolina League, following the Tigers’ pennant chase from afar, Jon Warden had made the most of his opportunities during spring training. Always a hard-thrower, he had gained some control, even the ability to pitch out of jams on occasion. Yet making the big-league club had come as such a surprise he still needed to buy a blazer or suit jacket for road trips and team functions.

The regular season had been delayed due to King’s assassination in Memphis. The funeral for the civil rights leader was scheduled for the next day, April 9, with the season to begin a day later, at home against the Boston Red Sox. The ballclub had stayed in Florida through the weekend, with Warden praying that the coaches didn’t change their minds about him making the team. But somehow here he was, along with Daryl Patterson, another rookie, standing outside the regal, old-style ballpark, ready for the season to start.

Gear shuttled from the bus into the ballpark, and Warden and Patterson were able to catch a glimpse of the emerald-green grass and the distinctive two-story pavilion that rose behind home plate. Tiger Stadium wasn’t considered a pitcher’s ballpark but on that late afternoon the two rookies could have cared less.

Too soon, the gathering broke up. Cars driven by family or friends pulled up to take the veteran players and team officials home. Soon enough the two rookies, two white guys from the sticks, were the only ones left standing at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

That’s when Warden and Patterson realized that in the hubbub, they had been totally forgotten. Perhaps an easy thing to have happen, what with the disruption accompanying the news of King’s shooting, the pending funeral, and the season opener being pushed back. Nobody had thought to reserve a room for them or make sure they were taken care of.

“We had fallen through the cracks,” Warden remembered years later. “It wasn’t like these days when I could call anybody up on my cell phone. That night still remains one of the eeriest sights I’ve ever seen. There was simply nobody around in this big city. Simply nobody. Detroit, the place where I was so determined to pitch, had become a ghost town.”

With hanging bags slung over a shoulder, a suitcase in the other hand, the pair began to walk down the street until a police cruiser pulled alongside. The officer asked who they were. When Warden and Patterson replied that they were with the Tigers, the baseball team, the cop didn’t recognize their names, even though he said he was a lifelong fan. “Of course, he wouldn’t have heard of us,” Warden said. “We were about the only new guys on a really experienced club. Household names? Well, we weren’t exactly that.”

The officer told them that Detroit was under curfew, with nobody allowed on the streets after dusk.

After some discussion, the officer dropped them off at the Leland Hotel, a twenty-two-story Beaux Arts building on Bagley Street, a few blocks from the stadium. There the rookies took an efficiency apartment for the night that eventually became their home for the rest of season.

That evening Warden recalled the stories that Willie Horton and others on the team had told him during spring training. How last year had broken their hearts on almost every level. Not only had they lost the pennant to the Red Sox on the final day of the season; as they played on, the city literally went up in flames around them.

The summer before, President Johnson had ordered the Eighty-Second Airborne to Detroit after the rioting became so bad that the Michigan National Guard couldn’t contain it. During the long hot summer of 1967, just about anything attempted by authority had struck the wrong chord. Tensions had finally come to a head in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, when the police raided an illegal bar, also called a “blind pig,” where a celebration for two black servicemen returning home from Vietnam was underway. When Detroit’s finest, mostly white, began to load everybody into a paddy wagon, an angry mob, predominately black, had formed on the street outside. Outnumbered, the police retreated and rioting soon spread throughout the city.

Now, less than nine months later, it occurred to Warden as he gazed down upon the city’s deserted streets that the quiet could well just be the calm before another storm. One could imagine that the cinders from the previous summer’s fires were in fact still smoldering, merely waiting for the right spark to set them off.

By now he knew the stories. How the afternoon after the police raid on the blind pig, the Tigers had taken the field for a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. After losing the first game that evening Mickey Lolich had reported to active duty with his Guard unit. Meanwhile, Horton, who had lived near the site of the police raid, hurried to that section of town still in his game jersey. There he climbed atop a car and spoke to the crowd, trying to calm them down. But it was no good. It took five days to restore order in Detroit, and when it was over, forty-three were dead, 7,200 had been arrested, and more than 2,000 buildings had burned, many to the ground.

Of course, that was last season, and one could say it was time to turn the page. Yet as Warden studied the city that was to be his new home, silent and dark now, cleared for the curfew, he thought about King’s assassination, and he couldn’t help but wonder if it was inevitable. That Detroit was set to erupt all over again.