Wednesday’s Book Review: “Beyond the Sixth Game”

Beyond the Sixth Game. By Peter Gammons. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Game six of the 1975 World Series is often referred to as the greatest in history. The Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds battled to a standstill in extra innings with the Reds leading the series 3-2. Carlton Fisk hit a walk-off home run in the twelfth inning to send the series to a seventh game, which the Reds won to claim its first series victory in more than a generation.

Gammons seeks to go beyond this iconic struggle to answer a question that many have posed afterward, why did such a promising Red Sox team fail to win even a single World Series with the personnel that excited everyone in 1975. The team challenged for years from 1973 through the early 1980s, but only played in the one series it lost. It had three future Hall of Famers on that team—Carlton Fisk, Carl Yastrzemski, and Jim Rice—as well as an outstanding pair of starting pitchers in Luis Tiant and Bill Lee and talented everyday players led by AL Rookie of the Year and league MVP Fred Lynn.

Gammons answer seems to be that changes to the game, especially the advent of free agency, as well as the rise of cable sports networks and superstations, contributed to the team being broken up and players leaving for better deals elsewhere. While Gammons hits hard the leadership of the Red Sox for failure to adapt to a new environment, he seems to wallow in the nostalgia of what might have been and like so many other sportswriters lent credence to the owners’ position that free agency was one of the worst things that ever happened in MLB.

Gammons ran through a list of players who were with their teams their entire careers—like that is the most important thing—but fails to note that players have moved all the time. Let me cite a few greats who moved elsewhere before free agency because their team owners wanted to get rid of them: Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron. Gammons failed to note that several after the advent of free agency remained with their original teams for their entire careers; Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Guinn, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, and Willie Stargell come to mind. The issue of player movement is really not terribly compelling.

Gammons is wrong to give legitimacy to the side of the owners fighting the MLB Player’s Association seeking some parity with the baseball establishment. Owners wanted to turn back the clock to keep MLB in the desperate years of the 1950s when the result was that the dominance of New York teams because of their greater resources hindered the growth of the game. The equity created through arbitration and free agency ensured that the game was never more popular before than it was after the new structure forced changes in management that allowed for free agents and core players from a farm system now more important than ever.

Red Sox leadership failed to make changes. It was stuck in the mud in the same way that it was with the integration to the game in the 1940s. It suffered because of that; it did the same here as well. It took new leadership and the advance of new thinking to create the juggernaut so dominate in the early twenty-first century. Gammons could not have known this in 1985, but this book now appears both dated and arguing a lost cause.

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