In October 1960, the New York Yankees returned to the World Series. Having missed the fall classic in 1959, for only the third time in 13 years, the Yankees won the American League pennant by eight games and coasted into the Series.
Order had been restored to baseball.
The 1950s had been a tumultuous time for the game that placed a premium on tradition. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and Major League Baseball spent the better part of a decade coming to terms with integration. The Red Sox didn't field a Black player until Pumpsie Green joined the roster in 1959, but by then, most of the other teams had made considerable progress toward integrating their squads. And many fans looked forward to America's pastime being free of controversy in the coming years.
But nothing about the 1960s was controversy free, and baseball was no exception.
Curt Flood was one of baseball's superstars in 1969. For many African Americans, his career seemed one of the great success stories of the post-Jackie Robinson major leagues. Raised in the tough streets of Oakland, he escaped the crime-scarred fate of his older brother by signing a contract with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. The next year, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals where he quickly broke into the starting lineup.
By the mid 1960s, he was the captain on a team that won three pennants and two World Series titles. His batting average hovered near .300, and his stellar work in center field earned him Gold Glove after Gold Glove. In 1968, Sports Illustrated named him the "Best Center Fielder in Baseball."
But the 1969 season was a disappointing one for the Cardinals, and so, management decided to shake things up. Flood, Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner were traded to the Phillies for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. The other players packed their bags, but Flood had no interest in going to Philadelphia—a town he described as America's "northernmost Southern city."
But the reserve clause in the contract of every ball player granted team owners lifetime rights over their players. Faced with this fact, Flood contemplated retiring. But further reflection led him to question the justice of any organization exercising such absolute control over a person's career. The reserve clause left players with virtually no power over where they worked or lived. It just didn't seem right, especially in a country that was quickly re-thinking many of its traditional practices.
"By God, this is America, and I'm a human being," Flood concluded. "I'm not a piece of property. I'm not a consignment of goods."
In 1997, Curt Flood died of throat cancer. In 1998, Congress passed the Curt Flood Act legislatively ending the reserve clause and bringing Major League Baseball into alignment with the nation's antitrust laws.
Bell-bottoms and incense, long hair, free love and psychedelic rock—the 1960s are commonly reduced to a set of easy-to-replicate images, phrases, and styles.
Once branded as immoral, anarchistic, and revolutionary, the counterculture of the 1960s is now playfully imitated. Its sounds, styles, and slogans are the subject of high school spirit days and rally skits. No longer the harbinger of cultural meltdown, the '60s have become a party theme.
Lost, of course, in this transformation is any deeper understanding of what the counterculture represented. For those most deeply invested in the movement, the counterculture was more about philosophy than style. American society, these claimed, had been corrupted by capitalism and the materialist culture it spawned. In pursuing "success," people had lost sight of the more meaningful experiences life had to offer.
"Turn on, tune in, and drop out" was less an invitation to party than a call to experience life more intimately and deeply.
America's institutions were the targets of much of this cultural critique. Even those founded on lofty ideals, it was argued, had become props for a morally bankrupt society.
Within this totally jaded society, the "individual" had little chance.
In fact, his only hope was to escape in some fashion, perhaps into the woods where a person could rediscover the fundamental truths that nature revealed, or into hallucinogenic drugs that pushed the mind past the limitations drilled into it by education and upbringing, or into a completely different lifestyle grounded on more humane and authentic values.
These deeper philosophical aspects of the counterculture remind us that there was far more to it than clothes, hair, and music. But they also reveal that it wasn't particularly revolutionary. Most of its themes had surfaced much earlier in American history.
In the 1840s, transcendentalists retreated to Brook Farm to look for the truth in nature and pursue lives far removed from the materialism, meaningless work, and corrupted values of mainstream society.
Henry David Thoreau cultivated this ethic more privately and retreated to the woods outside Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the classic prescription for discovery of self and truth within nature. His observation that most "men live lives of quiet desperation" would aptly summarize the conclusions of cultural critics a century later.
And his following phrase would provide 1960s counterculturalists with a slogan for individual self-realization: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
Even attitudes toward drug use have softened. In 1975, President Gerald Ford's son Jack caused a public relations storm when he admitted using marijuana. And now, several states have legalized its use. In 2008, President Barack Obama, one of the more popular presidential candidates in American history, openly acknowledged using cocaine as a teenager.
In other words, while countercultural purists might lament the degradation of their movement, while their last act of rebellion might lie in condemning the corruption or commodification of the very culture they created, others would argue that the '60s are still very much with us.
The principles may be diluted, America's free market foundations may remain unshaken, but closer to home, profound changes have occurred in the way people work, think, and live.
In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America, a shocking expose of poverty and want in the United States. Thoroughly researched, the book chronicled the plight of "the unskilled workers, the migrant farm workers, the aged, the minorities, and all of the others who live in the economic underworld of American life."
On October 1st, 1964, thousands of students at the University of California at Berkeley spontaneously surrounded a police car as it attempted to carry away a young political activist in handcuffs.
The university and student political associations had been arguing for weeks over where student political organizing could take place. When the university declared that it must occur off campus, student organizations from across the political spectrum defied the decision by placing their tables in Sproul Plaza, one of the main thoroughfares through campus. Jack Weinberg, staffing the CORE table (Congress of Racial Equality), refused to budge when the police ordered him to take his table off campus. As he was being arrested, students began to gather, and by the time he was placed in the squad car, hundreds had begun to plant themselves around the vehicle.
In the next 32 hours, crowds swelled to 3,000 students who locked the police car in place. As student leaders met with campus officials to negotiate an end to the stalemate, the student protestors held their own mass forum over the philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience.
One by one, they removed their shoes and climbed to the top of the squad car where they addressed the crowd. They quoted Thoreau, Gandhi, and Socrates, among others. Students invoked the lessons learned in history and philosophy classes in debating the appropriate way to pursue human rights and social justice.
Six years later, three members of the Weathermen, an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, were killed when the bomb they were constructing in their lower Manhattan apartment exploded. The deaths of Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins, which occurred shortly before the tiny radical faction declared war against the United States, announced to many the end of the student movement.
This may have been premature. More than 50,000 young activists would march on the Pentagon the following spring to protest the Vietnam War. And the Weathermen would persist in their campaign against "Amerikan imperialism" despite little ostensible success. For the next year, they'd explode bombs in courthouses and police stations across the country.
Still, the self-immolation of the three idealistic radicals struck many as a pathetic commentary on the deterioration of the student movement that had begun with such idealistic confidence in 1964. Or perhaps more precisely, the deaths of these students suggested a tragic conclusion to the debate initiated in Sproul Plaza over the philosophy and tactics of political resistance.
Berkeley's Free Speech Movement dominated campus affairs through December of 1964. Negotiations between campus officials and student leaders over campus speech policy were interrupted by periodic student marches and rallies.
Mario Savio, a 21-year-old philosophy major, quickly emerged as the most powerful speaker and, consequently, leader of the movement. He'd just returned from the South where he'd joined hundreds of other students in the Mississippi Summer Project. Sponsored by SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), this project had enlisted students to register voters and run "freedom schools" aimed at increasing literacy and empowering the Black community through education.
With his sense of the times and his obligations sharpened by recent experience, Savio demanded that students not temporize in their pursuit of free speech on campus. "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop," he urged Berkeley students. "And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"blank">Iraq to abusive labor practices.
And Jack Weinberg, the Berkeley activist who launched the Free Speech Movement when he spent 32 hours in the back of a squad car, went on to devote much of his time to environmental issues. In 2005, he and other Greenpeace activists were arrested in the Philippines.
The "movement" may not have achieved all that many of its participants hoped for, but it achieved a great deal. America is a different place for it. And beyond its impact on specific issues, the movement left a series of narratives and lessons.
The next time a group gathers to debate the tactics best suited to advancing reform in America, they might draw upon the lessons learned at Berkeley, Columbia, and Greenwich Village. And the next time students climb on top of a police car to debate the best way to redress some social or political injustice, they might quote Thoreau, Gandhi, and Savio.
When Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, he was the perfect candidate for his time. Rock solid and filled with integrity, he provided a reassuring presence within a political environment rife with anti-communist hysteria and overheated accusations of treason. With unblemished credentials as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, the respected general also seemed to be the commander in chief capable of ending the stalemate in Korea.
But by 1960, the steady former general had morphed, in the popular imagination, into the plodding old general. It wasn't just the mild stroke he suffered in 1957 that convinced many that the country needed a more vital chief executive: there were signs everywhere that America had lost its edge under his leadership.
In August and September of 1957, the Soviets successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, seeming to place the communists ahead in the nuclear race. In October, the Russians launched Sputnik, an unmanned satellite that circled the earth for three months. Sputnik's radio beam, picked up by ham radio operators throughout America, provided a painful reminder that America's most recent satellite had exploded at lift-off.
The suggestion that America had lost its scientific edge was reinforced further in November when the office of education released a two-year study revealing that Russian students were better prepared than Americans in math and science.
In addition to America's technological decline, some observers argued that Americans suffered from an erosion of morality and virility. Philip Wylie's bestselling Generation of Vipers described a nation weakened by materialism and a generation of young men emasculated by overbearing and overprotective mothers.
In short, the message from several directions was that America needed rejuvenation—it needed to recover its technological and educational edge, and shake off the enervating excess accumulated during a decade of postwar prosperity. And this rejuvenation must begin at the top.
John Kennedy was the perfect presidential candidate for his time.
Young and active, he presented a stark contrast to the older, increasingly frail Eisenhower. A Harvard-educated war hero, he represented intellectual rigor as well as personal courage—the right combination for steering America toward renewed international leadership. An eloquent speaker and an astute analyst of the national mood, he articulated a vision that took direct aim at American fears that aging leadership had left America vulnerable and soft.
"Let the word go forth [...] that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," he declared in his inaugural address. And to those who feared that material self-indulgence was stifling the American spirit, he issued a call for personal sacrifice, saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."
But events in Vietnam demanded something different from Johnson—and when he couldn't deliver the policy or the vision required, he rather nobly stepped aside.
Perhaps the truth is more simple. In the face of rising opposition, he realized that he no longer could muster the political support needed to implement a different policy. He'd reached the end of his formidable, but ultimately limited, political career.
In 1963, Lyndon Johnson was exactly the right person to complete the work begun by John Kennedy. As a Southerner and a skilled politician, he was the perfect person to ride point on the legislative grunt work needed to turn Kennedy's vision into law. Quite possibly, he was able to realize more of Kennedy's program than the younger, less experienced president ever would have.
But by 1968, Johnson's moment had passed. No amount of arm-twisting, cajoling, or deal cutting could build the public support needed to either escalate or retreat in Vietnam. The times demanded a new president.