Monday, September 23, 2013
Return from war was challenging both on field and off
The action on the field proved worth the wait, with a dramatic pennant race in the National League en route to a classic seven-game World Series that was settled by Enos Slaughter's legendary race around the bases. But the sport proved to be just as susceptible to the turmoil as every other aspect of American life, as Robert Weintraub captures in The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age.
With nearly a million and a half soldiers being discharged every month, communities were unable to reabsorb all the young men returning home. Housing shortages left hundreds of thousands homeless. Production of food and goods failed to keep up with demand. And workers in virtually every field struck for better pay and improved working conditions.
Long before Marvin Miller rallied players to stand up for their own rights, a labor attorney named Robert Murphy tried to ignite the fuse. Early in June 1946, the Pirates became the first club to potentially walk out, until they dealt Murphy and the cause a surprise blow by narrowly voting against striking. The owners had been plenty nervous, given the number of players that had jumped to the Mexican League in the spring, seduced by the dollars thrown at them by businessman Jorge Pasquel.
Though the players recognized they were the only ones not benefitting financially from the sport's swelling coffers, it would be another generation before they collectively challenged the system. Big change was coming on a much faster timeframe, however, with the Brooklyn Dodgers primed to break baseball's color line. Weintraub devotes several chapters to the ordeals Jackie Robinson and lesser known teammates John Wright and Roy Partlow endured as minor leaguers in Montreal in 1946, a year before Robinson broke in with the big league Dodgers.
Despite all the distractions, the game lured record crowds to the yard, attendance climbing from 675,000 in 1945 to an average of 1.7 million per club. Fans wanted to see Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Pete Reiser again after three years of primarily watching players who were either too old or medically ineligible for armed service.
Weintraub spends quite a bit of time on Williams, the DiMaggio brothers, Reiser, and Cecil Travis, among others, with an emphasis on their military service. He goes into great detail on a number of the 500 big leaguers to answer the nation's call, occasionally struggling to transition from the battlefield to the ball field.
If the book has one failing, it's the forced nature of some of these stories. Of the Red Sox dropping six in a row after riding a huge cushion into September, Weintraub says, "Perhaps they were worried about events overseas," before launching into some background on the brewing Cold War. Most likely events in Eastern Europe had nothing whatsoever to do with Boston's lack of focus.
Cardinals hurler Harry Breechen is described as "too sick to chew over how [Hermann] Goering had managed to kill himself" in another clumsy transition from current events to on-field matters. And Weintraub shifts from an account of a dropped atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll by writing, "The explosion was deafening, although the denizens of St. Louis were out of earshot. Still, something seemed to stir the Cardinals once July came."
No doubt there was a lot of material to squeeze in. Many of the topics confined to a chapter or two here have been expounded upon in full volumes elsewhere. Overall, Weintraub, who previously penned The House That Ruth Built, does a fine job of painting a complete picture of not just what the players were facing, but what America faced as it grappled with postwar life.