Monday, April 14, 2014


Sixty years ago the New York Giants won their fifth World Series in franchise history by beating the Cleveland Indians in a four-game sweep. It ended a run of five straight titles by the Yankees. The Brooklyn Dodgers would get their first championship the next season, and the Milwaukee Braves would grab their first in 1957. The one thing all those clubs had in common were African-American stars. Willie Mays was the MVP in 1954 and played alongside Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella (the 1955 MVP), Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe led the Dodgers. And the Braves, of course, had Hank Aaron (the 1957 MVP) and Eddie Mathews. The Indians, led by Larry Doby, also had Luke Easter, Dave Hoskins, Dave Pope and Al Smith on their roster, making the 1954 Series a notable one for the presence of so many black ballplayers. Robinson's breaking of the color line in 1947 also made it possible for dark-skinned Latino players like Sandy Amoros and Ruben Gomez to make it in the bigs as well. Ernie Banks, just to mention another great former Negro Leagues player, made his debut in 1954.

Bill Madden chronicles that season and its impact on the game in his latest book 1954: the year Willie Mays and the first generation of black superstars changed Major League Baseball forever. Mr. Madden covers a lot of ground, from Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck to Leo Durocher and Walter O'Malley. Along the way we follow the 1954 season from the perspective of the underdog Giants and the powerhouse Indians, a team that set a record with 111 wins. Legendary New York sportswriter Dick Young gets a lot of ink as well, for this was a time when newspapermen were the main link--other than radio broadcasts--between fans and their favorite teams. TV was just beginning to make inroads into the game, and the Giants were on the forefront as they featured a pre-game show with Laraine Day, the glamorous former MGM actress and wife of the mercurial Durocher.

I'm not sure Mr. Madden makes his case in 1954 that baseball was changed "forever," but you can certainly say a critical mass of African-American stars emerged during that time, and they paved the way for even more men of color to participate in the national pastime. The Yankees would be the last team to integrate, but they managed to stay at the top (Series winners in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962 and runners-up in 1955, 1957, 1960, 1963, and 1964) despite their intransigence. Certainly integration was a pivotal time in both the game's and the nation's history, but I don't know if any particular year was more important than any other. The relocation of the Dodgers and Giants to California, followed by expansion and then division play had huge impacts as well. Perhaps nothing was more momentous than free agency and the two strikes it precipitated, and the flood of television dollars that has been unabated in the last few decades has certainly made the modern game very different.

Nonetheless 1954 is an interesting book and baseball buffs like yourselves will enjoy all the great stories of the old-timers. Giants fans, in particular, will enjoy anything about Willie "The Greatest of Them All" Mays and his place in team and baseball lore. I particularly liked learning more about Alvin Dark, who managed the talented but unlucky San Francisco teams in the 1960s. Giants fans will also appreciate some history on Al Rosen, a star for those same Indians, who later of course was the Giants GM from 1985-1992.


p.s. Thanks again to Kristina DiMichele and DaCapo Press for the review copy. I've got another book from them about the 1991 World Series that I'll get to later.


Zo said...

David Halberstam covers some of this ground in "October 1964" about the Cardinals, including black players Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, and the Yankees. The Cardinals' owner, at that time, still August Busch, bought a hotel in Florida so that the black players could stay there along with the white players during spring training. Typically at that time, black players had to find lodging in private homes. The Yankees did not, in 1964, have their first black player.

Zo said...

Things have changed a lot since 1964. Then again.......

M.C. O'Connor said...

Yeah, that's a great book as is his "Summer of '49."

Elston Howard was on the Yankees 1955-1966. He was not only on the losing side to the Cards in '64 he was the catcher on the '67 Red Sox as well.

Saw that story--Dave Zirin picked it up. Sheesh. If a black guy is in a nice 'hood he must be an interloper or a peasant.

Shankbone said...

You beat me to it, I have a copy as well! Haven't read it yet. I blame 3 rugrats.