Michael Shapiro’s The Last Good Season looks at 1956:
the year after the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. With the same
cast of characters, the Dodgers spent most of the season chasing the Milwaukee
Braves, edging them for the pennant by just one game. Ted Kluszewski’s
Cincinnati Reds finished only two games back.
Facing (naturally) the Yankees once again in the Fall
Classic, they ran into Don Larsen’s unlikely perfect game and saw league MVP
and Cy Young Award winner, Don Newcombe, hammered in the game seven loss.
This book interweaves three stories: First, the actual
on-field play of the boys of summer.
It’s also the story of the changes in Brooklyn, as the
ethnic makeup was undergoing a transformation. And that change played a part in
the third story: that of Walter O’Malley’s attempt to get a new stadium,
leading to the move to Los Angeles.
Though getting a bit long in the tooth (Jackie Robinson
would be sold, then retire after the Series), the offense dominated National
League pitching, while Don Newcombe and Clem Labine started and finished wins.
Perhaps because so much has been written about these fifties Brooklyn Dodgers,
the actual baseball part doesn’t make up quite as much of the book as expected.
There’s still plenty there, but it’s not as big a part of the whole as the
title leads one to believe.
There are long passages looking at the experiences of
Brooklynites and the changes going on in the borough. I found these to be the
least interesting parts of the book.
There is much about O’Malley’s attempt to build a new
stadium in Brooklyn, and about powerful
New York City official Robert Moses’ lack of interest in helping
O’Malley on the latter’s terms. Whether or not O’Malley’s domed stadium and
site selection was actually feasible, Robert Moses wasn’t interested in
facilitating the project. In the end, he tried to push the Dodgers into a site
in Flushing, which a few years later came to host Shea Stadium.
Every book seems to take sides. While Shapiro isn’t
particularly sympathetic to O’Malley, he clearly states, “In the end, Robert
Moses is the bad guy in this story.” I happen to be in the camp that there is
much blame to be assigned to both sides. But O’Malley wanted to improve his
business, couldn’t get what he wanted, and went somewhere else where he could
get it. That’s a simplified view, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.
I think that this is a pretty good book about the
second-to-last season of the Brooklyn Dodgers, with quite a bit of information
on the power struggle for a new ballpark. One interesting tidbit is that Los
Angeles officials were in Ebbets Field, wooing Clark Griffith of the Washington
Senators when O’Malley sent a note down, saying he wanted to talk to them. The
Senators, of course, moved to Minneapolis and became the Twins.
I give it four stars, with its strength being the
O’Malley – Moses tussle.
Tomorrow, April 15, is 2015 Jackie Robinson Day in MLB. I've written about Robinson several times here on the blog. The Dodgers are hosting the Mariners for a game on ESPN2. It's the 2015 Civil Rights Game and there will be all kinds of tributes.
Sharon Robinson (Jackie's widow), Don Newcombe, Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella's daughter will all be involved in the throwing out the first pitch.
Tune in and remember Jackie. You can use the search line above to find all my Robinson, Newcombe and Dodgers related posts on the site.
BTW, I do pretty much all my posting these days over at my current blog, Almost Holmes. I'd like to free up some time do some more baseball writing here this summer, though.
I am more aligned with the President's view on immigration than I am with the Senate's. I think it is closer to a Biblical perspective (which is certainly ironic, with his twisting of what the Bible actually says into his own personal theology).
But I am flabbergasted that Democrats in America consistently heap praise on a president who, time after time, takes actions that echo those of Richard Nixon. The hypocrisy is mind numbing.
Nixon and Obama repeatedly displayed a blatant disregard for the US Constitution and several times exercised executive powers not granted their office.
Heck: they both had Attorney Generals who served their leader's political agendas, rather than carry out the actual duties of their positions. There are numerous similarities, and I don't mean good ones:
Abuse of the IRS to attack enemies, anyone?
Persecution of hostile press? Check.
Claims of executive privilege to shield subordinates from damaging testimony? Yep.
At least Nixon paid the price for his betrayal of his oath of office and was run out of the White House (though with Ford's pardon, he still got off easy, while his loyal underlings went to jail). How can there not be the same accountability for the current president?
Before you start blasting me in comments below, go read a critical book on Nixon's presidency, like Anthony Lukas' 'Nightmare,' Fred Emery's 'Watergate,' Theodore White's 'Breach of Faith' or Stanley Kutler's 'The Abuse of Power.' Then look at the current administration. It's right there.
Did you know that the Braves didn't start out in Atlanta? That they moved there from Milwaukee? And that they actually began in Boston? Well, that's all true. And in 1948, they had their last hurrah in Beantown.
In 1914, 'The Miracle Braves' of Boston, behind Hall of Fame shortstop
Rabbit Maranville, unexpectedly won the World Series. They finished second the
following season. In 1916 and again in 1947, they managed to finish third.
From 1917 through 1946, THIRTY consecutive seasons, they finished fourth or worse.
And it was usually worse. Twenty three times out of thirty seasons, they
finished under .500 (and finished .500 once).
That’s only six winning seasons out of thirty years. Forgot the Red Sox: The
Braves fans were the long suffering ones. They broke the century mark in losses
five times. And in 1935, the Braves managed an execrable 38-115 record,
averaging less than 3,100 fans per game.
In 1946, the team showed signs of life, improving from 67 to 81 wins and
nearly tripling attendance. In 1947, they had their best season since 1916,
finished third and broke the million mark in attendance for the first time
ever. With many fans excited for Braves baseball for the first times in their
lives, what would 1948 hold in store?
“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”
Warren Spahn finished serving in World War II and in 1947, his first full
season in the majors, won 21 games and led the league in ERA and innings
pitched. He would go on to be the winningest left handed pitcher in baseball
Johnny Sain returned from his military service and won 20 games in 1946 and
21 more in 1947. Though his career was much less successful than that of Spahn’s,
he finished second in the 1948 MVP voting.
The Braves found themselves, surprisingly enough, in a three-way pennant
race with the Cardinals and Dodgers as summer wound down in 1948. Those two
squads had won six of the seven prior National League pennants.
As Boston raced
to the flag, Boston Post sportswriter Gerald Hearn overheard manager Billy
Southworth say, “From here on I will rotate my pitching staff. Spahn one day,
Sain the next.”
How fortunate for Hearn that ‘Sain’ and ‘rain’ rhymed! On September 14, the
following poem appeared in the Post:
First we'll useSpahn, then we'll
Then an off day, followed by rain
Back will comeSpahn, followed
bySain And followed, we hope by two days of rain.
It was paraphrased as “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain” and is still
recognizable to baseball fans today.
The refrain is a bit misleading, though. Sain had a brilliant season,
winning a league high 24 games. He would also lead the league in complete games
and innings pitched. His ERA was a stellar 2.60. He certainly would have won the
Cy Young Award if it existed yet.
But Warren Spahn actually had the worst season of his peak years. He only
went 15-12 with a 3.71 ERA. Vern Bickford was 11-5 with a 3.27 ERA and even
Bill Voiselle, 13-13 with a 3.63 ERA, was comparable. But Southworth knew he
had a tough lefty who had just won 21 games the year before in Spahn. And of
course, he would go on to win at least 20 games eleven of the next thirteen
Spahn and Sain started 74 games in 1948: the rest of the staff combined for
75. But the two started three of the six post season games (Spahn and Sain and
somebody else…) as the Braves fell to the Indians.
It was nearly an all Boston World Series, as the Red Sox finished tied atop
the AL with the Tribe, but lost a one-game playoff to the Tribe.
1948 was the last hurrah for the Boston Braves, who had joined the National
Association in 1871 and moved to the National League in 1876. They would finish
under .500 in three of the next four seasons, with attendance plummeting. It
was only 281,278 in 1952: down almost one million from just four years before.
So, the team packed up and moved to Milwaukee for 1953, drawing a stunning 1.8
million fans (Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley paid attention to that!). They
also got suddenly good, finishing first or second in seven of the next eight
However, the team struggled from 1961 to 1965, attendance declined and the
Braves abandoned Milwaukee after only thirteen seasons, moving to Atlanta. Now
they just abandon ballparks in the Atlanta area…
‘Casey at the Bat’ is baseball’s most famous poem. And dedicated fans will
recognize ‘Tinkers to Evers to Chance.’ But "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain"
has certainly endured for close to seven decades.
In 1940, baseball players did not wear batting helmets.
Batters stood in there against pitchers throwing ninety-plus miles per hour,
putting life and limb at risk. It’s amazing that only one player (Ray Chapman)
died from being hit by a major league pitch.
In 1940, Cardinals outfielder Joe ‘Ducky’ Medwick was one of
the best players in the game. After averaging .352 over the prior two seasons,
he won the coveted triple crown in 1937, going .374 with 31 homers and 154 RBIs.
Not surprisingly, he won the MVP award that year.
Landis ejects Medwick
The next year he hit .322 and led the league in doubles and
RBIs. For this, he was rewarded with a 20% pay cut (in those days of the
Reserve Clause, players took what was offered or had to quit baseball and get a
real job). The outfielder voiced his displeasure over this. Medwick, who was generally
unpleasant, had gotten into fights with several teammates over the years. But
his lack of popularity wasn’t limited to St. Louis.
In Game 7 of the 1934 World Series, Medwick had slid into
third base and was spiked by Tiger Marv Owen.
Medwick responded by kicking Owen in the stomach with both his spikes and
started a brawl. When Medwick took his position in left field, fans threw so
much debris (bottles, fruit, rolled up hot dog buns) the game couldn’t be resumed.
Commissioner Landis had a confab and ended up removing Medwick from the game
(which the Cardinals won handily, surely contributing to the surly disposition
of Tigers fans).
Joe Medwick was disliked by teammates, other players and
fans. And since he was vocally unhappy with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon over
his salary, he had an enemy at the top. Breadon had a low tolerance level for
players he considered malcontents. Especially when it involved ungrateful
attitudes towards their salaries.
Medwick, Durocher and Davis
On June 12, 1940, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers along with pitcher Curt Davis. However,
his problems with the Cardinals were about to get worse. On the morning of June
18, Medwick along with manager Leo Durocher, had a verbal confrontation in a hotel
elevator with his ex-teammate, pitcher Bob Bowman, who yelled. “I’ll take care
of you! I’ll take care of both of you!”
The following day, the first three Dodger batters got hits
(two of them already scoring). Bowman then beaned Medwick in the temple and
sent him to the hospital on a stretcher. Leo Durocher had to be restrained
while team President Larry MacPhail went after Bowman and reportedly challenged
the Cardinals bench to a fight.
That's Bowman on the left.
The pitcher was removed from the game and escorted by police
back to the team’s hotel. Medwick (who had a concussion but no skull fracture)
tried to get out of bed to go after Bowman but was kept in the hospital.
MacPhail fruitlessly tried to have National League President
Ford Frick ban Bowman for life. The Old Redhead, known for his emotional
responses to, well, just about everything, also attempted to have Bowman arrested
for assault. The Brooklyn district attorney investigated the affair and found
no evidence of criminal intent on the pitcher’s part.
Medwick, who was expected to miss three weeks, was back in
the lineup in one. Players were rushed back from injuries as a matter of habit (wrecking
several promising careers over the years). Though he helped the Daffiness Boys to their first World
Series in over two decades in 1941, Ducky Medwick was never the same after
being hit by that pitch. Before being traded to the Dodgers, he had hit .336 in
his Cardinals career, leading the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples,
homers, RBIs or batting average a total of twelve times. He would never lead the
league in any category again after The Pitch.
He hit .300, .318 and .300 for Brooklyn from 1940 through
1942: Which wasn’t bad, but certainly not up to his pre-beaning levels. He was
batting only .272 when he was traded to the New York Giants during the 1943
season. Medwick was still a good hitter, but he was nowhere near one of the
best players in the game. He had a brief return to form in 1944, hitting .323
for the Giants, but he would never again play in 100 games and after the Cards
released him in 1948, he spent three years in the low minors as a
manager-player. Reportedly, upon his retirement, an ex-teammate said, “When he dies,
half the National League will go to his wake just to make sure that
son-of-a-bitch is dead.”
Likely due to Medwick’s brusque (read: rude) attitude towards
reporters, he had to wait twenty years to be voted into the Hall of Fame, getting
the nod from the Veteran’s Committee in 1968. He was certainly deserving of the honor, even
if pretty much nobody liked him during his career.
Medwick visited the Vatican with a group of servicemen during
World War II. The Pope asked each man his vocation in civilian life. Medwick
replied, “Your holiness, I’m Joseph Medwick. I, too, used to be a Cardinal.”
BATTING HELMETS – Ray Chapman was killed by a Joe Sewell
pitch in 1920. In 1941, Larry MacPhail had his Dodgers wear the first batting
helmets in a game. They were essentially the normal cloth caps with a hard
liner. Major League Baseball did not make batting helmets mandatory until 1971,
though some players were granted a grandfather clause and could continue using
the caps with liners. Ear flaps were made mandatory in 1983, but players who
had been using flapless helmets were allowed to continue batting without them. Beanings
suffered by Medwick, teammate Pee Wee Reese and ‘Pistol’ Pete Reiser resulted
in the Dodgers leading baseball to protecting their players with batting