Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Victory Season by Robert Weintraub

1946 was a year of transition for America, the world, and baseball, as this engaging book by Robert Weintraub, published just in time for the 2013 season, shows.

Part baseball history, part cultural background, Weintraub weaves a narrative of how baseball dealt with returning war veterans, the changing nature of the post-war America, and a challenge to its complete control of baseball players in an era of labor strife.  Placing the reserve clause in context of paralyzing strikes across the country, along with fighting with those who risked their lives for freedom over a few thousand dollars, really shows that the owners of baseball could be horrible people when it comes to money.

And that's before we get into their attempts to block the Dodgers from signing Jackie Robinson.

Weintraub also looks at how Rickey's integration of the game factors into this cultural maelstrom, using interviews with Mrs. Robinson to aid in bringing the trials of Robinson to the fore, even though he was "only" in the minors in '46.  Little anecdotes that are both tragic and heartwarming show not only the bald racism of the South (including a really bad show by Baltimore) but the quiet racism of defacto segregation in Canada and elsewhere.  I really enjoyed hearing about African American players involved in Armed Forces games in Europe, something I had no idea existed.

I would argue this book's greatest value is not in its retelling of the 1946 season (which focuses on the biggest names, teams, and events) but in bringing in background information that even a dedicated fan of the game may be unaware.  For instance, I had no idea there was an Armed Forces World Series or that they played baseball in German prison camps.  Weintraub goes into carefully researched detail about the major league players who lost their lives in WW2 or who made sacrifices nearly so great.  There's an awesome story about Larry MacPhail trying to capture the Kaiser in WW1 and we also get to see the wildly varying reactions of star players to fighting during their prime earning years.  It's a tribute to their greatness that some volunteered or tried to get out from cushy jobs to see action.

Because they were the two teams in the 1946 World Series, the book focuses a lot on the St. Louis Cardinals (an early adopter of the "build from the farm" strategy) and the Boston Red Sox (whose first real taste of the "Curse of the Bambino" begins here).  We also see the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs a fair amount, which is one of the few failings of Weintraub's writing--there's a definite focus on the bigger market teams. However, in fairness, in a book already boosted out over 400 pages, it would be hard to include more details.

The other issue the book has does relate to Weintraub's writing style, however.  He tries to mix a style that incorporates the breezy slang of both 1946 and 2012, and they often clash awkwardly.  While it may be true, I'm not sure hearing about Leo the Lip getting in someone's grille is the best way to phrase something.  I got used to this merging after awhile, but it may throw a few readers for a curve.

That's a minor complaint in a book that does so many things well.  While hailing the "Greatest Generation", Weintraub rightly doesn't treat them like gods.  He talks openly about the flaws of the owners (completely destroying the "baseball was better then" myth by showing just how awful the owners could be, including one story that leads to deaths), the players of the time, and the American people who did things like create false scarcity.  He's hard on Truman as a leader when referenced, and notes just how bad things were if you were a player, openly boggling at how the players allowed the owners to get away with so much.  I particularly liked his point about how we call people like Musial and DiMaggio "boys" but don't use the term nearly so often for the players before or since.  This was a unique group, operating in a different time, and Weintraub shows that to the reader.

Bringing the story of the 1946 season to life could have been a dull historical piece that retreaded ground covered by others.  Instead, Weintraub works hard to bring lesser-known factors to light, such as the attempt to get players to move to Mexico, an ill-starred idea that I think might have been the last major challenge to the supremacy of Major League Baseball.  Picking the best moments to highlight, we see players  fighting through injury, pivotal choices that may have changed history (making the Red Sox play 3 exhibition games before the World Series, of all things!), and ground-breaking moments (the first NL playoff).  The book is a real page-turner, because instead of a blow-by-blow, we see the things most interesting recounted, often on a more personal level than other histories have managed.

The Victory Season is not for the casual fan, clocking in at over 400 pages and covering territory that only those addicted to the game from an early age (like me) can appreciate.  For the person who counts down to pitchers and catchers reporting who wants to learn more about the game's history, this is a great present for them to read between innings of rooting for their favorite teams.

My thanks to Little, Brown, and Co. for providing me with a copy of this book.

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