Summer of '49
This book evokes a time, not so long ago, from which we seem to have traveled a great distance. Blending his personal recollections as an avid fifteen-year-old Yankee fan with numerous interviews with players, coaches, front-office officials, sportswriters, and other fans, Halberstam reconstructs the 1949 American League pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Along the way he sheds light not only on the game of baseball but also on American society and culture as they were and have since become. As such, the book takes on much of the gravity associated with Halberstam’s more “serious” books such as The Best and the Brightest (1972), which details American involvement in the Vietnam War, and The Reckoning (1986), which examines the decline of Ford and other American automobile companies during the 1970’s.
The year 1949 saw Major League Baseball at peak popularity. Far from cutting into gate receipts, radio broadcasts of baseball games had heightened public interest in the sport, and attendance was on the rise. Professional football, now baseball’s equal in many respects, had yet to establish itself as a competitor for America’s sports dollar. In short, the game of baseball had captured America’s imagination and, as a result, the business of baseball was booming.
These developments reflected the happy state of the nation itself. The United
States had emerged from World War II as the most powerful force on the globe.
Moreover, fears that the end of war would mean the resumption of the Great
Depression proved to be unfounded. Though the twin evils of Cold War with the
Soviet Union and “red baiting” at home were already taking root, the country was,
for the most part, feeling good about itself politically and economically.
Against this backdrop, Halberstam details the pennant race of 1949. This involves telling a tale of two very different cities with two equally different ball clubs. New York was the East Coast’s haven of “hype,” a crucible for instant celebrity and just as instantaneous ignominy. New Yorkers loved their chosen baseball teams—the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants also played in the city until 1958—with a passion, and the many sportswriters who covered the teams also tended to be fans of the players about whom they reported. In return, New York teams, particularly the Yankees, played wonderful baseball. Indeed, 1949 marked the first of eight straight world championships for New York teams (including one each for the Dodgers and Giants).
Boston, on the other hand, was a distant second to New York in size, glitter, and baseball success. The Red Sox had great players, but the team never seemed to come up a winner. Correspondingly, the fans and many of the sportswriters were sour on the team, booing and deriding even their best players, including Ted Williams. The result was a tradition of heartbreak and disappointment that has continued through the 1980’s.
What made this uneven rivalry all the more bitter for Red Sox fans was the fact that Yankee dominance had begun with the sale of one George Herman Ruth—known as the “Babe”—from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920, just in time for the era of the lively” ball. Ruth revolutionized the game of baseball, emphasizing the long ball, and went on to hit 714 regular-season home runs. In return, Boston got $125,000 in cash and the distinction of having made the worst trade in baseball history.
Halberstam’s book also provides a telling glimpse of professional baseball in transition. The age of the relief pitcher was just dawning. Starting pitchers were still expected to finish their own games, whether fatigued or not. Indeed, one reason the Yankees were triumphant in 1949 was that their new manager, Casey Stengel, made good use of Joe Page, a hard- throwing left-hander with too little stamina to pitch complete games. Stengel revolutionized baseball strategy by employing Page as a “closer” out of the bullpen. Television was another brand- new development, and it had yet to become an important factor in the game. Most people followed baseball by listening to the radio or reading newspapers. The luxury of videotape replays from every conceivable angle was as yet unknown, as were the lucrative television deals so much a part of baseball’s economy only two decades later. Also unknown was the contemporary millionaire athlete. Owners definitely had the upper hand because of the reserve clause, which prevented players from achieving free agency. As a result, even star ballplayers were paid nowhere near what an average player could earn by the mid-1980’s.
The most significant transition being made by Major...
(The entire section is 1953 words.)