Monday, April 19, 2004
The basic story is a tale of two teams: the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. Halberstam takes the theme of racial integration (that summer the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law) and looks at how that year, and that World Series, marked the end of the old baseball world with the death of the Yankees epic dynasty, and the beginning of a new age in baseball with pitching, defense and base-stealing as tactics (instead of the Yankees home run slugging), and parity as the league rule. One thing I thought was very interesting was the fact that Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 created an inbalance in MLB: National League teams moved swiftly to sign Negro League stars to keep up: Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, etc. The American League teams moved slowly to integrate and pitched their teams to southern white kids as having fewer African-Americans. (The Yankees didn't integrate until 1955.) As a result, there was a real difference between the two leagues.
The '64 Cardinals were a terrific group of Hall of Famers (Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, Lou Brock, etc.) and their story is very interesting. The publishing world is obsessed with the Yankees and Red Sox, so it is nice to see players from a city outside of Boston and New York get some attention. And it is difficult to dislike the St. Louis Cardinals (although I know that Cubs fans would disagree!) because the city's fans are so knowledgable about the game and are such friendly people. Even knowing the outcome of the '64 World Series, I still cheered at the end when Gibson retired the Yankees.
Phillies fans have a definate reason to pick up the book: one of the later chapters deals with the Phillies epic collapse in the '64 pennant race against the Cardinals and Reds. It is a cautionary tale about how the Phillies simply fell apart under the strain of losing their confidence after seeming unbeatable, and having a manager yell and scream at them 24/7 on the field. (Hey, remind you of anyone?) It is a terrific chapter, and it reminds Phils fans of all of the times we've seen the team try, falter and fail: the '93 World Series, last season's swoon against the Marlins, the '76-'78 losses in the NLCS, etc.
This is my favorite book about baseball. I haven't read anything better.