The author: Robert Weintraub
The vital stats: Little Brown and Co., 460 pages, $27.99
The pitch: From the talent who produced “The House That Ruth Built” last year, Weintraub gets the karma flowing again in his fact-digging to explain why the game’s Golden Age had a definite starting point — right about the time when Jackie Robinson was being picked to become the first African-American player in the big leagues.
Last time around, the focus was on 1923. This time, it starts with 1946.
The lead almost sounds like the voiced introduction to the new movie “42,” where writer Wendell Smith sets the scene for the country coming out of the second World War and Major League Baseball, which continued on without its major stars, ready for a resurgence.
Little did it know how colorful that might be.
Robinson’s arrival in the Dodgers’ minor-league system is only one key element of a time when Stan Musical, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio came back into nation’s leisure time frame. There are far more intriguing stories of others who came back to war to try to revive their career, but had problems in the process. Give due where it’s deserved with Boston relief pitcher Earl Johnson,who received a Bronze Star for retrieving a truck filled with vital equipment from enemy territory, and a Silver Star for bravery under fire at the Battle of the Bulge. Don’t forget, either, Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill, perhaps marginal big-leaguers for Washington and Philadelphia, respectively, but two who gave their lives during the war.
Robinson’s debut constitutes Chapter 11 here — but it’s debut with the Montreal Royals on April 18, 1946, two days after the MLB season started. It’s here in just six pages. The scene plays out well in “42,” but Weintraub adds far more detail into what happened, and wastes no time weaving the components, providing a literary example of how the rest of the books lays out. An excerpt:
“There was a celebratory feel in the air on this Thursday afternoon in Jersey City, New Jersey. Mayor Frank Hague had closed the schools and declared a holiday for city employees — on the condition that they purchase tickets for the game that day between the Jersey City Giants and the Montreal Royals. Because of the edict, fifty-two thousand tickets were sold for the game at Roosevelt Stadium, a park that held about twenty-three thousand. They could have sold that many tickets for the game … thanks to the starting second baseman for the Royals that day — Jackie Robinson. (Manager) Clay Hopper wasn’t planning to start Robinson, not yet fully believing in his new infielder/experiment, but when he caught wind of the hype being whipped up around Robinson’s debut, he caved in. Hopper told Jackie he was starting that morning at the McAlpin Hotel, at 34th and Broadway in Manhattan, and Robinson crossed the Hudson anxiously awaiting his first day at integrating the game. …
“The Royals led 2-0 in the third when Robby came up to bat again. The flags on the foul poles fluttered lazily in the slight breeze. Two men were on base, so (pitcher Lefty) Sandel assumed Robinson would bunt. Indeed, Sandel said years later that he had stolen the bunt sign from the Royals dugout, so he let up a little on his fastball to get into a defensive posture a touch faster. Unfortunately, Robinson had either missed the sign or ignored it, for he ‘swung with everything I had’ at the chest-high pitch and was rewarded with a ‘crack like a rifle shot in my ears.’ The ball disappeared behind the left field fence, a shot estimated at 335 feet. The crowd at Roosevelt Stadium let loose with a bellow that scattered nervous wildlife across New Jersey.
“Red Durrett, a Royals teammate whose two homers on the day had been completely overshadowed, performed more heroics by wading into the mob and pulling Jackie to safety of the clubhouse …
” ‘ Jim Crow Dies at Second’ was the headline (in one paper).”
Weintraub circles back to Robinson and Montreal in Chapter 16, when fans in Syracuse unloaded in racial epithets against Robinson. Al Campanis, later to be the Dodgers’ general manager, was one of Robinson’s closest teammates (a fact left out of “42,” which could have provided a sense of irony for those who knew how Campanis left the game in shame years later). It’s pointed out that Robinson wasn’t even particularly close with other two Negro players on the ’46 Royals — something “42” doesn’t even mention.
He also dedicates Chapter 30 to Rachel Robison’s role in Jackie’s arrival, and in Chapter 32, writes about how Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher put up a fight with Branch Rickey to bring Robinson up in time for the pennant race (the Dodgers won 96 games but lost to St. Louis by two games), but Robinson was helping Montreal win its league title and celebrate it afterward with a huge celebration.
“It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lyncing in mind,” wrote Sam Maltin in the Pittsburgh Courier.
John Schulian, one of our favorite local baseball writers, gives Weintraub the proper credit on the back cover blurb by calling this a “Halberstam-like sense of purpose,” and that’s a nod to how Weintraub ties up all that happened in that period, not just the Robinson arrival.
The context is all brought to a head in in epilogue where Weintraub gives the reader the result of all that happened to those characters who came to life. With Robinson, the point is made that Rickey started in the St. Louis Cardinals organization before coming over to the Dodgers to construct the “Great Experiment” with Robinson.
Intolerance in St. Louis wouldn’t have allowed Rickey to pull off what he did in Brooklyn; the Cardinals didn’t integrate until 1954.
And there’s also the fact pointed out: Who is Ed Stevens? He’s the player Brooklyn sent to Montreal to make room on the roster for Robinson. Stevens had “a trying year with the Royals,” Weintraub points out, “taunted across the International League for ‘letting a nigger take his job.’ … Stevens may have been wronged, but it was baseball fans who should have felt more aggrieved.”
More to know:
== A Q&A with Weintraub via CBS News.
== A review in New York’s Newsday
== A review in the Forth Worth Star Telegram by David Martindale notes that: Everyone who served overseas had a unique story, and Weintraub digs into them all.
== Highlights of the 1946 season, via Wikipedia, and the via Baseball-Reference.com
== The 1996 book, “When the Boys Came Back,” by Frederick W. Turner, is also out there on the subject of 1946 in the big leagues.