Day 25: 30 days of baseball books in April 2014 — Say, hey: Where you in ’54?

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  • The book: “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever”
  • The author: Bill Madden
  • Vital stats: Da Capo Press, 320 pages, $25.99
  • Find it: At Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at Amazon.com
  • The pitch: It’s baseball’s seven-year itch — we’re seven years into Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball with the Dodgers. Where does the game stand on racial acceptance?
    Maybe it depends on your perspective.
    Madden, the New York Times heralded columnist and Baseball Hall of Famer, decided to pick this year as a defining moment, in large part because as a kid he sensed something was different.
    Much of that was because of the arrival of Willie Mays and the way he was embraced by fans of all backgrounds. The 23-year-old center fielder for the New York Giants played in 155 games his first two seasons (1951 and ’52) but then missed all of ’53 to military service.
    In ’54, Mays was far and away the NL MVP with a league-best .354 average to go with 41 homers, 110 RBIs, a league-best 13 triples, and making the first of his 19 straight All-Star Game appearances.
    On the other side of the field in that year’s World Series was Larry Doby, Robinson’s AL counterpart who also made his debut in 1947. A 30-year-old at his peak in ’54, Doby finished just behind Yogi Berra in the AL MVP voting (and just ahead of Indians teammate Bobby Avila) by hitting a league-best 32 homers with 126 RBIs and making the All-Star team for the sixth straight year.
    When Doby and the Indians, who had just eliminated the dominant Yankees, faced Mays and a New York Giants roster that included Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson for the championship, it put a spotlight on some major black stars who actually got along with their teammates. This came at a time when many in the country still hadn’t got its head and heart around the Supreme Court voting unanimously that racial segregation be outlawed in America’s public schools during the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.
    Mays, in particular, put his glove on display with that book-cover catch off Vic Wertz’ drive to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds in New York in Game 1. The play prevented the Indians from going ahead in the eighth inning, the game stayed tied, the Giants won in the bottom of the 10th on Dusty Rhodes homer and swept the series.
    Who else made a difference that year in changing the face of the game?
    Robinson, maybe not so much anymore. The Dodgers 35-year-old made the last of his six straight All-Star appearances, but he was platooned in left field and third base, away from his familiar second base spot. With general mangaer Branch Rickey gone and new manager Walter Alston in, Robinson would be in the game just two more seasons after that — but one of them, as finally a World Series champ.
    But there were rookies like Hank Aaron, a 20-year-old outfielder with Milwaukee (who says he supposedly still hears the hate that he experienced 40 years ago when breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record) as well as Ernie Banks, a 23-year-old shortstop in Chicago who played all 154 games, hit 19 homers and would finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
    Banks was the Cubs’ first black player, arriving in September of ’53. The Philadelphia A’s had their first black that month as well (Bob Trice). But in 1954, it was the first time teams like the Pirates (Curt Roberts and Carlos Bernier), Cardinals (Tom Alston), Reds (Nino Escalera and Chuch Harmon) and Senators (Carlos Paula) finally had black players on their roster.
    All the while, the New York Yankees continue to represent the “white supremacy” of the game — Elston Howard wasn’t added until April of ’55, perhaps a result of the team not winning another title and fans starting to question their approach.
    Still, the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox wouldn’t be on board until several years later.
  • More to know:
    == A review by Seamheads.com: “There is a lot of focus on the three New York teams and their situations. Some readers might complain of “New York bias” by a New York writer since so much time is spent on the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. But this is clearly not the case as all three teams and their stories are vital. You could not write this book without going into great detail on people like Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Jackie Robinson and Walter Alston. The astute Baseball fan can easily point out how these teams dominated the entire decade of the 1950′s.”
    == Madden explains why he wrote the book in a Q-and-A with SportsJournalism.org: “I wanted to point out through the prism of baseball that – and people don’t realize this – 1954 America was still, essentially, a racist country. This is a hard thing to say, but it’s a fact. And I point out what these black players had to go through. That’s why I brought Aaron and Ernie Banks in, because they both had their first spring trainings and I talked to them both at length about what their first spring trainings were like, with the indignities they had to incur.
    There’s a scene in the book where the Giants and Indians barnstormed through the South, and they were also in Las Vegas. And Willie Mays had to be escorted out of a casino in Las Vegas where the Giants were staying, because one of the bouncers there thought he was too close to the craps table and they didn’t want him mingling with the guests. These are the kinds of things that were going on. … Brown vs Board of Education was obviously the start of racial equality in this country. Of course, it all came to fruition in the 1960s when Martin Luther King came along, and the Civil Rights Act and all that. But before that, this is what it was all about back then.”
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