1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever
Da Capo Press, 2014
320 pp., $25.99
Michael R. Stevens
Remembering Baseball in 1954
There is likely no image in baseball history as consummate, as metaphorically rich and breathtakingly pure, as that of Willie Mays's backside, running down the deep cavern of the Polo Grounds centerfield, head up and glove up higher, with the baseball descending to him, 450 or so feet from its launch off of Vic Wertz's bat, late in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. It is pure baseball, and the choice of this image for the cover of Bill Madden's homage to that great season seems both inspired and pleasantly obvious. The greatest player making the greatest play on the greatest stage.
But Madden's narrative is oblique to this sort of "pure baseball nostalgia"; indeed, his subtitle pushes out into the sociological waters that his forebears in New York sportswriting had skirted or loosely handled at the time, and his work is equal parts celebration and indictment of baseball's early days of integration. It's a tough narrative to latch onto, in one sense, because it's the season itself, other than any individual player or team, that is the protagonist, so that there is not particular thread, but a kind of tapestry, a mix of social issues and tensions woven into the on-the-field tensions of batting races and pennant races. The episodic feel of the book is occasionally frustrating, since we never stay with one player (not even Mays, certainly not Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the AL a few months after Jackie Robinson's debut in the NL, and whom Madden once discussed helping with a full-length memoir) long enough to feel we know the person beneath the player. Madden creates the longing to know the men, but we end up knowing the times, especially the times for baseball, which are glorious and transitional and full of hidden slights. To the author's credit, things never get soap-operatic, and he keeps returning to the games, to the standings, to the day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month slog of the major league season, with the ebbs and flows and constant streaks and tensions: the season, the flow of time, the inevitability of change and of triumph beside tragedy, seems to be the protagonist from start to finish.
That being said, the issue of race and of racism and of its opposite, true community, are paramount in Madden's story. Of course (and sadly), ironies abound. Madden frames his tale around the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate American public schools, and he points out that Baltimore was the first southern city to do so. But at the same time, with the St. Louis Browns moving to Baltimore and becoming the Orioles for the 1954 season, the rude awakening for the few black players in the American League was that Baltimore's hotels were still decisively segregated. Indeed, rather surprisingly, "seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball that had existed since the game's origin in 1876, half of the sixteen major league clubs—the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, and Washington Senators—still had not integrated as of spring training 1954." The Yankees come in for substantial vilification here, for their willingness to sign but not to promote or develop black players; they traded away rising stars Vic Power and Ruben Gomez before they made the big club, and eventual All-Star catcher Elston Howard was inexplicably loaned to Toronto of the International League for the whole of the 1954 season, though he'd been starring in the Negro Leagues and the high minors for seven years! (Just to spread the blame around a bit, though, the Cardinals had refused to sign Howard in 1947, even though he starred at a hometown high school and their lead scout, George Sisler, Jr. , said "I worked him out for two days and I'd stake my job on his ability to make it. But they won't let me sign him.") Furthermore, Madden indicts the Yankees and their icy brass are blamed for forcing Bill Veeck to sell the Browns to Baltimore, for colluding to keep Veeck out of the Los Angeles big-league market for which he owned the rights, forcing the sale of the Philadelphia A's from Connie Mack's sons to Yankee-friendly owners in Kansas City at the end of 1954 (and hence making KC more or less a major league feeder club for talent heading to New York). And these are the Yankee glory days?! Madden definitely casts a pall on the legends of the "golden age."
For teams that actually were integrating, the sudden and drastic thrusting of black players into the ranks often leaps out. The careful preparations whereby Branch Rickey sent Jackie Robinson to play in Montreal for a year, and famously worked his amateur psychology to assure that Robinson would know what he was in for, seemed to have been the exception rather than the rule. The Cubs had done a junior version of the Yankees by leaving their major-league worthy black shortstop Gene Baker to play for four seasons as an all-star in the Pacific Coast League without a call-up, but when they did decide to integrate in late 1953, they signed Ernie Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs and immediately put him on a bus to Chicago. As Banks narrates it, "I went down to the clubhouse to get my uniform, looked around and saw all these guys, Ralph Kiner, Hank Sauer, and I'm saying, 'Ho-ly! It's the major leagues!' But I'll be honest, I was a little uncertain about being there. I wanted to stay with the Monarchs. I was raised in Dallas in a time of segregation. I didn't understand integration. This was a whole different world for me. I had no fear—I learned that from the Bible. But I had lived in a black community, went to a black school, played sports at a black YMCA, played baseball for a black team with a black manager, and that was all I'd ever known." But there were some gains amidst these travails: the Cubs opened 1954 with Banks at shortstop and Baker at second base, giving them baseball's first black double-play combination. Likewise, the Indians teamed their all-star CF Larry Doby with rookies Al Smith in LF and Dave Pope in RF on August 6, creating baseball's first all-black outfield—though, if anything, Doby's introduction to the majors had been more shocking than Banks's. Doby had been batting .458 for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in 1947 when Bill Veeck, then owner of the Indians, called on July 3, "telling him to report two days later to Comiskey Park in Chicago, where the Indians were playing a series with the White Sox. As Doby further recalled, his welcome to the big leagues as the first black player in the American League was anything but warm and congenial. Not until 1954 was Doby finally allowed to stay with the team during spring training in Tucson, as the team pressured the hotel to relaxed its segregationist policies.