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Eric Miller

The Republic of Baseball

Just a business?

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There are those, writes Charles Fountain, "who see baseball as succor to the soul, a spirit that binds eras and generations." To say the least.

In early 20th-century Puerto Rico, "baseball was what fisherman thought about when they cast their lines and farmers when they harvested sugar cane," writes Larry Tye in his biography of Satchel Paige. Richard Peterson remembers true love in rough and dirty midcentury Pittsburgh:

My buddies and I played baseball every day, beginning in the cold, soggy spring, through the dog days of summer, until the chilly fall rains turned our fields of dreams into mud. With neighborhood rivalries and individual pride at stake, we played a punishing, reckless brand of baseball that often went beyond a love of the game itself …. I lived for those games and couldn't imagine what I would do with my life if I didn't play some day for the Pirates.

Peterson was in college and on his way to becoming an English professor by the time his Pirates defied history, logic, and bookies everywhere by defeating the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. As the season came to a close, the city erupted into fiesta and melted into love, more than 100,000—a sixth of its population—showing up at midnight to welcome the team back after it seized the National League pennant. "Ever see anything like this?" a New York writer asked the Pirates' Clem Labine, who had played on the Dodgers' championship team five years before. "Not like this, dad. Even Brooklyn was never like this."

Even Brooklyn. The words still sing and sting, a half-century later. New York had been to baseball what New Orleans was to jazz, the epicenter of a great national passion. In his 1994 documentary Baseball, Ken Burns, himself Brooklyn-born, beautifully captured the earthy intricacies of this allegiance, recording for posterity the language, syntax, and inflections of a trio of winsome and articulate New Yorkers—Stephen Jay Gould, Billy Crystal, and Doris Kearns Goodwin—recalling the baseball of their childhoods. Their testimonials warmly reinforce Robert E. Murphy's contention that New York was then "so dense with baseball fans that it took three teams to represent it, each of them deeply rooted and closely identified with the place in which it played." Succor to the soul indeed.

But even among its New York rivals, Brooklyn's attachment to its team stood out. Through most of the 19th century, Brooklyn, incorporated as a separate city, had cultivated a careful distance from Manhattan. Against the countervailing wisdom of the age, many wished it to stay that way. "One grew tall and became the center of most American things," writes Murphy in After Many a Summer: The Passing of the Giants and Dodgers and a Golden Age in New York Baseball. "The other grew wide and became the center of little except its own way of life and, for a while, even more than its mighty neighbor, of baseball." By the 1950s, "all the country knew that Brooklyn was the Dodgers and the Dodgers were Brooklyn," Ebbets Field the blessed site of holy union. After decades of sometimes bathetic failure, the team became a force following World War II, winning the 1955 World Series and numerous pennants. "Never had Brooklyn, intimate with baseball for more than 100 years, held a team so close to its heart," Murphy, himself a small child in the 1950s, remarks.

But Murphy's book is decidedly not memoir. It is history, and history at its best: impelled by a love that sharpens intelligence and deepens vision. His book, in fact, is hardly about the game of baseball at all—it's rather about the Dodgers and Giants, New York City, and the (losing) battle to keep them together. With piercing judgment and tart irony he renders the injustice, injury, and pain the loss of these teams inflicted not only on New York but on the nation itself.

Murphy's committed style may draw arguments, but his efforts to be scrupulously fair cannot be denied. His ample knowledge of the evidence and the historiography helps him present a richly complex story, with no simple, single villainous presence. Horace Stoneham and Walter O' Malley, owners of the Giants and Dodgers respectively, were facing considerable economic, social, and civic pressures that left them uncertain of their abilities to keep the teams financially sound. Local identities were rapidly thinning, stretched by new forms of locomotion and weakened by dreams that promised truer identities elsewhere. Baseball, "inner-city-based, incompatible with the automobile, was looking old," Murphy notes, with all major league teams struggling at the gate as the decade, year by year, revealed its goods—among them commercial jet service from the East Coast to the West, just beginning in 1958 (the year, not coincidentally, the Dodgers and Giants left town). There was certainly wonder in that. America was not just "moving again." It was moving in all kinds of ways it had never moved before. Would it take baseball with it? The answer didn't seem at all certain.

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