on Baseball Books: Larry Doby, the ’72 A’s and Reds, and the ’77-‘78 Dodgers (all via the University of Nebraska Press)

From the University of Nebraska Press
Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League by Douglas M. Branson
Hairs Vs. Squares: The Mustache Gang, the Big Red Machine, and the Tumultuous Summer of ‘72 by Ed Gruver
Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers by Michael Fallon

I attended my first baseball game at Fenway Park on August 19, 1958, the Boston Red Sox versus the Chicago White Sox. Luis Aparicio led off with a triple and came home on a wild pitch to Nellie Fox. The Red Sox made three errors (one by Ted Williams) and Chicago won 7 to 1. The owner of the Red Sox, Tom Yawkey, had up to this point maintained his vow that “there will be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.” And more: “I am not a racist. I employ dozens of blacks on my plantation in South Carolina.” The 1958 White Sox had two black players on the roster – Al Smith (1953) and Earl Battey (1955), but neither of them played that night. Boston was the last team in baseball to hire a black player. In 1959, Yawkey finally relented, bringing up Elijah “Pumpsie” Green to the team. In 1960, Green played in 133 games, replacing the hapless Don Buddin at shortstop. I see myself as a ten-year old, gazing admiringly at all these faces on my Topps baseball cards, never having met or even seen a black person in my hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts.

DobyCover.jpgDouglas Branson’s Greatness in the Shadows is primarily the story of Larry Doby, the first black man to play in the American League. In 1947, Bill Veeck extended a contract to him with the Cleveland Indians eleven weeks after Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. Branson notes that there have been over 50 books written about Robinson, but just a single biography on Doby -- this despite Doby’s noteworthy achievements and dramatic significance. Doby batted .286 in nine seasons with the Indians and .283 during his 14-year career. He also excelled defensively and on the base paths. In 1952, Doby hit 32 home runs and had 104 RBI’s – while Mickey Mantle hit 23 home runs and drove in 87. Doby made the All-Star team seven times – Robinson was named six times. In 1948 and 1954, he led the Indians to the pennant.

As Claire Smith’s June 23, 2003 obituary for Doby in the New York Times pointed out, “In glorifying those who are first the second is often forgotten. Doby integrated all those ballparks where Jackie Robinson never appeared. And he did it with class and clout.” Doby’s eclipse is clearly eating at Branson who has a keen understanding of the game and how it was reported and promoted in the 1950s. Doby’s tense encounters with racism through the American League cities and stadiums form a big part of the story – but Branson also wants to uncover why Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays (who appeared in 1951) overshadowed Doby, and why other critically important and accomplished black players like Don Newcombe also were neglected by baseball chroniclers. How did Satchel Paige become a legend while Doby’s reputation flagged?

DobyCard.jpgA professor of business law at the University of Pittsburgh, Branson writes earnestly about Doby’s situations and predicaments. But Doby’s personality never fully emerges on the page. This may be partially a result of how infrequently Doby interacted with the media and the slight trail he left behind. But it is also because Branson’s attention is more generally attuned to evaluating Doby’s environment and the mentality of baseball itself. Mays was the “Say Hey Kid.” Aaron was “Hammerin’ Hank.” Doby “was a dignified, articulate man” with no nickname. Jackie Robinson had no nicknames that I wish to repeat and was also dignified and articulate – but he had an electric presence and used it. Branson’s prosecutorial determination to prove Doby’s greatness becomes a one-note chorus.

In 1968, Doby was hired as a coach in the new Montreal Expos farm system, and moved to the majors as a coach with the Indians in 1973. By that time, more than 25 percent of players were African Americans and about 20 percent were Latino. Why Doby did not become the first black manager, or a manager at all, is yet another question that Branson answers through his dogged research.

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In 1972, my wife and I moved to Berkeley to attend our graduate schools. That summer we went to several Oakland A’s games at Charles O. Finley’s ballpark, watching the team that would go on to play the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Recognizing the importance of color TV, Charlie had asked the league for permission to change his players’ uniforms from “eggshell white and prison gray” to a flashy green and gold. Their famous white cleats had arrived in 1967. When Mickey Mantle first saw their outfits, he suggested that they come onto the field “on tippy-toes, holding hands and singing.” The mustachioed A’s were simply fun to look at and very exciting to watch.

Reggie.jpgJust saying their names is an invocation: Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue, Bert Campaneris, Blue Moon Odom, Rollie Fingers, Gene Tenace, Ken Holtzman. And manager Dick Williams, still highly regarded by Red Sox fans like us. (As good as they were in ’72, the next year Blue, Holtzman and Hunter each won 20 games, the last trio to accomplish this amazing feat). The A’s form the “hairs” of sportswriter Ed Gruver’s groovy book Hairs vs. Squares. The “squares” are the Cincinnati Reds, with names equally impressive: Johnny Bench (hit 40 home runs), Tony Perez, Joe Morgan (.417 OBP), Dave Concepcion, Pete Rose (hit .307), and Bobby Tolan (stole 42 bases that year). Gary Nolan won 15 games with a 1.99 ERA, Ross Grimsley won 14, and Clay Carroll had 37 saves. The A’s were known for their Afros and face hair, rock music and copious beer on team flights, and emotional displays on the field. The Reds wore ties when they traveled, no alcohol was served on their flights, and they generally composed themselves on the field. The Big Red Machine, corporate, competitive and heartlessly efficient. Just watch a video of Pete Rose pointlessly slamming into Ray Fosse at the plate during the 1970 All-Star Game.

Gruver was just 12 years old in 1972. In compiling his material, he wasn’t satisfied with taking notes from the archives – he set out to interview a diverse cast of characters including many of the players named above and also Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Mike Schmidt (a rookie in ’72 with the Phillies), Don Zimmer (the Padres’ manager in ‘72), broadcasters and others. Reflecting on 1972, these people recall it as a pivotal year. Nixon was running against McGovern for president and the Vietnam War was still ablaze though supposedly moving toward an end. George Wallace had been shot campaigning for president. Free agency and the coming of the designated hitter would irrevocably

Hairs.jpgGruver’s snappy telling proceeds chronologically through the season but he takes several side trips along the way, considering play and events throughout MLB that year, including the trading of Willie Mays to the Mets, the notoriety of Richie Allen, Steve Carlton’s fifteen straight wins, and the play of Luis Tiant, Bobby Murcer, and Mickey Lolich. From beginning to end, Gruver captures the essence of the times with the panache and avidity of a true baseball student and lover. By 1972, hairs versus squares represented a cultural paradigm perhaps already starting to lose its tartness and tension. The “counterculture” had been diluted and spread thin enough to enter the mainstream. The antithesis may provide a spirited framework for the narrative -- but ultimately, Hairs Vs. Squares is about the heart of the game at one of its more adrenalized moments.

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The Oakland A’s defeated Walter Alston’s L.A. Dodgers in the 1974 World Series in five games. It had been eight years since the Dodgers appeared in the Series, a downturn that Michael Fallon says reflects some of the malaise in their city. In Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers, he dodges back and forth between the coalescing of Tom Lasorda’s team and Tom Bradley’s city. The California Dream clashed with the air pollution, racial tension, street gangs, drought, and economic shakiness that characterized the times. The “Dodger Way” was a world unto itself – but as Dodgerland progresses, the team and the tone of the city begin to merge dramatically while Lasorda plays the role of outsized catalyst. Fallon persuasively suggests that the tarnished dreams of Angelenos were both revived and sadly validated by the Dodgers.

Dodgerland.jpgLasorda’s rise to manager in 1977 brought a sudden shift in the team’s esprit de corps. The first 250 pages of Dodgerland track the progress of his team that year, beginning with its 17-3 start. An August slump brought them back to earth, and Reggie Jackson and the Yankees taught them humility in the World Series. Fallon’s ambition to tell a complex baseball story aligns nicely with Lasorda’s drive to win it all in 1978. He had inherited the team managership from the venerable Walter Alston – Lasorda had been his ever-yakking third base coach. The new manager turned the club upside down spirit-wise, setting up his large office beside the locker room and fitting it with tables to serve after-game buffets to his guys. He even managed to get everyone to bear with if not like Steve Garvey, his non-alcoholic first baseman. He initiated the trade for Rick Monday, sending Bill Buckner to the Cubs.

Fallon draws profiles of the key players including the challenging Don Sutton, the physically atypical Ron Cey, the underestimated Steve Yeager, the discontented Tommy John, and the irritating Reggie Smith. There are stories about Lasorda’s famous clubhouse meetings (Sutton had counted 117 uses of four-letter words at one such pep talk) and unhinged post-loss interviews. In May 1979, the Dodgers traded their young, popular, promising and disco-playing Glenn Burke to the A’s for Bill North; Fallon then gets into Burke’s “discovery” in 1975 that he was gay. Dave Lopes is quoted as saying, “I’m sure he played in fear of the fact that it’s going to get out that he’s gay and once it comes out, you’re going to take abuse. Face it, society isn’t ready for that.” Then, it turned out Lasorda’s son is gay. Ah yes, decadent L.A. And Lasorda went on the town with Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles.

Garvey.jpgIt was a raucous summer, the team quaking with tension – yet Lasorda put a stable set of nine on the field. They won 95 games towards the pennant – and the returning World Series Champion Yankees won 100. At the end of August, the Red Sox had a seven game edge over New York. But Rick Burleson, Carl Yastrzemski, Jerry Remy, Butch Hobson, and Carlton Fisk all had injuries, and Dwight Evans was hit in the head by a pitch causing a concussion on August 28. Then, in September, L.A.’s first base coach Jim Gilliam (age 49) suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. While he lay comatose in the hospital, the Dodgers won a dramatic victory over the Phillies to clinch another appearance in the Series through the efforts of outfielder Dusty Baker, Cey, Garvey, and shortstop Bill Russell. And then, and then, the Yankees took the Dodgers again in six games. Fallon gets the tone of the events just right – the boisterous energy and the deflation, the nervous highs and the depressive lows of Dodgerland and L.A.

[Greatness in the Shadows. 336 pages, 23 photographs, 3 tables. $34.95 hardcover.
Hairs Vs. Squares. Published May 1, 2016, 408 pages, 12 photographs, $29.95 hardcover
Dodgerland. Published June 1, 2016, 472 pages, $34.95]