The Victory Season: A Book Review

Victory Season

1945 was the year it all ended.  Germany and Japan were defeated and the boys could come home.  Life in America would return to a new normalcy, better than the Depression years,  and the United States would enter a new prosperity and era of international leadership.

Not so fast.  Robert Weintraub, author of The Victory Season: the End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age reminds us there was a very difficult transition from wartime to the decades of American dominance following the war.  Shortages of everything from meat, to housing, to jobs followed V-J day.  The country was torn by labor unrest.  And those veterans.  What to do about those millions of returning G.I.’s: what about their jobs?

Weintraub paints the story of this difficult year following war’s end on the canvas of baseball.  Baseball has often been a reflection of its time, and the author does a very good job of trying to assemble some of the important threads of the 1946 season while surrounding them with some of those critical outside-the-game pressures that influenced the sport.

First, there are the dominant personalities of the game in 1946.  Weintraub reminds us that the stars of baseball-Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, and Hank Greenberg all gave considerable time to military service.  Some, such as DiMaggio did so grudgingly, playing baseball for Uncle Sam while lamenting the loss of pay in their best earning years.  Others, such as Feller, enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor and served in dangerous battle zones throughout the war. We are reminded of a couple of little known-major leaguers who did not come home, and others, such as future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, that were wounded.  The war experience shrouded the entire season as the men who fought it returned to the game, hoping to recapture the moments when they were forced to leave.  Weintraub does not leave out the effect on Japanese baseball.  The Japanese major leagues were decimated by the war, with nearly all of its player serving in the military, and a very low survival rate.  Eiji Sawamura, the Cy Young of Japanese baseball was killed when his troopship was sunk in 1944.

If Weintraub demonstrates anything, it is the difference between today’s player, coming from a lifetime of baseball camps, careful training, even the baseball academies in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela compared to those players of the 30’s and 40’s.  He relates the story of Cardinals shortstop and second baseman Red Schoendienst, who grew up in the coal mining country of Illinois.  Schoendienst suffered a severe eye injury that cost him most of the vision in his right eye, while working in the CCC during the 30’s.  Today, it’s unlikely he would ever have gotten a shot at baseball, but he made his superb defense and “itchy outs” into a Hall of Fame career.  Likewise we read the story of outstanding Dodgers center fielder Pete Reiser who grew up poor in St. Louis.  Leo Durocher called him the greatest center fielder he ever saw, and that includes Willie Mays.  Reiser played the game so hard, one can say he literally played himself out of baseball.  Weintraub shares the litany of injuries from leg and shoulder injuries to concussions and fractured skulls Pistol Pete suffered chasing balls into Ebbets Field’s unforgiving walls. Today’s player would never sell out their bodies for such a play. It would cost them too much money. We get the same look inside other very good if less well-known figures, such as Enos Slaughter and Harry “the Hat” Walker. These were tough men who. forged in difficult times, and almost every one a WWII veteran.

The beginning of Jackie Robinson’s path to the major leagues is also an important story in The Victory Season. Though we often remember his first season in Brooklyn, his first spring training and all the accompanying discrimination that came from 1940’s Florida happened first in that year.  Weintraub gives a great deal of attention to the season in Montreal, where Robinson starred and led the Royals to Little World Series title.  But he also played his first games in southern cities.  It prepared  him for what to expect when he encountered hateful racism at the big league level in 1947.

Another way the 1946 season was a mirror of its time was the stirring of players’ desire for a bigger chunk of baseball’s profits and more control over their own destiny.  Weintraub relates the story of Mexican baseball executive Jorge Pasqual’s efforts to lure American ballplayers south to play in the Mexican League.  Offering substantial incentives to players, including Cardinals pitcher Max Lanier and catcher Walker Cooper, major league baseball viewed this as a threat and banned players who took up Pasqual’s enticements.  Most of the players regretted the decision, having to use their extra cash for meal money, unable to speak the language, and finding the conditions primitive.  One ballpark even had railroad tracks that ran through it.  Bad hop grounders indeed.  In addition to Pasqual’s inducement to leave the majors, members of the Pittsburgh Pirates considered going on strike.  Lawyer Robert Murphy proposed to create an American Baseball Guild to protect players rights, including a minimum salary and a vague challenge to the Reserve Clause.  Though he failed in his efforts to unionize the Pirates, his efforts would be remembered 30 years later when Marvin Miller renewed efforts to embolden the Major League Players Association

Chiefly, however, this is the story of the pennant races in the major leagues.  The Red Sox walked off with the American League Championship, leaving the Yankees in the dust to take home their first pennant since 1918.  In the National League it was a nail-biting race between the Cardinals and Dodgers that ended the season with the two teams tied and the Cardinals winning a three game playoff.  It is also the story of the 1946 World Series and the first of the great “Red Sox tragedies.”

Perhaps the best thing that Weintraub does is tell the story of the World Series.  It is a great story about two great teams.  The Red Sox led by Williams, but with  a bevy other great players, who were heavily favored to win.  But they didn’t. It was a closely fought series tied 3-3 when the final game was played at Sportsman Park in St. Louis.  Instead the Cards literally ran off with the world’s championship when Enos Slaughter made his mad dash home in the eighth inning to score the go-ahead run.  The author takes great pains to take us inside both teams as they literally limped into the series.  Williams injured in an exhibition game, simply wasn’t himself in the series.  But Cardinals star Stan Musial had a lousy series too. Redbirds pitcher Howie Pollet was injured, but found a way to win.  Most importantly, Weintraub softens the portrait of Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky as the goat of the series by failing to make the timely throw home to nail Slaughter, offering enough evidence to suggest there was more than enough blame to go around.  The series and its aftermath is a great look inside two great teams, and offers a glimpse at the “thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” without the invasive views of Fox Sports or ESPN.

Though I found The Victory Season to be a very good book, it is not without flaws.  Weintraub’s approach to story telling may confuse some readers.  Though he always returns to the story of the season, he delights in sharing a chapter or two here and there of interesting detail about the Mexican League, or about Robinson, or about the players.  Though these road trips are always fascinating always a wonderful snapshot intended to create a greater context for understanding what 1946 was like for baseball, and for the country, it can make the story of the season itself a bit more difficult to follow.  While many books about particular seasons have been dull, dull, dull, this is not, but for those who are not baseball sponges, I can see how they could also be lost, lost, lost.

My friends who have also read this book suggest this is the best baseball book they’ve ever read.  I don’t know if I’d go quite that far but it is a great read, packed with portraits of those we know well, and those we don’t.  It is a superb memorial to those who served their country as well as their home town fans.  It’s also a great remembrance of a time when those who played the game did so despite miserable pay and working conditions, while the owners seemed to reap immense profits.  Though it’s short of five stars, it’s damn close.

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