Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: 1954 (2014)

(Note: This review appeared in abbreviated form in The Buffalo News on June 8. Since I have all sorts of space here, this is the DVD version.)

By Bill Madden

Life is good when you get to talk to your childhood heroes ... and earn money from those conversations.

Bill Madden knows all about that.

Madden is the veteran baseball columnist for the New York Daily News. He had considered for years writing a book about the mid-1950’s, when the game and the game’s business was going through its first major upheavals in about a half-century.

That book now has been published. “1954” is a clear-eyed look back at that time, written by someone who has been around long enough to put matters in perspective.

Books on specific years in a sport’s history are fairly common, and 1954 is a good one to use for its impact on baseball history. There are three basic themes that run through Madden’s story.

The first is the rise of the black player. Jackie Robinson had entered the major leagues in 1947, but African Americans followed in something closer to a trickle than a flood. Still, the pool of talent was getting deeper, and young stars were starting to arrive.

In other words, this was the year that Willie Mays became, well, Willie Mays. He wasn’t a rookie, having broken in with the New York Giants during the 1951 season, and then he spent 18 months in the Army. But Mays arrived for keeps at spring training in 1954, and it took about two swings and a catch in the outfield for everyone to realize that a potential Hall of Famer was about to bloom.

What’s more, Mays had company. Milwaukee had a good prospect of its own, who earned a chance when Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in spring training to open up an outfield spot. Henry Aaron - who was scouted by the Braves while playing in a Negro League game at Riverside Park in Buffalo in 1952 - took that spot for about 20 years.

In Chicago, the Cubs debuted the first African American double play combination in history. Shortstop Ernie Banks would go on to become one of the Cubs’ all-time greats. Second baseman Gene Baker later became the first black to manage a team in organized baseball in the 20th century when he took over in Batavia in the middle of the 1961 season.

Another change to the industry came in the form of franchise relocation. The Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee in 1953, changing a lineup of cities and teams that hadn’t been altered since just past the turn of the century. A year later, the St. Louis Browns gave up trying to compete with the Cardinals and packed for Baltimore. By the end of 1954, the Philadelphia Athletics were ready to give on that city and try their luck in Kansas City under new ownership. And the Dodgers and Giants were only a few years away from moving to new homes on the West Coast.

Then there were the actual games of 1954, which offered some surprising results. In other words, the Yankees didn’t win. New York had won five straight World Series titles from 1949 to 1953, but they fell short in 1954 despite winning 103 of 154 games. They finished eight games behind the Cleveland Indians in the American League.

Over in the National League, Mays was a catalyst for a Giants team that rebounded from a 70-84 season in 1953 to win the pennant with a 97-57 record. New York wasn’t supposed to be a match for Cleveland, but the Giants - including Niagara Falls native Sal Maglie - took the Series in four straight.

Madden covers all of those events thoroughly, and takes the time to look at some events from that time that have been forgotten by most at this point. For example, Charlie Dressen was the manager of the Dodgers when they won back-to-back National League titles in 1952 and 1953. Dressen thought was good for a multi-year contract, the Dodgers disagreed - and hired Walt Alston, who stayed for more than 20 years.

Madden, who was born in 1946, interviewed several of the principals from that season, and found other sources of reference material elsewhere to fill out the portrait of the year. Oddly, perhaps the dullest part of the book deals with the actual pennant races, which weren’t cliffhangers. Madden couldn’t do much about that.

Admittedly, “1954” is going to read like ancient history to some. But for those curious about this transformational era in baseball history, or who simply remember the names involved, the book serves as a readable and informative recap.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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