In an American sports world where football is king, the notion of baseball as our country’s national pastime is a quaint one, a sort of nostalgic throwback to a bygone era, like westerns in the 1940s or heroic literature in the century after the Crusades.
Ungoverned by time, with seemingly little urgency to get anything done with haste, baseball is often run down as boring, a sport one turns to when one can’t pass muster on the hardwood or gridiron. A certain foreknowledge factors into baseball’s appeal as well; much hangs in knowing the difference between a 2-1 and 3-1 count, and woe to the observer who doesn’t grasp the salubrious effects of a well-timed hit and run over an ill--chosen moment to attempt a double steal. In short: One needs to know one’s stuff, to a degree, with baseball.
Baseball’s great advantage over its team sports brethren, however, is how readily it lends itself to a timelessness that, while borne in memory, has a knack for becoming perpetually of the present as well. With baseball, the past is ever moving forward in a kind of literary consciousness, a Proustian force that would have given Jay Gatsby pause with how readily memory is able to become something active and influential.
As a result, baseball literature thrives. Abetting the cause is the sport’s ability to dovetail with past iterations of a very American consciousness. In the case of The Victory Season, that consciousness is an especially restive one: that of a country, newly victorious in war, faced with fresh battles of an entirely more insular nature—a nation divided by housing shortages, labor strife, train strikes, rampant black markets, and racism. The consensual salve? Baseball. Back from its war-years malaise, and with its core cadre of stars reassembled after their service, baseball was arguably never more palliative than it was in 1946. What the country needed was some epic baseball theater, and, thankfully, the game delivered.
Robert Weintraub charts the military careers of star hurlers and back-up second sackers, and it is almost incredible to believe that players could so quickly shift their perspective from not getting taken out on the double play to taking out the sniper on a hill—but so it goes, again and again. There are all kinds of gradations of military service, and we see them all—from erstwhile ball-players flying bombing missions to bridge-based engineer work, with occasional time on the side for sandlot games in makeshift fields littered with rocks.
The meat of Weintraub’s narrative, once we get back home, is the National League pennant race. But his thesis—that the 1946 season mattered more than most, with an importance that transcended sport—succeeds on the backs of three men: Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, and Jackie Robinson—the man who would break baseball’s color barrier in 1947—of the (minor league) Montreal Royals.
If you think you know Robinson’s story, and you’ve seen his retired number hanging from the outfield façade of your local ballpark, you might want to double-check your sense of what Robinson achieved against Weintraub’s account. Robinson is tested again and again. His racist manager hates him—at first, that is—and while racism is hardly melted away with each base Robinson swipes (his specialty being repeated thefts of home), it is beaten back a little, at least, through a kind of hard-won, grudging respect. Robinson’s manager, Clay Hopper, watches as a friend of his, former major league pitcher Paul Derringer, fires a fastball at Robinson’s head on two successive at-bats—leading, on both occasions, to Robinson picking himself up and drilling a couple of hits. Weintraub’s laconic reporting of the aftermath has a novelistic touch: “After the game, Derringer approached Hopper. ‘He’ll do,’ was all he said.”
Robinson’s story here is as much a testament to marriage as it is to the civil rights movement or the human capacity to endure. As Weintraub states, Rachel Robinson was every bit the hero her husband was, and while one can’t say with any certainty that Robinson would not have succeeded without her, there’s little doubt that the challenge would have been more formidable were he on his own.
Conversely, Weintraub writes up Ted Williams as a loner, a sort of Paganini of the batter’s box, the virtuoso whose legerdemain is beyond the bounds of comprehension of mere baseball mortals. Williams gets it in the neck a lot, mostly from the press. He won Most Valuable Player in 1946, his first, but no matter: Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau opted to overturn baseball’s traditional geometry and created the infamous Williams shift, in which the left side of his infield joined the first and second basemen on the right. Williams, a left-handed batter, believed (rightly, as it turned out) in this approach and acted as though no new strategy had been deployed against him at all.
His harshest critic, Dave “the Colonel” Egan, wrote in the Boston Record that the shift wasn’t “a compliment to the hitting greatness of Williams. It is a sneer at his inability to hit successfully, except to one particular part of the lawn.”
Stan Musial, like Williams, slumped in the World Series; but Weintraub makes the case that there may be no more underrated superstar and all-around good bloke in the game’s history.
Weintraub excels at digging up quotes that capture the idiosyncratic vernacular of midcentury baseball. When an Irish player fails, leprechauns were said to “give him a bad steer.” Fastballs are no more sneaked past fastball hitters than sun rays manage to get clear of roosters. But what gives The Victory Season just that right touch of roguish merriment is its oddball characters, guys that you tend to meet only in locker rooms, as though they could exist in no other sector of society. A case in point is Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who, when not getting ejected from the latest ballgame or beating a man in a back corridor of Ebbets Field, hung out with actors, mobsters, and all manner of comely females. Durocher excelled at what we’ll call baseball “saltiness,” but his was a gruff, quasi-Romantic poetry that would tickle the likes of Ring Lardner. His admiration for Jackie Robinson is voiced in a metaphor involving a baseball bat and a posterior orifice.
Attendance boomed throughout that 1946 season, and the campaign essentially assured the sport’s future—if not forevermore as America’s pastime, then as the game that most easily moves about, free as you please, through time, literature, and our collective and personal memories: “The incredible twists and turns of the season and the Series, coming so soon after the end of the war and the subpar baseball on display, galvanized the next wave of fans,” Weintraub concludes.
What he could just as easily have said was that a return to the events of that 1946 season could well galvanize the mind of someone who has no knowledge, let alone recollection, of Stan’s Red Birds taking down Ted’s Red Sox. For, while all of this is about that, it’s also about everything else but.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.