Parallel tales of two of baseball’s greatest lions in the winters of their careers.
By the late 1950s, writes Shapiro (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together, 2003, etc.), baseball, though still popular, was in trouble. Attendance had fallen precipitously since the ’40s, and the game was being supplanted by football as America’s favorite professional sport. Enter veteran baseball executive Branch Rickey, who at age 74 attempted to save baseball by creating a third major league, the Continental League. This new league, envisioned Rickey, would be free of the self-interested and self-destructive myopia of the current major-league owners and would share resources, prospective players and the ever more lucrative revenue from television. In short, the new league would be competitive, which the previous leagues were not. The impetus was the New York Yankees and their wizened manager Casey Stengel, who had made an art of mangling the English language while proving to be a master baseball tactician. Under Stengel, the Yankees had won seven World Series, with consistently dominating performances that made baseball boring. With the “reserve clause” in place, in which players were tied to a team for life, not much promised to change. While Rickey pushed for such change, Stengel, approaching 70, was under pressure to continue the Yankees’ winning ways. Both men, each nursing an oversized ego, believed they would succeed because they willed it; in 1960, both men failed. Rickey would find the likely owners for the new league franchises no more open to innovation than the established league owners, and the Continental League would die with the expansion of the National and American Leagues. To save his job, Stengel had to win the 1960 World Series; he did not and was promptly fired. Eventually Rickey and Stengel, both of whom loved the limelight, faded from public awareness. Shapiro expertly enlivens these two larger-than-life characters and captures in fine detail an important era in baseball history.
A well-crafted story that will appeal most strongly to baseball aficionados.