THE VICTORY SEASON: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age, by Robert Weintraub. Little, Brown, 460 pp., $27.99.
It was the season that climaxed with The Kid facing off against The Man in a World Series that would be forever remembered for the Mad Dash. The Lip was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers, who failed -- what else? -- to close the deal, losing out to the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball's first-ever pennant-deciding playoff.
Major League Baseball could not have asked for a more exciting year than 1946. World War II had taken away some of the game's best players, but now the stars -- Cleveland fireballer Bob Feller, Red Sox great Ted Williams (aka "The Kid") and the Cards' Stan "The Man" Musial, among others -- were back from the service. Even though owners raised ticket prices, war-weary fans came out in droves. But it wasn't all fun and games. The big leagues were poised on the cusp of great change: Labor troubles were brewing, and black players were about to break the once impermeable color line.
We see a lot of baseball books each spring, but few will be more supremely entertaining than "The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age," Robert Weintraub's chronicle of the '46 season. A spirited stylist who writes with old-timey flair -- a player is not merely handsome, he's a "good-looking son of a buck" -- Weintraub covers all the bases. Owners, managers, players: Some of the most colorful characters the game has ever known are here.
My favorite is Leo "The Lip" Durocher. The Brooklyn manager stood out "like a peacock on the arctic ice." He ran with gangsters and squired beautiful women about town. On the field, his temper was explosive, his mouth a weapon. (Durocher makes Billy Martin look placid.) "I'll reach down and bite your head off," an umpire once growled at him. "If you do," Durocher shot back, "you'll have more brains in your stomach than you've got in your head."
Weintraub, author of "The House That Ruth Built," regales us with dozens of such anecdotes; his impossibly charming book sometimes reads more like a miscellany of japes and gems than a steady narrative. Yet, he gives you a vivid sense of baseball as show business. It is easy to mourn the game's alleged loss of purity, but gimmicks and commercialism were rampant back in the day. Legendary Bill Veeck, the madcap owner of the Cleveland Indians, for example, put a full orchestra in the outfield and advertised his phone number.
The United States may have won the war, but 1946 was a tough year for the average fan: The cost of living skyrocketed, while housing and transportation shortages affected everyone, including the players themselves. (After discharge from the Navy, Musial hitchhiked 300 miles from Philadelphia to his hometown of Donora, Pa.) Players were hardly the cosseted multimillionaires they are today. Owners were generally skinflints who thought nothing of gutting a roster; the men who batted and pitched had virtually no rights.
The author observes that "postwar players willfully acceded to far less than they had coming to them, and their reward was to live on in a nostalgic halo, worshipped forever by fans who thought they, too, would play the game for peanuts, if only they could." An upstart Mexican league tempted major leaguers with more bucks. Robert Murphy, a now-forgotten Boston labor lawyer, tried (unsuccessfully) to organize a players' union.
Still, Murphy's efforts were a portent -- players would eventually demand, and get, more than peanuts -- as was a seismic signing by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. Dubbed "El Cheapo" by one sportswriter, Rickey was canny enough to know that the Negro Leagues were untapped gold, "a gaping market inefficiency waiting to be exploited," as Weintraub puts it. He gave Jackie Robinson a minor league gig, key training for his debut in the big time the next year.
But let's not forget what happened on the field. Threaded throughout is Weintraub's winning account of the 154-game season and the thrilling seven-game Cardinals-Red Sox World Series that capped it off. Williams and Musial, MVPs of the American League and National League, respectively, had lousy series. The Cards won in the deciding game, as Enos Slaughter charged all the way home from first off an outfield hit. "Slaughter's Mad Dash" was so crazy, it could only be true.