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'Season of '42' and more baseball books

"Season of '42" by Jack Cavanaugh (Skyhorse, May

"Season of '42" by Jack Cavanaugh (Skyhorse, May 2012) Credit: Handout

Hardly anyone remembers 1942 for baseball. In the United States, it was a sad and sober time when the nation began to battle back from Pearl Harbor.

Baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis asked Franklin Roosevelt whether baseball should go on at all as the country entered World War II, and the president rendered a famous and fateful judgment: "It would be best for the country to keep baseball going."

So play they did -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Stan Musial -- amid "dim outs," fear of German submarine attacks on the East Coast and ominous reports of battles far away. Williams would join the Marine Corps as an aviator late in 1942.

In "Season of '42: Joe D, Teddy Ballgame, and Baseball's Fight to Survive a Turbulent First Year of War" (Skyhorse, $24.95), veteran sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh sketches a time when Connie Mack managed, blacks weren't permitted in the majors, stars (Cookie Lavagetto and Hank Greenberg, among others) migrated to the service, and games were scheduled at twilight to avoid bans on night games and still draw defense workers after their daytime shifts. German saboteurs landed on Long Island by U-boat. The most important victory was at Midway, not Fenway.

Attendance fell, but, then again, Americans were restricted to three gallons of gas a week. Still, what emerged from that year was a splendid season from Williams, a remarkable St. Louis Cardinals club that beat the Yankees in the World Series, and a grace note in a doleful time of war and remembrance.

 

One of those 1942 Yankees was Lefty Gomez, the much-underestimated and mostly forgotten pitcher who once roomed with DiMaggio, terrified batters with a wicked fastball, was awarded the win in the first All-Star Game and four times finished the season with 20 wins.

The Vernon Gomez story was unearthed from the mists of major league memory by his daughter, Vernona Gomez, in conjunction with Lawrence Goldstone in a book called, simply, "Lefty: An American Odyssey" (Ballantine, $28). It's a good story and a surprisingly insightful one.

Lefty said it was more important to be lucky than to be good. As a Yankee, he was a wisecracker; he also trafficked in wisdom.

His journey took him from sandlot ball to the major leagues and from hayseed to cosmopolite, with stops in Class D baseball played by rusticated teenagers in a league with teams in Pocatello and Idaho Falls.

His teammates called him "El Goofo," but as a young man, he was a student of the game and its nuances -- though he wasn't shrewd enough to ignore a quack doctor favored by the Yankees who counseled him that the way to strengthen himself was to have his teeth yanked. Not his best move.

Even so, Gomez flourished on the mound, becoming the first pitcher to appear on the cover of Time magazine. His fame faded slowly but inexorably, and today hardly anyone knows his name. Pity.

 

No one who reads Chris Ballard's "One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season" (Hyperion, $24.99) will soon forget it. You know you're onto something special with the first sentence: "Out in the corn country of central Illinois the clouds stretch forever, thick and soft, as if painted onto the sky of an old-time movie set."

Lynn Sweet -- a bit of a hippie, against the Vietnam War, inclined to smoke a little pot, not attendant to cutting his hair -- in 1966 was recruited to teach English in a farm town, the kind with a feed store, a poker game presided over by the high-school principal and, inevitably, the need to find a coach for the baseball team.

Sweet found himself at the helm of the Ironmen. It was not exactly inheriting a diamond dynasty. There was a playoff disqualification, a coup against the coach and a player who fell off a grain elevator.

But the coach and his boys rode the creaking bus they called the Yellow Submarine all the way, or almost. Sweet instilled in the players a love of the game and the fundamentals to let them beat teams with high schools bigger than the full population of their town. They made the 1971 state finals, the smallest school ever to do so.

It was a beautiful moment in the lives of a town and a team, and it almost -- almost -- doesn't matter that the Ironmen lost in the finals. Something important had been won and, thanks to this book, something important has been preserved forever.

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