David Halberstam's October 1964 reveals how one team, the St. Louis Cardinals', openness to signing black baseball players benefited them on and off the field,
Following the success of his first baseball effort, Summer of '49, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam has returned once again to the national pastime. However, unlike his earlier work, Halberstam's newest book—October 1964—can be understood on many different levels. First, and foremost, October 1964 is a baseball story. It is an easily read, journalistic account of the players, managers, and owners of the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals as the two clubs prepared to meet in the 1964 World Series.
More importantly, October 1964 is an historical account of the decline of the Yankee dynasty which had ruled baseball for decades. In its stead was evolving an era where black ballplayers were becoming an increasingly important part of major league baseball. Two players dominate a story of such scope: the Yankees' Mickey Mantle and St. Louis' Bob Gibson.
The demise of Mantle's career due to injuries, and perhaps also to his lifestyle, symbolized the deterioration of the Bronx Bombers. At the same time, the drive, determination and anger, which pushed Bob Gibson to excel, epitomized the stresses and strains of being black in a sport where many still preferred only white players.
Ever since they had ascended to the top of the baseball world in the 1920s, it had been the belief of Yankees management, and others as well; that every player wanted to be a Yankee. Beyond just the 'mystique' of the pinstripes, the Yankees regularly appeared in the World Series. Therefore, a player could always count on a World Series bonus cheque to augment his regular salary.
You did not have to be a starting player to reap these benefits. Charlie Silvera, a reserve catcher with the Yankees, cashed seven World Series cheques, totalling $46,337.45 even though he only played in one post-season game. "Silvera would come to refer to the lovely house he bought in suburban San Francisco as 'the house that Yogi built,' after the Yankee catcher whom he had played behind all those years."
Unfortunately for the Yankees' players, management also considered World Series cheques to be part of the players' total compensation, and took great pains to keep regular season salaries low. Since the team had so many good players, they were not dependent upon any one person, other than perhaps Mantle. As a result, if a pitcher was nearing 20 wins the Yankees would deliberately try to stop him from winning games so they would not have to increase his salary to reflect that the player was a 20-game winner. Halberstam notes that even Hall of Famer "Whitey" Ford waited ten years before he finally was "allowed" to win 20 games.
Such hubris was the Yankees' downfall. No longer could a Yankee scout sign a prospect for less than what opposition teams offered by appealing to the 'mystique' of the pinstripes. The advent of television, and the increased radio coverage of baseball in the 1950s and '60s, meant more advertising dollars and thus greater revenues for each team. Clubs, eager to compete with the Yankees, could now offer huge signing bonuses to prospective players.
The Yankees during this era also came to the misguided conclusion that they neither needed, nor wanted black players to help their club remain competitive. General Manager George Weiss was afraid that black players would attract black fans, thus offending the Yankees' traditional middle-class white customers. Halberstam, in October 1964, relates a conversation between Weiss and scout Tom Greenwade, who had scouted Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers and would later sign Mickey Mantle for the Yankees:
"Greenwade knew as much or more about the available black talent as any white scout in the country, but Weiss as not interested. Now Tom, 'he told Greenwade in their first meeting working together, 'I don't want you sneaking around down any back alleys and signing any niggers. We don't want them.' That was that. Greenwade thought it bizarre. He was being tipped on such great young prospects as Ernie Banks, but was unable to move on them because of his marching orders. The Yankees, he later lamented to his son Bunch, lost an important decade by not going after black talent..."
Weiss failed to realize that the toughness the Yankees sought in their prospects could be found in black ballplayers; players who craved to play in the majors just as much as pinstripers Mantle, Kubek, Henrich and others had in the past. For evidence of the determination of black major leaguers, according to Halberstam, one need look no further than the career of the Cardinals' Bob Gibson.
"It was as if winning merely confirmed Gibson's role as a famous, admired, and well-paid professional athlete. Losing on the other hand threatened to reduce him to what he had once been, a poor, sickly black kid from the Omaha ghetto, always on the outside looking in."
At first, the St. Louis Cardinals were hesitant about signing black players. August Busch, president of Anheuser-Busch and the owner of the Cardinals, was first and foremost a businessman. He had purchased the Cardinals to keep Milwaukee beer companies from buying the team and moving it to Wisconsin.
Busch recognized that, in the modern age of television and media advertising, owning a major league baseball team could be financially beneficial to his brewing company. Likewise, he realized that black Americans drank his beer and if he had black players on the Cardinals it could increase his beer sales to black consumers.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cardinals signed black players like Bill White (later the President of the National League), Curt Flood and Bob Gibson. Halberstam's October 1964 describes in great detail the hardships faced by black players, both in the minor and major leagues, and the impact it had on them:
"What was especially hard about it, the black players believed, was that those who were supposed to be on your side—your teammates, and your manager—rarely were; the organization that was supposed to be behind them did not appreciate the ordeal they were experiencing. Baseball's executives had clearly decided that they needed black ballplayers in the game, that the talent was too great to ignore. But, the young blacks of that generation wondered, did they really belong? Were they really wanted? Or were they to come, make their contribution, and then be gone as quickly as possible when the game was over? They experienced a spiritual loneliness, a sense of being apart from those who were supposed to be teammates, and of doubting the loyalty of the men for whom they played."
Nevertheless, by 1964, the Cardinals—both black and white—had come together as a team. Halberstam notes the close relationships that formed between the black players and the white players (in particular Tim McCarver and Ken Boyer). The Cardinals were a team that learned to stick together, especially in the face of the tirades and manipulations of their new general manager, Branch Rickey.
WhiIe the Yankees—due to managerial mishandling, injuries and old age—were on the decline, the Cardinals were just developing into a cohesive unit. Labour negotiator Marvin Miller, while visiting various teams, quickly perceived a distinct atmosphere in the St. Louis clubhouse. "The players were more relaxed, more mature, and better integrated, black and white. The friendships among the players seemed to transcend racial lines, and Miller was especially struck by the fact that not only were the players friendly with each other, but their families were too."
Halberstam devotes much of October 1964 to the events, players, and owners that influenced the evolution of major league baseball during this time. Relying heavily on information gathered from the scouts and players involved, he emphasizes the impact that the increasing number of black players had on both the black and white baseball communities. This background—at once both sports history and socio-economic analysis— provides the reader with a thorough understanding of why the events both during the 1964 World Series and afterwards occurred as they did.
David Halberstam's October 1964 is an entertaining and informative look at an era of dynamic change in baseball history. The struggles of early black players like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood are well documented. The inference is clearly drawn: their trials and tribulations made it possible for this generation of baseball fans to enjoy the exploits of players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Frank Thomas, and Joe Carter.
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