THE LAST GOOD SEASON

Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their

Final Pennant Race Together

By Michael Shapiro

Doubleday. 356 pp. $24.95

Michael Shapiro was only 4 years old during the baseball season about which he writes, but his baseball memory apparently stopped right there. Even I, whose active interest in baseball died away five or six years ago, know full well that 1956 was no more "the last good season" than 1925 was the last year a good book was published or 1939 the last year a good movie was issued. In truth the only thing that distinguishes the (very good) season of 1956 from the many other (very good) seasons that followed is that it is sacred to memory among Brooklynite sentimentalists.

Nobody who knows anything about what passes for the literature of baseball has to be reminded that we've been down this road already, most notably in Roger Kahn's hugely popular if soppily written The Boys of Summer. Published in 1972, just as baseball was beginning a comeback after a prolonged period of public indifference and/or distraction by the new popularity of professional football, Kahn's treacly celebration of Peewee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella et al. reduced grown mesomorphs to tears and transformed the Dodgers from mere ballplayers into what are now called -- by popular-culture academics, hack journalists and others who make it their business to measure the national pulse -- American icons.

Given the immense success enjoyed by that book, it is hardly surprising that someone else has chosen to revisit the same subject and relight the old flame. For a few pages early in The Last Good Season there is even reason to hope that Shapiro may have something new to tell us: about Walter O'Malley's motives and strategies in relocating the Dodgers to Los Angeles at the end of the 1956 season, about the demographic changes in Brooklyn and New York City that affected the team's gate receipts and bank accounts, about the inner dynamics of the team itself. But those hopes quickly fade away. Shapiro seems to have his heart in the right place, but he has taken a good (if shopworn) subject and written what is most charitably described as a pedestrian book about it.

Part of the reason is Shapiro's flat, lifeless, cliche{acute}d prose, which lies on the page like an injured ballplayer etherized on a gurney; this will hardly surprise readers of sports journalism, but one might (foolishly, no doubt) expect more from a professor at, no less, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Although Shapiro concentrates in his opening pages on the larger issues raised by the Dodgers' situation in 1956, soon enough the book degenerates into just another mind-deadening, game-by-game, pitch-by-pitch narrative of the season.

Still another explanation is that Shapiro makes only token gestures in the direction of context. Yes, he devotes a few paragraphs to changes in urban America and offers up a few dumbed-down borrowings from Jane Jacobs about the urban experience, and he draws thumbnail sketches of persons both large and small in the Brooklynite dramatis personae, but he doesn't fit baseball itself into the America of the mid-1950s. This is essential, because the reader a half-century later probably doesn't understand how different things were then, or that O'Malley's eventual westward move -- however villainous in the weeping eyes of Dodgerdom -- was part of a vast change in the American landscape.

The Dodgers opened the 1956 season as champions of the world for the first time in their long, rocky history, having disposed of the New York Yankees in a well-played, dramatic, seven-game World Series the previous October. World champs, yes, but of a small, insular world. Major-league baseball was pretty much confined to the northeastern quadrant of the United States. Its westernmost outpost was Kansas City -- which it had colonized only the previous season, when the Philadelphia Athletics relocated there -- and its southernmost was St. Louis. It had only 16 teams, divided into two eight-team leagues the champions of which went right to the World Series without benefit of playoffs or, for that matter, much in the way of television coverage.

The nation was beginning its great demographic and economic move to the west and south, but big-league baseball, then as now, was blissfully clueless. It had to occupy new territory if it was to retain any claim to being the National Pastime, much less to increase attendance, broadcast outlets and other sources of revenue. Since expansion (i.e., the creation of wholly new teams) was still half a decade away, in the mid-'50s the only way to serve the game's best interests was to relocate existing franchises, which is exactly what O'Malley did, dragging along the San Francisco-bound Horace Stoneham and his New York Giants on the westward trek.

All of which is to say that most of the stuff that Shapiro feeds us about the ante-Los Angeles Dodgers is, apart from being all too familiar, essentially beside the point. It is amusing to read about the ways in which O'Malley was whipsawed by New York's Grand Vizier, the magnificently autocratic Robert Moses, and certainly it is true as Shapiro says that from the Brooklynite point of view Moses is (or should be) the real villain of the tale. But what history tells us is that (a) the move was in the cards all the time and (b) it was, over the long run, a good thing.

As Shapiro's own narrative makes plain, there was never a chance that O'Malley could replace the venerable but antiquated Ebbets Field with a new ballpark, even though he was prepared to pay for the edifice out of his own pocket; Moses had other plans for the best sites in Brooklyn, and Moses in those days always got his way. Nor, for that matter, was there any chance that the borough of Manhattan would help ease the Giants' passage out of the equally venerable, equally antiquated Polo Grounds. Indeed, by midway through the 1956 season, the issue probably was decided, even though at that point Los Angeles had not yet come formally wooing.

That being the case, Shapiro is left with little to do except replay the season. There are no doubt readers who enjoy that sort of thing, and perhaps those readers will thus enjoy these parts of The Last Good Season, but as I plunged into them my principal reactions were ennui and de{acute}ja{grv} vu. Ho hum, done that. Certainly it is possible to write engagingly and even dramatically about a parade of baseball games. Readers in search of such pleasures are referred to Roger Angell's The Summer Game and the long essay therein, "The Flowering and Subsequent Deflowering of New England," about "a great baseball season -- the most intense and absorbing of our times," which as it happens took place in 1967, more than a decade after "the last good season."

There is nothing engaging or dramatic about Shapiro's account of the 1956 Dodgers. As one who opened The Last Good Season with high expectations and for a few pages thought they might actually be met, I report this with regret but with no sense of loss. The boys of summer were (mostly) admirable men who played their last season in Brooklyn with skill and dignity and brought it to a fit end, but they have been sentimentalized and romanticized to a fare-thee-well. There is, as this dreary book makes abundantly clear, nothing more to say about them. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.co

Ebbetts Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers