Correction: A earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the book’s author, Robert Weintraub, failed to note the romantic connection between St. Albans baseball prospect Jimmie Trimble and the future writer Gore Vidal. Weintraub does mention this connection in the endnotes to the book. The review also incorrectly implied that the “Hilda” incident recounted in the book, in which Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher removed a pitcher from a game in compliance with a fan’s request, took place in 1946. The incident is described as happening at an unspecified earlier date. The review also said Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher mismanaged the three games of the 1946 playoff series for the National League pennant. In fact, Durocher managed so badly that the St. Louis Cardinals won the first two games of the best-of-three series, obviating the need for a third. This version has been corrected.
The Hilda story may pose a test case for whether or not “The Victory Season,” Robert Weintraub’s account of baseball in the year 1946, is for you. One day during a game in a previous season, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was handed a note by one of his outfielders, Pete Reiser. The note suggested that the Dodgers’ pitcher at the time, Whitlow Wyatt, was tiring and that reliever Hugh Casey ought to take over. Assuming that the note came from On High, Durocher followed the advice — to his regret. Casey performed poorly, and the Dodgers barely pulled out a win. “Don’t you ever hand me notes from [Dodger general manager Larry MacPhail] as long as you play for me!” Durocher screamed at Reiser after the game. Reiser had to explain that the note had, in fact, come from a fan in the stands, a woman named Hilda. “ ‘Hilda??!!’ Leo cried, and just walked away, for once at a loss for words.”
For my taste, it’s a good story, amusing and relevant for its glimpse of a simpler era, when fans and players weren’t separated by so many layers of security — not to mention its snapshot of Durocher, the colorful loudmouth whose most famous bon mot was “Nice guys finish last.” I can see, though, how others might disagree, wishing that Weintraub, a sports columnist for Slate, would keep his eye on that year’s pennant race and the memorable World Series that followed.
At least three big developments, however, made 1946 a watershed year that deserves expansive treatment. Hundreds of players returned to the big leagues after serving in the armed services. A lion-hearted African American named Jackie Robinson was being groomed for his allotted task of breaking baseball’s color line. And a millionaire named Jorge Pasquel was tempting American players to defect to the Mexican League. How players and owners dealt with these changes and challenges set the sport’s tone for decades to come, and the upheavals, as much as the games actually played that year, are what’s on Weintraub’s mind.
World War II took a greater toll on baseball prospects than on major-league players. Among the former was Jimmie Trimble, whom Weintraub calls “a superstar prospect out of Washington DC,” killed in action at Iwo Jima. As Weintraub acknowledges in the book’s endnotes, Trimble was also the schoolboy lover of Gore Vidal, whose memoir “Palimpsest,” suggests that Trimble became something of a posthumous muse for the witty writer.
Robinson was lucky to spend the ’46 season in minor-league Montreal, which was less tainted by racism than almost any U.S. city. His relatively smooth time there helped persuade him that he could stand up to the snubs and harassment sure to come his way when he reached the majors. Weintraub reminds us, though, that Robinson was not everyone’s first choice as groundbreaker. “Many black players,” the author writes, “privately thought Robinson had been selected precisely because he wasn’t that good — thus, when he failed, the cause of integration would be set back for years.” Fortunately, the premise of this argument was false — Robinson proved himself a first-rate player, and the conspiracy theory fell by the wayside.
In ’46, several other first-rate players succumbed to Pasquel’s blandishments, especially the generous bonuses he offered, and as St. Louis Cardinals star Stan Musial wavered, a tipping point seemed near. In the end, however, Musial decided that he couldn’t honorably break his contract with the Cardinals, the momentum slowed, and the Mexican League faded as a rival to the National and the American.
By sticking with the Redbirds (as he was to do throughout his 22-year career), Musial got to play in the ’46 Series, one of the game’s enduring classics. The Cards had eked out the National League pennant by beating the Dodgers in a three-game post-season playoff necessitated by the teams’ identical records. (In Weintraub’s telling, Durocher managed those three games so badly that he might as well have turned the reins over to Hilda.) Their American League opponents were the heavily favored Boston Red Sox, sparked by their superstar, Ted Williams.
As it happened, both Musial and Williams underperformed in the Series (the last one in which either was to play). The Cards prevailed thanks to such lesser lights as pitcher Harry Brecheen and outfielder Enos Slaughter, whose “mad dash” from first base, after a teammate singled, to score the winning run in the decisive seventh game gets bravura treatment in “The Victory Season.” (It was argued — notably by the hitter himself, Harry Walker — that Slaughter actually scored on a double, which is how the play was scored, but Weintraub makes a convincing case that it was a one-bagger, with Walker taking second on the throw to home.)
Along the way, Weintraub tells myriad good stories, many of them involving Reiser, who had a tendency to overdo it when chasing down fly balls. “Running into walls became his calling card,” Weintraub writes, “and it nearly became his cause of death on a couple of occasions.” Weintraub sums up Reiser’s mentality by quipping that “he had no internal governor.”At times, however, the author doesn’t tell quite enough. For example, he glosses the phrase “kickapoo joy juice” as sportswriter Red Smith’s “frontier euphemism for a blazing fastball.” He should have gone on to explain that Smith lifted the term from Al Capp, the creator of “Li’l Abner.” In the strip, Kickapoo Joy Juice is the home brew of Lonesome Polecat and Hairless Joe, whose recipe for it ends, “If it needs more body, throw one in.”
“The Victory Season” may not be the tightly focused play-by-play account of 1946 that some fans would prefer, but if you want generous context for a great season of baseball when it was still the national pastime and the country was in fascinating flux, Weintraub is your man.
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