The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Cleveland, four men helped bring baseball into the modern age

Cleveland Indians pitchers Bob Feller and Satchel Paige talk in the dugout before a 1948 game. The team won the World Series that year, and its Black players had key roles. (AP Photo)
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In the history of American sports after World War II, two themes keep floating to the surface. The first is the commercial boom: more fans, more publicity, more money, more opportunities for creative entrepreneurs and ambitious players. The second is the sensational rise of the Black athlete, which drives larger conversations about race and rights.

These themes converge in “Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball,” an appealing history of the 1948 World Series champion Cleveland Indians. The author, Luke Epplin, conveys the on-field action with plenty of drama. But if this were just a baseball story, he might have focused more on Lou Boudreau, the beloved shortstop/manager who won the American League MVP award, or on Gene Bearden, an otherwise mediocre lefty knuckleballer who, for one magical season, was kissed by the baseball gods.

Instead, Epplin profiles four characters — Bob Feller, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and Bill Veeck — who illustrate the forces that helped drive baseball into its modern age.

Feller, the star pitcher, embodied the new business sense of athletes. The first professional baseball player to incorporate himself, he exploited opportunities such as radio shows and syndicated columns. Since his debut at age 17, he had crafted a mythic, All-American image as the boy who emerged from the Iowa cornfields and, by dint of hard work, captivated fans with his blazing fastball. At season’s end, he ran his own barnstorming tour, organizing every detail for profitable exhibition games.

On these tours, Feller dueled with Paige, who was a one-man sporting enterprise in his own right. Restricted from the all-White major leagues, Paige jumped from team to team in the Negro leagues and barnstormed with the highest bidders. He had a zipping fastball, pinpoint control, trick pitches, incredible longevity and a charismatic presence. To Epplin, Paige personified the resilience and savvy needed to thrive in Jim Crow America.

Feller deserves credit for arranging exhibitions across the color line, showcasing Black stars before Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1947. But as Epplin reveals, Feller often expressed skepticism about Black players. In late 1946, a reporter asked him which Negro leaguers might thrive in the majors. “Haven’t seen one — not one,” replied Feller. “Not even Jackie Robinson.”

Epplin handles the issue with clarity and fairness. He writes, “Feller’s own personal narrative, along with the mythology that had built up around it and the values embedded within it — self-reliance, rugged individualism, the power of the will to overcome obstacles and circumstances — appeared to blind him to the barriers that Black stars simply couldn’t bootstrap away.”

In a terrific irony, when the 42-year-old Paige joined the Indians midway through the 1948 season, he supplanted Feller in the public imagination. Feller had been slumping, and Clevelanders blamed his moneymaking side interests. Meanwhile, crowds gravitated toward the crafty legend from the Negro leagues. In Chicago, fans ripped out a turnstile and crammed every nook of Comiskey Park to watch Paige hurl a shutout.

But Paige was not the Indians’ racial pioneer. That distinction belonged to Doby, the first Black player in the American League. Doby signed with Cleveland a few weeks after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. But his path to greatness was strewn with potholes. At first, he rode the bench while learning to play in the outfield, and he suffered the same abuse as Robinson. Few teammates reached out to him. In spring training in 1948, he barely survived the cut. These trials reflected the burdens of racial integration, even as his subsequent triumphs would prove its benefits.

Throughout the book, Epplin conveys African American perspectives, often by employing sources from the Black press. Through the tale of Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, he illustrates how baseball’s integration crippled the Negro leagues. He also describes how Paige played a witty, goofy character on his own terms, while the reserved Doby considered this showmanship a stereotype, injurious to Black dignity.

Epplin’s most colorful portrait, however, is of Veeck. Readers of the classic memoir “Veeck as in Wreck” already know this restless entrepreneur as an exceedingly likable mess of humanity. By zeroing in on his brief, triumphant tenure as owner of the Indians, Epplin captures Veeck at his best.

Veeck pushed a record 2.6 million customers into Cleveland Stadium with an avalanche of promotions: fireworks, clowns, door prizes and gag gifts for “lucky” fans, such as a keg of nails or a swaybacked horse. He never wore ties or hats. Because of a war injury, his rotting right leg needed amputation, but he bounced around on crutches, shaking hands and chatting up fans, always seeking mass appeal.

As Veeck saw it, there was no law blocking baseball’s integration — it was just a gentleman’s agreement. “And I was no gentleman,” he declared. He had once tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the roster with Negro leaguers. With the Indians, he weathered racist abuse for signing Doby and Paige, but he stuck with his principles and formed a friendship with each of them. In 1948, it paid off: Paige shored up the pitching staff, and Doby was a World Series hero, smacking a critical home run in the fourth game.

If Veeck had not integrated the roster, the Indians might not have won the 1948 World Series. As Cleveland fans know too well, that was the franchise’s last title. “Our Team” chronicles this moment of glory, when a booming industrial city raucously celebrated its championship, and explains how the club depended on men with democratic instincts.

Our Team

The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball

By Luke Epplin

Flatiron.
389 pp. $29.99

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