Baseball Books Reviewed: 1954

1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever (Da Capo Press, 320pp)

1947 is remembered as the year when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. From a historical standpoint, however, Major League Baseball’s integration is often portrayed as if it began, and ended, with Robinson, as if his rookie year with the Brooklyn Dodgers opened the floodgates for black players, and from that moment on all other teams willingly rushed to fill the void on their own rosters. But that was hardly the case. As of spring training, 1954, a full seven years A.R. (After Robinson) half of the sixteen major league clubs still did not feature a black athlete on their rosters. Hall of Fame baseball writer Bill Madden, in his new book, 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever, seeks to tell the rest of the story. He deftly makes the case that the 1954 season is just as integral to the integration narrative as is 1947. Superlative players of color, many of whom had spent time in the Negro Leagues, were more and more becoming a part of the fabric of the Major League game. The 1954 World Series, pitting the New York Giants against the Cleveland Indians, made history, as it was the first to feature African-American athletes on both teams.

1954, according to Madden, had its roots in a project that never got off the ground. Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, had approached Madden back in 2000 about collaborating on his biography. Madden was enthusiastic (after all, Doby was one of his boyhood heroes), but Doby soon became stricken with cancer, eventually succumbing to it in 2003. Madden never completely shelved the project, but he also came to realize that Doby’s story was part of a greater whole, that his struggles as a young black baseball player in post-war America mirrored those of others.

Madden focuses on the individual stories of many of the black stars of the day. Along with Doby, we read accounts of Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, Minnie Minoso of the Chicago White Sox, Monte Irvin of the New York Giants, and others. But the book is also a chronicle of the entire 1954 season as well.

And what a season it was.

Al Lopez’s Indians, winners of a then-American League record 111 games, finally dethroned the five-time defending World Series champion New York Yankees (Ironically, the Bronx Bombers’ 103 wins in 1954 were the most in a season under manager Casey Stengel.). Meanwhile, the New York Giants, led by manager Leo Durocher, won their second National League pennant in four years. The Giants were a special team, a close-knit blend of blacks and southern whites that knew no racial frictions. Despite being huge underdogs against Cleveland come October, the Giants swept the Indians in a Series best remembered for “The Catch,” an electrifying play by a certain 23-year-old Giant outfielder named Willie Mays.

1954 is a treasure-trove of tales, and Madden is a master teller. Subplots abound in this well-researched book. There’s the drama of Vic Power, the dark-skinned minor-league prospect from Puerto Rico, unable to get the call-up from the Yankees. Power is eventually traded away, to appear in four All-Star Games and win seven Gold Gloves, for other teams. The lily-white Yankees, still without a black player, supposedly got rid of Power because he liked to date white women.

There’s the unsettling story of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ trip to St. Louis in April of 1954. It was as if 1947 had never happened, as Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, Joe Black, and Sandy Amoros (all African-Americans) are denied lodging at the Chase Hotel, where all major league teams stayed when in The Mound City. The players confront the manager, and are only allowed to stay if they agree to keep out of the swimming pool and the dining room. “That’s ok, mister,” Robinson noted. “I don’t swim.”

There’s Roberto Clemente, a Dodger prospect, toiling for the club’s Triple-A Montreal Royals farm team. One version of the story goes that the Dodgers were forced to keep Clemente down, because calling him up would violate the “unwritten, unspoken, unspecified ‘quota’ of black players that clubs could have on their twenty-five man active rosters.” Since the Dodgers looked to have six black players at the major league level in 1954, adding Clemente, a seventh, would have exceeded the quota of 25 percent of the twenty-five man roster. Clemente never played a game for the Dodgers, but was drafted by Pittsburgh, where he went on to forge a Hall-of-Fame career.

There’s Mays, the Say Hey Kid, whom the Boston Red Sox, another all-white team, could have purchased from the Birmingham Black Barons for a mere $4,500. Sox manager Joe Cronin, however, said that the club had “no interest in the boy at this time.” Imagine a Fenway Park outfield of Mays and Ted Williams, and how radically different baseball’s power structure would have been.

It is not the only “what-if” story in Madden’s book. There’s a young Negro Leaguer named Henry Aaron, pen in hand, ready to sign a contract with the New York Giants in 1952. But the then-Boston Braves countered at the last moment with an offer for “the difference of $100 a month,” according to Aaron, who took the higher figure. “I could’ve been teammates with Willie Mays,” Aaron points out. “Imagine that. I often wonder if the Giants had both me and Willie in their outfield if they’d ever have been able to move to San Francisco in 1957.”

Other personalities out of baseball’s past play major roles in the narrative, including Leo Durocher, Bill Veeck, Walter O’Malley, George Weiss, Casey Stengel, Al Rosen, Hank Greenberg, Dusty Rhodes, and the abrasive New York Daily News baseball writer Dick Young.

Madden, who grew up a baseball fan in 1950’s America, admits that his book was a labor of love, and his heartfelt account of events makes it a joy to read. 1954, despite its descriptions of baseball’s discriminatory past, is not, however, a preachy book of bitterness. Rather, to Madden’s credit, it is a book about looking forward. While it fills a gap in baseball’s integration story, it is also a celebration of a wonderful year in the history of the game, a summer in which African-American players made great strides. The 1950’s and 1960’s were decades in which baseball truly became America’s National Pastime, and the seeds of that era were sown in 1947, but also in 1954. Kudos to Bill Madden. His book is a wonderful addition to baseball literature, one which can be enjoyed by both historians and casual fans alike.