by Kevin O’Neill, IT Systems Manager
In his 1954 book God’s Country and Mine: A Declaration of Love Spiced with a Few Harsh Words, Historian and educator Jaques Barzun wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” That quote has been memorialized on a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I question how true Barzun’s statement is in 2016, but I believe it was true when he wrote it; and I don’t believe it was ever more true than it was in 1964, the year the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Yankees in the World Series four games to three.
Historian David Halberstam chronicled the series and mid-1960s America in his book October 1964. In both baseball and society, old dynasties were dying, mores were challenged, and the civil rights movement was making Americans uncomfortable with a status quo that had been in place since the end of the civil war.
In many ways, baseball was better than it ever had been and ever would be. It had been 17 years since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, enough time for a trickle of African American baseball players to become a flood of additional talent; and baseball only had expanded to twenty teams. Even the worst teams had several great players. Competitively speaking, it was a golden era for the sport.
African Americans strove for equal opportunity in baseball just as their families and friends did the same in society. Major League Baseball still was eleven years away from hiring its first African American manager, but they had taken the playing field by storm with stars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Frank Robinson.
Race relations aside, social mores were changing too. The “British Invasion” changed young people’s music and fashion choices. Young people were challenging authority more than they had in the past. Labor challenged management and often won. Society’s changes were baseball’s changes, and the sport was nothing if not resistant to change.
Halberstam captured the parallels as he told the story of the Cardinals’ and the Yankees’ seasons. He helps us appreciate the last hurrah of a Yankees dynasty as we simultaneously observe the end of baseball franchises failing to fully embrace African Americans and, for that matter, any others who challenged the old ways. Halberstam also gives us a good long look at a new model for integrating a group and shows us how the Cardinals overcame racial barriers to become a close-knit team. We learn about the men who would change the sport’s labor structure as well as the ones who refused to conform the the sport’s historical norms for behavior.
As is his style, Halberstam tells the story chronologically; but he exits the chronology to introduce us to the characters and later to tell us more about each one’s background, upbringing, family, and personal life. We learn how Bob Gibson became one of the most fiercely competitive athletes in any sport at any time. We gain some understanding of Mickey Mantle’s greatness on the field and demons off of it. We get to know straight arrow Roger Maris in the aftermath of his record setting 1961 season; and, in contrast, there is a full dose of baseball rebel Jim Bouton who later violated the locker room’s code of silence when he wrote the bestselling exposé Ball Four. We meet and come to understand Curt Flood who unsuccessfully challenged baseball’s reserve clause a few years later, but whose principled stand was the first volley in a labor battle the players ultimately won.
The 1964 season’s pennant races were compelling without the personal stories. The Cardinals edged the Phillies and the Reds, who tied for second place, by a single game; and the Giants with stars Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal finished fourth with 90 wins. Meanwhile, the Yankees, White Sox, and Orioles finished with the three best records in baseball – 99, 98, and 97 wins respectively.
The Cardinals won the final game of the World Series 7-5 as Gibson pitch his third complete game of the seven, two wins and one loss. As we learned throughout the story of the season, Gibson was simply too stubborn to lose.
And that’s really what makes this book so good. Older baseball fans know that Gibson was gifted and competitive, but we learn what drove him; and as just as much as we learned about players’ competitive drive, we came to understand the loneliness of Elston Howard who, despite general acceptance from his white teammates, only felt like he fit in when he was on the field. The personal stories made the men into the great players we watched competing on the field at such a high level.
If you like baseball, I recommend this book. If you like 1960s history, I recommend this book. If you like baseball and 1960s history, you probably read it already; but if you haven’t, get it today.
Kevin O’Neill is the IT Systems Manager at Better World Books. He writes for ND Nation during the basketball season and does a weekly segment on the Stocks and Jocks radio program which currently airs in Chicago and Phoenix.