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Our Team

The summer that changed baseball

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Baseball is one sport that has provided a plethora of excellent books. Some are all-time classics like The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn and The Glory of their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Another all-time favorite of mine is the John Updike essay called Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. More recently, former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski has scored with The Soul of Baseball and Why We Love Baseball. Often these books make their way to Hollywood and become hit movies, like Field of Dreams.

Recently, I read Luke Epplin’s excellent book “Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball”. Our Team was a finalist for the 2021 Casey Award, given out each year to the year’s best baseball book by a panel selected by Spitball magazine. Posnanski won the 2021 award with his entry, The Baseball 100. Speaking of Spitball magazine, if you haven’t heard of it or read it, you need to go to their website and get out your checkbook and subscribe. The issue comes out each quarter and is best described as a labor of love for baseball fans. It’s filled with stories and baseball poetry and is one of the only pieces of mail that I consistently look forward to getting.

Our Team is an excellent story of the four key figures in the Cleveland Indians rise to their last World Series championship. If you’re a Cleveland baseball fan, you may want to skip ahead a paragraph or two. That last World Series win came in, gulp….1948. Next time you think us Royal fans have it tough, put yourself in the shoes of an Indian/Guardians fan. Seventy-five years and counting.

Those four figures that Epplin weaves in his tale are: Owner Bill Veeck, pitching star Bob Feller and two figures who do not get the due they deserve: Larry Doby and Satchel Paige.

Veeck is a fascinating figure, a baseball lifer whose innovative ideas resurrected three moribund franchises: Cleveland, the St. Louis Browns and later the Chicago White Sox, who he owned on two different occasions. His life story is worthy of its own book, and I count eight different novels about the man. Veeck has often been overlooked for his contributions in breaking down baseball’s shameful color barrier. He served his country honorably in World War II and was one of the most fascinating figures in the history of baseball.

Feller has also been widely written about, including several pieces by me. Feller is the only one of these four men I had the pleasure of meeting and both times were memorable. Feller was a shameless promoter of himself and the game of baseball. Baseball was his business, and most of the time, business was good. Feller exploded on the major league scene in the summer of 1936, as a 17-year-old, fire balling pitcher. After the season ended, he returned to Van Meter, Iowa, and completed his senior year in high school. We’ll never see that happen again. He became one of the first athletes to sign up for military service following the Pearl Harbor attack and lost nearly four complete seasons of his prime while serving. He later helped pave the way for acceptance of black ballplayers with his post-season barnstorming tours.

Paige was one of baseball’s great characters. He was also one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. Paige is also overlooked as a racial pioneer. He was the fifth man to break the color barrier when he Veeck signed him to the Indians during the 1948 season at the age of 41. His signing helped push the Indians to the title and in the process, Paige became the first black man to pitch in the World Series. He appeared in 21 games down the stretch, posting a record of 6-1 over 72 innings of work. He also drew large and enthusiastic crowds wherever he played. After Veeck lost the Indians in a divorce settlement, Paige was out of a job. He reappeared in 1951 when Veeck acquired the St. Louis Browns. Paige famously made his last appearance in 1965, when Charlie Finley signed the 58-year-old as a publicity stunt. Paige then went out and threw three solid innings for the Kansas City Athletics in their game against the Boston Red Sox, allowing only a single hit.

Epplin does a terrific job of covering the life of Larry Doby. You want to talk about someone that is overlooked? Look no further than Doby. After returning from World War II, Doby was a young star in the Negro Leagues before Veeck signed him in the 1947 season. Being the second man to break the color barrier, he endured the same vitriol that Jackie Robinson faced, without getting the credit or publicity that Robinson garnered. Doby quickly blossomed into a superstar and was arguably the key piece in Cleveland’s championship season. He ended his career as a seven-time All Star and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998. In fact, each of these four men have been elected to the Hall of Fame and rightfully so.

I greatly enjoyed this book and if you haven’t read it, I recommend you add it to your list. Epplin does immaculate research on his topics and the book moves at a brisk pace. The only line I disagreed with in the entire 299 pages was when Epplin called Charlie Finley an acolyte of Veeck’s. Granted, the two men shared a willingness to innovate and try new things at the ballpark. Many things that both men advocated are now used in the modern game. Where I see the difference is that Veeck was an owner for the fans, the players, and the city. He wanted to win championships and did everything in his power to draw fans and build a winning team. It appears that he treated his players fairly and many, like Doby, credit Veeck with making him the man he became.

Finley on the other hand always seemed to have an adversarial relationship with city officials, fans, players, and the media, first in Kansas City and later in Oakland. By my reckoning, the two men were polar opposites in that respect.

Epplin has written previously for The Atlantic, GQ and The New Yorker. Our Team is his first book and a very fine debut. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.