The Sunday Sports Book Review: Fall baseball

A bodacious band of ballplayers took “Bushville” by storm in the late 1950s, when America was on the move and Milwaukee’s Braves turned a town and a healthy slice of the upper Midwest into an unlikely epicenter for baseball fanaticism.

Before Green Bay became TitleTown, the beer-guzzling, bratwurst-gulping Wisconsiners (including quite a few relatives on my mother’s side) fell totally in love with the Braves well before their team shocked the New York Yankees in the 1957 World Series.

Picture 1In “Bushville Wins,” baseball author John Klima (“Willie’s Boys”) details with zany fondness the championship Braves, the men in the locker room, their highly engaging fans and a visionary owner, Lou Perini, who rescued the team from his native Boston, then dealt it to Atlanta business interests with the rise of a new business model that factored in televised sports.

What turned out to be a pit-stop for the Braves in Milwaukee lasted just 13 seasons (our family arrived in Atlanta two years before they relocated there). But they left behind unforgettable thrills with a Hall of Fame cast that included Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron.

What I found especially insightful in Klima’s account — which was published in June — is his sharp eye for team dynamics, and how manager Fred Haney shaped up the underachieving Braves with a brutal spring training regimen. Haney is portrayed as a crafty motivator who understood the intracacies of each player’s mind, and gradually threaded these personalities together during a grueling season.

It wasn’t easy and there were some concerns; Mathews had a penchant for late-night boozing with the Braves’ “Asshole Buddies” quartet that included pitchers Spahn, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl.

Aaron wasn’t overjoyed with starting the season batting second. Spahn, who lost three seasons to World War II duty, was 36, and Burdette, while having a strong 1956 season, had been dogged by spitball suspicions.

After untimely injuries, Haney had to cobble together lineups that included the aging Andy Pafko and the tender Felix Mantilla. Late in the regular season, the Braves smartly acquired second baseman Red Schoendienst from the Giants in a critical roster move, then overcame the haunting legacy of the Brooklyn Dodgers, their National League nemesis.

Once all that was accomplished, they had to convince an American baseball public they could compete with the dynastic Yankees.

Klima goes on at length about Yankee manager Casey Stengel’s dismissive attitude of the Braves and their environs, which yielded the eventual “Bushville” designation that Wisconsin natives took to heart. Klima details a hilarious episode of Braves’ fans greeting the Yankees at their resort lodgings south of Milwaukee as the Series switched to Wisconsin, totally bewildering the Bronx contingent. Naturally, the fans were insulted when their intrusive hospitality was blown off.

Ultimately, Bravesland exulted like never before when Burdette, a Stengel castoff, got the Game 7 win in Yankee Stadium. Klima includes newspaper headlines from other cities to illustrate how the rest of the country had grown tired of “one party rule,” and were behind the Braves:

“Cities that didn’t have major league teams looked at the Milwaukee Braves and saw a shining example of what they wanted to become. They, too, believed that there was power in their communities and that symbolic obstacles like those the Yankees represented could be overcome if everyone worked together. The 1957 World Series was becoming about more than baseball. It was about everything Americans wanted to be.”

But the wheels were already in motion for the Dodgers and Giants to move to California just weeks later. Klima skims over the 1958 World Series rematch, won by the Yankees, and in the biggest drawback of his book, doesn’t more deeply examine why the fans’ zeal for the Braves faded so quickly after their greatest moment.

They never surpassed the two million fan mark in a season; Klima points to the banishment of BYOB at Milwaukee County Stadium and the gradual decline of the team on the field. “They were bush league all over again, so thank God for the Packers and Vince Lombardi.”

This is served up as as passing mention in the epilogue, but that observation comes off almost as caricature. Klima only briefly discussed the challenge of Milwaukee being the smallest media market in the major leagues, and Perini’s dim view of the onset of television that threatened gate revenues.

Still, Klima’s storytelling enthusiasm in fleshing out a team, and its faithful fans, from a time at the dawn of baseball’s greatest period of migration and expansion, is a real treat to indulge.

He has interviewed many of the key surviving figures to serve up a fresh look at one of baseball’s most overlooked champions.

Reviews From Elsewhere

“One Last Strike” — Tony LaRussa’s memoir, written with St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist Rick Hummel, chronicles the now-retired manager’s long career as the backdrop for the Cardinals’ miracle run to the World Series crown in 2011.

“A People’s History of Baseball” – Villanova University legal writing expert Mitchell Nathanson’s book was published at the start of spring training, but is worth examining as the post-season beckons. Nathanson isn’t the first author to challenge the long-held mythological narrative of “the national pastime” in the context of social, political and economic change in American history. He details the game’s sordid episodes, dating from the Black Sox Scandal to the recent controversy over steroid use and homerun champion Barry Bonds, who’s not recognized as such in many eyes.

Nathanson also examines the sportswriters and statisticians whose stories, and ways with numbers, have shaped the storylines of baseball’s history, from the romanticizing ornateness of Grantland Rice, to the muckraking of Hugh Fullerton, to the mathematical wizardry of Bill James, as well as the more recent arrival of baseball bloggers.

A new review was posted on Friday on the joy of sox blog, which calls Nathanson’s book “entertaining and thought-provoking.” The eternal optimism spun by baseball’s happiest dissemblers, writes Allan Wood, is the baseline upon which Nathanson draws out the more nuanced, often quite different truths of basic human existence, in baseball and beyond:

“Nathanson links this way of thinking to rooting for the underdog and a fan’s general optimism every spring about her particular team’s chances at winning a championship. All of us ignore the fact that our team will almost certainly be one of the 29 losers at the end of October. But we happily dismiss the cold fact of that reality.”

Previous reviews from The Hardball Times, Seamheads, Boston Globe, and Only A Game.

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