Midweek books: Baseball summer reading list

On Wednesday I highlight a few noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

The official start of summer in America has arrived with the Memorial Day holiday weekend, which is a good time to finally plow into a growing stack of mostly new baseball books I’ve acquired to accompany the season.

Remembering the two Major Leaguers who died in World War II takes up a brief, but very moving, chapter in Robert Weintraub’s newly released “The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age.”

That excerpt was reprinted Sunday in The New York Times, and outlines the brief baseball careers and short lives of Elmer Gedeon, who played five games for the Washington Senators in 1939, and Harry O’Neill, who caught two innings of one game for the Philadelphia A’s in the same year.

thevictoryseasonThey were multi-sport stars in college — Gedeon at Michigan, O’Neill at Gettysburg — who had seen plenty of military action before being killed. Gedeon’s bomber plane was shot down by the Germans over France; O’Neill was shot in the throat by a Japanese sniper on Iwo Jima.

It’s a sobering component to drop into the earliest sections of the 407-page narrative, which Weintbraub devotes to the return of baseball’s biggest names from wartime duty and the 1946 season that ended with the World Series between Ted Williams’ Boston Red Sox and Stan Musial’s St. Louis Cardinals.

Couched around the story of Gedeon and O’Neill is the relatively luxurious experience of Joe DiMaggio, who reluctantly signed up for the Army Air Corps and spent most of the war stationed in Hawaii. While he never was sent into action, DiMaggio muttered about the Yankees pay days he was missing while playing glorified sandlot ball on base. As Weintraub writes:

He told his buddies he was going to stick it to the owners for the time he missed and hold out for a $25,000 raise. “Cost me three years,” he’d grumble. “They’re gonna pay for it.” It was as if Joe was planning to send an invoice straight to Hirohito.”

This is as far as I’ve gotten, and thus far it’s got something of “The Best Years of Our Lives” feel to it. Weintraub explains how they reacquainted themselves with major league life, feeling the pinch of age and miffed that baseball owners weren’t prepared to better honor their stardom — as well as their military service, however superficial.

Weintraub describes these players as complicated humans — without the searingly painful revelations of other works, especially those about Williams and DiMaggio — against a backdrop of post-war America grappling with dramatic changes. The year before Jackie Robinson broke the color line, Major League Baseball had a memorable season that signalled what the author asserts were the coming baseball labor wars culminating in the 1970s.

If you enjoyed Weintraub’s “The House That Ruth Built,” you’ll find his moderately paced, clear writing style and anecdote-rich detail evident here as well.

Other reviews for “The Victory Season” come from The Washington Post, The Oregonian, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Weintraub is interviewed here by Atlanta Magazine; he lives in nearby Decatur, the venue for the area’s biggest book festival every Labor Day weekend, and where he has been a featured speaker.

The book also is included in a recent piece on The Daily Beast, “The Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Baseball Book.” As the title suggests, it’s not particularly generous to any of the books it mentions.

A Southern watershed

While Weintraub has written about baseball at the very start of the so-called Baby Boom, Larry Colton has taken a slice out of the last year of that wave to weave together a story of baseball and race during the Civil Rights movement.

Last week he visited The Carter Center here in Atlanta to give a talk about “Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race.” It’s the story of the 1964 Birmingham Barons, which defied that city’s grim Jim Crow reality to field its first integrated team featuring future major leaguers Blue Moon Odom, Bert Campaneris and Tommie Reynolds.

How they fared with their white teammates, coaches and owners and endured entrenched racism — notorious Birmingham segregrationist Bull Connor was a Barons radio announcer — is the focus of the book. Colton, who played for the Macon Peaches, also of the Southern League, in 1966, and played one game in the majors for the Phillies two years later, has interviewed most of the surviving players and some widows. southernleague

Colton spoke in detail during his Carter Center talk about his friendship with Odom that developed as he wrote the book. Odom, a starting pitcher on Oakland’s World Series title teams from 1972-1974, fell into drug abuse and alcoholism after his baseball career ended. Colton said he debated whether to include that part of Odom’s life.

“I was worried about Blue Moon’s reaction to the book,” Colton said. “He didn’t want it [included], but I put it in there anyway. He said to me, ‘I did those things, and it’s okay.’ ”

Last month, those players were honored as the Barons christened a new ballpark. During their visit to Birmingham, Colton and Odom played a round of golf together, and the author noted how the player thought that a little remarkable, given the city’s fairly recent past.

The other thing I thought noteworthy from Colton’s talk is how he never sought out to write a baseball book despite his background. He grew up in Los Angeles and played baseball at Cal-Berkeley before embarking on a professional playing career.

“I didn’t want to be known as a sportswriter,” he said.

Yet two of his previous four books are about other sports. Perhaps his best-known title, “Counting Coup,” is part of a healthy supply of books chronicling basketball on Native American reservations, although like others of that topic, it ventures far beyond the game. He also wrote “Idol Time,” about Bill Walton and the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers, a book he says was rushed.

Colton has long lived in Portland, Ore., and is a founder of Wordstock, that city’s book festival.

Here’s a Q & A with Colton with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (paywall); review here from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

I figure these two books should get me to the All-Star break; what would you recommend I read between then and the start of the playoffs? I blogged recently about some possibilities; Let me know what’s on your summer baseball bookshelf.

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