09 June 2004

Book Review - New York City Baseball: The Last Golden Age, 1947-1957

The Perfect Game. The Tape Measure Home Run. The Catch. Integration. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.

You know the events. Now read the stories behind them.

The latest offering from noted author and historian Harvey Frommer, a reprinting of
New York City Baseball: The Last Golden Age, 1947-1957, (Paperback, University of Wisconsin Press, $19.95) does not disappoint. The original was published in 1980, with a reprinting and a new afterward in 1992. This edition has a new forward by Monte Irvin, but otherwise does not appear to include anything that the 1992 edition didn’t. But that’s OK. It’s got plenty.

The time period that Frommer and many other baseball historians call the Last Golden Era, 1947-1957, at least for New York baseball, saw the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants capture 17 of 22 possible pennants (9 by the Yankees) and nine of 11 World Series titles (7 by the Yankees). More than half of the MVP awards given in that span went to players from New York teams. It was truly a dominant time for the City That Never Sleeps, and Harvey Frommer does a great job of recounting the era. He discusses the teams myriad successes and few failures, the histories of each of the three NY teams, their rivalries, and the eventual move by the Giants and Dodgers out to the West Coast All of this Frommer carefully places within the framework of living and working, growing up and growing old in the booming, post-World War II era that allowed this country, and indeed New York City itself, to experience some of the most significant growth, socially, economically and otherwise, it has ever seen.

Frommer’s penchant for writing about history and his ability to get stories about history’s figures, often from the figures themselves, both serve him well in this book. One of the best aspects of his work is the numerous first-hand accounts of the happenings inside clubhouses and on trains, the little anecdotes that make our heroes human, but that we often do not hear about until they have passed. New York City Baseball is no exception to this rule, chocked full of these stories, which can be equally as poignant to the young fan who never saw Willie or Mickey or Duke play as to the older fan who spent his childhood arguing which of those was the greatest. Those of us who never got to hear Red Barber or Mel Allen call a game can appreciate their involvement in this time as much as someone who grew up with his ear glued to the radio, listening for a “How about that?”

Frommer’s style, the simple, straightforward prose that clarifies without embellishing, that gives the story without trying to impress you with his vocabulary, makes you feel almost as if you could see and hear these old-timers sitting across your kitchen table from you, telling their own stories over a cup of Joe.

Speaking of Joe, some of the greatest players in history either rose to stardom in this time or called it their heyday: DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Rizutto, Ford, Mays, Snider, Campanella, Hodges, Furillo, Monte Irvin, Johnny Antonelli, Sal Maglie, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dons Newcombe and Drysdale, Gils Hodges and MacDougald, Pee Wee Reese, and of course, Jackie Robinson, all saw prominence and success in this time, and Frommer has stories for each of them.

I have only two minor qualms with this book. The first is that it’s a little pricey for a ~200 page paperback that’s been around in some form for nearly a quarter of a century. I guess that’s inflation. But, as you probably know, the book can be had for much less than that on BestBookBuys.com, so it’s not really a problem.

The other issue is that the book seems a little dated at times. I know, that’s kind of a silly criticism for a book that purports to be about an era that occurred nearly five decades ago, but it’s true. Since the book was originally written in 1980, Frommer mentions in passing things like how Phil Rizutto calls Yankee games on WPIX TV, and Mel Allen hosts This Week in Baseball. Even the afterward, mentioning that erstwhile Yankees infielder Dr. Bobby Brown is now the president of the American League, seems a bit stale now, four years after the offices of the league presidents were dissolved, and a decade after Brown stepped down from a position that no longer exists. It’s by no means awful or anything like that, but it would have been nice to have something new from Frommer himself for this edition, don’t you think? Heck, Jim Bouton’s up to Ball Sixteen or something like that, isn’t he?

Ultimately, though, this book isn’t about something new. It’s about several things old, old and wonderful, at least for fans of New York baseball, which I am. We need books like this one, and writers like Harvey Frommer, to remind us that baseball isn’t just about statistics and dollars. It’s about people. Some of the greatest of these are now gone forever, but at least they left some of their memories with Harvey before they left.

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