|Book Review: Bottom of the Ninth|
Written by Richard Coreno (Contact & Archive) on April 27, 2009
The knock on the door was loud, but much too brief. And what was supposed to be extraordinary heat turned up on Major League Baseball was ultimately a hollow victory lodged in defeat.
The forgotten history of a controversial period in MLB is illuminated by bright stadium lights by author Michael Shapiro in Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself (May 2009, Henry Holt & Company) and given a complete nine innings to deliver in the clutch. The era is the 1950s, a time when a number of prominent businessmen with big cash and bigger dreams wanted new seats in the exclusive club that was reserved for 16 members, with the field of play dominated by the New York Yankees.
Shea announced his plans for a new professional league in November 1958, with play to begin in 1961. After some jostling for position, the franchises were finally slated for New York City, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Toronto, Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and Buffalo. Businessmen involved in the league included Jack Kent Cooke, Bob Howsam and Wheelock Whitney, Jr. Rickey - who had been out of baseball since "relinquishing" his general manager's post with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955 - had a number of cutting-edge ideas to level the playing field to make a more competitive game, including a revolutionary plan for revenue sharing.
The wild card added to the mix is a federal probe into MLB's antitrust exemption - the Supreme Court issued a ruling in 1922, which was upheld in 1953, that antitrust law did not apply to baseball, because games were local affairs, not interstate commerce - and it appeared that there was no getting out of the way of an extraordinary change in the landscape of the pro game. Antitrust law prohibits any action that unreasonably restrains competition and a number of businessmen were claiming foul by MLB for not even entertaining the prospect of expansion franchises.
How MLB eventually seized control of the tenuous situation and commandeered a plan to knock Rickey and the CL out of the batter's box is fascinating, since it was a defensive shift that included the essential elements of divide and conquer, which completely switched the momentum of the chessboard within the pro game, with some promises made by MLB officials to the CL not realized until 1993.
Shapiro juxtaposes the battle in board rooms with the diamond gems being performed by the legends in pinstripes. There was no question concerning who carried the momentum on the field, as the "Stengel era" was rewriting the record book. From 1949 to 1953, the Yankees won five consecutive World Series championships, along with the names of Mantle, Berra, Ford and Maris working their way into the lofty status reserved for Ruth, DiMaggio, Gehrig and Gomez.
Then - as now - Stengel was mostly viewed as a master of the quip who had all the advantages of a deep-pocketed ownership and the lure of the Big Apple for any five-tool prospect. But "The Old Professor" wasn't simply penciling in top stars and then taking an afternoon nap; he had found success with a platoon system that included using pinch hitters when he deemed necessary and having defensive replacements for the latter innings.
Entering the 1960 World Series versus - on paper - an overmatched Pittsburgh Pirates team (whose key players were part of Rickey's rebuilding plan earlier in the decade), Stengel had amassed 10 American League crowns and seven World Series titles in a dozen seasons. And it looked like an amazing eighth world title was there for the taking, but Bill Mazeroski let his bat do the talking in the seventh game for one of the biggest upsets ever. The chatter in the Yankee clubhouse concerned the over-managing by Stengel, who - like Rickey - ultimately lost his job.
Shapiro deftly pens the rest of the story of two iconic figures....from the triumphs, travails and false starts in smoke-filled rooms to victory and - ultimately - defeat on the beautifully-manicured grass of the diamond that's the playground for an elite who go by the majestic title of the "Lords of the Realm."
AHP Rating: 3.5 Balls
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