Book review: 1954, by Bill Madden

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In previewing my new book review series last week, I promised I’d review one book per week. It was an ambitious goal and in reading the first book this past week for my new series, 1954 by longtime New York Daily News columnist and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Bill Madden, I realized I’d overshot. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a slow reader, frequently distracted and for my first review, I chose Madden’s reasonably quick, 262-page work. It took me a better part of a week to read and accordingly, my new series will run every other Thursday.

Aside from my fleeting attention span, I will say Madden’s book occasionally didn’t keep me engaged for the same reason a lot of baseball history books don’t: excessive exposition about what happened in games. I was drawn in initially by the cover quote that the 1954 season was “the year Willie Mays and the first generation of black superstars changed Major League Baseball forever.” With this summer’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri and the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America’s troubled racial history seems as relevant as ever. I’m always interested to learn more about how baseball’s history relates. It makes me proud as a fan that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors a decade before the Civil Rights movement really got going.

Madden includes many pertinent anecdotes, from Minnie Minoso sensing he regularly led the league in hit pitches because of his dark skin to the struggles Mays and others had staying in heretofore segregated hotels. But Madden strays from his theme at times and what felt like much of the midsection of the book to detail game-by-game minutiae. And until the epilogue, there isn’t much discussion of the legacy of the 1954 season. Granted, any baseball history book needs a certain amount of exposition, the meat and potatoes represented in how individual games came out. It’s a delicate art determining the right balance. I’d simply have liked to have read more passages like this:

A big reason, of course, for the dearth of black talent in both professional football and basketball was the fact that three of the leagues’ primary ‘feeder’ collegiate athletic conferences, the Southeastern, Southwest, and Atlantic Coast, did not get around to integrating until 1963, nine years after Brown vs. Board of Education. And it wasn’t until 1971, for instance, that the Southeastern Conference athletic programs were fully integrated. With so many gifted young black athletes in the South denied the opportunity to play football and basketball at all the major southern universities, baseball became their natural sport of choice. ‘I’m sure I could’ve been a real good football player– that’s what my mother wanted me to be,’ [Hank] Aaron told me in 2012. ‘But I didn’t see any future there. Not in Alabama anyway. I wasn’t going to college. All I wanted when I got out of high school was to get on with my baseball career and follow Jackie to the big leagues.

In 1954 Major League baseball had 38 black players, out of 536, on its rosters during the season, or 7 percent. That percentage gradually increased every year to a high of 28 percent by 1986, when it began declining again. By 2013 the number of African American players on the major league rosters was down to about 8.5 percent. Not coincidentally, the decline began in the mideighties, when the major southern collegiate conferences’ football and basketball teams were now predominantly black. It’s anyone’s guess how many potential Hank Aarons and Willie Mayses, who grew up in the South, baseball lost to football and basketball.

I’d recommend 1954 to anyone looking for a nice, quick read about one of the great seasons in baseball history. Of particular interest may be the wealth of interviews Madden did with the stars of that season, including Mays, Aaron and Bob Feller. That said, for anyone seeking the sort of thorough and academic look at MLB’s integration found in Jules Tygiel’s classic Baseball’s Great Experiment, this isn’t really the book. It’s fun but it falls short of being socially significant.

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