Sunday, August 30, 2009

What if, baseball version

I just finished reading "The End of Baseball," an interesting baseball novel. There always have been stories about how Bill Veeck planned to integrate the 1944 Philadelphia Phillies in large numbers and take on the rest of the National League. The novel speculates how that move would have worked out.

I saw my friend Tim Wendel's name in the credits at the end of the book. He asked me what else might make for a good novel in baseball history along those lines. I came up with this plot line while running; all I need now is someone to help write the thing. It starts, naturally, with a true story.

Jackie Robinson was just finishing up a tryout in Fenway Park in front of some Red Sox scouts in 1945. Even though he had put on an impressive show, lining hits off every corner of the ball park, owner Tom Yawkey had told his employees in profane terms to get him off the field. And then Yawkey went to his office and had a drink or four. He knew Robinson represented the future of baseball in some way, and the South Carolina native didn't like it one bit.

It was opportune timing then, when one of Boston's most well-known figures paid a visit to the office that night. Yawkey started complaining about the state of baseball, and the visitor said, "Well, why don't you sell the team to me?" And an intoxicated Yawkey signed an agreement to do just that, which is how Joseph Kennedy came to buy the Red Sox that day in 1945. Kennedy thought it would go over well with wife Rose, whose father, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was mayor of Boston during the Red Sox's big years in the 1910's. Besides, as Joe put it, "I got a son coming out of the Navy soon, and he needs something to do."

With John F. Kennedy installed as club president, the Red Sox signed Robinson as well as Sam Jethroe quickly and cleaned house. Anyone who didn't want to work for the integrated team was sent packing. It turned out that list included the player-manager, Joe Cronin. While managers were a dime a dozen, the Red Sox did have a great shortstop waiting in the wings. Pee Wee Reese was already in the organization, although Cronin had seen him as a threat and advocated dumping him to another team. Reese stayed and thrived. As for the manager, well, Casey Stengel had been a popular manager with the Boston Braves for six years. Maybe he could do better if he had just a little more talent.

The Red Sox, armed with Robinson and returning veterans from the war, won the pennant in 1946. And 1948, and 1949. Not only were they a good team, they were good copy as well. Robinson provided endless fodder for the toughest newspaper town in America. Ted Williams quickly adopted Robinson as a virtual brother, and the two of them attracted crowds wherever they went. What with Robinson, Williams, Reese, Dom DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr, it was a thrilling team to watch. Kennedy was quickly dubbed the boy wonder of baseball, putting together a dynamic team at such a young age.

But while the Red Sox had enough pitching to win three pennants, they never could win the World Series. The Brooklyn Dodgers kept getting in the way, as Branch Rickey had followed the Red Sox lead and scooped up some of the best black talent in the business. Roger Kahn, the beat writer of the Boston Globe, called the Red Sox team "The Boys of Summer," and the description stuck.

In 1951, the Red Sox dominated the league from start to finish, leaving the Yankees and the rest of the league in their wake. Most of the attention was on the National League, as the Giants blew a 13 1/2 game lead to the Dodgers and lost the pennant in the third game of the best-of-three playoff on an unlikely homer by Johnny Pesky, who was traded by the Red Sox to make room for Robinson. Pesky's homer wrapped around the foul pole in Ebbets Field, which was forever known after that as the Pesky Pole. "The Dodgers win the pennant!!" Red Barber told his listeners in Brooklyn.

The Dodgers, though, were too exhausted to do much in the Series, though, and the Red Sox won in five games. Watching the clincher were a certain Mr. and Mrs. Dan Shaughnessy; the wife was pregnant with a young son who would become Dan Jr., who later became well-known for his lyrical, romantic books about that baseball era and kept that lack of cynicism throughout his literary career.

There was quite a party in Boston after that, as you could imagine. The Curse of the Bambino had been lifted after 33 long years. Williams went off to Korea to fight there. Robinson retired after a couple of more years, as did Stengel. DiMaggio made it to the Hall of Fame, right next to brother Joe.

As for the Red Sox team president, John Kennedy never really liked baseball all that much anyway. He retired right after winning the World Series in '51, and ran for Senator in 1952. He stressed civil rights in his platform. You know how the story goes from there.


Glenn Locke, The Tall Thin Guy said...

A lot of race related "what ifs" would be interesting. What if baseball, which did allow blacks to play early on, had never segregated? No Negro Leagues, and a lot of the records we know from old timers would be different.

What if Babe Ruth had in fact been exposed as being black, as some people believe he was, perhaps in the prime of his career? Would they have banned the Bambino or been forced to open the sport earlier?

As for your interesting example, think of how less rewarding your life would have been without all that Sox-related suffering. And we wouldn't have a trivia question whose answer is Pumpsie Green.

John Fraissinet said...

This story rivals that famous story of the Babe and the Mule.