October 1964

by David Halberstam

New York, Villard Books, 1994

This is the second of Halberstam's baseball books, and was easier for me to read than Summer of '49 because it doesn't involve Red Sox drama. Halberstam -- an actual historian -- does not burden the reader with extracurricular history lessons ("...meanwhile Chubby Checker was making the Twist popular and China was working on its atomic bomb.") None of that here, just a good baseball story.

The World Series of 1964 featured a team on the way up, the St. Louis Cardinals, and a team on the way down, the New York Yankees. The Yankee organization had resisted developing black ballplayers; on the field they were old, slow and white. The Cards, especially after acquiring Lou Brock in mid-season, played a more "modern" brand of ball, utilizing speed and defense.

One of the memorable features of 1964 was the collapse of the Phillies in the last week of the season. The other memorable feature was that the mangers of both pennant winning teams (Yogi Berra and Johnny Keane) were gone right after the World Series.

"Oh, ye of little faith..." With his team seemingly doomed to finish behind the red hot Phillies, St. Louis owner Gussie Busch fired general manager Bing Devine during the season and made plans to replace Keane after it was over. (Word of the plot -- apparently concocted by Harry Caray and Leo Durocher -- soon reached Keane.) The Cardinals got hot, squeaked into first place on the last day of the season, and then won the World Championship. Busch tried to reverse himself give and Johnny a new contract, but the indignant Keane shocked the world by handing Gussie his resignation.

Yogi Berra, not taken very seriously as a manager by the press or his players, did a fine job guiding his banged up team into a pennant and a 7-game Series, but GM Ralph Houk had already decided to get rid of him. In the ultimate version of managerial musical chairs, Berra was replaced by Johnny Keane. (It turned out to be a disaster for both Keane and the Yankees).

Most of the book consists of personality profiles, and these two ballclubs had an amazing collection of personalities. Ironically, the most famous in later life was St. Louis backup catcher Bob Uecker, who did not even play in the World Series. The first-string catcher was another broadcaster and commercial maker, Tim McCarver. The first baseman, Bill White, became President of the National League. Center fielder Curt Flood became the center of the biggest lawsuit in baseball history. Throw in a couple Hall of Famers (Bob Gibson and Lou Brock), and some stars in their time (Dick Groat and Ken Boyer).

Some of the best stories involve Cardinal pitchers Ray Sadecki, Barney Schultz, Roger Craig and especially Curt Simmons, who'd played for a pennant winner in 1950 but missed that Series because of Army duty. He had to wait 14 years for another chance, and you get the feeling he appreciated being there more than anyone.

On the Yankee side, there's not enough Whitey Ford, just the right amount of Roger Maris, and way too much Mickey Mantle. Yankee fans (and Halberstam is one) should not be allowed to write about The Mick -- it makes the rest of us queasy. Is there somewhere a good objective evaluation of Mantle as a player, written by someone who did not grow up worshipping him?

In those days we had gotten used to the Yankee assembly line: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle... When one got too old there was another to replace him. Tom Tresh arrived in the 60's as the next in line ("this kid can do it all") but somehow he never made it. Tresh is barely mentioned in this book, so I remain curious as to whether he was over-rated to begin with, or did something happen to mess up his career?

Halberstam does cover the young "counterculture" Yankees like Jim Bouton, Phil (Harmonica) Linz, and the ridiculous Joe Pepitone. They were not worthy successors to the Yankee dynasty. Another broadcaster, Tony Kubek, pops up as an example of faded glory. I would like to have seen even more about the Boyer brothers, Ken and Clete, who played third base on opposite sides in the Series.

The best profiles on the Yankee side involve pitchers (maybe pitchers are more interesting people), especially Mel Stottlemyre, who went from Triple-A to ace of the staff within a couple of months.

Halberstam's great skill is in weaving together all these life stories into a snapshot of the moment they intersected, in one October Series. -- DN

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