1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever

1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever by Bill Madden (2014)

Although hockey is my favorite sport, books on baseball history fascinate me. The anecdotes that Bill Madden tells in this book are extraordinary in that they are revealing not only about the baseball played in that era - with a focus on how integration was finally making an impact on baseball - but also on the social landscape of the country. It is interesting to note how many teams were now successfully integrating multiple black players into their rosters with rapidly growing acceptance among their teammates. Unfortuantely the feels-good aspect of these stories are countered by the anecdotes of how teams could not all stay at the same hotel in many cities as a consequence of segregation, or the unwritten quota that teams maintained regarding the percentage of black players kept on team rosters.

The book focuses on other themes that played out during the 1954 season. Namely, the ascendance of the Cleveland Indians in the American League, who won an incredible 111 games that season in what was still a 154 game schedule. They held off the five time defending champion New York Yankees, whose 103 win season kept them eight games out of first at season's end. The Yankees own lack on integration combined with manager Casey Stengel, make for an interesting juxtaposition against Cleveland's integrated squad managed by Al López (of Spanish descent) with Hank Greenberg as GM (who as a Jew was the target of many epithets himself during his playing days). In the National League, the story revolves around the Milwaukee Braves and their rookie standout Hank Aaron, the perennial also-rans the Brooklyn Dodgers who added notable other black players through the years since Jackie Robinson's intro in 1947, and the eventual pennant winners - the New York Giants. The final chapter focuses on the World Series, which the Giants swept in 4 games despite the Indians magical regular season. Much of the discussion of the Giants in the book invariably comes around to Willie Mays, and culminates with "The Catch" made in Game 1 of the World Series. While I already knew the outcome of this famous World Series long before picking up the book, I still found that the stories surrounding the Series and the entire 1954 season made this a compelling read.