Day 21 of 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Life after April 15, ’47: When Cleveland’s colorful 48ers made its mark

“Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and
the World Series That Changed Baseball”

The author:
Luke Epplin

The publishing info:
Flatiron Books/MacMillan
390 pages
Released March 30, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At The LastBook Store in L.A.

The review in 90 feet or less

Jackie Robinson, 1947, Dodgers … The MLB’s first Black player, and the bigs’ first Rookie of the Year, helps propel his team to first in the National League. But they lose in seven games to the Yankees in the World Series, and their first (and only ) title in Brooklyn won’t come until eight years later.

We suspect you’ve got a pretty decent grasp of that piece of history.

Larry Doby, 1947, Indians … The MLB’s second Black player, and first in the American League, arriving about three months after Robinson tests the waters, doesn’t make quite the statistical splash — just 29 games, 32 at bats, a .156 average — and Cleveland manages a fourth-place finish in the junior circuit.

Then comes 1948.

Owner Bill Veeck ups his game, adding Satchel Paige onto his staff to join up with Bob Feller. Magic happens in a city where, just a few years later, a local R&B radio disc jockey will coin the phrase “rock-n-roll” and introduce the profound licks of Black-influenced music to be embraced by his white listeners.

Doesn’t that seem like a much more entertaining story to tell after all these years?

Before Cleveland rocked, Cleveland rocked the boat with its own fab four.

Our regular check-in on Jackie Robinson Day/April 15 is done to assess what’s new with the life and times of the former Brooklyn Dodger and what his impact remains in today’s world. But to keep that in perspective and context, we’ve always tried to stay in tune with historical projects that led up to that day, and then with what followed it.

With Cam Perron’s “Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players” reviewed on Day 16, there are more stories to document about the lives of those who could have been where Robinson was in ‘47 but fate didn’t have it that way.

Likewise, with Luke Epplin’s remastering of how Doby and Paige were bought together and the result was giving the city of Cleveland a World Series like no other in 1948, we see more immediate and long-lasting effects.

Robinson had a year in the minor leagues in Montreal before the 28-year-old started his first MLB game as a first baseman in ’47. Doby came on the scene as a 23-year-old infielder who didn’t have the luxury of adapting to minor-league play after his Negro League days were done, but was someone Veeck felt was needed ASAP.

By July of ’48, Veeck would be bold enough to add a 41-year-old Paige, who started his pro career more than 20 years earlier with the Negro League’s Birmingham Black Barons and giving him the first of six years and 179 games of Major League Baseball exposure (ending in ’65 as a 58 year old).

Already on the Indians staff was 29-year-old Bob Feller, already cruising toward a 19-win season with an AL-leading 38 game started and 164 strike outs. In his previous two seasons, coming out of his service in World War II, he had won 46 games, made 90 starts, had 15 shutouts among 56 complete games, racked up nearly 675 innings and faced more than 2,700 batters – all tops in the AL.  

When this band got together, what happened and why is it still important?

From page 7:

This is the story of how that team came to be as told through four of its key participants … two white, two Black, diverged in temperament, background and outlook. Each in his own way represented a different facet of the emerging integration saga that had just begun to play out across professional baseball. Their unlikely union … would remake sports as a business and the individual athlete as a brand and would help puncture long-standing stereotypes that so much of what America harbored toward Black ballplayers. As the backbone of a team that epitomized the postwar American spirit in all its hopes and contradictions, Veeck, Feller, Paige and Doby would … (shine) a light forward for a country on the verge of a civil rights revolution.

Epplin ended up interviewing nearly 60 people, including Larry Doby Jr., and Eddie Robinson, the Indians’ first baseman from that 1948 team (16 homers, 83 RBIs) and its last surviving member, still alive at age 100. (To be honest, we wish there was some input from Mike Veeck, Bill’s son, who remains involved in minor-league baseball.)

How great were the ’48 Indians? This ESPN graphic may give some context.

Epplin also acknowledges that while this “by no means is intended to be a biography of any of these four,” he had plenty of resources to cull from previous works done on them that include:

= “Larry Doby: The Struggle of the American League First Black Player,” by Joseph Thomas Moore in 2012;
= Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation,” by John Sickels in 2004;
= “Bill Veeck: Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,” by Paul Dickson in 2012;
= The exceptional “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” by Larry Tye in 2009, plus “If You Were Only White: The Life of Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige,” by Donald Spivey in 2012;
= “The Boys of the Summer of ’48: The Golden Anniversary of the World Champion Cleveland Indians, by Russell Schneider in 1998, as well as “A Summer to Remember: Bill Veeck, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller and the 1948 Cleveland Indians,” by Lew Freedman in 2014.

What meshes together is looking at this history through a new prism — and not to diminish what Robinson and the Dodgers did a year earlier, but to cast a spotlight on what Veeck masterfully achieved by getting the Lake Erie-adjacent ballpark rocking to a new beat.

How it goes in the scorebook

A Hall of Fame effort – as all four have a plaque in Cooperstown.

Here’s also how Publishers Weekly sums it up: “Epplin’s epic saga is simultaneously a riveting drama and a searing portrait of the racism that plagued baseball for decades. This sharp and well-documented history will be a hit with baseball lovers and general interest readers alike.”

Especially noteworthy is recounting how after 1948, it was “a long, sobering hangover” for the Indians, and Major League Baseball. The 1949 season started with the Dodgers and Indians as the only two teams still integrated. Doby had trouble buying a home in NIMBY neighborhoods, and spring training still had Jim Crow laws in effect.

Doby, who led the AL in home runs twice and was a seven-time All Star, couldn’t get into the Hall of Fame until 1998, five decades after that title. His plaque notes that his “exceptional athletic prowess and a staunch constitution led to a successful playing career after integrating the American League,” and the face he became the second Black manager in MLB history (after Frank Robinson) because Veeck, who then owned the Chicago White Sox, made that happen in 1978.

More to cover

== For a first-time author, Epplin has already had a somewhat epic journey in promoting the book with Q&A sessions. He’s been featured in the New York Times, with NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, with Will Leitch, and with Justin McGuire’s Baseball By the Book podcast. Just this week, he made it onto the MLB Network:

The book is also reviewed in the Washington Post and People Magazine.

Epplin also locked in with the Pandemic Baseball Book Club Q&A exchange:

Among the combined highlights:

Q: When did you first get the idea to write this book?

A: It’s strange to find somebody like me, from rural Illinois, near St. Louis, writing a book about Cleveland. I grew up as a Cardinals fan. But here’s how the germ happened: My grandfather on my dad’s side was hard of hearing, so he didn’t go to World War II. Instead he worked in an airplane factory in St. Louis. He would go to Sportsman’s Park, which at that time hosted two baseball teams: the Cardinals, who were always great, and the Browns, who were terrible. My grandfather was an unusual man, in that he was a big fan of the Browns.

The last owner of the Browns (before they became the Baltimore Orioles) was Bill Veeck, the iconoclastic showman. I wanted to pursue a longer project about him. While researching, I went back to his earlier years owning the Indians. Reading through the archives of The Sporting News at the New York Public Library, I kept seeing these four names coming up: Bill Veeck, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Bob Feller. You had these four men, two white and two Black, and they each seemed to represent different facets of the integration that was happening at the time. I thought, the larger story is to be told here, through these four individuals.

Q: How difficult was to assemble and craft the parts of these stories together?

A: The most unfortunate thing is the book takes place from 1946 to 1948. I started researching it in earnest three to four years ago so by the time I did that, so many principal characters in the book had passed away and limited the first-hand stories I could have gotten. I had to rely on archives. Luckily there has been a lot written. They wrote a lot about themselves and some did more than one autobiography. I figured the way I framed the story and wanted to make it as compelling and entertaining as possible. I think it’s an alternate story of integration than one we are normally told. And when people ask why isn’t this as well known? I think perhaps the narrative has been lost outside of Cleveland and I wanted to tell this in a way that would grab you and make it just as meaningful.

Q: In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

A: It was originally going to start when Doby entered the league with the Indians, on July 5, 1947. I was going to start the narrative right in the middle and do flashbacks as necessary. But as I was researching, I realized you really needed to get the wartime experiences — all of them had experiences then that shaped how they approached the postwar years. And I found these characters were crisscrossing with one another and even colliding before they’re together on the Indians. Feller and Paige first faced each other when Feller was 17. They played against each other dozens of times in barnstorming games that captured the nation’s attention. Feller had it in his mind all those years that he really wanted to join forces with Paige. So I needed to go a lot further back, which is why the book now starts in 1936, to show who these men were before and during the war.

Also of note:

== In 2015, Epplin, who is also a huge fan of Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts,” penned a piece for L.A. Review of Books about the demise of the newspaper cartoon section.

== One more thing to consider about the history of Cleveland baseball, less than 50 years before that ‘48 season:

More to read

* Rocco Constantino’s “Beyond Baseball’s Color Barrier: The Story of African Americans in Major League Baseball Past, Present and Future” (Rowman & Littlefield, $32, 232 pages, due for release May 12, 2021) may already look a bit outdated with a cover photo of Mookie Betts in a Boston Red Sox uniform. Yet inside, there’s mention of how the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts was the first considered to be African-American (he is also part Asian) to lead a National League team to a World Series title — with Betts leading the way.
Here, we go back to Black participation in baseball from the 1800s to the present, including its boom of the 1970s through the strike of ’94, when stars like Aaron, Mays and others gained a rightful spotlight and the torch was passed onto the likes of Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Kirby Puckett, Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.
“While the percentage of African American ballplayers may have steadily decreased in the past 20 years, the impact they have made on the game has not,” writes Constantino, a Santa Barbara resident. “But before all of that was possible, there was Will White, Moses Fleetwood Walker and the subsequent rift that divided baseball along the color line for more than 60 years.”
Erik Sherman, author of the latest “Two Sides of Glory: The 1986 Boston Red Sox,” offers this review for the work of Constantino: “Not since [Robert] Peterson’s ‘Only the Ball Was White’ (released in 1999) have I read a more complete, thought-provoking history of the Black experience as it pertains to both the Negro and Major Leagues. Even better, in ‘Beyond Baseball’s Color Line,’ Constantino takes a deeper dive, bringing us full circle from the pre-Jackie Robinson era to today when African American participation in the game is at a multi-decades low. Constantino brings to life the legends and voices of Black baseball—their struggles, their courage, and their oft-untold exploits. A must-read for anyone who wants a more thorough picture of our National Pastime—and our country’s complicated history. An appropriate story for our current, turbulent times.”

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