In THE VICTORY SEASON, Robert Weintraub points out that World War II veterans are dying off at the rate of about 1,000 per day. That makes his new book that much more important: to pay tribute to the ballplayers of “the greatest generation.”
Many of the stories have been told before and in more depth (the Pasquel brothers’ luring Major Leaguers to play in Mexico and Jackie Robinson’s ascendency through the minor leagues on his way to breaking baseball’s infamous color line, to name two). What sets this excellent chronicle apart are the recollections of and details about the athletes who lost precious playing time --- and, in some cases, much more --- in the service of their country.
Weintraub, whose previous book THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT celebrated the backstory and construction of Yankee Stadium, singles out several characters from baseball’s most celebrated era (or one of them; opinion differs as to the game’s “true” Golden Age.), including Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Warren Spahn, and other future Hall of Famers who served gallantly in combat. And for every Hall of Famer like the aforementioned quartet, there are hundreds whose careers may have constituted as little as a single game and who aren’t a household name, such as Murry Dickson, who pitched for five teams over 20 years but whose contributions on the battlefield were of greater consequence. Dickson won four battle stars and was among the first GIs to liberate the Dachau concentration camp.
"What sets this excellent chronicle apart are the recollections of and details about the athletes who lost precious playing time --- and, in some cases, much more --- in the service of their country."
Like many of their non-ball-playing contemporaries, these men were reluctant to offer the testimonies to the horrors of war, either out of a sense of modesty or even shame for what they had to do to survive.
The year after the war saw many ballplayers trying to win back their jobs. Not even the marquee stars were secure in the pre-union days (Weintraub devotes a chapter to the whisperings of a baseball labor movement, which failed at the time). Some were able to shake off the rust and return to former glory. Others were not so fortunate. Weintraub offers a couple of inspiring instances of a ballclub giving a wounded veteran one more chance, which belies, at least temporarily, the image of the penurious owner.
The post-war years also saw the advent of new technologies that would significantly change the game, primarily air travel, which may have played a role in the playoff series --- the first in Major league history --- between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals (Dodger ownership chose to follow the tradition of riding the rails rather than fly to St. Louis, an arduous journey that members of the team found draining); and the first stumbling steps of televising games, seen as a threat to attendance by many owners.
The final chapters concentrate on the exciting Fall Classic between the Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. In a most uncharacteristic manner, each team’s key player --- Stan Musial and Ted Williams, respectively --- failed to live up to their Hall of Fame credentials, putting up woeful numbers in the seven-game series.
If the reader wishes more in-depth examinations of many of the players and events of this “golden age,” there’s plenty of information to be found in additional books and periodicals. But I doubt those wishing to learn how World War II personally affected those associated with the national pastime will find a better source than THE VICTORY SEASON.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on April 19, 2013