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We're Talking Baseball
Ron Fimrite
April 07, 1997
Fans of the national pastime have five new volumes to add to their collections
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April 07, 1997

We're Talking Baseball

Fans of the national pastime have five new volumes to add to their collections

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In a baseball season that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's historic breakthrough, readers may expect a deluge of books on the great man's ordeal and his ultimate triumph over bigotry. Although Robinson's widow and daughter have already stolen a march on competing authors with separate memoirs published last year, a fine sampling of what's yet to come can be found in The Jackie Robinson Reader (Dutton, $23.95), edited by Jules Tygiel, a San Francisco State University historian. Tygiel, himself a Robinson biographer (Base-hall's deal Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, published in 1983), has assembled an all-star lineup of chroniclers, each with his or her own perspective on the events of that emancipating 1947 season.

Red Barber, the Brooklyn Dodgers' famous broadcaster, writes movingly (with former SI senior editor Robert Creamer) of his inner struggle as a Southerner over Robinson's signing. He concludes that Robinson "did far more for me than I did for him." And Tygiel expands on his own biography to detail the racism that nearly got Robinson court-martialed out of the Army near the end of World War II for refusing to move to the back of a military bus.

"His Army experiences, which graphically illustrated the black man's lot in America, also demonstrated Jackie Robinson's courage and pride," wrote Tygiel. "These were the very qualities that would prove essential in making the assault on baseball's color line."

Tygiel's compilation also includes entries by Clyde Sukeforth, the scout who was Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey's emissary to Robinson; Woody Strode, the actor who had been Robinson's football teammate at UCLA; the influential African-American journalists Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy; and writers Roger Kahn, Maury Allen, Nan Birmingham, Harold Parrott and Arthur Mann.

Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher, entered the National League a year after Robinson but with a much less accomplished team, the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished sixth in 1948. In fact, between 1919 and 1947 the Phillies had finished dead last 17 times, including five seasons in succession from 1938 through 1942. This would hardly seem a promising venue for a strong-armed graduate of Michigan State, but as Roberts soon realized, the Phillies were on the upswing under munificent president Bob Carpenter and scholarly new manager Eddie Sawyer. The team reached the zenith two years later when it won its first pennant in 35 years. This signal event is recaptured by Roberts and co-author C. Paul Rogers III, dean of the law school at Southern Methodist University, in The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant ( Temple University Press, $29.95).

The 1950 Phillies were not the first sports team to be called the Whiz Kids, having been preceded most recently by the 1942 University of Illinois basketball team and the 1945 St. Mary's ( Calif.) College football team. The nickname, the book suggests, may have derived from a popular radio program, The Quiz Kids, on which precocious youngsters answered questions on a multitude of subjects. The Phillies themselves were precocious youths. Not one of the starters was over 30, and the two star pitchers, Roberts and Curt Simmons, were just 23 and 20, respectively, at the start of the season. The team gleefully romped through its schedule, led by beardless wonders Del Ennis, Dick Sisler, Willie (Puddin' Head) Jones, Richie Ash-burn and Andy Seminick, and by Eddie Waitkus, who at a relatively mature 30 was returning to baseball after having been shot in the stomach the year before by a crazed female fan. The team's geezer-in-residence was the sterling reliever Jim Konstanty, who was all of 33.

Sawyer himself didn't turn 40 until September of 1950. A former biology professor at Ithaca (N.Y.) College, he was a disciple of the laissez-faire school of managing. Once, on one of his rare trips to the mound, he asked Roberts if he would rather walk Robinson and pitch to Roy Campanella, or vice versa. Roberts pondered this Hob-son's choice for a moment, then replied, "It doesn't matter to me, Skip." Sawyer promptly headed back to the dugout, declaring, "It doesn't matter to me either."

The Phillies led the league by 7� games on September 21 but then drifted into a tail-spin induced by the loss of three pitchers: Simmons, who was called up by the National Guard; and Bubba Church and Bob Miller, who were injured. The Phillies needed a win over the Dodgers at Ebbets Field on the last day of the season to avoid a playoff for the pennant. Roberts gave it to them with considerable help from Ash-burn, who threw out the potential winning run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth, and from Sisler, whose three-run homer in the 10th was the game-winner. The Phillies were swept by the New York Yankees in the World Series, but the Kids looked upon that as a temporary setback, for they believed the team's best years were yet to come. Alas, it would be another 30 seasons before the Phillies appeared in a World Series.

Lefty O'Doul was a Phillie of another time, and one of the franchise's most prodigious hitters, with averages of .398 in 1929 and .383 in 1930. In fact, during the late 1920s and early '30s he was one of the best hitters in baseball, winning two batting championships while competing with Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Bill Terry, Chuck Klein and Paul Waner. O'Doul's 254 hits in '29 remain a National League record. And that season he scored 152 runs and drove in 122 (batting second in the order), hit 32 homers and struck out a measly 19 times—about as often as a modern slugger strikes out in a month.

So why isn't this man in the Hall of Fame? That's the question eloquently addressed by Society for American Baseball Research member Richard Leutzinger in Lefty O'Doul—The Legend Thai Baseball Nearly Forgot (Carmel Bay Publishing Group, $19.95). Leutzinger is familiar with the reasons given for O'Doul's exclusion: He played only 11 years, four as a mediocre pitcher. He was a liability in the outfield. (Longtime San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Bob Stevens, a close friend of O'Doul's, once said of him, "He could run like a deer. Unfortunately, he threw like one too.")

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