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“ ‘I guess we showed them pretty good,’ said Aaron, ‘what most of America was missing for the first seventy years of baseball.’”(pg. 252) This quote, by major league baseball player Hank Aaron, sums up the main premise behind Bill Madden’s 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever. The 1954 major league baseball season was the season in which racial tensions and conflicts changed major league baseball forever. It was also the same year of the Brown v Education decision that integrated the races within the education system. Major African American players and the managers that took a chance on them showed America that race doesn’t decide a player’s talent. Through the voices of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and many more players we learn from their perspective the hardships each of them faced during this inspirational season and we learned which significant people facilitated baseball integration.
The first year of major league baseball was in 1876 and a little over seventy years later began one of the most important seasons in baseball history. Before the 1954 season and just seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line, the New York Yankees had won five straight world championships, but this winning streak was about to change during this historic season. In the spring of 1953 Bill Veeck, the legendary manager of the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns found himself in a hole because his first two seasons with the Browns, the team ended up in last place. As the owner of the Cleveland Indians from 1946 to 1949, Veeck had been the first to integrate in the American League when he signed center fielder Larry Doby, an African American player whom he saw a great deal of potential in. A year later, with key players Doby and the Negro Leagues pitching legend Satchel Paige playing key roles, the Indians won their first world championship since 1920. Unfortunately Veeck was in debt because he paid a tremendous amount when he bought the St. Louis Browns and he was now in an impossible situation, being in debt and not really knowing what to do with the team. Veeck was forced to sell the team to Baltimore because of this, but in that short time and by taking a chance he showed America that race doesn’t determine a player’s skill and that talent does.
It’s important to say that baseball is divided into two leagues, the National League and the American League. The National League was founded in 1876 and the American League was founded in 1901. The difference between the two leagues is that the National League requires the pitcher to hit the ball, while the American League has a designated hitter. A designated hitter is someone who hits the ball instead of the pitcher. These leagues’ owners hold the power to decide which players are drafted for their team.
As an example of how short people’s memories are when it comes to rule changes, a month after the American League owners’ meeting in New York had succeeded in ridding baseball of Veeck for the time being, the Major League Rules Committee met in Manhattan to enact two significant rule changes. The first rule change involved the Sacrifice Rule. The committee decided that the Sacrifice Rule would now apply only when a runner was scored from third base on a fly ball and that the batter would not be charged with an at bat, or turn at the plate. This means that if a batter hits the ball five times during a game, but one of the hits was a Sacrifice Fly, then it would not count towards the five at bats and instead the batter would only be charged with four at bats. The second rule change would now require all fielders to bring their gloves and other equipment from the field when they came in to the dugout for their team’s time at bat. From almost the beginning of time in baseball, fielders have been allowed to leave their gloves on the field when they came in to bat. Cleveland Indians general manager Hank Greenberg, a member of the committee, explained, “Aside from the possibility of hindering the play, gloves on the field look sloppy.”(pg.28) Unlike Hank Greenberg many players, managers, and executives did not like this rule change. As teams began gathering for spring training for the 1954 season, critics of the rule changes became more and more outspoken. “ ‘It’s a silly rule,’ echoed Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Richie Ashburn. ‘I usually get on base 300 times a season. Since I score approximately 100 times, that means I’m stranded on base 200 times and have to make an extra trip to the dugout for my glove. If they want to make the field look tidier and prettier, they should plant flowers.’”(pg. 28) It didn’t matter though, all the teams had to deal with this rule. It is the same for people of color in baseball. Now, we almost can’t even remember the time when African Americans weren’t allowed in baseball. “And ten years later it had been almost forgotten that, for the first seventy five years of baseball, players had been allowed to leave their gloves on the field when they came up to bat.”(pg. 30)
Perhaps one of the most important teams during this season was the New York Giants. The Giant’s manager at the time was Leo Durocher who had been struggling the last few seasons. Durocher said, “I’m sure you’re all aware that this is a different team from the one that finished fifth last year. We’ve brought in some new players who are going to really help us, and in a couple of weeks our center fielder will be joining us from the Army. Those of you who were in ’51, when he came up as a twenty year old rookie, know what I mean when I say he’s a rare kind of player who can single handedly lead us to the pennant. This is like getting us a twenty game winner.”(pg.39) The player to whom Durocher was referring to was African American legend Willie Mays, who for the previous ten months had been stationed as a private in the Army at Fort Eustis, Virginia. In 1948, while still in high school, sixteen year old Willie Mays began his baseball career with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. The Black Barons’ manager, Piper Davis, was introduced to Mays by Willie’s father, Cat, with whom Davis had been a teammate years earlier in the Alabama Industrial League. From the expertise and guidance of Davis, Mays eventually became a complete player, a player that could pretty much do anything. Mays could hit and throw very well, but his only disadvantage was that he could not hit a curveball, at least not at first. Davis helped Mays master the curveball by having him straighten up more in his stance and getting him out of the habit of turning his front shoulder to the plate, which made it harder for him to see the ball. Many major league scouts went out to Birmingham just to see Mays play and many scouts wanted to sign Mays for their teams. May’s father was adamant that he finish high school first before he could sign with any major league team. So that’s exactly what he did. On the day he graduated high school in June of 1950, Mays signed with the Giants, who had made the best offer, where he would spend the rest of his major league career at. When Willie was at his best he was one of the most exciting players to watch. With the help of Willie, the Giants started their season strong.
At the same time the Giants were welcoming Willie Mays back to baseball in the spring of 1954, the Chicago Cubs were signing an African American legend of their own. The Chicago Cubs were hoping that they would be the first in the major league to have a black shortstop and black second baseman, a double play combo. To do this they signed Ernie Banks, a twenty two year old shortstop from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. After Ernie Banks was signed with the team they brought him straight up to the major leagues with high expectations right away instead of starting him on the minor league team. Three days after the signing of Banks, the Chicago Cubs teamed him up with African American second baseman Gene Baker who had been their second baseman for several years.
If Ernie Banks came to spring training in 1954 with high expectations, across the country twenty two year old Hank Aaron arrived at the Milwaukee Braves spring training camp with less than none. Even though Hank Aaron was an exceptional player in the Negro League, he had lots of competition to get his main position at second base. Since this was the case, the Braves decided to move Hank to the outfield, but even then the competition was still tough. At the end of spring training Bobby Thomson, one of the Braves outfielders, broke his ankle. Right after, Hank Aaron was quick to take the position where he would stay for the next twenty one years of his career.
The second most important team of this season was probably the Cleveland Indians .At the start of the season, the fans of the Indians were starting to become disappointed after the Indians stopped making it to the playoffs. Because of this the Indians lost about fifty percent of their normal attendance at their games. The manager at the time was Al Lopez. Throughout the spring training Lopez did whatever he could to make this year’s roster as perfect as it could be. One major player that he was able to obtain was Rudy Regalado, a dark skinned Mexican ballplayer. Regalado impressed Lopez with his ability to play multiple positions and to hit the ball well. His hot hitting through spring gave confidence to Lopez for this new and improved team. “This could be the best club I’ve ever managed,”(pg.132) Lopez said after the Indians launched the season with an 8-2 complete game victory. Although they were getting off to a great start, it soon stopped after most of their key players went on the disabled list because of injuries. Even though this occurred, Lopez was able to keep his team on track by making last minute trades and keeping his team very confident.
As the season started to come to a close, the Dodgers and the Giants were both in the race for first in their division. It was up until the last game of the season, but with the help of Willie Mays the Giants came out on top. At the same time that the Giants won, the Indians won their division as well. The Giants and the Indians would both make it to the World Series, both having African Americans players playing for them.
On September 19, 1954, the Polo Grounds were packed to capacity with over fifty two thousand fans and hundreds of the nation’s sportswriters gathered to witness the first World Series game in history with players of color on both teams. This was the first time in seven years that the Yankees were not in the World Series. Both teams had the best pitchers and players ready to play one of the most important World Series ever. Every game came very close and most of them were pitching duels, games in which both pitchers are doing very well and there are very few runs scored. At the end, the Giants were clearly the superior team sweeping the Cleveland Indians 4-0. The Giants had done it in stunning fashion, outscoring the Indians 21-9. In the four games, the Indians stranded thirty seven base runners, meaning that thirty seven times during this series the Indians had men on base and could not score any runs.
This historical season truly shows America that players should not be judged based on their race, but more on their skill to play the game. The Giants’ winning of the 1954 World Series broke a streak of seven seasons in which the American League, mostly the Yankees, had ruled the baseball world. The National League had not won a back-to-back World Series since the 1933-1934 seasons, but this all changed, as well as the overall balance of power in baseball. Many key owners like Bill Veek and Walter O’Malley, and several talented players such as Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, proved what the rest of the world was only beginning to know-that people of color are equal in the world of baseball.
In my opinion, this book did a great job of explaining the hardships that African Americans faced as well as their true potential to play the sport. Now, it's hard for many of us to remember a time without racial equality in baseball.