Saturday, June 15, 2013

Red Sox Baseball in the Days of Ike and Elvis: The Red Sox of the 1950's

I am going to do something a little bit unusual here.  Father's Day coming up tomorrow has brought to mind one of the things that my dad has passed down to me: his love of reading.  My dad has always loved reading books, but unlike many people, he is a non-fiction reader.  It is this enjoyment that I have inherited from him. My dad has dozens of books about World War II.  If I am ever at a lack of something to get him for his birthday, Christmas, or Father's Day, I know I can always pick up a WWII book and that he will enjoy that.  I am the same way, except instead of WWII, I read anything and everything about the Red Sox.

My younger brother bought me this book for my birthday last month.  It was on my Amazon want list which he had access to.  I chose this book because it is a period that I have not read a lot about.  The Red Sox were mostly mediocre in the 1950's.  Sure they had some star players but they did not have much pitching and their refusal to dip into the talented Negro Leagues for players began to have a negative impact on the team's fortunes on the field.  The Red Sox had a highly talented team in 1950, lead by an incredible offense which collectively hit .302.  Yes, the team as a whole batted higher than .300.  That is incredible.  Unfortunately that was the height for the Red Sox in the 1950's and they declined significantly over the course of the decade.

The book is organized as short biographies on individual players for each chapter.  It sought to discuss some of the more notable names from the team over the decade.  I was a little surprised that Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky were all omitted, though most of their impact was felt in the 1940's rather than the 1950's.  All three would have two full seasons in the 1950's.

Obviously Ted Williams was the biggest star and he does have a lengthy section devoted to him.  But it is the lesser players that are far more interesting.  There are some fascinating stories about the failed bonus baby signings such as Marty Keough, Frank Baumann, Don Buddin, Ted Lepcio, and others.  These players had to be in the Major Leagues for two seasons following their signing without being sent to the minors, a practice that probably stunted their growths as Major League players and lead to disappointing careers.  Boston tried to develop young players but just had a lot of trouble getting anyone good, leading to a highly disappointing stretch of time in Boston.  Jimmy Piersall had a nervous breakdown and exhibited some bizarre behavior.  And of course there is the tragic story of Harry Agganis, one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of Boston but died in just his second season for the Red Sox of a pulmonary embolism.

Of course there were some good players.  Mel Parnell was the top pitcher and Tom Brewer had some good years.  Jackie Jensen was an MVP in 1958, but retired after the 1959 season due to a paralyzing fear of flying.  Dick Gernert had a couple of good seasons, along with underrated catcher Sammy White.  And then there are Vern Stephens, Frank Malzone, Pete Runnels, Bill Goodman, and Mickey Vernon.

Much of the reason that Boston struggled so much in the 1950's was the institutional refusal to sign black players.  Integration in the game helped many teams play better.  Here was a massive number of talented players that could be signed relatively cheaply.  Yet Boston was slow to respond, whether due to ownership or the general manager, it did not really matter.  Pumpsie Green was the team's first black player in 1959, a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson.  Boston had a chance with Robinson, Willie Mays, Sam Jethroe, and others.  But they did not take it.  And that hurt the team for years.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit.  It covered a number of players I did not know that much about and that is always what I look for in a book about the Red Sox, easily my favorite subject.

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