Baseball's Epic Age Is Vividly Captured

HAS there ever been a more momentous time in baseball Hthan 1947-57 - either for exciting play on the field or significant, far-reaching developments away from it? Roger Kahn doesn't think so, and he makes a strong case.

The 11-year period he calls ``The Era'' began with Jackie Robinson breaking the game's longstanding code of apartheid. It saw the growth of television from a few snowy screens to the technological tail that wags today's sports dog. It ended with the West Coast expansion, altering the face of the game forever.

On the field, prewar heroes like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio returned to blend with ``Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.'' Managerial giants Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel paced the dugouts. Wheeling and dealing in the front offices were names that still reverberate through the game - Branch Rickey, Walter O'Malley, Larry MacPhail.

And always the focal point was New York, where, as the subtitle says, ``the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers ruled the world.'' Amazingly, only once in all this time did the World Series not involve at least one of these teams - and seven times it was a ``subway series.''

Sports don't exist in a historical vacuum, of course - and Kahn provides the backdrop - the cold war, Korea, McCarthyism, Truman, Eisenhower, Stalin.

But the game is his focus, and as he says in the prologue: `` was the most exciting time for baseball. You should have been there. I mean to take you.''

That's a tall order, even for one with Kahn's credentials: He covered these teams for the late New York Herald Tribune, and his 1972 masterpiece, ``The Boys of Summer,'' is still the standard against which all sports books are measured.

Books have been devoted to small fractions of this period. In compressing it all into one 372-page volume, Kahn has been very selective. And in balancing chronology with his various themes, he does jump around disconcertingly at times.

But these are minor flaws. For the most part, Kahn has done a remarkable job, bringing to this latest task the knowledge and insight that marks so much of his previous writing.

Kahn re-creates vividly the epic moments on the field, of which there were so many. Cookie Lavagetto breaking up what would have been the first World Series no-hitter with two out in the ninth - and winning the game (1947); the last-gasp pennant races of 1949 and '50; the fantastic 1951 finish capped by Bobby Thomson's playoff-winning home run; ``Willie's catch'' in 1954; the Dodgers ending their decade-long cry of ``Wait 'til next year'' by beating the Yankees in 1955; Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956. Then finally 1957, the flight of the Dodgers and Giants to California, and it was over.

All in all, ``The Era'' is a time that remains magnificent in our memories - and one reason, Kahn says, is that it was magnificent. He's right - and we are fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and eloquent guide to lead us back through it once again.

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