Baseball's Place in Changing 1960s America

ONE can hardly help wondering at first how David Halberstam's ``October 1964'' could possibly match his earlier classic, ``Summer of '49.'' The late 1940s, as the author himself writes, were a time when baseball ``mesmerized the American people as it never had before and never would again.'' Also, given Halberstam's penchant for viewing sports as a microcosm of society, how could he ever again find such fertile ground as those postwar days when the game's all-white era finally began to crumble just as its new TV age was dawning?

Then there are the principal characters themselves. Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock may be Hall of Famers, but no one can reasonably argue that their names ring through the ages with the same mythic stature as those of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and other such giants of earlier days. And while both books feature the game's most famous team, the New York Yankees, its storied postwar rivalry with Boston culminating in that frenetic 1949 pennant race embodies a lot more history and tradition than the World Series clash with St. Louis on which this new one focuses.

Yes, ``Summer of '49'' is a tough act to follow - but it quickly becomes apparent that Halberstam has pulled it off. Once more he has found a time of turbulence and change - the height of the civil rights movement - and a way to view it through the window of sports. Add to this his gift for bringing people and events to life, and the result is a worthy sequel.

These books are companion pieces, going far beyond the misleading specific years of their titles to give us a two-volume chronicle of the evolution of baseball within the American social fabric from pre-World War II days into the 1970s.

Picking up where its predecessor left off, ``October 1964'' paints a vivid picture of the forces and events that created two vastly different teams in New York and St. Louis and brought them to their epic confrontation.

This, as it turned out, was to be the last hurrah for that fabled Yankee dynasty that began shortly after the war and produced an incredible 15 pennants and 10 world championships in 18 years. Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, and other stars of those years were wearing out and had not been adequately replaced - at least partly, Halberstam argues, because of an arrogant, racist management that had waited too long to dip into the new pool of black talent.

And so this 1964 World Series signaled not just the end of one team's reign but the wave of the future, symbolized by the younger, more aggressive, and far more integrated Cardinals, with Gibson dominating the Yankees on the mound while fellow blacks Brock, Curt Flood, and Bill White formed the team's nucleus at bat, in the field, and on the base paths.

Halberstam writes admiringly of this amazing quartet, battling through the overt racism that still existed through the '50s and '60s to achieve fame and success both on and off the field. On the Yankee side, we get unforgettable portraits of Mantle in both his playing and later years, and of Maris during his bittersweet 1961 assault on Babe Ruth's home-run record. Most of all, though, this is the story of how baseball, not always enthusiastically, sometimes downright reluctantly, but always steadily and inevitably, assumed its proper place in a changing America.

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