It is not particularly wise to write a review complaining about the book the author did not pen, rather than judging what he or she did produce. Yet, that desire becomes very strong when you look at this tale of Mickey Mantle and his home run chase of 1956. Did a great deal change by 1961 when Roger Maris broke the record for single-season home runs, or by 1998 when Mark McGwire outdistanced Maris, or in 2001 when Barry Bonds eclipsed McGwire’s record? Mantle did win the Triple Crown in 1956. Did Americans care more about Mantle’s record than those of the three later Triple Crown achievers (Frank Robinson, Carl Yastremski, and Miguel Cabrera)? Sometimes it helps to know how the road traveled may have changed, as well as how it was back when.
I have been a baseball fan as long as I can remember, rushing home from grade school to catch the end of a game on the radio. I was a Detroit Tigers fan then and now though I watch my present hometown Cardinals with considerable interest as well. Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith chronicle the life and career of Mantle through the 1956 season. However, their work may be of interest more for their findings on the practice of baseball clubs in former years than on Mantle per se. There is valuable information on publicity, drugging, and race relations within the confines of Yankee Stadium and presumably elsewhere. The authors demonstrate a strong feel for the game but do not go to sources outside baseball to test their thesis: They feel baseball provided an escape from the devilment of McCarthyism, the red scare, or the possibility of nuclear war. They also see portents for the decline of baseball as America’s pastime.
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith chronicle the life and career of Mantle through the 1956 season. However, their work may be of interest more for their findings on the practice of baseball clubs in former years than on Mantle per se. There is valuable information on publicity, drugging, and race relations within the confines of Yankee Stadium and presumably elsewhere.
Mickey Mantle came from a small town in Oklahoma and a hardscrabble background. His father saw Mickey’s finesse at the plate as a way of making it out of Commerce, Oklahoma and out of the economic uncertainty that had plagued the family. Mantle joined the Yankees soon after completing high school and stayed with the team his whole career. He was a power hitter and a very good hitter overall. His weakness stemmed from his inability to avoid injuries, particularly to his knees, legs, and ankle. He frequently played when hurt. He also, unknown to most fans, led a colorful life outside the ballpark. He, Billy Martin, and Whitey Ford and sometimes others closed down many a saloon in their time. He often played with a hangover. The fans, however, believed the Yankee publicity machine that stressed Mantle’s homespun roots and lifestyle. Mantle also appears to have been a chronic womanizer, again in contrast to his purebred image.
What mattered to Yankee officialdom and to the fans were the hitting, the numbers, and whether Babe Ruth’s single season homerun tally could be overtaken by Mantle. It was not: Mantle hit 52 homers in 1956, 8 shy of Ruth’s total. Although the record was not broken, it was a considerable achievement.He did win the Triple Crown, best in batting average, runs batted in, and home runs which is also very rare.
What should interest students of baseball is that many players in the 1950s relied on “greenies” and other drugs to play through injuries and to enhance their averages. The authors feel that Mantle did so and that he was not alone. The press did not report this at the time but it has come to light subsequently in various player biographies. Baseball did not have rules against these amphetamines and sleeping pills and other performance enhancing drugs that masked injuries and damage caused by constant bus and train travel and constant play. Baseball did not have such rules in the 1990s either but the speculation regarding the use of steroids was rampant in the press and later tainted Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and others. The lack of forgiveness was strong and comparisons to earlier players’ drug use were uncommon. In forty years, the coverage and fan reception clearly had changed considerably.
To Roberts and Smith, baseball was still the American pastime in 1956. Mantle’s home run quest interested the nation and provided some escape from political worries. They do speak of changes that began to affect baseball’s status and led to the decline of the sport from its premiere position. By and large, the authors rely on New York-based newspapers and other media outlets for their evidence of Mantle’s coverage and impact. Yet, there is insufficient data to make this judgment a national finding without caveat. In 1956, more people read newspapers generally, and there were only 3 or 4 television channels per major city. That alone would make baseball coverage stronger. Further, the Yankees had been the dominant team for a number of years. Fans in other major league cities were not necessarily Yankee fans. The authors mention Mantle being booed in Detroit while on his home run quest. Certainly Tiger fans wanted their team to be number one too and had their own player heroes such as Al Kaline and Harvey Kuenn. There were also fewer teams in fewer cities than today which allowed greater focus on games in the Big Apple. The success of the Broadway musical Damn Yankees acknowledged fans outside New York who were tired of the Yankees winning the pennant every year. The question of whether Mantle’s strong 1956 performance preoccupied the nation remains an open one, though it probably was given more attention than the later quests. Suffice it to say that there were more fans then and fewer rival distractions.
To Roberts and Smith, baseball was still the American pastime in 1956. Mantle’s home run quest interested the nation and provided some escape from political worries. They do speak of changes that began to affect baseball’s status and led to the decline of the sport from its premiere position.
It was interesting to learn that the Yankees were second from last in the big leagues in hiring a black ballplayer. How that first player was treated by teammates, management, and media is raised briefly but inadequately by these authors. Mantle’s conduct in this regard should have been mentioned, as he was the focus of the book.
The authors also discuss dwindling attendance at major league parks. Location is the reason they give. Yankee Stadium was (and is today) in the South Bronx, then an area in transition. In some other cities, ballparks also remained in areas undergoing racial and socioeconomic change. Roberts and Smith postulate that poor location had begun to keep down crowds. In arguing their point, the authors also discuss reasons for the municipal decline led by white flight to the suburbs and the relocation of factories in new communities with greater space. The suburbanization of America was a complex process. Citing just newspaper clippings from sports periodicals of the period or books about players is insufficient. They could have looked at Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier to grasp the role of government, banks, and other institutions in promoting suburban growth and hurting minority chances at a better life. They note what happened but could have expanded on the whys.
Baseball has a longer season and more games than any other sport. In 1956, teams played many more day games. Television, as Roberts and Smith note, greatly added to the entertainment docket and affected attendance. Baseball games are often lengthy and relatively slow moving. The reasons are in this book to support attendance decline but the data are not. In describing some of the Yankee games, the authors may note that there were only so many in the stands. But to show decline you have to document what attendance had been in previous years and that has not been done. Ticket prices then were relatively more reasonable and did not preclude working class attendance. I went to my first game at Tiger Stadium in 1958 and sat some rows back from home plate at a $1.00 price tag.
The strength of A Season in the Sun lies in the portraits of some of the players. Obviously, there is a great deal about the life of Mickey Mantle. Reading this book helps to explain his accomplishments in light of the injuries he sustained. Other players of great note such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio are described in detail. We learn that, according to the authors, Yogi Berra did not create any of the Yogisms for which he was credited. Rather, they were inventions of the front office which came up with many tales to inspire fan interest. In retrospect, features in the sporting press were as real as those in the magazines devoted to movie stars.
The strength of A Season in the Sun lies in the portraits of some of the players. Obviously, there is a great deal about the life of Mickey Mantle. Reading this book helps to explain his accomplishments in light of the injuries he sustained. Other players of great note such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio are described in detail.
Another strong point of the book is highlighting the difficulties involved with playing pro ball. For those of us who may not have considered the hours and days on the road, considerable time away from family, playing with injuries, and the enticement of alcohol or drugs, Roberts and Smith show the realities of ballplayer life. It is often not glamorous, and it can take tolls on marriage and health. Another interesting factor to note is that most ballplayers in 1956 were not well paid and even a star like Mantle did not earn anything like today’s counterparts would.
All in all, Roberts and Smith have offered us popular, rather than scholarly, history. Reading about Mantle and the Yankees is a pleasant exercise for anyone who likes baseball, and particularly for those who enjoyed some of those 1950s seasons. That is perhaps the way it should be judged, as a nice diversion. It is not to be seen as a more complete picture of the era and the sport. The sourcing would have to be more extensive and additional detail would have to be supplied. Of course, this goes to my original point, the flaw of judging what could have been instead of what is. The authors are correct when they note that baseball is escapism, entertainment. In many ways so is their book. Sixty years is a long time in the past and the book does capture some of the flavor of the time.