If you want an example of a how NYC changed over the years, look at the New York Yankees and The Brooklyn Dodgers. The stories of those teams are all about workers’ rights, labor unions, racial integration, social classes, declining inner-city neighborhoods, urban renewal, gentrification, and more. The most vicious hoodlum kept their fists to themselves in Yankee Stadium and Ebbet’s Field, and the mob wouldn’t carry out any hits in there. New York’s baseball parks were hallowed ground, where people of all classes came to cheer their favorite team. There is no greater symbol of New York’s history.
The 1950’s (and earlier) were a time when they had “morals clauses” in baseball, where a player could get in trouble for his private life. Babe Ruth’s boozing and brothel-raiding were either tolerated or the commission hated him for it, but some players were not so lucky. Leo Durocher’s drinking and gambling got him in trouble with Keenesaw Landis, the infamous right-wing, racist, Jew-hating judge, brought in after the Boston Red Sox scandal to be commissioner of the sport. It’s not clear why Landis suspended him. Some say his behavior scared off the Catholic Youth League. Others say his gambling and mob ties put the team in danger. Either way, the players were under heavy scrutiny by Landis. I have to wonder sometimes, would these guys have survived in the age of television? In radio and newsreels, they came off as the big heroes, but nowadays I bet they’d a tabloid fodder. Then again, we’ve come to accept outrageous behavior from athletes, so perhaps Babe’s antics wouldn’t have ruined his career.
Aside from the fact that “my private life is my business” did not exist in baseball, there was also the issue of binding. Players couldn’t just go out there and find a team; they were the property of their team owner, and they could be traded at any time. There weren’t any free agents yet in the sport, and in some ways, integration put an end to the practice. The Black players thought that being bound to their team was no different from slavery, and it led to the formation of professional baseball unions.
I have to hand it to editors who compiled this book. They located biographies from different writers, each with their own perspective. There are bios on the players, announcers, managers, and just about everyone involved in New York’s baseball teams at the time. It’s a great addition to other well-known books on the topic, and anyone who loved Ken Burns’ Baseball series will definitely love this.