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In the years immediately following World War II, professional baseball mesmerized the American people as it never had before and never would again. Baseball, more than almost anything else, seemed to symbolize normalcy and a return to life in America as it had been before Pearl Harbor. The nation clearly hungered for that. When Bob Feller returned from the navy to pitch in late August 1945, a Cleveland paper headlined the event: THIS IS WHAT WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR.
All the prewar stars were returning to action -- DiMaggio, Williams, Feller, and Stan Musial -- and their very names seemed to indicate that America could pick up right where it had left off. They were replacing wartime players of lesser quality. Indeed, a player named George (Cat) Metkovich spoke for many of the wartime players when he told his Boston teammates at the end of the 1945 season, "Well, boys, better take a good took around you, because most of us won't be here next year."
The crowds were extraordinary-large, enthusiastic, and, compared with those that were soon to follow, well behaved. In the prewar years the Yankees, whose teams had included Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, claimed that they drew 1 million fans at home each season. In fact, they had not drawn that well. The real home attendance was more likely to have been around 800,000. After the war the crowds literally doubled. In 1941, the last year of prewar baseball, the National League drew 4.7 million fans; by 1947 the figure had grown to 10.4 million. In the postwar years the Yankees alone drew more than 2 million fans per season at home.
Nor was it just numbers. There was a special intensity to the crowds in those days. When the Red Sox played the Yankees in the Stadium, they traveled to New York by train, passing through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Everyone seemed to know the schedule of their train, and as it passed through endless small towns along the route, there would be large crowds gathered at the stations to cheer the players, many of the people holding up signs exhorting their heroes to destroy the hated Yankees. The conductor would deliberately slow the train down and many of the players, on their way to do battle with the sworn enemy, would come out on the observation decks to wave to the crowds.
Near the end of the 1946 season, a young Red Sox pitcher named Dave Ferriss went into Yankee Stadium to pitch and was stunned by the size of the crowd: 63,000 people, according to the newspapers, even though at the time the Red Sox held a sizable lead over the Yankees. Ferriss had only recently left a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta. That day he was so awed by the noise and tumult that in the middle of the game he decided to commit the scene to memory and take it with him for the rest of his life. He stepped off the mound, turned slowly to the stands, and inhaled the crowd. Ferriss thought to himself. How magnificent it all is. This is the Red Sox and this is the Yankees. I am twenty-four, and I am pitching in Yankee Stadium, and every seat is taken.
With the exception of the rare heavyweight fight or college football game that attracted national attention, baseball dominated American sports entertainment. Professional football, soon to become a major sport because its faster action so well suited the television camera, was still a minorleague ticket; golf and tennis were for the few who played those sports.
Rich businessmen, thinking about becoming owners of sports teams, did not yet talk about the entertainment dollar, for America was a Calvinistic nation, not much given to entertaining itself. In the world of baseball, the sport itself was vastly more important than such ancillary commercial sources of revenue as broadcasting, endorsements, concessions, and parking.
There were only sixteen teams in the big leagues, and in an America defined by the railroad instead of the airplane, St. Louis was a far-west team and Washington a Southern one. California might as well have been in another country. The pace of life in America had not yet accelerated as it was soon to do from the combination of endless technological breakthroughs and undreamed-of affluence in ordinary homes. The use of drugs seemed very distant. The prevailing addiction of more than a few players (and managers, coaches, sportswriters, and indeed owners) was alcohol, apparently a more acceptable and less jarring form of selfdestruction. It was, thought Curt Gowdy, a young sportscaster who had just joined the Yankees, the last moment of innocence in American life.
Baseball was rooted not just in the past but in the culture of the country; it was celebrated in the nation's literature and songs. When a poor American boy dreamed of escaping his grim life, his fantasy probably involved becoming a professional baseball player. It was not so much the national sport as the binding national myth.
It was also the embodiment of the melting-pot theory, or at least the white melting pot theory, of America. One of its preeminent players, Joe DiMaggio, was the son of a humble immigrant fisherman, and the fact that three of the fisherman's sons had made the major leagues proved to many the openness and fairness of American society. America cheered the DiMaggio family, and by so doing, proudly cheered itself When DiMaggio played in his first World Series, his mother traveled by train to watch him play. She was a modest woman, but open and candid, and she became something of a celebrity herself by telling reporters (in Italian) that the trip was hard for her because there was so little to do in New York -- she wished there was some cleaning, or at least some dishes to wash and dry.Summer of '49. Copyright © by David Halberstam. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Summer Of 49 by David Halberstam
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