Thursday, April 24, 2014
A Summer to Remember: Bill Veeck, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, and the 1948 Cleveland Indians - Book Review
A Summer to Remember: Bill Veeck, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller and the 1948 Indians by Lew Freedman (Sports Publishing, 2014, 304 pages, $24.95) reprises the 1948 Cleveland Indians run for the pennant, their first real shot at glory since the 1920 season when they went to the World Series. The book is a minor feast for anyone who grew up in the late forties and early fifties and became a baseball fan. My own acquaintance with this team was actually its 1954 iteration which won more games in a season than any other team before or since while defeating the Yankees in an epic sold out double header at Yankee Stadium in September, a game I attended with my Uncle Frank Mollenhauer, who had played sandlot ball across from Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth played there. But many of the standouts on that team were still playing when I was lucky enough to stand through fourteen innings before getting a seat in the middle of the second game. But in 1947, Bill Veeck (as in wreck) had managed to gain ownership of the Indian's franchise, with (as usual) someone else's money, installed shortstop Lou Boudreau as one of the last player/managers in major league baseball, and proceeded to provide him with the material to become competitive while filling Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, the largest park in baseball at the time, to the brim with eager fans.
Veeck brought some of the greats of baseball lore to create a scratching, fighting, team that would contend for the 1948 pennant for the entire season. Bob Feller, Larry Doby, Bob Lemon, Satchell Paige, Dale Mitchel, and one year wonder Gene Breardon, a knuckleballer who won twenty games for his only good major league year, came together for signature years and brought the 1948 American League pennant home. Hall of Famer Tris Speaker was brought out of retirement to coach the outfielders, particularly Larry Doby, and the recently retired great Hank Greenburg became the team's general manager. From the start, it promised to be an exciting year, although few thought at the beginning of the season the team was quite ready for a pennant run.
Player/Manager Lou Boudreau
Only three years after the end of World War II, many of the players had lost two or three of their prime playing years to military service. Bob Feller, who played his first major league game in 1936 at age 16 was seen as a slightly over-the-hill veteran. Larry Doby, hired in 1947, was the first African American player in the American League. Not receiving the attention or preparation that Jackie Robinson had benefited from with Dodger owner Branch Rickey, Doby still had to learn to play outfield and form himself into the Hall of Fame star he became. Bob Lemon was at the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. I saw him pitch a masterpiece in that second game of the 1954 double-header in Yankee Stadium. Perhaps the most well-publicized addition to the pitching staff was the veteran black pitcher Leroy Satchell Paige, at an indeterminate age, somewhere around 42, he had toiled in the Negro leagues and barnstormed with white teams since the late 1920's without a real shot at the bigs. Freeman's chapter-long profiles of these key players stand out as the highlights of the book. In addition, his pictures of fill-in and marginal additions to the squad, men like Hal Peak and Thurman Tucker, fill out the team and provide a strong picture of all that goes together to develop a winning team.
Lou Boudreau emerges as the glue and drive that brings this team assembled by Veeck together to win the pennant. Boudreau was already recognized as a standout player, and in 1948 had perhaps his finest year ever in a Hall of Fame career. In 1948 batting .355 with 8 home runs, and 106 RBI's while being named the American League's Most Valuable Player and Sport magazine's player of the year across all sports. He managed to do this while maintaining the balance and perspective to provide strong leadership to a team from disparate backgrounds which had to learn to play and live together.
Bill Veeck shares the limelight with Boudreau, although, in a very real sense, Veeck never shared the limelight with anyone. Veeck, one of baseball's unique and important characters, was a baseball man from childhood, working for his father, who owned the Chicago White Sox for a while. He grew up in baseball, and brought an iconoclastic enthusiasm to building teams and promoting baseball. He invented “Lady's Day,” and, as owner of the St. Louis Browns, brought midget Eddie Gaedel to bat, when he needed to get a man on base by earning a walk. His promotions and out-sized personality were essential to the Indians' success in 1948.
Lew Freedman is the author of more than 70 books about sports and Alaska. He has won more than 250 awards and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, the Anchorage Daily News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has also written for a variety of web sites and with several major league ball players on their autobiographies. He and his wife Debra live in Indiana.