BOOK REVIEW: '1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever' by Bill Madden
Terri Schlichenmeyer | 5/21/2014, 3 p.m.
c.2014, Da Capo Press
You know the rules.
Each base must be touched, each ball hit within bounds – or so you hope. No spitballs, corked bats, pine tar, or steroids. Four bases to run. Three strikes, you’re out.
Those are the basics of baseball. But rules, of course, can be changed, just like the game itself and in the new book “1954” by Bill Madden, you’ll see how the game was altered forever by one simple fix.
It was a time when Perry Como dominated the music charts and Elvis was just some kid in Memphis. The Cold War raged; Brown v. Board of Education was decided; and radio was king, although everybody wanted a television set on which to watch a few brief programs on a handful of stations.
It was 1954 and, like much of the world, baseball was in the midst of change, too.
Though Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color line seven years earlier, many teams had rosters that were still completely white. The Dodgers were “the most aggressive” on tackling segregation with six black players that year. The Indians had five and the Giants, four. That complete desegregation was coming was obvious, despite protests against it and owner reluctance.
Willie Mays, returning after two years in the Army, was one of baseball’s 38 (out of 536) black players in 1954. Mays had been spotted by scouts while still in high school, but was denied a spot on at least one team whose owners refused to sign a black player. In 1954, he signed a contract for $13,000 and became a Giant.
Mid-season, Ernie Banks joined the Cubs as “one of the elite players in the Negro Leagues.” Hank Aaron was brought up for the Braves, though he’d been mercilessly (and racially) derided for his running style. Other talented black players followed them to the majors, and at the end of the 1954 season, fans gathered to “witness the first World Series game in history with players of color on both teams,” a game between the Indians and the Giants.
Four teams (the Yankees, the Tigers, the Phillies, and the Red Sox) had yet to integrate.
Recognize those names? It’s likely that you do, especially if you’re a baseball fan – and there’s so much more here for you if you are. For everybody else, though, “1954” will be an eye-crossing, head-spinning mix of statistics and stories that won’t mean nearly as much.
In the lightning-fast manner of a sportscaster, author Bill Madden tells a story that goes beyond Robinson’s history-making 1947 debut. Readers will learn why 1954 was so important to the game; how racism continued to taint the industry for at least a few more months after this iconic season; and how, 60 years ago and despite that it had been around awhile, the game was really still evolving.
I can’t stress enough that this is not a book for casual baseball watchers or followers of modern baseball. No, it’s for fans who love the history of the game. For that kind of person, “1954” rules.