The year the Cardinals won a pennant

August 07, 1994|By George Grella

In the olden, golden days of baseball, before the great westward migration, artificial surfaces, designated hitters and million-dollar utility infielders, the American League conducted its business in the manner of a formal court dance.

The so-called pennant race resembled a sedate minuet, a stately saraband, in which a handful of teams minced around pretending to fight for the championship, with Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit making occasional flaccid gestures toward first place, while the other participants, fatigued and neurasthenic, watched politely from the sidelines. When the music ended, the result was almost always the same: The New York Yankees finished on top, with other teams prostrate beneath them, and Washington -- first in war, first in peace -- was once again last in the American League.

Some fans even believed that the whole thing was a charade, a fix, a scam, whose outcome was as predictable as a junior executive's golf game with the boss; the researches of a few analysts have supported that conclusion. In his latest book, the distinguished journalist David Halberstam partially examines that theory, confirming perhaps too delicately the common belief that the Yankees, for example, employed Kansas City as a major league version of their farm team.

In keeping with the essentially bland tone of "October 1964," with the timorousness of a sportswriter and the bias of a fan, however, the author seldom moves beyond coy hints and never really scrutinizes the team's ownership, which, with the tacit collusion of the commisioner's office, in fact corrupted a complaisant league.

In his book, Mr. Halberstam regards the season and especially the World Series of 1964 as a turning point both for the Yankees and for the two major leagues. In that pivotal year, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Yankees in the series, and as a result, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Lou Brock and Bill White, among others, achieved the fame they richly deserved. It also was the beginning of the Yankees' long decline, when many of their great stars, such as Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, had passed their prime and the formerly productive farm organization yielded only a few talented rookies to replace them.

Tracing the rise of the Cardinals and the deterioration of the Yankees, once "a spectacular, finely honed machine," the author recounts some of the history of both franchises, detailing characteristics and behaviors of owners and general managers, and following the careers of some key players from their earliest days to their later success. Mr. Halberstam alternates between the two teams, providing not only simultaneity, but also a sense of the vicissitudes of a long season that culminated in the teams' October confrontation and in the bizarre post-Series jump by Cardinals Manager Johnny Keane to the Yankees.

In discussing the history of the two teams and in order to account for the success of the Cardinals and the National League's subsequent domination of the sport, the author necessarily examines the difference between the American and National leagues. He asserts repeatedly that the National League's traditional (since 1947, anyway) tendency to employ black athletes, as opposed to the American League's reluctance, distinguished their separate style of play. He believes further that the systematically racist attitudes of the Yankees management, a reflection of their arrogance and snobbery, ultimately assisted in their downfall.

In addition to his detailed reporting on the lives and personalities of some outstanding players, Mr. Halberstam points out that the period he covers marked a transformation in the reporting of, as well as the playing of, the game. He writes about the "Chipmunks," the new breed of sportswriters who reported more aggressively on players and the game. In believing that the Cardinals triumphed because of their enlightened racial policy, Mr. Halberstam neglects to emphasize the mammoth and unforgettable choke job by Gene Mauch and his Phillies, who blew a huge lead in the final weeks of the season -- winning the pennant surprised not only the Cardinals' fans but the team itself. If he admires the feisty Chipmunks, he forgets that aside from snooping into the private lives of the players, most of them continued the dishonored sportswriting traditions of shilling for management, playing favorites, and misunderstanding the game.

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