Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Review: BOTTOM OF THE NINTH by Michael Shapiro (Times Books, 2009)

The shadowy Continental League -- a putative "third major league" conjured up in the late 1950s by New York lawyer William Shea, legendary baseball executive/visionary Branch Rickey, and a motley collection of investors interested in cracking the 16-team National and American League structure -- is one of the great "might-have-beens" of baseball history. This well-argued but shakily organized book, however, didn't quite convince me that the failure of the CL to take shape was the turning point that led to baseball's loss of status as America's favorite sport. Author Shapiro tries to draw a parallel between the intended innovations of the CL -- revenue-sharing from TV, a possible adjustment of the reserve clause -- and those of the American Football League, which successfully challenged the NFL at almost exactly the same time. The CL, though, was always ephemeral in nature, with Shea's true goal being the return of a National League team to New York after the departures of the Giants and Dodgers. Once Shea got his wish (and, ultimately, his name on the Mets' new stadium), the CL vanished in a puff of smoke. The only real way that the CL would have shaken up the landscape is if it had decided to operate outside the structure of organized baseball, a tack that was considered but never pursued. The fact that a few CL operators joined Major League Baseball and immediately agreed to do business the "old-fashioned way" suggests that their simple desire to have a seat at the MLB "table" outweighed any desire to test a new model for how the game should function. Lamar Hunt and the other AFLers, by contrast, were perfectly willing to go their own way, at least until a series of tit-for-tat player signings (touched off by the urgings of new AFL commissioner Al Davis) convinced both the established NFL and the "newbie" AFL that peace and a merger were in both sides' best interest.

Shapiro would already have had the makings of a entire book had he chosen to focus on the backstage maneuvering that concluded with four new teams in the majors (in 1961 and 1962) and the CL consigned to oblivion. Instead, he tries to give us some game action to go along with all that "dry bread" by tracing Casey Stengel's final two seasons as manager of the Yankees. After winning the 1958 World Series, the Yanks slipped to third in '59, even spending time in the cellar at one point. Rebounding to win the 1960 AL pennant, the Yanks were upset by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, and Stengel, now 70, was not-so-gently shoved out the door. This is all very interesting, but was a blow-by-blow account of the 1960 World Series truly necessary? Plenty of books on the "business of baseball" have been able to focus on the issue at hand without trying to force this more "readable" material into the narrative. Shapiro's coverage of the legal and business matter is fine, but the additional game stories and such made for a rather clumsy final product and, ultimately, an only partially successful read.

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