Book Review: “1954”
“1954” is the latest book from J. G. Taylor Spink Award recipient Bill Madden. Madden has covered Baseball for the New York Daily News for over 30 years and his most recent book, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, was a New York Times Bestseller.
As the title suggests, “1954” chronicles the 1954 Baseball Season. But the first time I read the book’s subtitle “The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever”, I was a little confused. As someone who spends a large amount of time researching and reading about Baseball History, I’ve never equated the year 1954 with this subtitle. Sure, it was Mays’ first full season that included an MVP and “The Catch”, the rookie seasons for Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, and Larry Doby helped lead the Indians to an American League record 111 wins. However, in reading the story of the 1954 season, I was never truly convinced that this was the case. While there’s no denying the impact of African Americans during the 1954 season, I’m not sure that this was THE season that changed Baseball.
Aside from the minor issue with the subtitle, I thoroughly enjoyed “1954”. Madden chose a season from his childhood, one that includes a dominant team that finally overtook the Yankees and possibly the most famous play in Baseball history. He spends a lot of time introducing the many characters and giving their back stories (In fact, the season doesn’t even start until page 112). But this is necessary, because Baseball was undergoing a lot of changes in the decade after WWII. Changes such as franchises shifting to different cities for the first time in over a half century and most importantly, the integration of Major League Baseball. Integration certainly was not complete once Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby made their debuts, and Madden makes sure to detail the progress and show how some teams (like the Yankees) were reluctant to integrate.
There is a lot of focus on the three New York teams and their situations. Some readers might complain of “New York bias” by a New York writer since so much time is spent on the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. But this is clearly not the case as all three teams and their stories are vital. You could not write this book without going into great detail on people like Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Jackie Robinson and Walter Alston. The astute Baseball fan can easily point out how these teams dominated the entire decade of the 1950’s.
A good number of Baseball books make the mistake of filling their pages with countless game and play by play accounts, to the point that they can become monotonous and start to run together. That’s certainly not an issue in “1954”. Madden chose the most important games and events (including the Giants and Indians World Series) and kept them interesting without losing focus.
I would have preferred that the book gave the reader a better sense of how life was during the 1950’s by touching on more non-Baseball events. It discusses Brown vs Board of Education, Hotel Desegregation, pop culture, and even a murder trial, but I personally wanted a little more. But this is nitpicking and ultimately it’s a Baseball book and that is certainly what you will get.
There’s a lot of information in the book. A lot of stories that Madden has gathered through interviews with former players and sources like the Hall of Fame Library and The New York Daily News Archives. No matter your level of Baseball knowledge, you’ll be sure to read a story that you haven’t read before.
“1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever” will be released on May 6th, 2014