Two extra-base hits about the golden '50s

By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2009
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With its larger-than-life figures such as Walter O'Malley, Branch Rickey, and Casey Stengel, the 1950s is considered by many to have been baseball's golden era. As a result, there has been no shortage of outstanding books about the period.

Two new contributions provide fresh perspectives and will be welcomed by those fascinated by the game's history.

O'Malley, who as owner of the Dodgers moved his team westward and helped make baseball a truly national game, remains controversial for that act. Old-time Brooklyn fans still see him as a modern-day Judas.

Michael D'Antonio provides a balanced, if occasionally blandly written, account of O'Malley's life and times in "Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles."

O'Malley comes across as a tough, though generally fair, man who was at the center of many key events, including Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier and the start of the era of free agency. He also ran the Brooklyn franchise at a time when New York was the center of the baseball world (teams from the city won the World Series every year but two between 1947 and 1958). The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and O'Malley died in 1979.

D'Antonio is at his best when describing O'Malley's political maneuvers. O'Malley's battles with municipal officials in New York (especially master builder Robert Moses) and civic groups in Los Angeles (some of whom opposed building Dodger Stadium) are recounted in great detail. Fortunately, D'Antonio has a great ability to tell a story, paces his narrative effectively, and doesn't get bogged down in the minutia.

While O'Malley succeeded in transforming baseball, others who attempted to change the game were less successful. Rickey, a longtime baseball operative who had a strained relationship with O'Malley when they were both with the Dodgers, led a group of prospective owners who tried to create an alternative league.

Their goal was to shake up the game which, in the late 1950s, was already beginning to lose some of its appeal because of the rise of the National Football League. Michael Shapiro elegantly describes the ill-fated effort to establish the eight-team Continental League in "Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself."

Shapiro, a professor of journalism at Columbia University who wrote a book about the Dodgers' last season in Brooklyn, depicts Rickey as a potential savior of the game, albeit one who was often self-righteous and unable to compromise.

Stengel, who as manager of the Yankees embodied baseball's old guard, is described as "the face of baseball: familiar, lined and sagging."

Shapiro describes this battle over the game's future in great detail, with special attention to the efforts of Rickey and his allies to persuade Congress to limit baseball's antitrust exemption.

Although the effort failed, it did result in baseball agreeing to add new teams in the early 1960s.

No other sport is as enamored of its past as is baseball. Readers wanting to step back into one of the game's finest eras will find much to enjoy both in D'Antonio's biography of O'Malley and in Shapiro's engaging look at a significant, though often forgotten, chapter in the game's history.

Claude R. Marx has written extensively on politics, history and sports.

FOREVER BLUE: The True Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles By Michael D'Antonio

Riverhead, 353 pp.,

illustrated, $25.95.

BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself By Michael Shapiro

Times, 303 pp., illustrated, $26

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