Baseball Mints Heroes From World War II to Hippie Era: Books

The cover jacket of "Season of '42" by Jack Cavanaugh. Source: Skyhorse Publishing via Bloomberg

Hardly anyone remembers 1942 for baseball. In the U.S., it was the first year of World War II, a sad and sober time when the nation began to battle back from Pearl Harbor.

Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked Franklin Roosevelt whether baseball should go on at all, and the president rendered a famous and fateful judgment: “It would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

So play they did -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, Phil Rizzuto, Stan Musial -- amid “dim outs,” fear of German submarine attacks on the East Coast and ominous reports of battles far away.

In “Season of ’42” (Skyhorse, $24.95), veteran sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh sketches a time when Connie Mack managed, blacks weren’t permitted in the majors, stars (Cookie Lavagetto and Hank Greenberg, among others) migrated to the service, and games were scheduled at twilight to avoid bans on night games and still draw defense workers after their daytime shifts. The most important victory was at Midway, not Fenway.

Attendance that year fell but, then again, Americans were restricted to three gallons of gasoline a week. Still, what emerged from that year was a splendid season from Williams, a remarkable St. Louis Cardinals club that beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, and a grace note in a doleful time of war and remembrance.

Lefty Gomez

One of those 1942 Yankees was Lefty Gomez, the much-underestimated and mostly forgotten pitcher who once roomed with DiMaggio, terrified batters with a wicked fastball, was awarded the win in the first All Star Game and four times finished the season with 20 wins.

The Vernon Gomez story was unearthed from the mists of major-league memory by his daughter, Vernona Gomez, in conjunction with Lawrence Goldstone in a book called, simply, “Lefty” (Ballantine, $28). It’s a good story, and a surprisingly insightful one.

Lefty was the guy who said it was more important to be lucky than to be good. As a Yankee he was known as a wisecracker; he also trafficked in wisdom.

His journey took him from sandlot ball to the major leagues, and from hayseed to cosmopolite, with stops in Class D baseball played by rusticated teenagers in a league with teams in Pocatello and Idaho Falls.

His teammates called him El Goofo but as a young man he was a student of the game and its nuances -- though he wasn’t shrewd enough to ignore a quack doctor favored by the Yankees who counseled him that the way to strengthen himself was to have his teeth yanked. Maybe not his best move.

Fame Faded

Even so, Gomez flourished on the mound, becoming the first pitcher to appear on the cover of Time magazine. His fame faded slowly but inexorably and today hardly anyone knows his name. Pity.

No one who reads “One Shot at Forever” (Hyperion, $24.99) by Chris Ballard will soon forget it. You know you’re onto something special with the first sentence: “Out in the corn country of central Illinois the clouds stretch forever, thick and soft, as if painted onto the sky of an old-time movie set.”

This is the story of Lynn Sweet -- a bit of a hippie, against the war in Vietnam, inclined to smoke a little pot, not particularly attendant to cutting his hair -- who in 1966 was recruited to teach English in a farm town, the kind with a feed store, a poker game presided over by the high-school principal and, inevitably, the need to find a coach for the baseball team.

So before long Sweet found himself at the helm of the Ironmen. This was not exactly inheriting a diamond dynasty. Troubles abounded: There was a disqualification in the playoffs. A coup against the coach. And a player fell off a grain elevator during a prank.

State Finals

But the coach and his boys rode the creaking bus they called the Yellow Submarine all the way, or almost. Sweet instilled in the players a love of the game, and just enough fundamentals, to let them beat teams with high schools bigger than the entire population of their town. They reached the state finals in 1971, the smallest school ever to do so.

It was a beautiful moment in the lives of a town and a team, and it almost -- almost -- doesn’t matter that the Ironmen lost in the finals. Something important had been won and, thanks to this book, something important has been preserved forever.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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