One of the many cool things about being a blog manager here at SBN is that sometimes DQ and I are offered free items. An example of one of these perks is that a publisher in New York City sent me an advance copy of the book, Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself, by Michael Shapiro. I was enthusiastic to receive the gift, but was admittedly ignorant as to the importance of both these men in the history of the game that I care so much about. After reading this book, however, I realize that Rickey and Stengel will forever be inextricably linked to baseball in the United States. The history of our Astros also eminates from the time period this book is set in, which was an added benefit to reading this book.
(I don't want to write a book report for you all to read, but I will do my best to give you all as good an analysis as I can muster.)
Essentially, Bottom of the Ninth begins in the Fall of 1958, during the World Series between Casey Stengel's New York Yankees and the defending champion Milwaukee Braves. Shapiro paints the reader a picture of man who to a modern day baseball fan would be altogether unfamiliar: an egotistical, me-first, outspoken manager. Very quickly you begin to realize that these are different days, days where the manager was the star and the players were mere cogs in the machine. Stengel considered himself to be the main attraction, a genius in pinstripes. His players existed not to perform for themselves or their organization, but for Stengel. From the book's beginning point, eventually winning the 1958 World Series, to its endpoint, Bill Mazeroski's walkoff home run in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, Stengel's season to season progression as a manager in his waning years in baseball is portrayed quite well. Writers, players and fans alike had opinions on this Napolean of the diamond. Shapiro is able to illustrate the prolific nature of Stengel's career in major league baseball, both as a player and manager, and of his decline, and eventual retirement from the game he loved.
While the Yankees were winning yet another World Series in 1958, the winds of change were blowing MLB westward. Upset at their living arrangements in New York City, the Giants and Dodgers made a choice that would forever alter the sport. In moving to California, these teams epitomized a nation that was changing along with its national pastime. One man perhaps more than anyone else saw this occurrence coming and wanted to involve himself in the best interests of baseball. Enter Branch Rickey, the same person who expanded the minor leagues and signed Jackie Robinson, would spearhead both the biggest threat and greatest opportunity MLB had ever known.
As the nation grew so too did its newly burgeoning cities. Along with this staggering growth came a desire for major league baseball. As has often been the case, MLB lagged behind this trend. Its owners were content to count their money and maintain the status quo, even as its sporting competion, specifically football, was making steady inroads into its market share. When neither the NL or AL was willing to expand, Branch Rickey, along with men such as Bill Shea, Bob Howsam and Houston's own George Kirksey, decided to take matters into their own hands and create a third major league, known as the Continental League. Even in his late seventies, Rickey displayed the sort of tenacity and fervor in organizing and galvanizing people that one would expect from a man half his age. Securing stadiums, players for the league, and fighting tooth and nail with major league owners were three main areas that this book chronicles quite well.
The most interesting aspect of Bottom of the Ninth, in my opinion, is that many of the key tenets of this proposed league: revenue sharing, a TV deal that would benefit all teams equally- were issues that Baseball struggles with to this day. Rickey identified these pratfalls and attempted to make amends and basically save baseball from itself. With attendance flagging, baseball needed to do make changes to reinvigorate itself. Baseball's owners saw to it that change may happen, but it would happen at the pace that they, and not an upstart league, chose.
Branch Rickey saved much of his correspondence with his Continental League cronies, major league owners, and MLB commissioner Ford Frick. Once you begin this book, you're transported to the meeting rooms and hotel lobbies where the future of professional baseball hung in the balance. Our own city of Houston was highly coveted by the Continentals, and eventually both the NL and AL. The aforementioned Kirksey, Craig Cullinan and Roy Hofeinz, Jr. were instrumental in bringing professional baseball to Houston. All three men owed a great deal to Branch Rickey, who brought attention and legitimacy to the idea of expanding Baseball in one way or another. As we know, the Colt .45s were brought in under the National League's expansion plan in 1962, along with New York's new franchise, the Metropolitans. Houston would have it's first major professional team.
Ironically, as Branch Rickey was the man who instigated much of the fervor behind expanding baseball, the NL and AL's expansion destroyed any possibility of the Continental League becoming a viable entity. Cities such as Dallas, Denver and Minneapolis wanted to have a major league team to call their own. They would accept being a part of the Continental League, but when MLB made its siren song the upstart league was powerless to stop its own disbandment. Rickey did everything he could to ensure the further success and prominence of baseball on a national level. Sadly, his fellow baseball men were not as forward thinking as he and the next thirty years saw baseball slip in popularity and relevance in the United States.
Though the sport is as strong now as its ever been, that upstart sport in the 1960s, professional football, has far surpassed MLB in terms of franchise value and importance in the national consciousness. Ironically, it was many of the same propositions that Rickey made that would build professional football into the success we know today. The AFL was what the Continental League aspired to be: a successful alternative to the established professional league (in football's case, the NFL). Success eventually led to a consolidation of the two leagues into the modern day NFL. Football benefitted a great deal from this partnership, while baseball was never able to appreciate at least the ideas that the Continental League promoted.
Casey Stengel and Branch Rickey were both headstrong men who were singleminded in seeking success within their own spheres of influence. Michael Shapiro introduces each man, and goes on to fill in the details about each in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening. If you are someone who is at all interested in the history of baseball, and want to learn more about one of its most crucial time periods, then Bottom of the Ninth is a must read.