Bottom of the Ninth, Michael Shapiro. New York: Times Books, 2009.
Summary: The story of how two legendary figures, Branch Rickey and Casey Stengel, attempted but failed in schemes to transform the game of baseball.
When I first picked up this book, my attention was arrested by the front cover photograph. It shows a group of fans on a high vantage point overlooking a baseball park. I studied it more closely and wondered if the ballpark was Forbes Field, where I’d caught a game as a kid. It was indeed! It turns out that this was a famous photograph taken by George Silk from the top of the Tower of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh at the moment Bill Mazeroski’s bottom of the ninth home run won the 1960 World Series for Pittsburgh, defeating Casey Stengel’s Yankees, and ultimately Stengel himself who was “resigned” by the Yankee owners. This ended Stengel’s tenure as the “managerial genius” of a string of pennant and World Champion Yankee teams.
This was also a moment of defeat and vindication for Branch Rickey, who weeks earlier saw his dream of a third major league, the Continental League, die. He envisioned a league of young, talented players, not yet as polished as the other two leagues, but on parity with each other, and in time with the rest of the majors. Eight cities would get teams, some, like Bob Howsam’s Denver, for the first time, and some like Bill Shea’s New York gaining a new team for those it had lost. Oddly, Pittsburgh’s victory vindicated at least part of Rickey’s vision, because he had helped assemble the core of the championship team, including Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente.
Michael Shapiro weaves together the narratives of these two men over the three years preceding October 1960. I will grant that both are interesting subjects, but I could not see how Stengel was trying to transform baseball, other than to leave his mark as a shrewd manager. It felt to me that Shapiro needed Stengel to inject a baseball element into a book concerned with Rickey’s attempts to recruit prospective owners and through suasion and legal maneuvering to win over existing league owners to the idea. Much of this involved negotiations, personal meetings, and public relations, not the most interesting material narratively.
Still, both stories demonstrate the power of owners zealous to protect their own financial interests, even when this was not in the best interests of the game. Del Webb and Dan Topping, as Yankee owners figure large in both stories. Walter O’Malley, who took the Dodgers from Brooklyn to L.A., denied Webb the opportunity to build Chavez Ravine, and was concerned to protect and expand his own TV earnings, exemplified the spirit of the owners. Ultimately, they block the new league by luring Bill Shea, who was seeking a team for New York (after whom Shea Stadium was named) and three other prospective owners with the lure of expansion franchises, which generally spent the rest of the sixties at the bottom of the standings.
Shapiro cites the experience of the American Football League as an example of what could have happened if Rickey’s dream had been allowed to come to fruition. The league teams developed rapidly, played with competitive parity, and eventually merged with the NFL, injecting new life into pro-football, which surpassed baseball in viewership during this period.
Shapiro’s book makes an interesting read, especially as he recounts the 1960 World Series, Stengel’s fateful pitching choices, his choice to pull Clete Boyer early in the Series and the fateful seventh game. Likewise, Rickey’s vision to transform baseball and the missed opportunity is fascinating to ponder. However, Shapiro’s interweaving of Rickey and Stengel only makes sense as an attempt to spice up Rickey’s story with some baseball, and one of baseball’s most colorful managers, not as a story of two men trying to “save baseball from itself” as the subtitle asserts.