20 June 2003

The Last Good Season: by Michael Shapiro

The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together
by Michael Shapiro

"Everyone wants to stay except for me...so we're going."
- Former Dodgers' Owner Walter O'Malley

Michael Shapiro's book, The Last Good Season, describes, as the sub-title indicates, the events surrounding the Brooklyn Dodgers' concurrent pursuit of what would be the franchise's 12th (and last for Brooklyn) National League Pennant and their owner's pursuit of a profitable venue in which his team could play. The Dodgers faced stiff competition all season from the Cincinatti Reds and upstart Milwaukee Braves, with the pennant being decided on the last day of the season, rather than in a landslide as they had in 1955.

And O'Malley faced perhaps even stiffer competition from New York City public official and all-around super-meddler, Robert Moses (who becomes the villain throughout Shapiro's account of the tale). The traditional lore of the events surrounding the Dodgers' move west to Los Angeles before the 1958 season has it that Walter O'Malley was just a "greedy bastard" who couldn't stand to only make millions of dollars in Brooklyn, so he sold his ballpark (Ebbets' Field) to a developer, his team to the City of Angels, and (probably) his soul to the Devil, to make millions and millions in Los Angeles. Reality, as it often turns out, is quite a bit more complicated than that.

Faced with declining attendance at Ebbets Field, the mass exodus of their traditional constituency to Long Island and New Jersey, and the advent of television (a considerably less profitable means of showing games at that time than now), O'Malley had a choice to make: Try to stay in Brooklyn, which would require a new stadium with sufficient parking and access roads, or move to another city. Everyone knows what he chose, but until now, only a select few have know why O'Malley chose to flee Brooklyn for a city he had never previously seen, 3,000 miles away. Shapiro does a wonderful job of setting the record straight.

Shapiro is a refreshingly eloquent writer, especially in light of the fact that his subject, baseball, or even sports in general, does not often inspire such eloquence. Certainly, there are Roger Kahns and Richard Ben Cramers out there, but for each of these it often seems that there are about four or five writers who choose more common vernacular to describe their subjects. This doesn't make such people poor writers, just a different style of writer. This Ernest Hemingway vs. Charles Dickens. It's a pleasant surprise to run into a book written so well about a part of New Yawk known for its vulgar accent and total disregard for the rules of the English language.

This can be a bit overdone at times: In one description of an equipment manager's attitude toward the Dodgers players, Shapiro describes him as "deferential to the point of being obsequious". Lovely. But I had to look up both words just to make sure that the phrase really meant "ass-kisser". It did. But generally speaking this trifle of trouble was worth it not to read "...he hit the ball really hard" for once in a baseball book.

The appeal of The Last Good Season is that it provides a somewhat different perspective, namely Walter O'Malley's, from the traditional view of this subject. But Shapiro knew that the warped viewpoint of a wealthy, out-of-touch, eccentric owner like O'Malley would only hold the attention of a commoner like you or me for so long. So, to add a more universally appreciated perspective to the tome, he added the warped viewpoints of the wealthy, out-of-touch, eccentric players to the mix. And just so nobody feels left out, he even included some normal people in the discussion. Initially, his interjected descriptions of Brooklynites' lives, people of whom you've never heard, appears somewhat ill-placed and slightly confusing. But once you realize what he's doing, namely providing a more easily related perspective, it fits perfectly and adds a flavor that many "sports history" books miss: Vanilla. That is, what the ordinary people thought and felt about the comings and goings of extraordinary people and events.

Superb writing, thorough research and a tremendous sense of his audience make Michael Shapiro's The Last Good Season an informative, touching and enjoyable acocunt of the last glory days of 'Dem Bums.