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Books | Sports

June 12, 2013

A Season Like No Other

In a new book, author Robert Weintraub revisits the 1946 season, when the term "baseball veteran" had a very different meaning.

Michael Gluckstadt

It's impossible to imagine today: Baseball's top players leaving the sport, en masse, to fight a war overseas, then battling rust and injuries sustained in battle in their return to the game. The modern-day equivalent would be… well, unimaginable.

Robert Weintraub. Title image courtesy of <a href=''>Boston Public Library's</a> flickr.
"On the field, many players saw their skills eroded, if not gone altogether due to war-related injury."

Robert Weintraub. Title image courtesy of Boston Public Library's flickr.

Throw in that it was also the year when Jackie Robinson shattered baseball's color barrier and when the balance in the sport between labor and management began to shift, and 1946 emerges as a hell of an interesting baseball season. That's why author Robert Weintraub decided to write an entire book about it.

Weintraub is a television producer and sports journalist who has written for the New York Times, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among other places. His new book The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age delves into the details of this singular season, vastly different from our current era. "Back then players were vilified if they didn't immediately sign up for the Army or Navy," says Weintraub. "Now, of course, even playing for a national team is fraught with uncertainty."

In the following interview—edited for length and clarity—Weintraub told Gelf why he decided to focus on this particular year, how baseball and nationalism get tied together in times of war, and what was great about old-timey baseball writing.

Gelf Magazine: Why is now the right time for a look back at 1946?

Robert Weintraub: Well, in part I was inspired by America being at war, and how the nature of the military, service, and the concept of citizenship has changed so much since World War II. Back then, players were vilified if they didn't immediately sign up for the Army or Navy. Now, of course, even playing for a national team is fraught with uncertainty, with the player and the club not always on board. Money, of course, is the root of that change. And much of the decades-long fight over money between labor and management in baseball really got cooking in 1946, so the two strands are connected. Also, I needed something to write about, and this worked out.

Gelf Magazine: There have been a few look backs in recent years at individual years in baseball history. What makes 1946 worthier, or at least different, than the others?

Robert Weintraub: Worthy is in the eye of the beholder, but 1946, as the first postwar season, certainly stands out. Not only was it an amazing year on the field—with the first-ever playoff to decide a pennant and the amazing World Series, won by St. Louis over Boston on Country Slaughter's "Mad Dash"—but as alluded to above, it was when the reckoning between owners and players really began in earnest. There was the first strong labor push, a Mexican league that terrified the owners by daring to pay the players what they were actually worth, and of course Jackie Robinson's debut, with everything that meant to baseball and the country.

Gelf Magazine: What sort of adjustments to postwar life did the players who served in WWII and returned to baseball in 1946 have to make?

Robert Weintraub: Everyone had to make huge adjustments during that year, as America was as unprepared for sudden peace as it had been for sudden war after Pearl Harbor. The return of millions of servicemen all at once translated into massive shortages of housing, transportation, and basic goods. A black market took over the nation, and virtually every industry went on strike. So ballplayers had it tough, right along with everyone else. On the field, many players saw their skills eroded, if not gone altogether due to war-related injury. The players who played in America during the war were still around, anxious to prove they belonged, so there was great competition for roster spots. And, like many Americans, many players found their marriages and family life had changed while they were away, usually for the worse.

Gelf Magazine: Were you able to get many interviews with players who played in 1946?

Robert Weintraub: About a dozen. A few key players, like Stan Musial and Johnny Pesky, were still alive when I began the research, but sadly were too ill to talk, and both have since passed away. As with the WWII generation writ large, there are fewer and fewer people alive from that era every day.

Gelf Magazine: You used to write old-timey baseball recaps for Deadspin. What is it about old-time baseball you like so much, and do you prefer it to today's game?

Robert Weintraub: Thank you for bringing up that much-reviled experiment! I very much enjoy the game's history, and the way the game was covered in the old days, in particular before television, is unique and so utterly different from modern times that it is impossible not to get a kick out of it. I wouldn't say I prefer the game itself over today—after all, I wasn't alive to see it. I love today's game on the field, but the way it is covered isn't nearly as romantic and free with the language as it used to be.

Gelf Magazine: As a Yankees fan, was it hard to write about a year the Yankees finished 17 games out of first place?

Robert Weintraub: At first, yes, but my service is to the reader, not all of whom bleed pinstripe, and not to myself.

Gelf Magazine: Do you still take issue with the new Yankee Stadium and its ticket prices?

Robert Weintraub: Of course—what's changed? The very objective of the Stadium is not as a communal place for the enjoyment of sport, but as a place to separate you from your hard-earned coin at every opportunity. Maybe I'm just bitter about having gone to an 11-1 rout at the hands of the hated Red Sox a couple of weeks ago, but there you go.

Gelf Magazine: Are you troubled by the way baseball gets tied to nationalism in times of war and postwar, or do you view it as a good thing?

Robert Weintraub: Actually, WWII was probably the last time people automatically tied the two together. Perhaps Korea. After that, football came to the fore, and the more militaristic nature of the sport twinned it with war far more than baseball. In general, it's off-putting that sports and nationalism go so neatly hand in hand.

Gelf Magazine: If you had to choose one guy to go to bat with the World Series at stake, Musial or Williams?

Robert Weintraub: Tough one—Williams is the better hitter, though in the 1946 Series, his only one, he flopped. But that was partly due to an elbow that was injured in an exhibition game on the eve of the Series. Musial wasn't a great hitter in the Fall Classic, either. If forced I suppose I would take Ted, if only because hitting was everything to him. Musial was more well-rounded, but in terms of just swinging the lumber, Ted is the choice.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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