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Q&A: Bill Madden talks about new book on pivotal 1954 season

Madden_1954_CoverLongtime baseball writer Bill Madden, who has worked at the New York Daily News for 36 years and in 2009 won the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, has written four books, including a biography on the late George Steinbrenner. But his upcoming fifth book, to be released May 6, about the 1954 major league baseball season, is closest to his heart.

“I would say that the best way to describe this book is a labor of love for me,” Madden said in a Q&A with IU’s National Sports Journalism Center. “I had fun doing this book. The book on Steinbrenner was a labor of labor for me. When I got done doing “Steinbrenner,” I told my wife, ‘I don’t think I can do this again. I can’t write another book. I mean, this just took so much out of me’ … But this book, I told my agent: just get me something decent for this book. I don’t care if it’s not what I’m used to getting. I want to write this book; it’s in me. This book has been in me for 10 years now.”

Madden’s “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever,” has been a long project in the making. In its 320 pages, Madden describes the many factors that came together to make the 1954 season the most eventful and influential for the inclusion and ascension of black players in major league history.

Madden offered insight into the processes of researching and writing this Q&A:

Q: What was the genesis of this idea to write a book about the 1954 season?

A: This book has been in my head for a good 10 years for a couple of reasons. First of all, the ’54 season was the first season I really remember as a kid. And the reason for that was I was brought up in northern New Jersey in a Yankee household. My father was a Yankee fan and my mother was a Yankee fan. I remember going through that entire summer wondering when the Yankees were going to get into first place because I had never known anything other than the Yankees winning the World Series. I remember I just couldn’t believe the fact that the Indians kept winning and winning and winning, and the Yankees could never catch them.

And that season always stuck with me because of the inevitability of the Yankees winning every year. It was ingrained in me; it was a divine right that the Yankees were supposed to be in the World Series. And then through the years, I started to realize that the 1954 season was really one of the most important seasons in baseball history, and it’s been long neglected. Nobody’s ever written about this season, which was another impetus for me to push my agent to get somebody to buy this book, because it needed to be written, in my opinion.

Q: Why was 1954 such a pivotal season in baseball history?

A: Everybody thinks that 1947 was a breakthrough year for black baseball, with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line, and that was the pivotal year in which baseball finally accepted players of color and it finally became the “all-American sport.”

But the fact was, after Jackie broke the color line, nothing really happened for the next seven years. There was a sprinkling of black players coming into major league baseball, mostly with the Dodgers, and some were with the Giants. But the Dodgers were in the forefront, as long as (Dodgers general manager Branch) Rickey was there. He brought in (Roy) Campanella, he brought in (Don) Newcombe, he brought in (Jim) Gilliam and Joe Black. But otherwise, here we are, seven years later, and eight teams out of 16 still haven’t integrated, most of them in the American League. And most of them were following the lead of the Yankees.

And then on another front, by 1954, the Dodgers now have a new manager, Walter Alston, and he was not Jackie’s guy. Jackie was (Chuck) Dressen’s guy. He loved the way Dressen handled him. And Jackie and (Dodgers owner Walter) O’Malley didn’t get along. Rickey had left the Dodgers, and Jackie felt a little bit naked when Rickey was gone. So O’Malley’s now running the Dodgers, and Jackie is very resentful of Alston. He didn’t like Alston, he thought he was just another puppet for O’Malley, and there was a lot of tension going on with the Dodgers, particularly with Jackie and Alston, but the rest of the veteran players were kind of following Jackie’s lead in that they were skeptical of whether or not Alston was capable of managing this team, being that he had been a career minor leaguer, and had no credentials other than he had been a successful minor league manager.

So you have that dynamic going on, and then, of course, you have the Giants, with Mays and this whole corps of southern white players, who were the core of that ’54 Giants team. And (there was) this relationship that they all had with each other,  the fact that Mays was so beloved by these players. He comes back from being in the service for two years and (manager Leo) Durocher’s touting him as this guy that’s going to take them to the pennant; he’s the difference-maker on this team, and they were all buying into it. But then they knew where Willie was. Willie was “an innocent”; he was not like Robinson, in that Robinson was a very polarizing figure with the Dodgers and, unlike Jackie, Willie was beloved by his teammates because all he wanted to do was play ball and he played with this youthful exuberance that was so rare and refreshing at the time, whereas Jackie was always dealing with social issues and all of that. And Jackie was not beloved by his teammates.

So there were all these different dynamics going on, with the Yankees leading the resistance to integration in the American League, and then, ultimately, finally losing the pennant to a team that was at the forefront of the American League in integration, and that was the Cleveland Indians, going all the way back to Bill Veeck, when he owned the team in 1947 and broke the color line by signing Larry Doby. There was so much going on that year, and so much that happened that year that influenced baseball for the next 50 years.

Q: Did being denied the 1954 American League pennant by a team at the forefront of major league integration accelerate the integration of the Yankees?

A: There’s no coincidence that the first thing the Yankees did when the ’54 season was over with was announcing they were going to be promoting Elston Howard. And it’s no coincidence they integrated in 1955 and had lost the pennant to the Indians for the first time in five years of being world champions. One of the factors here was that the Yankees attitude was, everybody’s telling us we’ve got to integrate. Well, we’ve played the Dodgers three times in the last five years and beaten them, with Jackie Robinson and their other black players. So why do we need to integrate? We’re better than them, and we’ve proven it.

Q: If it hadn’t been for the Yankees losing to the Indians that season, what would have happened to the process of integrating baseball?

A: I think it would have continued to be a slow process, particularly in the American League. The Yankees were the leaders in the American League, and the Yankees’ stance on this, which was followed by most of the American League teams – except for Cleveland and, to a lesser degree, the White Sox – set the American League back 20 years, which is the conclusion I reached in this book. …

Because of the Yankees’ stance on this, the American League lagged behind as far as overall talent was concerned. And the National League started winning more World Series after that. Again, the American League had dominated the World Series all through the ’40s and ’50s, but then Hank Aaron’s Braves beat the Yankees in ’57 and Clemente’s Pirates beat them in 1960, and on and on it went. So, in that respect, I would say that, again, it was the Yankees’ stance on this that really hurt the American League, because it was the American League clubs that followed suit, thinking: Well, hey, if the Yankees aren’t integrating and they’re winning like this, why do we have to integrate?

Q:  How central was the 1954 World Series, between Mays’ Giants and Doby’s Indians, to how influential that season became, historically?

A: This is another element of why I wanted to do the book. The 1954 Series was the first World Series ever in which there were black players on both teams. That had never happened before because usually the Yankees were in the World Series, and the one year they weren’t was 1948, and the Indians had Doby.

But the Braves, in the National League, didn’t have any black players that year. So, ’54 was the first year that players of color were on both teams. Not coincidentally, the two prominent players – Mays on the Giants and Doby on the Indians – were two of the best players in baseball. Mays won the National League MVP award, and Doby should’ve won the American League MVP. He led the league in homers and RBIs on a team that won a record 111 games. This, again, was no small thing. These two guys really put the black players on the map, not just as far as breaking the color line, but being impactful players in the major leagues.

Even though Jackie and Campy and those guys had been impactful players, they were all on one team, and that one team kept losing to the Yankees. Now all of a sudden, the Yankees are removed from the equation entirely, and you have two teams with black players, and the players on both of these teams are prominent, impactful players in the major leagues, and not just token black players, which so many other teams had at that time.

Q: How did the 1954 baseball season fit into the context of what was happening on the civil rights front in the United States, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision?

A: I think there’s no question that – again, that’s in the title of the book – that Willie Mays and the Giants, in particular, changed baseball forever because black players had never worn a world championship ring. And then the fact that you had this dynamic on the Giants in which Mays was so beloved by all these southern white players and the bond between them.

But the other thing that I bring out in this book, relating to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, I wanted to point out through the prism of baseball that – and people don’t realize this – 1954 America was still, essentially, a racist country. This is a hard thing to say, but it’s a fact. And I point out what these black players had to go through. That’s why I brought Aaron and Ernie Banks in, because they both had their first spring trainings and I talked to them both at length about what their first spring trainings were like, with the indignities they had to incur.

There’s a scene in the book where the Giants and Indians barnstormed through the South, and they were also in Las Vegas. And Willie Mays had to be escorted out of a casino in Las Vegas where the Giants were staying, because one of the bouncers there thought he was too close to the craps table and they didn’t want him mingling with the guests. These are the kinds of things that were going on. … Brown vs Board of Education was obviously the start of racial equality in this country. Of course, it all came to fruition in the 1960s when Martin Luther King came along, and the Civil Rights Act and all that. But before that, this is what it was all about back then.

And the other thing is, as much as baseball has had a black eye for being a segregated sport until 1947, if you look back, especially in 1954, you could make the case that baseball was actually in the forefront of professional sports as far as integration was concerned. The National Basketball Association was almost all white. The National Football League went 40 years with this unwritten color barrier. They didn’t start bringing black players in until the early ’50s in the NFL.

In the epilogue, I talked about how the reason for that was that the Southwest Conference, the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference, three of the most prominent athletic conferences in the country, all in the South, were all segregated up until the late ’50s when they started to integrate. And because of that, I don’t know where all the black athletes were. A lot of them just went through high school and if they weren’t good enough to play baseball, they just went off and did something else. You didn’t have the developing grounds that you do today. Once those conferences started to integrate, that’s when the NFL and the NBA started to integrate.

Q: How did you go about securing the interviews and information you needed for this book?

A: First of all, I knew the prime focus was going to have to be on the Giants and the Indians. I was fortunate that two of my favorite people in baseball, people I’ve had a longstanding and close relationship with, were Al Rosen and Monte Irvin, both of whom are very much alive and have all of their faculties even though they’re in their 90s. They were going to be my guys; Rosen was my Indians guy and Monte was my Giants guy. They were the first two people I was going to interview for this book, and I wanted to get them while they still had all their faculties and could remember stuff. Fortunately, both of them could remember everything. They were great.

Before I even got to that point, this book was in the back of my head as far back as 10, 12 years ago, and because of that, I did a lot of interviews with Larry Doby. He was another guy that I was very close to. Actually, Doby wanted me to write his own book; he wanted me to do his autobiography and we talked about that. I have a lot of notes from him, from those sessions we had together. We never got around to doing it. He got ill, and I got involved in another book and it never got done. But I had all that stuff from him.

I had Doby and I had Rosen to talk about what I needed on the Indians, the whole season. And I had Monte to talk about Willie, because Monte was Willie’s mentor. Durocher basically told Monte: I want you to take care of Willie, you’re the guy. I want you to room with him, I want you to take care of him and make sure he’s protected. That’s your job. So everything I needed to know about Willie I had from Monte.

And then I realized it was Aaron’s rookie year and it was Banks’ rookie year. I knew I had to do interviews with both of them to get their stories. When I was at the winter meetings in Las Vegas – I guess that was 2009, maybe – I realized that Dusty Rhodes lived in Henderson, Nev., which is right outside of Las Vegas. So we called up Dusty and went out to visit him. It was definitely the last interview he ever did. … I got everything I ever needed on the World Series and his relationship with Willie, and the fact that he was another white southerner who grew up in Alabama. He told me he had picked cotton with black kids in Alabama. I was interested in how a guy like Dusty Rhodes could have such a relationship that he had with Willie. Long after they had retired, he visited Willie and stayed in his house and stuff like that. So there was that interview.

And then, again, one spring a few years ago we went to Al Lopez’s house, and that was one of the last interviews Al Lopez ever did. He talked all about the ’54 Series and why he didn’t pitch Bob Feller, and all those other things. …

From there, I started researching. And I quickly came to discover that one of the best research vehicles for anybody doing a baseball book about the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and even the ’70s is The Sporting News. The Hall of Fame has every one of them up there, and I spent hours poring through The Sporting News because they missed nothing when it came to covering a baseball season.

 … I had heard that Doby in midseason, I think it was Memorial Day, made what people who were there said was the greatest catch they had ever seen. It was against the Senators, and he raced back to the center field wall, leaps up, catches the ball in midair, tumbles down on top of some tarp that was covering the Indians bullpen and crashes back down onto the field.

People said it was just an incredible catch, but I couldn’t find anything on it. I had been looking everywhere because I needed to get this verified. And sure enough, there it was in The Sporting News, a week later. And not only was it a description of the catch, but Dizzy Dean was there preparing for a broadcast he would be doing the next day, and he’s quoted as saying: “That is the greatest catch I have ever seen, and I have seen the greatest center fielders of all time. You could name them: Joe DiMaggio, Terry Moore …” he just reeled off these guys. So when you find things like that, it’s like being on a treasure hunt.

Q: Estimates place the percentage of black players in major league baseball today at just 8.5 percent. What do you make of that?

A: I can answer that very simply. This goes back to the integration, especially, of the colleges in the South. Back in the ’50s, right after Jackie broke the color line, blacks didn’t (have as many opportunities to) go to college. They didn’t have this avenue. And if you played baseball, really baseball was the only sport that, without the college interval as the developing grounds – there wasn’t any semipro basketball or football leagues – (you could continue on to the Negro leagues).

The best way to sum this up, Hank Aaron told me: “I wasn’t going to college because the only college to go to was going to be a black college, anyway. All I wanted to do was play baseball, because that was the sport back then.” He said, “I was going to the big leagues because I wanted to play baseball and I wanted to be like Jackie Robinson.” And that’s what happened. There was the Negro Leagues. That was a vehicle for black athletes, but there wasn’t a Negro basketball league or a Negro football league.

So once the universities in the South all integrated, because now all of a sudden blacks could go to school and go to major universities and play other sports, (many black athletes began playing those sports instead of baseball). And that, I think more than anything, explains why today, we’re back at what we were prior to 1954, where we’re back to 8.5 percent again.

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