World War II saw some five hundred major leaguers trade in baseball uniforms for service uniforms, including legends such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Pete Reiser, and Joe DiMaggio. At war’s end, troops awaiting their return home from the Europe Theater were captivated by an extraordinary “World Series,” revealed in detail here for the first time, played by former ballplayers-turned-soldiers in the conquered Hitler Youth Stadium in Nuremberg, a venue that had been forced to trade Nazi rallies for strikeouts and home runs. And in the spring of 1946, soldiers and players alike returned to a league that, much like the country, was reassembling itself amid monumental changes. This fascinating period of history is chronicled in THE VICTORY SEASON: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age (Little, Brown and Company; April 2, 2013; hardcover; $27.99) by lauded journalist Robert Weintraub. With exclusive interviews and deep reporting, Weintraub offers a story of baseball and war, including compelling player portraits, from widely celebrated names to the two unsung heroes who died in combat.
Postwar baseball brought along many breakthroughs that we now take for granted and really defined our modern game: the growing use of lights for night games; scouting practices that helped teams remain financially solvent while they acquired new talent; air travel between games that served as a welcome alternative to train service while it also terrified a few players; and Jackie Robinson’s historical entry into the league and breaking of the color barrier. At the same time, the owners fought a rearguard action to hold off significant threats to their grip on the game. There was the threat of flamboyant millionaire Mexican magnate Jorge Pasquel, tempting players with large contracts and robust signing bonuses in an attempt to lure them to compete south of the border; a nascent attempt at unionizing led by star-crossed labor organizer Robert Murphy; and the dawning realization by players who had been to war that their services were worth far more than what they were getting. But with guile and strong-arm tactics, the owners, led by the brilliant, flawed Larry MacPhail, managed to retain most of their power, including retention of the dire Reserve Clause, which tied players to team so long as the owners saw fit.
It was the year of the Williams Shift, Slaughter’s “Mad Dash,” and a nail-biting seven-game World Series matchup between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. With the war over, nothing could dampen the country’s excitement for baseball. Even as ticket prices rose, attendance records were set at stadiums across the country—baseball’s players were back, and so was baseball. THE VICTORY SEASON examines the porous line between sports hero and national hero—a powerful reminder that athletes can teach us how to chase down our dreams, and that just as we saw so powerfully in the wake of more recent national catastrophes, a return to sports can sometimes herald a return of national pride and joy.