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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book Review: Glenn Stout's The Dodgers and The Cubs

The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball
Text by Glenn Stout, Photographs Selected and Edited by Richard A. Johnson
© 2004 Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson
Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York 10003

The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball
Text by Glenn Stout, Photographs Selected and Edited by Richard A. Johnson
© 2007 Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson
Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York 10003

On June 7, the Dodgers and Cubs tied their all-time series record at 1,011-1,011, something that dated back to the Dodgers' 1890 entry into the Senior Circuit; for most of Brooklyn's existence, it, like the borough surrounding it, was losing its identity and had become the butt of jokes, the most famous being Giants manager Bill Terry's 1934 quip asking whether Brooklyn was still in the league. Fifteen years later, the Jackie Robinson-led clubs of the late 40's and 1950's that won multiple pennants and the Dodgers' first (and Brooklyn's only) World Series made the Giants eat their words.

Dodger excellence in the postwar era and, especially, in Los Angeles had a lot to do with tying the all-time record, as the Dodgers left Brooklyn with a 666-726 record against the Northsiders. Throughout the early part of the 1900's, it was even worse, as the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs regularly mauled the Dodgers until the advent of manager Wilbert Robinson in Brooklyn, the first of two historic men with that surname in the franchise's history.

The other one, of course, was Jack Roosevelt Robinson, whose signing and subsequent ascent to the major leagues was a turning point not just for the Dodgers but for the Cubs, in ways neither team could predict. It's this story that I'm focusing on today, because it provides a meshing point for both of Glenn Stout's excellent books, The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball, and The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball. The former has been out for four years, while Cubs hit the streets just last year. Both are fantastic books, with many photographs you likely haven't seen before, and sprawling narratives of the clubs they cover. If you haven't read either one, buy a copy now; you won't be disappointed.

I recently bought Cubs for Helen, and I'm glad I did, because it shined a light on something that has puzzled me for years, namely, how did the Cubs get to be so uniformly bad after their 1945 World Series appearance? Essentially, the answer came down to the Cubs' tentative, patronizing, and unenthusiastic owner, Philip K. Wrigley, who feigned interest in integration but always found excuses to avoid it. Goaded by Communist and civil rights activist William L. Patterson, Catholic Bishop Bernerd Sheil, the black press in the guise of the Chicago Defender, and other civil rights activists who had cajoled a meeting with him, Wrigley was in a unique position; had he wanted to, the Cubs could have been the first to desegregate. Certainly, he made all the right noises:

Nearly 30 percent of his Wrigley employees in Chicago were black, and the Wrigley Company was among the more progressive companies in the country in terms of worker rights and benefits.... Moreover, Wrigley had demonstrated his willingness to go against the status quo and take risks in both the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and in the hiring of psychologist Coleman Rl Griffith. He also seemed sympathetic to the plight of African Americans. According to one report, he had supported the right of an African American who wanted to move to Catalina Island.
But when it came to concrete action, Wrigley was far more circumspect. Despite the fact that "integrated basketball and football games ... had taken place" without violence, Wrigley felt certain that the country — meaning, undoubtedly, he — was not ready, saying, "The temper of people in baseball is very high." "I don't think the time is now," Wrigley retorted.
Wrigley claimed that if there was sufficient public demand, "I would put a Negro on my team now," but there wasn't, at least in his mind. He tried to show his empathy for the cause by pointing out that he allowed Satchel Paige's all-star team to play at Wrigley Field and that Cub prospects on the West Coast played regularly with Negroes in "mixed games." He then pointed out that "I have taken a thousand Negro workers into my plant," as if that proved that he, Philip Wrigley, was without prejudice.
Thus ended the meeting, and for the time being, the question of black ballplayers on Wrigley's team. More meetings a year later proved similarly fruitless. Unfortunately for the Cubs, not to mention the rest of the National League, their window was about to close. On August 28, 1945, the Dodgers' far-sighted executive Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract, and two months later it was made public. After a January 1947 meeting in which the other owners voiced unanimous opposition to Robinson's contract, Rickey extracted a concession from baseball commissioner Happy Chandler: Chandler, who had the power to refuse Robinson's contract, concluded he had no such authority — thus forcing the owners to take a public stand against segregation, something that Wrigley (and others) were loathe to do.

After an early slump, Robinson proved a tremendous success, drawing huge throngs wherever he went, and Wrigley Field was no exception. An enormous crowd of 46,572 "squeezed into Wrigley Field [for Robinson's first game there] while more than 20,000 additional fans milled around outside, the largest attendance in the history of Wrigley field since 1930, when the Cubs ended the practice of allowing overflow crowds to stand on the field."

Integration was under way, and it was about to decimate the Cubs. Between 1947 and 1957, the Cubs spent a grand total of 34 days in first place, 20 of them in 1947. Wrigley continued to hem and haw about integration while doing nothing. His front office sputtered, signing aging veterans coming off career years (Harry Walker, brother of Brooklyn outfielder Dixie), made a string of poor trades (such as for the worn-out husk of Johnny Vander Meer), and got even worse. Finally, the Cubs came to the Dodgers, hat in hand, looking for prospects, for Wrigley had never understood the value of having a deep farm system. What Chicago got was surplus and dross, players like Preston Ward who had a terrific debut with Brooklyn, but as the Cubs and National League pitching staffs were to presently discover, "couldn't hit the curveball".

It was at that point that Wrigley made what looked like a brilliant move: he raided the Dodgers' front office of Wid Matthews, formerly a scout and now the Cubs director of player personnel — or as we might call him today, the team's general manager. The Cubs gave him a $20,000 annual salary, and carte blanche to write bonus checks.

The hire was seen as a real coup for the Cubs. Matthews was considered the "top talent man" and player evaluator in the Dodger system, the practical genius behind Rickey's more forward-leaning intelligence. Furthermore, as the Tribune crowed, "Adding to the jubilance of the Cubs executives was the fact that they finally got something from Branch Rickey for nothing."

Those words would prove to be premature. In fact, Matthews would quickly sour under the Cubs' employ. While he had worked for Rickey for fifteen years, that didn't necessarily mean the Mahatma considered him irreplaceable. In fact, Rickey was probably glad to see Matthews go. As historian Jules Tygel wrote in his book, Baseball's Great Experiment, when Matthews scouted Jackie Robinson, he was less than enthusiastic, terming Robinson "strictly the showboat type".

It was an attitude that meshed with the Cubs' front office. While the Dodgers continued to add to their roster of black All-Stars with names like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, the Cubs were stuck firmly in neutral. Matthews made a token black signing in 1950, Gene Baker, a shortstop out of the Negro Leagues who went on to have an undistinguished major league career, but the Cubs went three years before signing another African-American. "It rapidly became apparent that once he was out from under Rickey's direction," Stout writes, "Matthews was clueless."

That led to an even stranger development: the open refusal of the Cubs to raid the Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels, which Wrigley also owned, for players to help the major league club.

"For the past several seasons," Matthews told [Los Angeles Times writer Frank Finch], "[the Cubs] have refrained from picking off Angel stars," preferring to place those players most likely to be recalled to Chicago with the Cubs' other Triple A team in Springfield, Massachusetts. Now Matthews was making the policy not only official but public. "We will not take any player from the Angels during the season without the express approval of President Don Stewart of the Angels and the Los Angeles baseball writers," said Matthews. In fact, he added, the Cubs were already following that policy. "Frank Baumholtz could have helped the Cubs this year," he said, "but we laid off him." After all, Baumholtz only hit .379 in 1950 for the Angels. "Henceforth," he added, "[if a] recall would hurt the Angels more than it would help the Cubs ... he'll stick with L.A."
This incredible announcement — that it was more important for a player to help the Cubs' minor league team in Los Angeles than it was the Cubs — was a staggering non-sequitur. Matthews, the alleged genius behind the Dodgers, was helping to sink the Cubs. He continued to get fleeced by the Dodgers on bad trades: in June, 1951, he moved outfielder Andy Pafko and reserve catcher Rube Walker for a bunch of junk the Dodgers didn't need.

The circle of teams robbing the Cubs expanded in 1953 to the Pirates, where Rickey had moved after being chased out by Walter O'Malley. Their first act of larceny was to ship a rapidly aging Ralph Kiner with Joe Garagiola, Catfish Metkovich, Howie Pollet, and "only" $150,000 to the Pirates for Bruce Edwards, Joe Hatten, Eddie Miksis, and Gene Hermanski. It was a staggeringly bad trade. One report in the Chicago Tribune said the Cubs were "the only bidder for Kiner at Rickey prices". Meanwhile, Baker languished in the Cubs' minor leagues, and the Cubs, who paid lip service to integration but never executed, were forced to start in earnest; they somehow stumbled onto Ernie Banks.

After four more years of predictably hapless failure, Wrigley finally elected to do something about the man making the decisions, and asked for Matthews' resignation. This done, he went to the Los Angeles Angels and raided their front office for John Holland, part of a series of moves that also included trading Wrigley's rights to the Los Angeles market. Like the rest of the Cubs' dealings with the Dodgers, that move also backfired, as the team got nothing but the Dodgers' Fort Worth rights in exchange. "For Cubs fans," Stout glumly writes, "it was like discovering your inheritance had been left to the ASPCA." The Cubs didn't finish with a winning record until 1963, and wouldn't come in first place until 1984, long after division play was established in 1969. The Dodgers, of course, cleaned up in Los Angeles, so much so that the American League expanded there in 1961.

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