No one waxes nostalgic for the St. Louis Browns.
The Boston Braves, too, are largely forgotten in baseball’s faded past.
Write off, too, the Philadelphia A’s, and in our own time, the Montreal Expos.
But, oh, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Dodgers, will ever be “The Boys of Summer.”
Tribute Books has a new book out on the Bums, “Brooklyn Dodgers: The Last Great Pennant Drive, 1957.” The slim 90-page volume sells for $14.95. Author John R. Nordell Jr. brings both personal and professional credentials to the table. He holds a doctorate in history from Penn State and had previously written about a heavy subject – the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The catastrophic defeat in Indochina for the French helped set up our involvement in Vietnam and reverberates in American foreign policy to this day.
This is a lighter topic, though, and Nordell also brings the childhood delight of a fan to the book. He saw a game at Ebbets Field in the summer of ’57, his first game. Pictures taken by his father at the game, including a rare view of famed Ringling Brothers clown Emmett Kelly as the Dodger “Bum,” lend a very personal touch.
It’s also a very intriguing topic for a book. The Dodgers won pennants in ’52, ’53, ’55 and ’56. 1955 is remembered as the year they finally won the World Series. 1956 is remembered for the Yankee’s Don Larsen throwing a perfect game against the Dodgers in the series. 1954 is remembered as the year the Giants edged out the Dodgers on Bobby Thomson’s home run.
But ’57 was a fadeaway year. Several veteran Dodger stars were on the decline. Then, throughout the year, speculation built that the Dodgers would depart for Los Angeles.
Nordell, though, defines his book very narrowly. He focuses on a brief two-week period after the All-Star break when the Dodgers used a winning streak to pull within a game of the lead. For much of the summer, five teams out of an eight-team league, Milwaukee, the Reds, the Dodgers, Giants and Phillies, were close to the lead.
Ultimately, the Braves of a young Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, would pull away, and win the pennant by eight games.
Nordell summarizes each of the daily games in the pennant races – about two or three paragraphs each – much in the same way you would read in the daily wrapups by the Associated Press. This rather spare method is fleshed out by anecdotes in footnotes at the end of the chapters. Almost all the research seems to be drawn from secondary sources. I do not know if many, or any, of the key Dodgers of that era are still alive, but interviews with a few would have added mightily.
The last chapter, the best, deals with the team’s departure for the West Coast. Nordell is nostalgic and sentimental about the flight of the Dodgers, a theme that’s been repeated over and over.
People in general remember the ’50s as a sort of baseball golden age, as in the song, “Willie, Mickey and the Duke.” The reality is that baseball attendance was sinking throughout much of the ’50s, with teams trapped in aging stadiums in decaying neighborhoods. The Dodgers of ’57 drew 1.03 million fans that year, fifth in an eight-team league. Today, that attendance would put them in last place in both leagues.
Think of it, the Dodgers of Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Don Drysdale and Gil Hodges, selling 13,000 tickets a game. Folks’ hearts may have been with the team, but not their wallets.