bridging two dynasties

Reviewed by Bob Ciaffa, Alexandria, Virginia

25 july 2013       archive

As the 1947 season began, the New York Yankees were at a crossroads. Their great success of the late 1930s and early 1940s had faded noticeably, and the immediate postwar Bronx Bombers had suddenly become an average team, which wasn't up to a season-long challenge to the Boston Red Sox the previous season. The Sox won the American League pennant by 12 games over the Detroit Tigers in 1946—with the Yankees in a distant third place—and then pushed the St. Louis Cardinals to the limit, before the Cards prevailed in a tense seven-game World Series. Boston was clearly ready for another run for the pennant in 1947, buoyed by Ted Williams, whose 1946 performance proved that he had lost none of his incomparable skills during his military service.

Part of the Yankees' disarray can be attributed to the team's new ownership. In January 1945, the sale of the Yankees to the team of Del Webb, Dan Topping and Larry MacPhail was announced. Longtime manager Joe McCarthy, who had led the Yankees to seven World Series titles, was retained by the new owners. However, he abruptly resigned after a dispute with MacPhail in May 1946, leaving the team in a lurch. Veteran catcher Bill Dickey, nearing the end of his playing career, was hired to manage on an interim basis, but he was clearly not the answer; in fact, Dickey also resigned in frustration before the season ended, leaving the helm to erstwhile coach Johnny Neun.

During the subsequent off-season, Bucky Harris was hired to manage the club. Harris had enjoyed enormous success early in his career as the so-called "boy manager" of the Washington Senators. Harris was named player-manager of the Nats in 1924 at age twenty-seven, and immediately guided that club to two pennants (1924-25) and an unlikely World Series title in his first year at the helm. The jury was out on Harris's ability to return the Yankees to championship caliber. Most observers saw the pre-season 1947 Yanks as an odd mix of veteran players, journeymen and untested (but promising) young players, many of whom had uncertain futures. Yankee ownership was betting on the taciturn Harris's skill, experience and leadership to craft a winner from these raw materials.

This is the template for Lyle Spatz's terrific book, Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees. In the book are several articles about the season's chronological events and background, but its bulk consists of detailed biographies of every player who appeared in at least one game for the Yankees during the 1947 season. The biographies spare few details about the careers and lives of these men, most of who had been involved recently in a much different kind of warfare from what they had experienced on the baseball field. Indeed, every member of the 1947 Yankees—or anyone who played major league baseball that season—was affected in some manner by World War II. The lessons of wartime military service were fresh for these men, and playing well for a "team" like the U.S. Army, Navy or Marine Corps—had molded them into a squad, in third baseman Bobby Brown's words, "without rancor or discord."

This is the beauty of Spatz's collection: many fans know a great deal about the lives and careers of players like Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra—-both of whom played key roles in the Yankees' path to a World Series title in 1947—but very few fans know much about players like Karl Drews, Allie Clark, Ken Silvestri or Mel Queen. Spatz's collection comprises an excellent historical record of the lives and careers of these players. In addition, the player biographies carefully chronicle their minor league experiences in great detail. Readers who are fairly new to the game may be shocked to learn that many players routinely served quite lengthy apprenticeships in the minor leagues in the 1930s and 1940s; in the mid-1940s, it was not uncommon for a rookie to be in his middle or late twenties, after having spent as many as eight or ten seasons learning the game in the minors. These biographical details remind us further of the rich history and multi-leveled texture of the game, and the names of long-forgotten minor league outposts and defunct leagues will happily test the historical memory and geographical knowledge of even the most ardent Rand McNally reader.

Another reminder of baseball's past, which is also well-documented by most if not all of the contributors, are the experiences of the featured players after they retired. It's also a jarring reminder of how the financial structure of the game has been so profoundly altered in recent years: Decades before large free agent contracts, very few postwar players became wealthy from their earnings. In fact, many resorted to off-season jobs out of financial necessity, and immediately embarked on a new career when their playing days ended. In fact, a World Series share at the time was often enough to double a player's annual salary.

Those of us who genuinely love the game are equally intrigued—and often inspired—by baseball's lesser-known players and what they accomplished, as much as we are by the stars and their exploits. The lesser-known players are important too, and they are always a key ingredient of any winning team—after all, each major league roster contains roughly as many reserves as it does starters. Then as now, a thin bench can remove a team from serious contention, and prevent it from prevailing over a long season. Baseball's rich history provides many examples of bench players who were successful and stood tall in the clutch when given a chance; their achievements are as much a part of the fabric of the game as those of the heroes. And the contributors to this wonderful book understand that fact extremely well.

BRIDGING TWO DYNASTIES: THE 1947 NEW YORK YANKEES, Edited by Lyle Spatz (Published by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, and the Society for American Baseball Research).

Copyright © 2013 by Bob Ciaffa

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