Book Review: One Nation Under Baseball by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

I grew up about 200 miles due west of Minneapolis. When I was young, a weekend family trip to watch the Minnesota Twins was almost a ritual. Like any elementary school boy, the players were among my first idols. Pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant was one my my favorites.

Given my age, I assumed his nickname had something to do an affinity for catfishing. His lore dates it back to 1958, his first year with the Cleveland Indians. He actually got the name four years earlier when he entered the minor leagues. Some white teammates began calling him “Mudcat,” saying he had the face of a Mississipi mudcat.

Racism was generally tolerated in the 1950s and baseball, “America’s Pastime,” was no exception. Yet civil rights would be a core subject for the sport as the country entered the Sixties. John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro proffer that baseball was a microcosm of America during that time. Their book, One Nation Under Baseball: How the 1960s Collided with the National Pastime, takes a chronological approach in seeking to portray the influence the decade had on baseball and vice versa. Often exploring political and cultural issues as much as baseball itself, they believe that by the end of the 1960s the sport “resembled a new America.”

Although Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, the vast majority of spring training camps were in Florida, where Jim Crow laws prevailed. Housing and even seating in the ballparks were segregated. It was not until 1964 that every team had integrated housing for spring training in Florida. One Nation Under Baseball lays out who and what brought the values and objectives of the civil rights movement to the forefront in baseball. Integrated housing for ballplayers wasn’t the sole impact. The Atlanta Braves became the Deep South’s first major league baseball team when it joined the National League in 1966. To help obtain the franchise, the city prohibited segregated seating and facilities at sporting events. As one writer later observed, such events were “many people, black and white, first shared public restrooms, sat in the same sections … or drank at the same fountain.”

Yet racism wasn’t eradicated. The Minnesota Twins, originally the Washington Senators before owner Calvin Griffith relocated the team in 1961, was the last to desegregate spring training. In speaking to a Twin Cities service group years later about his decision to move the team to Minnesota, Griffith said black people didn’t go to ball games and the Twins “came here because you’ve got good, hardworking, white people here.”

Such comments also reveal the increasing divide between the owners’ 1950s thinking and the players. In addition to civil rights, the generation gap was also an element of how baseball and the country mirrored each other in the Sixties.

The conflict was perhaps most personified by Bowie Kuhn, legal counsel for the owners and later Commissioner of Baseball, and Marvin Miller, who became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association when it was recognized as a labor union in 1966. Before Miller negotiated baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement in 1968, the minimum player salary was $7,000. The agreement would boost that more than 40 percent, just one step in the decade’s road to ending owners dictating player salaries.

Florio and Shapiro, who also wrote One Punch From the Promised Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title, detail the role of the so-called “reserve clause” in the standard player’s contract. The clause essentially allowed a team to renew a player’s contract year after year if it didn’t sell or trade him to another team. Unless a player could negotiate a raise, his choice was to accept the contract offered by the team or quit, giving owners an overwhelming advantage in contract negotiations and enabling them to keep salaries low. The control it granted over a player’s life led some players to view it as a form of salary. One Nation Under Baseball examines the efforts of players like Dodger pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who collectively held out before the 1966 season, and Curt Flood, who would sit out a year and later file but lose a lawsuit challenging the reserve clause. Although the reserve clause did not die until 1975, these were the crucial steps that would lead to players being able to control their own destiny through free agency.

The book also uses Jim Bouton’s Ball Four to exemplify the establishment vs. anti-establishment sentiment that grew in baseball. Although not published until June 1970, the book was a tell-all written during the pitcher’s time with the New York Yankees and Seattle Pilots in 1969. The book detailed real life in the majors, including teams providing amphetamines to players and players drinking and womanizing. Believing the book was a harmful kiss and tell, Kuhn launched a campaign to discredit Bouton. After an excerpt was published in Look magazine, Kuhn met with Bouton and Miller, wanting the pitcher him to issue a statement saying the tales in the book were exaggerated. Bouton refused. The book would spend 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and rank as one of the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century.

Clearly, the Sixties changed baseball and One Nation Under Baseball uses extensive research and sources to survey the time. The bibliography is 15 single-spaced pages, not counting nearly 60 personal interviews the authors conducted. At times, though, it feels as if Florio and Shapiro couldn’t quite decide whether to focus on baseball or social history. Granted, the book provides crucial information to demonstrate the role of the civil rights movement, the rock generation and politics in changing baseball. Yet tangential details abound, more than is perhaps necessary for the narrative. For example, there are lengthy excerpts from speeches by John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, stories of the Beatles in America, and accounts of Muhammad Ali’s fights and misfortunes. Certainly, these are part of the olio of the Sixties but the extent of detail overwhelms their correlation to the subject.

For those with some familiarity with 1960s baseball and its personalities, One Nation Under Baseball is a reflective and entertaining read. Likewise, those with a general interest in baseball history and the 1960s will find the book useful. Others, particularly those looking for a sharply focused analysis of the evolution of baseball during the time, may be disappointed.

What was really happening in baseball, and at arenas everywhere, was the sensibilities of the rock generation infiltrating sports.

Robert Lipsyte quoted in John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, One Nation Under Baseball

Comments are closed.