Soderholm-Difatte. The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. 217. Notes and index. $38 hardcover.
Reviewed by Sylvio Lynch III
Much of the baseball lore within American popular consciousness views mid-20th century baseball through the mostly black-and-white, grainy, smiling superstars of the era. These images and stories add to the mythology of this era as a better time, when baseball was “pure,” a so-called golden age. We know of the “Shot Heard Round the World.” We know of the dominance of the Yankees. We also know of the racial strife of the time, often as simplistically as we know of this period of baseball. But outside of the prevailing narratives of Jackie Robinson’s arrival, the history of baseball’s transition in style of play and integration are often chronicled without intersection. In The Golden Era of Major League Baseball: A Time of Transition and Integration, Brian Soderholm-Difatte makes the case that American baseball’s change in strategy and desegregation are intertwined histories that bolstered the game as America’s pastime.
1956 was Jackie Robinson’s last season. By then, only three teams did not have at least one black player on their rosters. But as the well-accomplished Robinson exited Major League Baseball, few veteran superstars were black as many teams favored younger black players to test in farm systems instead of the many available Negro League players. While baseball was in its first decade of integration, it also saw a shift toward sophistication in team play, away from the tactical simplicity of collecting the best players. In this era, the two approaches merged: desegregation and strategic player positioning. In seventeen quick-moving chapters filled with (perhaps too much) statistical analysis, prose of nostalgic illustration, and insightful explanation of the evolution of baseball strategy, Soderholm-Difatte poses several timelines at once, through the careers of three figures—Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and Leo Durocher. The primary timeline of focus for The Golden Era of Major League Baseball is the change of managing regimes and strategic approaches from the 1940s into the 1960s. The secondary narrative covers the slow process of racial integration in baseball. Together, these two timelines create a story of baseball when generations of stars make way for stars of color, primarily in the National League. The two timelines also tell a tale of stylistic shifts in play, leading to even more popularity of American baseball in the third quarter of the 20th century.
The Golden Era of Major League Baseball is a synthesis of biographies and statistical analysis. While Soderholm-Difatte’s strength lies in his ability to inject advanced statistics into an era prior to its use, he lacks in discussion of responsibility among baseball executives and managers of the period. Admitting that all baseball executives “almost certainly harbored racially prejudiced attitudes toward blacks as inferior to whites,” then backing down from this assertion, he adds a softer composite of management at the time. Soderholm-Difatte contends, “…they may have been racially prejudiced more by acculturation and habit than from any overt Jim Crow mentality, giving little critical thought to the basis of their attitudes” (p. 11). This perhaps goes against the nearly 70 years of black baseball existing before integration into the major leagues. At the very least it sets an inconsistent framing of the complexity of integration.
That aside, Soderholm-Difatte’s offering is a solid example of baseball history that actually places baseball’s first players of color within the context of their white contemporaries. We find out that while Larry Doby was the first black player in the American League, others who were signed shortly thereafter made greater contributions to their respective teams in that ground-breaking 1947 season. Baseball histories detailing tribulations of the first black players in Major League Baseball have been somewhat documented. Soderholm-Difatte provides the successes and travails of these players on the field, in competition with changing dynamics in managerial approaches, as well as changes in how the game itself would be played.
While Soderholm-Difatte has an obvious strength in advanced statistics and their contextualization, he does little to complicate the mythology of the baseball and more broadly, American culture in the 1950s as a golden age of homogenous mainstream stability. Readers will get a lack of exploration into the relationship between baseball and American culture, but will get in-depth contemporary analysis of past players, and a baseball history written through the unique framing of baseball managers.
Sylvio Lynch III is a PhD candidate and instructor at Bowling Green State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.