t the end of the 1942 season, baseball legend Stan “The Man” Musial had to work in the Pennsylvania zinc mills to augment his annual salary of $4,200. And he wasn’t playing ‘A’ league ball. His team was the St. Louis Cardinals, World Series champions.
Then again, it was wartime. It was also a time when major league baseball was played by human beings who, despite being acknowledged superstars, still lived pretty much like you and me. The only similarity between Musial and a Cardinal player of today (besides the obvious ones—i.e. they are both carbon-based, bipedal life forms) is the familiar bird and bat logo.
That’s why The Boys Who Were Left Behind is such a satisfying read. It features a cast of all too human characters who came together in the 1944 season in the only all-St. Louis World Series between the “hapless” St. Louis Browns and the legendary Cardinals.
Try to imagine any city today in which two rival major league managers and their wives would or could share an apartment for the sake of convenience and thrift. Or where the managers are such good friends that they ride home together after each World Series game. Or where the rosters of the rival teams, decimated by a wartime draft, are filled with 4-Fs, drunks and goofballs who played for little more than room, board and love of the game.
Authors John Heidenry and Brett Topel tell the story of Brown’s catcher Frank Mancuso, who played through a serious wartime injury to lead his team to the AL Pennant. Mancuso’s injury presented a unique problem—if he tried to look up for a pop-up, the sudden movement would cut off oxygen to his brain and he would suddenly pass out. There were also players with lung ailments, gimpy legs and missing fingers. And there were brawlers and drinkers, a volatile combination in one Sig Jakucki, the big Browns pitcher who would haunt the taverns into the wee morning hours and yet during one 37-inning stretch gave up only one run, had three shutouts, and lost only one game.
Those were different times, folks. A leading sports publication of the day, The Sporting News, barely mentioned football in its pages, let alone auto racing, which is not a sport at all but rather an alarming waste of nonrenewable resources. Of course television would change everything: Slo-Mo, Replay, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and the Anthem as Performed by Rosanne Barr.
I’m not suggesting that Jakucki’s record recommends heavy drinking for athletic success. But The Boys Who Were Left Behind is a book to cherish in an age when it is almost impossible to focus on the humanity of players earning five-hundred or thousand times more than their fans, and where the game is so overmarketed that one is made queasy from corporate indigestion. Of course the owners are much worse, and much richer, than the players. But baseball is an indicator of society; in the world of Ken Lay and Wal-Mart, what can we expect?
Another distraction is hypersensitivity. Every word is so scrutinized that players, coaches and announcers alike share a limited vocabulary of trite phrases and superfluous observations. Legendary first baseman Keith Hernandez, now a broadcaster for the Mets, has lately been issuing repeated apologies (one is never enough these days) for making "inappropriate" comments about a female member of San Diego’s training staff—massage therapist Kelly Calabrese—who was working in the Padres’ dugout during a recent game. "Who is the girl in the dugout, with the long hair?" Hernandez said during the broadcast. "What’s going on here? You have got to be kidding me. Only player personnel in the dugout…"
Okay, it’s usually not appropriate to call a grown woman a “girl” (unless you happen to be Oprah), and Hernandez only dug himself deeper by adding "…You know I am only teasing. I love you gals out there—always have…”
In his last apology to date Hernandez stood by his contention that Calabrese didn’t belong in the dugout because of her position, not her gender (she is technically not a trainer). Calabrese, however, called Hernandez’s remarks “a little shocking.”
Come on. A crowded bus plunging into a canyon is shocking. And perhaps what else is truly shocking is how far our culture has veered off the road of sanity, reason and good taste. I can’t imagine Stan Musial or Sig Jakucki getting massages in the dugout, and I don’t want to.