Michael Shapiro’s Bottom of the Ninth was released last week by Times Books/Henry Holt, and I barely put it down between the time I got my copy in the mail and the time I finished it. It is a very good read – interesting, well-written, insightful, and well-paced.
Bottom of the Ninth focuses on two larger-than-life baseball figures at the end of the 1950s: Branch Rickey and Casey Stengel. If you are a baseball fan, you have likely heard of both of these men. Rickey, a lawyer (had to get that in, haha), was the precursor to today’s powerhouse general managers and revolutionized the game in legion ways: player development (he created the framework for the modern farm system), statistical analysis (he hired the first full-time statistical analyst and concluded, based on research, that on-base percentage was more important than batting average and that platoon effects were significant and could be leveraged), racial equality (he signed Jackie Robinson, mlb’s first African-American player, over strenuous objection from the owners of the rest of the league and later signed Roberto Clemente, the game’s first Hispanic superstar – both moves were hotly contested but turned out to be incredible successes), equipment (he invented the modern batting helmet), and many more. Stengel, a former player, managed many of the most successful Yankees teams in the 40s and 50s and was known as one of baseball’s great tacticians.
As the 1950s drew to a close, both men were getting on in years and facing their own challenges. Rickey had to confront the reality that his beloved game was losing popularity among the nation as competitive imbalance deprived all but a few teams of a realistic chance of competing with the game’s big spenders, foremost among them, the Yankees. Stengel, who had never been shy about taking credit for the Yankees’ victories, now had to confront what looked like the end of the dynasty.
Sound familiar? That’s because the same things that plague baseball now have been doing so for almost as long as the game has existed – big market teams (based largely on the size of the media markets in which they play) control the best players and small market teams basically stay afloat thanks to the revenues that they draw from playing the winners. But Bottom of the Ninth looks at a moment where things could have been different – baseball’s brief flirtation with a third league, the Continental League, which proposed to poor revenues and talent such that every team could compete on equal footing:
In 1960, baseball had the chance to transform itself from a tired remnant of a bygone age and become a sport that reflected the desires and needs of a nation that was not looking to the past with longing. The game was in a position to use the growing power, influence, and wealth of television for its own common purpose.
Shapiro’s book tells the story of how things played out, using Rickey and Stengel as focal points for the narrative, and it tells it very well.
If an excellent telling of one of baseball’s more interesting stories, involving two of baseball’s more interesting persons, isn’t enough for you, yes, there is a Blue Jays connection (notice I didn’t call it CanCon, haha).
Bottom of the Ninth weaves the stories of some of baseball’s most indelible personalities into a larger look at baseball’s problems and it is fascinating to see, despite all the changes to the game, how similar these problems are to what Rickey and Stengel faced in 1960. To add even a little more intrigue, Bottom of the Ninth also looks at another upstart league in a different sport, the American Football League, and how that league challenged the NFL for dominance and succeeded. The unified NFL that grew out of this explicitly adopted many of Rickey’s ideas for the Continental League regarding parity and shared media revenue – concepts that make, in part, the NFL the most successful professional sports league in North America today.
I highly recommend this well-written and thought-provoking book. Also, keep tuned to the site as we plan on having some questions and answers with the author sometime soon!