Robert Weintraub’s The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age focuses on major league baseball’s 1946 season, notable as the first post-World War II campaign and the beginning of what some call baseball’s golden age. Some star players who went to war returned for the ’46 season in excellent form, like Ted Williams and Bob Feller. Other players returned with less skill than before the war. Of course, still others paid the ultimate sacrifice and did not return at all.
Weintraub tells all of their stories against the backdrop of a home front emerging from a war footing to face new realities, and how that environment affected the national pastime. For example, after leaving military service, Jackie Robinson spent the 1946 season playing a championship season for the minor league Montreal Royals, warming up for his momentous breaking of baseball’s racial barrier the following season. Baseball owners also depended on what was known as the reserve clause to control players’ salaries and careers. But in 1946, the reserve clause faced two challenges that would first soften owners’ iron grip and eventually loosen the reserve clause. A wealthy Mexican league owner lured away some top talent fresh from the military with salaries far above what they could earn in America, and union organizers began to make small inroads into clubhouses filled with modestly paid players, most of whom needed to work a second job in the off-season in order to have incomes similar to the fans who paid to watch them play.
The Victory Season is filled with baseball greats, and Weintraub’s story-telling brings them to life in their war-time and post-war incarnations: Williams, Feller, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Eddie Stanky, Leo Durocher, Johnny Pesky, Red Shoendienst and on and on. My favorite “character” here is Enos Slaughter. Known as Country Slaughter throughout the league, his infectious carefree demeanor and rambunctious playing style exemplified an American attitude set free from the shortages and worries of the war years.
A quick aside: In the early 1990s I met Enos Slaughter at a card show. Then in his mid-seventies, Slaughter was wearing a flannel shirt and looked like any senior citizen you might run into at Home Depot or a local coffee shop. He laughed, smiled, chatted, and shook hands with everyone who stood in line for his autograph. His 1946 persona as presented in The Victory Season meshes perfectly with my own impression from more than four decades later.
The Victory Season will appeal to fans of the Dodgers, especially the Brooklyn version, as well as Cardinals, Red Sox, and Indians fans. But it’s really a baseball book that will satisfy history buffs and a history book for all baseball fans.